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TOKYO (Reuters) - Japan will likely pick Lockheed Martin's F-35 jet as its next frontline fighter, media reported on Tuesday, which may help end six decades of isolation for the country's defense contractors and bolster its military against growing Chinese might.
The government will choose between two U.S. models -- the F-35 and the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet -- and Europe's four-nation Eurofighter Typhoon, at a meeting of the national security council on Friday, the Nikkei business daily said.
The date of the planned meeting could not be confirmed with government officials and chief cabinet spokesman Osamu Fujimura said no decision had been made. The Pentagon's F-35 program office also said it had not received any word from Japan.
Analysts say the purchase is potentially worth $8 billion.
The hope for Lockheed is that assembling the F-35 in Japan will spur the pacifist nation to lift a ban on military equipment exports, allowing contractors such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to compete as suppliers for the fighter.
"If the government chooses to go forward and relax the (export ban) we believe there is a very strong case for participating in the F-35 program," said Dave Scott director of international business development for the F-35.
While the most expensive of the three, the F-35 leads the others due to its "overwhelmingly superior performance" and stealth capabilities, the Nikkei said.
To compete against Lockheed's fifth-generation technological edge, Boeing is offering as much as 80 percent of the construction to local makers, with Eurofighter promising 95 percent for their fourth-generation designs.
While each maker disagrees on the merits of their competing bids, all agree that Japan has technology they could use. And for U.S. military planners juggling with smaller budgets, widening out into a more competitive supply chain may let it arm itself more cheaply.
Although Japan is the world's sixth-biggest military spender, it often pays more than double other nations for the same equipment because local export-restricted manufacturers can only fill small orders at a high cost.
Removing the ban would stretch its defense purse further as military spending in neighboring China expands.
This year, Asia's biggest economy raised military outlays by 12.7 percent. That included money for its own stealth fighter, the J-20, which made its maiden flight in January.
Fielding the F-35 would put Japan a step ahead of China.
"The decision should be in line with what China has anticipated and come with little surprise," said Narushige Michishita, Associate Professor of Security and International Studies at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
But any easing of a weapons export ban may prompt criticism from Beijing and be seen as step away from Japan's pacifist constitution.
Although Boeing and Eurofighter may leave Japan empty handed, the battle for sales rages elsewhere.
The radar-evading F-35 is often touted as the second-best choice in the U.S. arsenal after the F-22, but marketers pitch the F-18 and Eurofighter as strong alternatives.
The market for fighter jets in the Middle East and Asia is particularly active as air forces worldwide come up against replacement cycles and prepare for growing fears of insecurity.
India is expected to choose between the Eurofighter and Dassault Aviation Rafale, on a potential $11 billion order for 126 fighter jets in coming weeks.
Those two aircraft are also bidding for an order in the United Arab Emirates. The U.S. said on Monday it would sell 18 more Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters to Iraq.
Additional reporting by Balaji Sridharan Tim Hepher, Jim Wolf, Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Nick Macfie