Photo/Illutration The Air Self-Defense Force's F-15 fighter jets (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Ballooning costs threaten to derail Japan’s plans to have a fleet of 20 F-15 fighter jets capable of firing cruise missiles to defend the Nansei island chain stretching southwest from Okinawa Prefecture, sources said.

The Mid-Term Defense Program for the five-year period from fiscal 2019 until fiscal 2023 clearly sets an objective of providing the Air Self-Defense Force with 20 F-15s retrofitted to carry the cruise missiles by fiscal 2027.

But Defense Ministry sources acknowledged that only 10.8 billion yen ($103 million) was set aside in the fiscal 2019 budget for retrofitting the F-15. That is enough money for only two fighter jets.

No money was set aside for retrofitting in the fiscal 2020 budget, and the ministry is not seeking such funds in the fiscal 2021 budget.

About five years are needed from the time of initial budgetary outlays to actual delivery of the fighter jet, meaning the plan for the fleet by fiscal 2027 could face lengthy delays.

The F-15s equipped with cruise missiles, which have a range of 900 kilometers, are considered a key component for security and repelling invasions of the outlying southern islands, an area where China has increasingly been making maritime inroads.

Much of the skyrocketing costs comes from preparing for the retrofitting.

Before companies can start manufacturing equipment commissioned by the Defense Ministry, various expenses must be paid for design and testing, construction of a facility for the work, and purchases of equipment to carry out the production.

These costs were parceled out over two years: 41.2 billion yen in the fiscal 2019 budget, and 39 billion yen in the fiscal 2020 budget.

But these amounts were insufficient, so the Defense Ministry is asking for an additional 21.3 billion yen in the fiscal 2021 budget.

Over the three years, the total expenses to prepare for the retrofitting will reach 101.5 billion yen.

The F-15 was developed by Boeing of the United States. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. will handle the retrofitting with technological cooperation from the U.S. manufacturer.

However, procurement of the defense equipment comes under the U.S. government’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program, which allows the Defense Ministry to buy military ordnance directly from the United States.

The FMS program has been criticized as a source of mounting costs because the ministry must accept the amount submitted by the U.S. side.

At least 76.9 billion yen of the total preparatory costs of 101.5 billion yen will be spent through the FMS.

And Defense Ministry sources said U.S. officials have indicated that Japan may have to set aside additional preparatory expenses in the fiscal 2022 budget.

“Even at this late stage, we will still have no idea of what the total cost will come to,” a ministry official said.

The preparatory expenses have become so large that a high-ranking Defense Ministry official said the ministry did not have enough funds for the actual retrofitting process.

And because of that retrofitting delay, Defense Ministry officials have also been unable to submit budget requests for the cruise missiles that the fighter jets are supposed to carry.

It usually takes about two years from the signing of the contract for the cruise missile to delivery.

“The possibility exists that we will have no missiles on hand even if retrofitting of the first two fighter jets is completed,” a senior ASDF officer said.