Defense industry giant Boeing [BA] is pitching the Navy’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet as the next-generation fighter aircraft for the Japanese military in anticipation of a formal solicitation by the Asian nation next month, according to a company official.

Members of the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force air staff and other elements of the government have already formed an integrated product team to develop the requirements that will feed into the eventual request for proposals for the “F-X” fighter program, David Mills, Boeing’ campaign manager for F-X, said yesterday.

With an anticipated March release of the RFP, Japanese defense officials plan to have all offers submitted by August, which will put the MOD on track for a platform selection by the end of this year.

“We have talked to the right folks in the (Japanese) ministry of defense, and they have convinced us that they absolutely intend now to [make] a decision by December,” according to Mills.

If selected, Boeing’s Super Hornet will replace the JASDF’s F-4 Phantoms which have been in service since the mid-1970s. The current Japanese fighter fleet is a mix of fourth- generation F-4s and F-15J Eagles.

An eventual source selection for the F-X program would cap off almost a five-year effort by the Japanese to field an F-4 replacement. “They do a great job of taking care of them,” Mills said of the current F-4 fleet, “But they are old airplanes, especially in the context of flying against fourth-generation threats throughout the Pacific,” he added. “They are really outdated and they need to replace those things.”

The JASDF had originally intended to award the contract in 2009, but numerous hurdles in scheduling and funding, coupled with an extended battle between Japan and the United States over the export of the Air Force’s F-22A Raptor, delayed the contract award.

While the RFP has yet to be released, Japanese defense officials have already voiced a need to reinforce their air-to-air capabilities with the new fighter, according to the Boeing official.

“They are more concerned about air defense then they are about air-to-ground capabilities, because they are a defense force” he said. Additionally, JASDF officials want the new F-X platform to have maritime and “some close air support” capabilities as well, Mills noted.

That maritime and close-air-support capability would likely aid in JASDF efforts to enforce sea shipping lanes, particularly in contested territories near the southern portion of the country near Okinawa. That said, Japanese military officials “are starting to be a little bit more attentive (saying), ‘Hey, I may need a multi-role fighter for some of these (issues) too,'” Mills said.

Regarding numbers, Mills said that Japanese defense officials are looking to replace two full F-4 squadrons, plus a handful of training aircraft, which would bring the potential buy to roughly 50 aircraft. However, it its latest midterm defense plan–which lays out Japan’s defense spending budget over five years–defense officials have only set aside funding for 12 aircraft in the F-X program, Mills said.

But due to the maturity of the Super Hornet program, in both production and life-cycle support, Mills said that the per-plane cost would be at a point where Japan could buy more than the 12 aircraft it has budgeted for.

He declined to comment on how many more aircraft above the 12-plane limit the Japanese could buy if it selected the Super Hornet, but noted that MOD officials “would get a pleasant surprise.” Further, work share percentage may be “something less than” the 95 percent indigenous work share on the Boeing and Mitsubishi-built F-15J fighters, but no final numbers have been discussed, Mills said.

But as Boeing prepares its proposal for the F-X program, American and Japanese defense officials have already been in talks about the country possibly joining the international coalition buying the Joint Strike Fighter.

JSF Program Executive Officer Vice Adm. David Venlet said U.S. officials have already briefed members of the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force on the fifth-generation fighter’s capabilities, he said during a Feb. 15 National Aeronautical Association luncheon in Arlington, Va.

However, he was quick to point out that those talks were “very preliminary” and the Japanese government had yet to issue an official request for proposals to fill its tactical fighter requirements.

In response, Mills pointed out that if Japan did opt to join the JSF coalition, it would not enter as a full partner, but rather would be included in the program as a foreign military sales customer.

The current slate of international participants on the JSF includes the United Kingdom, Italy, The Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark, and Norway.