By Kiyoshi Takenaka
TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan's highest-ranking uniformed officer said on Wednesday that Lockheed Martin's F-35 fighters were the best choice for the nation's future operational needs as Tokyo wrestles with tensions with China and increasingly belligerent North Korea.
The vote of confidence in the state-of-the-art U.S. warplane comes amid reports that some nations that have placed orders for the F-35s are reconsidering their plans.
Shigeru Iwasaki, chief of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces' Joint Staff, also said advancement of North Korea's arms technology in a series of nuclear and missile tests posed a serious threat to Japan, but its missile defense system should provide the country with sufficient protection.
"When I was the head of the air force, I spearheaded the decision (to procure F-35s). Or, rather, we drew up a plan, which was then approved by defense minister," said Iwasaki, a veteran fighter pilot who used to fly F-15s, Japan's current mainstay combat aeroplane.
"There were various candidates. But I still believe the F-35 is the best fighter, when we think about Japan's future national security," he said in an interview with Reuters.
Dutch orders for F-35 warplanes are likely to be cut back, sources close to the discussions told Reuters last week, citing cost overruns and delays in the program, uncertainty over the Netherlands' defense strategy and budget cuts across Europe.
U.S. officials fear cuts in orders by the Dutch or other buyers could trigger a "death spiral" in the Pentagon's biggest arms program by driving up the price of remaining orders, leading to more cancellations.
Japan, one of the closest U.S. allies in Asia, has remained steadfast in its plans to buy 42 F-35s, with the first four planes scheduled for delivery by March 2017.
Iwasaki described North Korea's nuclear and missile tests as "unforgivable".
"I think, after a series of tests, their technology has reached a certain level, helping them acquire capability to launch missiles with a very long range ... I believe it's becoming a very serious situation when it comes to our national security," he said.
North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in February although it is not believed to have acquired weapons capability. But it has threatened U.S. naval bases in Japan, which are within the range of its medium-range missiles.
Iwasaki said, however, Japan was sufficiently protected by its missile defense system, equipped with Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors and Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) interceptors.
SM-3 interceptors are capable of shooting down a ballistic missile outside the earth's atmosphere, while PAC-3 interceptors provide back-up protection as the missile returns to earth.
On Japan's tense ties with China, Iwasaki urged Beijing to agree to reopen talks with Tokyo on the establishment of a hotline and other maritime communication channels to avoid any unintended military clash between Asia's two biggest economies.
Japan has been locked in a territorial dispute with China over a group of East China Sea islets, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.
The island row has escalated in recent months to the point where both sides have scrambled fighter jets while patrol ships shadow each other in nearby seas, raising worries that an unintended collision or other incident could lead to a broader clash.
Talks between Japan and China aimed at establishing the so-called maritime communication mechanism have been halted since last fall, despite Japan's call for resumption, Iwasaki said.
"We need to set up a system to eliminate any misunderstanding at both the working level and at higher levels ... We have not heard from China but I believe the talks need to be restarted."
Japan said last month that a Chinese frigate had locked its targeting radar on a Japanese destroyer on January 30 - a step that usually precedes the firing of weapons.
Iwasaki said the crew of the destroyer handled the situation well by not taking any retaliatory measures and that type of level-headedness should prevail in the future.
Asked about media reports that the United States and Japan have begun talks on military plans to cope with armed conflict over the East China Sea islets, Iwasaki said that a meeting with Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. forces in the Asia-Pacific, last week was a scheduled event.
"I cannot comment on details because it involves the other side, but it was a regular meeting," he said.
(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)