Despite assertions otherwise, the F-35 is not designed to win a close-in air-to-air fight. Regional developments of fifth-generation air superiority capabilities, namely the Chinese J-20, FC-31 and Russian Su-57, are serving as echoes of the hard-fought lessons of Vietnam’s air campaign, prompting Japan to approach the US for access to a modified F-22 Raptor capability – given the increasing challenges, should Australia join Japan’s pursuit?
Throughout history, military operations have favoured those who occupy the high ground. Command of the skies empowers both offensive and defensive operations, while also providing powerful deterrence options as part of the broader implementation of power projection and national security doctrines.
Air dominance reflects the pinnacle of the high ground, where both a qualitative and quantitative edge in doctrine, equipment and personnel support the unrivalled conduct of offensive or defensive air combat operations. Air dominance proved influential as a tactical and strategic operating concept, with the use of tactical fighters providing air dominance, close air support and escort essential to the Allied triumph in the Second World War.
However, the growing success of Russian and Chinese fifth-generation fighter aircraft like the Su-57, J-20 and JF-31 – combined with reports of Russia offering the Su-57 for export to the Chinese People's Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and the increasing introduction of highly-capable fourth plus generation combat aircraft – is threatening to serve as a repeat of the air combat battles over Vietnam that saw dedicated Soviet designed and built air superiority fighter aircraft severely challenge US air superiority despite the advances in air-to-air missiles promising the end of traditional dog fights.
Fifth-generation fighter aircraft represent the pinnacle of modern fighter technology. Incorporating all-aspect stealth even when armed, low-probability-of-intercept radar, high-performance air frames, advanced avionics and highly integrated computer systems, these aircraft provide unrivalled air dominance, situational awareness, networking, interdiction and strike capabilities for commanders.
The world's first fifth-generation aircraft, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, first introduced in the mid-2000s, was designed to replace the US Air Force's fleet of ageing F-15C/D Eagles – incorporating full spectrum, low-observable stealth characteristics, super cruise, and super manoeuvrability in an air frame designed to fight, win and maintain US and allied air superiority against even the most advanced enemy integrated air-and-missile defence systems and air combat capabilities.
However, shrinking defence budgets in the aftermath of the Cold War, a lack of credible peer adversary to US air superiority and a Congress-implemented export ban despite requests from Japan, Australia and Israel hindered even America's ability to field a credible fleet of these technological marvels – with an original order of 750 units cut to 195, the unit price rose beyond what was sustainable, paving the way for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter family to fill the role.
Recent changes within the US political establishment, notably the election of President Donald Trump, has triggered a major rethink in the policies that govern America's arms exports, opening the door for Japan to engage with major US defence contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to support Japan's domestic development of a large, low-observable air superiority fighter to replace its fleet of locally built F-15J aircraft.
While Japan has committed to acquiring a fleet of 147 F-35s, including a fleet of 42 short-take off, vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B variants, the Japanese government has remained focused on procuring a fifth-generation air dominance fighter, with or without US help, to counter the growing challenges it faces in its direct region.
This resulted in the development of the X-2 Shinshin, a technology demonstrator that proved Japan's domestic aerospace industry could produce an indigenous stealth fighter design capable of competing with the world's best. Both Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman have actively supported Japan's continued development of the Shinshin concept, raising renewed questions about a US commitment to reopening the F-22 Raptor line.
Both Russia and China will continue to develop and enhance their growing fifth-generation air combat fleets – with Russian President Vladimir Putin allegedly approving the export of the specialised air superiority Su-57 to China to operate in conjunction with China's domestic J-20 and FC-31 fleets, dramatically impacting the tactical and strategic balance of air combat power in the Indo-Pacific.
Recognising these emerging peer competitor capabilities and previous attempts at acquiring the F-22, both Japan and Australia are well positioned to support the reopening of the US F-22 Raptor line, estimated to be worth approximately US$9.9 billion for non-recurring start-up costs according to a US Congress report and an additional US$40.4 billion to acquire 194 Raptors for the US Air Force.
What this House Armed Services Committee report fails to account for is an allied acquisition and integration within the advanced Raptor development, supply chain – most notably Japan and Australia, which are both widely respected US allies and industrial partners within the existing F-35 supply chain. The acquisition is not without risk, however, as both Japan and Australia would need to at least match the US order of 194 air frames.
Broader horizons and industrial benefits
While a joint US, Japanese and Australian acquisition of at least 388 air frames would serve as the basis for re-openinig the Raptor line – expanding the export opportunities of the Raptor to include other key 'Five Eyes' allies like Canada and the UK, both of which are currently undergoing an air force recapitalisation, modernisation or research and development program of their own, would further reduce the costs associated with reopening the line and acquiring new Raptor air frames.
Australian procurement could mean enjoying a highly capable, interoperable and future-proofed airframe operated by Japan, a key regional ally, and potentially the US and UK, which agreed with the Japanese government in 2017 to collaborate in the joint development of a fifth-generation aircraft to replace the Royal Air Force's Typhoons within the next two decades.
Global participation in the project, particularly around the design and manufacturing phase, presents Australian suppliers to the F-35 program with economic opportunities and incentives for wanting the project to proceed.
In particular Marand and Quickstep holdings, which enjoy existing global supply chain relationships with key US contractors Lockheed Martin and Boeing that could place them in good standing to bring their advanced manufacturing and materials engineering solutions to the $40 billion project.