Japanese industry is urging the government to keep the country’s planned F-X fighter in production until 2028, raising the stakes for the three Western companies competing for the program.
Full-scale development of an indigenous follow-on fighter, meanwhile, should begin between 2015 and 2017, the industry’s Society of Japanese Aerospace Companies recommends. The industry thus envisages two parallel, long-term projects, one for the factories and one for the development teams, to sustain the country’s fighter industrial base after deliveries of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries F-2s end this year.
There is a sign that the industry expects Japan to order the Lockheed Martin F-35 for the F-X program, because the society fails to advocate the other possible way to keep developers busy: extensive modification of the chosen aircraft. That option has been open for two of the competitors, the Eurofighter Typhoon and Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, but not for the F-35, whose technology is tightly controlled by the U.S.
Anxious to preserve skills, Japanese aerospace companies have previously backed aircraft other than the F-35, industry and government officials say. It now seems industry is looking for another way forward. Even though the competition is still under way, the Mainichi newspaper reported in November that the air force would seek F-35 procurement funds in its budget for the fiscal year beginning April 1, 2012.
Japan is expected to build much of the F-X aircraft domestically.
Whoever wins, the prize will be bigger if the government follows the society’s advice to build until 2028, greatly surpassing the stated program goal of delivering 50 fighters to replace Japan’s remaining F-4EJ Kai Phantoms. If the plants begin delivering fighters in, say, 2014 and maintain the average rate of the F-2 program, eight units a year, then F-X production would reach 120 aircraft.
The winning type would then become a partial replacement for Japan’s 200 F-15s, as the Mainichi has also suggested.
The Phantoms, more than 30 years old and built to a 1950s basic design, are slated to retire by 2015, a date that appears increasingly difficult to achieve as years pass without an F-X decision. The society’s envisaged retirement date for the type is 2018—either because that is the government’s current projection or because it sees 2018 as the earliest time by which enough F-X fighters could be fielded. Typhoons or Super Hornets would be available in larger numbers sooner than F-35s.
The F-X production plan appears in the society’s discussion of a 15-year gap between the end of F-2 production and the beginning of preparatory work in 2026 for volume production of an indigenous fighter. The society suggests either a foreign or Japanese design could fill the gap, but the defense ministry has rejected further production of the available domestic aircraft, the F-2, so the answer can only be the F-X.
The follow-on fighter would be the one already intended to emerge from the i3 technology acquisition effort (AW&ST Nov. 15, 2010, p. 37; Sept. 6, 2010, p. 29). Volume production would begin in 2028. Work on some of the technologies has already begun, including studies for an advanced engine (see p. 33). Research laying the ground for the project should continue until 2017, the society says, while the country test-flies its ATD-X stealth technology demonstrator in 2014-16.
Dovetailing with that, full-scale development of the i3 fighter would begin by 2017, long before the defense ministry’s nominated date, 2021. One consideration must be that work for the developers will tail off once the demonstrator is flying.
The i3’s first flight would come in 2025 and service entry in 2031 under the society’s plan, which it sets out as an industry road map extending into the 2030s.
“Domestic development and production needs to be sustained in case the United States withholds its technology,” it says, indirectly reminding the government of its failed attempt to buy the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor for the F-X.
“Among 13 companies interviewed [for this report], only one said that it could return fighter engineers to fighter work after a five-year gap,” the society says.
Two other issues that are not mentioned but may determine the future of Japanese fighter programs are the U.S. Air Force’s plan for a Next Generation Tactical Aircraft to become operational in 2030, and Japan’s cautious move toward allowing defense exports, with a view to taking part in international cooperative arms programs (AW&ST Dec. 13, 2010, p. 53).
Those two factors, plus the considerable cost of building an indigenous fighter, mean the i3 effort could turn into a Japanese contribution to a U.S. fighter of the so-called sixth generation. If it does not, perhaps because the U.S. declines foreign help on such a sensitive project, then Japan will at least be technologically positioned to go it alone.