For the third time this year, Japanese F-15 fighter pilots practiced delicate in-flight refueling techniques when they flew to Alaska this week for Cope Thunder air combat exercises, which began Thursday.

Besides honing the aerial skill requiring pilots to match their aircraft’s airspeed with a larger aircraft moving at 350 mph, Japanese pilots are preparing themselves for the day when Japan receives the first of four new Boeing 767 tankers funded in this year’s Japanese defense budget.

Japan became the second customer for the 767 Tanker Transport when it competitively selected the aircraft in December 2001. The Italian Air Force will receive the first of its four 767 tankers in late 2005.

The 767 tanker transport selected by Japan is a military derivative of the 767-200ER commercial aircraft, Boeing Aircraft Company officials said in a news release. It will be configured with an advanced air-refueling boom and an advanced remote aerial refueling operator system.

Terms of the purchase were not disclosed. The last of four tankers will be delivered to Japan by 2008 and become operational by 2010.

“The 767 tanker transport has established itself as the preeminent aircraft to meet Japan’s commitment to international cooperation, including humanitarian aid, and to meet the air-refueling needs of Japan and countries around the globe,” said Bob Gower, vice president of 767 Tanker Programs for Boeing Integrated Defense Systems.

Japan’s neighbors in the region, however, are fearful that JASDF’s training in aerial refueling might signal a renaissance of militarism over the long term.

A Japan Air Self-Defense spokesman said that isn’t the case.

“The refueling does not infringe upon Japan’s ‘exclusive defense’ policy and does not become a threat to neighboring countries,” said Lt. Cmdr. Tetsuya Hayashi of the Japan Defense Agency.

He said Japan’s refueling planes are not intended to fly long distances; instead they will allow ASDF’s planes to remain airborne for longer periods.

Hayashi noted more efficient training can be done by aircraft that do not have to return to bases to refuel, and in time of contingencies, there will be cases when ASDF planes must remain in the air for long hours.

“If JSDF planes can patrol long hours, they can react to air space invasions by airplanes from other countries,” he said.

Hayashi added Japanese airplanes are not equipped with aggressive weapons so they do not become a threat to neighboring countries.

The Japanese government has long interpreted the nation’s war- renouncing Constitution as restricting the Self-Defense Forces role to collective self-defense of the homeland if ever attacked.

It is expected that offensive operations in defense of the nation would be undertaken by U.S. Forces under terms of the bilateral Mutual Security Treaty.

But the scope of Japan’s ability to defend itself, a growing possibility in light of North Korea’s recent overtures threatening regional security, will be examined in June when the Japanese Diet reviews the nation’s defense posture, including controversial war contingency bills.

Those bills passed the lower house on May 15, and the Diet’s upper house has until June 18 to adopt or veto the bills.

Those bills, Japanese news reports said, stipulate emergency instances when Japan may find it necessary to mount offensive military operations — if an attack on the country is imminent, or joining its U.S. allies in offensive operations if Japan was attacked.

Motoaki Kamiura, a critic of Japanese military expansion, said times are changing.

“It might have become an issue 15 or 20 years ago, but now, even Japanese police are equipped with submachine guns like the MP-5,” he said. “A military without refueling planes can be considered to be weak.”

— Hiroshi Chida contributed to this report.

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