Defence-Advertising-Trainer-Aircraft-Turkish-Defence-MBDA-DRA-Back-Issues-Rosoboronexport-Maritime-Patrol-Aircraft-Defence-in-Asia-Defence-and-Security-Subscribe-to-DRA-Contact-Defence-Review-Asia-Contact-DRANinth year of increased military spending by Japan

In line with a pattern of push back against China by many countries in the Asia-Pacific, the next Japanese defense budget – which comes into effect on April 1 – will be approximately US $51.5 billion, a 3% increase from 2020.  As well as funding a boost in both the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force submarine and surface fleets, the program to develop a 6th generation air superiority fighter aircraft is also gaining momentum.  This activity has been underway in a low-key manner for several years, but preliminary design is scheduled for completion in the next two months – and might see Japan the first country to field such a capability.

The decision to develop a 6th generation combat aircraft cannot have been taken lightly, since the program has an estimated cost of US $45 billion – and even that might prove to be at the lower end of the range.  This will happen in parallel with Japan becoming the largest operator outside the US of the F-35 Lightning II, with a total of 157 to be purchased.  However, Tokyo has several intersecting problems – a rapidly expanding and aggressive China, equipped with numerous modern aircraft while its own fleet is ageing – particularly 98 F-2s that will be retiring early next decade.

Capt. Kristin Wolfe, F-35 Demonstration Team pilot and commander, flies during practice prior to the 2020 Ocean City Air Show at Ocean City, Md., Aug. 14, 2020. The air show featured various performers including the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, F-22 Raptor and A-10 Thunderbolt II Demonstration Teams. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kristine Legate)

Japan has had a long-standing interest in the acquisition of F-22 air superiority interceptors, but the US has consistently refused to export them.  In any case, that aircraft has been out of production for a decade, so other solutions need to be considered.  One would be to order even more F-35s, but Japan has always wanted something with longer range and greater payload – particularly when factoring in a potential clash with China around the remote Senkaku Islands.

That part of the capability equation is currently being provided by a fleet of F-15Js that will undergo a major upgrade with the assistance of Boeing.  However, these are not stealth aircraft and in any case they are also reaching the limit of their growth potential.

In a perfect world, Japan would like something similar to an F-22 airframe with enhanced range and payload, but with all of the advanced sensors, data links and computing power of the more modern F-35.  In an extremely simplified description, this is what the Japanese F-3 6th generation aircraft is starting to resemble.

It will be a stealthy, twin-jet long range combat aircraft optimised for air dominance missions.  It will be able to carry six air-to-air missiles internally – compared with four for an F-35.  The F-22 has two-dimensional thrust vectoring – up and down – while the F-3 will feature three-dimensional thrust vectoring similar to that found on advanced Russian combat aircraft and which is completely absent from F-35s. It will have indigenous data links and an actively electronically scanned array, as well as potentially conformal arrays over all or part of the surface of the aircraft for advanced ESM / EW capabilities.

The Japanese-developed turbofan engine is only slightly less powerful than the twin Pratt & Whitney F-119s of the F-22, but they are smaller, can handle higher temperatures and produce a lot more electrical power than the US product.  Jointly developed by IHI and the Japanese Ministry of Defense, the XF-9-1 combines high output with lower volume and cross section, meaning that more room is available for the internal carriage of weapons and radar cross section is improved.

At the same time the F-3 will need to be fully interoperable with F-35s – no easy task but one that will be made easier since prime contractor Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has Lockheed Martin as a technology partner for the program.  While there will be ITARS issues to be overcome, it is expected that these can be managed because of the close US-Japan alliance that may well be further strengthened by admitting Japan to the Five Eyes alliance.

The first prototype is scheduled to fly in 2024, with series production to start around 2028.  If all goes to plan it looks as if Japan will be at the forefront of combat aircraft development. It is too early to speculate on the export potential of the F-3, especially since Japanese platforms tend to be very expensive.


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