TOKYO – The government likely will drop its plan to introduce the U.S.-made F-22 Raptor stealth fighter to replace its aging F-15 fleet, and will instead concentrate on three other potential candidates, government sources said Saturday.

The moves to abandon efforts to acquire the cutting-edge F-22 follow signs that the incoming U.S. administration of President-elect Barack Obama is leaning toward curbing or even halting production of the aircraft, the sources said.

According to the sources, the replacement candidates are the Eurofighter Typhoon, jointly developed by North Atlantic Treaty Organization members Britain, Italy, Spain and Germany; the F-35 Lightning II, produced by the United States, Britain and other countries; and the F-15FX of the United States.

The U.S. Congress, anxious over the possible leaking of details of the Raptor’s state-of-the-art technology, has placed an embargo on exports of the fighter.

The Japanese government pressed the U.S. government to allow Japan to purchase F-22s, even putting off its initial plan to introduce a next-generation fighter in fiscal 2009.

But caught up in a worsening financial crisis, and suffering declining tax revenues, Washington is said to be skeptical about continuing production of the pricey F-22, the procurement costs of which are two to three times those of other fighters.

In addition, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, known to favor halting production of the F-22, is set to remain in office under Obama’s administration.

A high-ranking official at the Defense Ministry said Saturday he “strongly” felt that F-22 production likely would be halted.

Some ministry officials are said to favor the F-35, which, like the F-22, is a high-performance, fifth-generation fighter with sophisticated bombing capabilities. However, the F-35 has not even been deployed so far by U.S. forces, the sources noted.

The four European countries that have jointly developed the Eurofighter Typhoon are said to be keen to have Japan purchase them. But Japan would have to obtain an understanding from the United States if it wants to adopt European-made fighters, the sources said.

One line of thought within the Defense Ministry is to postpone the selection process of a next-generation fighter until the U.S. deployment of F-35s, and in the meantime focus on improving the performance of the F-15s currently in use.

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