Japan May Scrap Its Homegrown Fighter Jet

Tokyo is reportedly looking to modify a Western jet for its own purposes, probably the F-35.

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Japan’s program to build its first homegrown fighter jet since World War II is reportedly dead, a victim of sky-high costs. Instead, the country will try to develop a local version of an existing fighter, a strategy that has had decidedly mixed results in the past. All of this is taking place in the shadow of two troubling trends: Japan's aging fighter fleet and a newly aggressive Chinese air force.

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The reports that Japan would scrap its stealth fighter jet program, the Advanced Technology Demonstrator-Experimental (ATD-X). ATD-X produced a single developmental aircraft, known as X-2, to test key fighter technologies. But the staggering cost of fully developing a modern fighter jet, complete with engine, avionics, advanced weapons, and stealth technology, dampened Tokyo’s enthusiasm for the project.

ATD-X demonstration aircraft on its maiden flight, 2016.
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Tokyo considers a handful of weapon systems as pillars of its defense, each a reflection of its wartime experiences. The firebombing of Japanese cities took place after U.S. forces gained air superiority over Japan’s skies, and the country has made it a top priority to buy the best air superiority fighters ever since.

Because Japan is a key American ally in the region, the nation has enjoyed early access to the Pentagon’s top fighter planes, including the F-4 Phantom and the F-15 Eagle. Japan had counted on similar access to the F-22 Raptor to replace its fleet of more than 200 F-15Js. But the United States' Obey Amendment, passed in 1998, prevents the sale of the F-22 overseas on the grounds that its technology is too advanced to export. This caught Japan off guard and put the country in a bind, as its F-15Js were approaching the 20-year mark in their service lives.

Japan started the ATD-X program in the early 2000s while still hoping the U.S. government would reverse its decision about the Raptor. That never happened, and the F-22 production line closed down in 2012. In the meantime, Japan's rival China developed not one but two fifth-generation stealth fighters, the J-20 and J-31. It then became a point of honor for Japan to build its own stealth fighter.

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Japanese F-15J Eagle and F-2 fighters, side by side.
Getty ImagesKazuhiro Nogi

Despite Japan’s reputation as a high-tech nation, it was at a disadvantage in developing an indigenous fighter. While the country had produced aviation marvels like the WWII Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighter, it hadn’t produced a fighter on its own since. In the late 1990s, a project to produce an advanced Japanese variant of the F-16 fighter, the F-2, resulted in a jet with about 25 percent more performance than the American version, but at more than twice the cost.

Japan’s problem is now worse than ever. After a 20-year quest, it has failed to secure a replacement for its fleet of F-15Js, some of which are now 40 years old. An all-Japanese air superiority fighter would be enormously expensive, require another 15 to 20 years to complete, and Japan still would need injections of foreign technology, particularly in the area of avionics. While the United States is developing a fighter to replace the F-22 sometime in the 2030s, known as Penetrating Counter Air or the Next Generation Air Dominance, there are no longer guarantees that Japan will receive access to America’s best fighters. Even if Japan bought into the PCA/NGAD program early on (which would be financially beneficial to the U.S. Air Force) the country would need assurances that what happened with the F-22 wouldn't happen again.

A report in Reuters states that Japan , both key defense partners, to gauge interest in working with Japan to develop a Japanese version of an existing fighter. Candidates include the American F-35 Lightning II, F-15 Eagle, and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, while the U.K. could offer the Eurofighter Typhoon as a starting point. However, while adapting one of these planes would be faster than building one from scratch, many of the offerings lack critically important stealth capabilities built into the F-22 and China’s J-20.

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BAE Eurofighter Typhoon.
Getty ImagesMax Mumby

One possibility is that Japan develops the airframe, including stealth capabilities of the jet, while leaving avionics and other systems to a foreign contractor such as Boeing on BAE. Aircraft like the Super Hornet or Typhoon are not outdated on the inside, merely the outside. Japan has already developed an advanced advanced electronically scanned array (AESA) air-to-air radar, so it wouldn’t totally be reliant on foreign technology. Still, the specter of the F-2 program, widely considered a failure that barely resulted in usable airplane, hangs over the prospect of any future aircraft cooperation.

Reuters states that Japan estimates a cost of $40 billion for the new fighter effort which would likely include at least 100 fighter jets. As aerial confrontations between Japan and China in the East China Sea , developing a top air superiority fighter is as high a priority as ever. Increasingly, it looks like Japan will need a foreign contractor to pull a rabbit out of a hat and build a fusion of Japanese and Western technology that can fulfill that role.

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