Hailed as the world's most advanced air-superiority aircraft, the F-22 Raptor, built jointly by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, is making many air forces water at the mouth. The chief of the Australian Defense Force, Air Marshal Angus Houston, has called it "the most outstanding fighter plane ever built." It is no wonder that countries like Japan and Australia have sought to acquire it.
But so far, Washington has been loath to provide even its closest allies with the aircraft, mostly over fears that the technology -- the F-22 has, among other features, stealth characteristics -- could be passed on to third parties.
In Japan's case, it is not so much that Tokyo would willfully sell the technology to a country such as China, but rather that it could be leaked. As Kyodo News agency reported in July, leaks of data pertaining to the US-built Aegis defense system by Japan's Self-Defense Forces, among others, have fed fears at the Pentagon that Japan cannot be fully trusted with advanced technology such as that found in the Raptor. Similar fears over the years have made it difficult for Taiwan to obtain some of the weapons it has sought.
But Washington could soon revisit its policy on the F-22 and other weapons systems. Despite ever-growing defense budgets, the US military is nevertheless starting to feel the pain of its various costly deployments in theaters such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Part of that overstretch could be remedied by further empowering its allies. NATO's encroachment into former Soviet territory since the early 1990s is a perfect example.
A similar phenomenon could develop in Asia, where the US is making efforts to retain its military lead. If, because of its responsibilities elsewhere, it continues to be unable to mobilize enough forces to counter what it perceives as a rising Chinese military threat, the US will feel inclined to increasingly rely on its regional allies. But reliance alone, without giving its allies the muscle they need to provide a credible countervailing force, would be meaningless.
In other words, the proxies will need to be given the weapons necessary for them to maintain a military edge over an opponent whose modernization of its own forces has made leaps in recent years and that, following the US' shooting down of a dead spy satellite last week and fears of an arms race in space, could soon accelerate.
Not only would this approach allow the US to contain or encircle China, but pressure from the military-industrial complex in the US will also lead to a relaxing of export controls that have stalled the sale of F-22s to other countries. As history has taught us, when business interests coincide with geopolitical considerations -- and the Asia-Pacific region certainly provides us with such an example -- whatever reluctance states might have to share what is theirs will evaporate.
During his visit to Australia on the weekend, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was once more asked by his Australian counterpart if the US would be willing to sell Australia F-22s to ensure air superiority over its northern neighbors.
While he did not make promises, Gates -- the same Gates who berated NATO for not doing or spending enough -- said he would raise the issue back home.
Odd as it may seem, approval may depend on Iran. If the situation there degenerates to the point the US feels the need for a military response, the Asia-Pacific will become of secondary importance to the US, which will need its regional proxies more than ever. If this happens, look for the F-22 in the skies Down Under.