The current global and regional transition from fourth to fifth-generation fighter aircraft, like the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter platforms, is reshaping the role of fighter fleets and the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region.
Designed to establish and maintain air superiority or air dominance, fighter aircraft have evolved from relatively simple wood and canvas airframes during the First World War, to the highly manoeuvrable, long-range aircraft that dominated the skies of Europe and the Pacific during the Second World War; the latest two generations of fighters are the pinnacle of these earlier designs.
Driven largely by advances in the capabilities fielded by both a resurgent Russia and a rising China, both of whom are increasingly eager to exercise their influence over strategically vital areas, like the East and South China Seas in particular – the regional fighter aircraft race continues to heat up as Japan has formalised its plans to pursue a next-generation air superiority focused fighter aircraft capable of supplementing the capabilities of its growing fleet of F-35A and B aircraft.
Air superiority and air dominance
Increasingly advanced, highly-capable fourth, 4.5 and fifth-generation fighter aircraft that combine low observable coatings and airframes, increased aerodynamic performance, advanced sensor suites and computational power like the air dominance/air superiority specialised F-15 Eagle series, F-22 Raptor, Russian Su-57 and Chinese J-20 are at the pinnacle of the contemporary airpower hierarchy.
Almost taking a leaf out of the years leading up to the confrontation between American and Soviet aircraft over Vietnam, the US and many allies, including Australia, have been repeatedly told that air superiority, namely traditional dog fighting, is a thing of the past as a result of increased sensor capabilities, low observability and advanced air-to-air missile (AAM) systems – resulting in the development of the costly flying supercomputer, the F-35.
However, the specialised focus of platforms like the Russian Su-57 and Chinese J-20 series of air superiority fighter aircraft – both of which have larger combat radius, higher-speeds, larger weapons payloads and better aerodynamic performance – raises questions about the air dominance and air superiority capability of the F-35 in the face of seemingly superior, specialised peer-competitor aircraft.
Recognising this, combined with the increasing capability of the specialised Russian and Chinese platforms, the Japanese government has long committed itself to developing a comparable fighter capability, with a focus on air superiority – in response developing the X-2 Shinshin concept design, drawing on design cues from the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.
Zero Mk 2?
This next-stage has been a long-term attempt by the Japanese government, while committing to the procurement of 147 F-35s, 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. However, the success of the X-2 was, and indeed is, limited, which in recent months has resulted in talks beginning between Lockheed Martin and Japanese businesses, namely Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, about the collaborative development of a hybrid F-22/F-35 system.
In order to support the development of a Japanese air superiority fighter, the Japanese government and Japanese Defense Ministry have kicked off the Future Fighter Development Office to begin operations in April 2020. The planned Future Fighter Development Office was first mentioned in the 30 August budget request for FY2020. In the budget request, the Japanese Defense Ministry urged the Japanese government to approve the launch of a Japan-led aircraft development program that can play a crucial role in the development of the country’s next fighter aircraft.
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, as recently as the weekend, Northrop Grumman.
Both companies have a history of developing highly capable fighter systems; Lockheed's F-22 Raptor is the world's premier air superiority and air dominance fighter aircraft, while Northrop Grumman, largely famous for it's UFO like B-2 Spirit stealth bomber and the new B-21 Raider bomber, competed with the Raptor design during the competition to replace the F-15 Eagle in the early '90s with the YF-23 Black Widow.
The Black Widow, although unsuccessful in the competition, presented the US Air Force and now Japan with an incredibly stealthy, fast and manoeuverable air frame. The Japanese requests for information (RFI) identify that the program would be worth approximately US$40 billion for up to 100 new stealth fighters and would see increased global industry participation.
It is understood that Northrop has provided a suite of technologies that could be incorporated into the Japanese F-3 project. Meanwhile, Boeing and European conglomerate BAE Systems have also been invited to contribute to the program in an attempt to spread development costs and burdens.
For Australia, allied involvement, particularly by the US and UK in the development of a new, fifth-generation air superiority fighter presents a number of opportunities. It could, in some way, call into question the procurement of the reliably troubled and delayed F-35 JSFs, 72 of which the nation has committed to purchasing.
Despite the international interest, largely driven by prime aerospace and defence giants, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, the Japanese expect Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to be the lead contractor on the development of the next-generation air superiority fighter, with the first round of flight tests expected to begin in 2030.
Nevertheless, global partner participation has provided Australian industry with the opportunity to prove itself, particularly around the design and manufacturing phase, presenting Australian suppliers to the F-35 program with economic opportunities and incentives for wanting the project to proceed. In particular, Marand and Quickstep Holdings 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.
The increasingly challenging operating environment emerging on Australia's doorstep, combined with similar concerns developing among allies including the US, UK and more broadly the European Union, also raises questions about developing and introducing a highly-capable, high-speed, low observable, air-superiority focused platform to complement the 'low' end capability of other platforms, future-proofing the capability and enhancing the interoperability of the Royal Australian Air Force and allied air forces.