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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan – Japan has picked Lockheed-Martin’s F-35 Lightning II as its next generation fighter aircraft, a move that could help facilitate cooperation with U.S. forces amid Japan’s growing concerns over North Korea and China’s military growth.

Defense Minister Yasuo Ichikawa said Tuesday that his country would buy 42 F-35s worth an estimated $7 billion.

The announcement came a day after the Japan Self-Defense Force went on alert due to the death of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. At the same time, Japan and the U.S. are coming to terms with the rapid growth of China’s military, which released photographs of its own stealth fighter in January.

“The security environment surrounding future fighter jets is transforming,” Ichikawa said. “The F-35 has capabilities that can firmly respond to the changes.”

According to the Department of Defense, the supersonic F-35 features world-leading logistics, avionics, propulsion systems, stealth and firepower.

Responding to Japan’s decision, the Pentagon said: “The F-35 Program Office looks forward to strengthening partnerships with Japan, and contributing to enhanced security throughout the Asia Pacific region.”

Dave Scott, Lockheed’s director of F-35 international business development, said Japan would purchase its first four F-35s in the next fiscal year.

Japan is buying the same conventional take-off and landing F-35s as the U.S. Air Force, which recently took delivery of the first eight production aircraft, he said.

The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps will purchase variants of the F-35 designed for short take-off and landing and carrier operations, Scott said.

“The JSDF will be able to plug seamlessly into this group of airplanes operated by the three U.S. services and other nations,” he said.

The U.S. military has yet to say when it will deploy the F-35 to Japan, but it is expected to be within five years, Scott said.

The F-35 was selected ahead of Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Eurofighter Typhoon after an in-depth study by the Japanese government. It is a frontrunner to replace more than 200 aging Japanese F-15 fighters.

The win also bodes well for future F-35 orders from other nations, Scott said.

“Many nations will look at the results of this competition as a sign of the airplane’s maturity and its capabilities for the future,” he said.

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