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Special Report: Export Rules Hamper Decommissioning of 200 F-15 Fighter Engines

Changing the export rules to make the engines available to like-minded countries with F-15 and F-16 fighter jets benefits Japan in ways well beyond the money.



An Air Self-Defense Force's F15J fighter jet is being washed by contractors at the ASDF's Naha base on Okinawa. December 1, 2021. (© Sankei by Kotaro Hikono)

Japan's Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) has 99 F-15 fighter jets scheduled to be decommissioned over the next decade. Their future, however, is hanging in the air due to the government's export rules on the transfer of defense equipment.

At stake are the fighter jet's approximately 200 engines, which are still usable after the decommissioning. Sixteen countries and regions have expressed interest in the engines. However, they are classified as weapons with lethal capabilities under Japan's defense guidelines. And their exportation is therefore banned in principle under the "Three Principles on Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology." 

These three principles are a peculiar set of rules that apply to Japan's export of defense-related equipment. Japan's ruling coalition parties – the Liberal Democratic Party and Komeito – are reviewing the export rules. In the meantime, however, a large number of used F-15 jet engines may be destined to sit dormant in a warehouse.

"Restrictions on the transfer of defense-related equipment need to be relaxed in cases where the export would contribute to Japan's security." 

This remark was repeated over and over again by members of a parliamentary league headed by former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera. The comments came in an April 13 study group attended by the Diet members to consider what to do with the decommissioned F-15s. Members of the same group have been steady advocates of the overseas export of defense equipment. 

North Korean missile
Former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera speaks at a joint meeting of LDP security-related entities on April 13. (© Sankei by by Yasuhiro Yajima)

Highly Desirable Reusable Engines

Japan's "Medium-Term Defense Program" formulated toward the end of 2022, clearly states that the "pace of replacement" of older fighter jets unsuited to refurbishment will be accelerated. Replacement would be with the latest version of the equipment. 

In line with this, the government plans to replace about half of the 200 ASDF F-15s with F-35s over the next 10 years or so. Its plan calls for phasing out the F-15s at the rate of about 10 per year. At the rate of 2 used fighter engines per jet, there would be about 20 engines available every year. 

Fighter jet engines are manufactured separately from the airframes because they require an advanced level of technology. A new one costs about ¥1 billion JPY ($7.25 million USD). Meanwhile, the price of used fighter engines is unknown. However, the benefits of exporting them are not limited to profits from their sale.  

Second-hand F-15 engines can be reused by air forces of other countries that have F-15s and F-16s fighter jets. Taiwan, as well as countries such as South Korea, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia, and some European countries, are expected to show interest in them. Transfers to like-minded countries that are important to Japan's security would help deepen those cooperative relations.

Moreover, the F-15 fighter engines were manufactured by Japanese companies under license from US companies. When they are transferred overseas, the Japanese firms will conduct the engines' maintenance and servicing. This, too, will be beneficial for domestic companies. 

An Air Self-Defense Force F-15J fighter plane passes over Iruma Air Base after taking off before heading to Komatsu Air Base in the afternoon of November 3, 2018. Its two engines are shown at the rear of the plane. (© Sankei by Shunsuke Sakamaki)

Overcoming Unintended Consequences of the Limits

Under the "Three Principles" on weapons exports, the export of fighter jets and other lethal weapons and components is allowed only when sold to the countries participating in their joint development or holding licenses for them. Overseas transfer of disused equipment of the Self-Defense Forces is permitted under the law. However, the transfer of lethal weapons is excluded.

Parties in the ruling coalition have begun reviewing the equipment transfer system. Komeito, however, is reluctant to lift the ban on the export of lethal weapons. As for the fate of the F-15 fighter engines, that "depends entirely on the consultations between the ruling parties," said one government official.


The upcoming decommissioning of F-15s is the "largest in the history of the SDF," according to a defense industry official. Will it prove to be an opportunity to kill two or three birds with a single stone? 

Background: About the Three Principles on Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology:

The current rules for exporting defense equipment were formulated in April 2014 under the then-administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. These permit the export of non-lethal weapons in five areas in total. They are rescue, transportation, warning, surveillance, and minesweeping.

A previous embargo was modified under the new rules. This has allowed the expansion of Japan's joint development and export of non-lethal defense-related equipment. Transfers must be considered to contribute to international cooperation and the security of Japan. Meanwhile, transfers are prohibited to countries that violate United Nations Security Council resolutions or are parties to conflicts in which the UNSC has taken measures. In the case of lethal weapons, however, all transfers are prohibited unless the recipient jointly developed the weapons with Japan. 


(Read the article in Japanese.)

Author: Toyohiro Ichioka

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