Japan is set to issue a tender for up to 100 new fighter jets, a program the country hopes will help rejuvenate its aging air force. As reported by , the contract is expected to be worth at least 40 billion dollars.
The new fighter program, known as F-3, will be a homegrown Japanese design with considerable input from foreign defense contractors. American firms Lockheed Martin and Boeing are early favorites, as Japan considers interoperability with U.S. forces a vital part of its defense.
Japan currently has one of the largest, well-trained air forces in the world. The Air Self Defense Force, as it is known as, has nearly 200 F-15J air superiority fighters, the second largest number of F-15 Eagles outside the United States. It also has a smaller force of approximately 80 locally-produced F-2 fighters and 40 F-4EJ Phantoms.
Although impressive, Japan's fighter inventory is beginning to age out. The F-4EJ Phantom is being retired, to be replaced with 42 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters. The country's F-15J airframes are all at least thirty, and in some cases approaching forty years old. An aggressive China, which is busy expanding its air force, is also a reason for the new planes.
A fighter technology demonstrator, X-2, flew earlier this year. Although not a production model, it showed off many technologies Japan wants to integrate into the F-3 including thrust vector control, stealth technology, and locally designed and built afterburning turbofan engines.
Still, Japan hasn't designed a fighter from the ground up since the Second World War and will need help, particularly in the areas of avionics, communications, and systems integration. These are precisely the areas where interoperability with American forces is essential, making American contractors the odds-on favorite to win the contract.
A final decision on the F-3 will be made in 2018, with deployment due at the end of the 2020s—or even the early 2030s.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is the prime contractor on the F-3. Mitsubishi produced the famed Zero fighter of World War II, and has built many of Japan's postwar fighters, including licensed copies of the F-4 Phantom and F-15 Eagle. It was also the lead contractor on the F-2, a heavier, Japanese-built version of the F-16.