It has been a long road. Japan’s Ministry of Defense has revealed that progress was gathering pace on the nation’s next-generation air dominance fighter program as Asia’s rising superpower, China, continues to enhance its own next-generation air dominance capabilities.
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.
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 air power 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 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.
It is envisaged that Japan’s next-generation fighter, now named the F-X, will fill the role of the retiring F-15J air superiority fighter aircraft currently operated by the Japanese Air-Self Defense Force (JASDF), with the F-35A and B variants providing the low-end air-combat capabilities currently assigned to the F-16-based F-2 aircraft.
Pedal to the metal
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As China has fielded increasing numbers of the J-20 and FC-31, combined with the continued capability enhancement programs for the Su-series of fighter aircraft operated by both the Russian and Chinese air forces, respectively, the Japanese Ministry of Defense recently confirmed they had upped the ante with the formal preparations for a “partnership framework”.
It is aimed that the planned Future Fighter Development Office was first mentioned in the 30 August budget request for FY2020.
In the budget request, the Japan Ministry of Defense (MoD) 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.
It has been revealed that the JASDF and MoD will determine a preliminary partnership framework for the development of the F-X fighter aircraft. While details remain light, it is expected that the formal draft will be finalised by December 2020.
Additionally, it has been revealed that funding for the F-X development program will reach about JPY28 billion (US$256.5 million) in FY2020.
A total of JPY16.9 billion of this funding (60 per cent) will be spent on “F-X related research projects”, said the spokesperson, with the remaining JPY11.1 billion (40 per cent) allocated for “conceptual design in Japan-led development” activity.
Looking for international partners?
The complexity involved with the design, development and fielding of a fifth-generation fighter aircraft is well known, with the United States, China and Russia each facing development, manufacturing and delivery delays, combined with capability issues with the finished product – Japan has recognised this and has long pursued international collaboration in the development of the F-X.
Most notably, both Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman were actively pursued by Japan as a potential partner for the development of the F-X program, drawing on the experience of both global primes, despite export bans on their air dominance platforms: the F-22 Raptor and F-23 Black Widow, respectively.
However, 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.
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 its 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 manoeuvrable 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-X 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 – raises questions about the Royal Australian Air Force’s plans to adequately defend Australia’s airspace against increasingly capable threats.
Accordingly, is it time for Australia to be involved with the development and introduction of 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?
For Australia, the future operating environment to the nation’s immediate north will necessitate investment in a highly capable, long-range, air dominance fighter aircraft to complement the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and replace the ageing F-18 E/F Super Hornets by the mid 2030s.