With the cutting edge of jet fighter development moving into what is known as the fifth generation, several countries developed programs to attempt to produce an aircraft befitting the new paradigm. Thus far only the U.S., China, and Russia managed to do so.
Japan developed its own technology demonstrator aircraft, the Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin, which flew on April 22, 2016. However, Tokyo is now backing down from further developments of the type, the website Poder Aereo reports.
At the core of the hesitations of the Japanese government are the increasing costs and mounting technical issues of the project. The costs of developing a domestic stealth fighter are described as “astronomical” and not economically sensible.
The South China Morning Post also adds that this presents an issue for Tokyo’s attempt to find a replacement for the 50 F-4EJ Phantom II fighter jets developed during the Cold War, and the more recent Mitsubishi F-2, of which around 90 are in service. The latter was built in conjunction with the U.S. and is a development of the ubiquitous Lockheed-Martin F-16 series, optimized for anti-shipping duties.
As the development of a national jet seems to be out of the question, the Japanese government is now studying the possibility of either upgrading the fighters still in service or replacing them with existing foreign models. It should be noted that Tokyo had already made the commitment to buy 42 Lockheed-Martin F-35A stealth fighters.
The fifth-generation jet fighter distinguishes itself due to the technological advancements involved in its design. The most striking feature is stealth. This encompasses a combination of fuselage design features, construction materials, and advanced engine architecture that makes the aircraft difficult to observe by radars and infrared sensors.
It should be noted that a stealth fighter is not really invisible but only low observable, meaning that its detection takes longer when compared to conventional aircraft, thus gaining the crew valuable time during engagements.
Furthermore, fifth-generation aircraft also use advanced sensors and the ability to cruise at supersonic speeds to further improve their combat potential. These capabilities represent an important leap in combat aircraft design, but also incur significant development and operation costs.
The controversial F-35 program is a prime example of this reality. The program has thus far cost $406.5 billion to the American taxpayers, and this may not even be the true total, CNBC reports. The flyaway cost of each F-35A is estimated to be around $100 million. The F-35B and C naval variants are even costlier.
According to War is Boring, the Russian Sukhoi Su-57 has also been suffering from serious development hurdles, despite the recent deployment to Syria, which was seen as a dangerous move due to the jet’s development not being complete yet.
China created the Chengdu J-20 under great secrecy, but the type is also estimated to be quite expensive, The Diplomat claims.
However, it is easy to understand why Japan feels the need to field such aircraft, especially given Beijing’s increasing presence across Asia.
By 2016, the X-2 project had already soaked $366 million from the Japanese Ministry of Defense’s budget, and little is really known about how far the project has gone since. There are even some theories about the whole thing being an attempt of Tokyo to gain a better deal in the F-35 procurement negotiations, given that a native jet could mean the acquisition of less foreign types.
Recently, Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera also admitted the possibility of operating the short takeoff and landing variant of the F-35 from the new Izumo-class helicopter carriers of the Japanese Self-Defense Navy, Japan Today reports. The F-35B was developed to replace the notable Harrier jump jet serving with the U.S. Marine Corps and can take off from short runways, in addition to its fifth-generation features.
This can indeed show that the Japanese F-35 deal is to go through despite the hopes of bringing the country’s aircraft industry to the new paradigm. Tokyo only has a small part in the production of the jet, which will be a costly acquisition besides. However, it may represent Japan’s best option to build a stealth fighter force.
Beyond the venerable F-4s and the F-2s, Japan also operates around 200 F-15 air superiority fighters.