With regional tensions mounting and China’s own fifth-generation air superiority fleet growing, the Japanese government has announced it will redouble its efforts to design and produce a domestic, sixth-generation air superiority fighter, with aims for the first flight by the end of the decade.
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 – Japan has sought to respond with a combination of the F-35 and a domestically produced sixth-generation air superiority fighter.
In recognising these challenges, 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 Japan 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.
As the regional balance of power continues to shift and the dynamics evolve, the Japanese government has moved to redouble its efforts and bring forward the development and introduction of the proposed F-X fighter aircraft.
First flight by 2028, production for 2031
Given the time frames behind the development of both the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Japanese government's target for producing its next generation fighter aircraft is particularly ambitious.
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However, it appears Japan has recanted on its decision to shun international collaboration, with the Japanese Ministry of Defense planning to confirm the prime contractor to support the development of the next-generation fighter by early next year, although it could be announced as early as October 2020.
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 ¥28 billion ($377 million) in FY2020.
A total of ¥16.9 billion of this funding (60 per cent) will be spent on “F-X related research projects”, said the spokesperson, with the remaining ¥11.1 billion (40 per cent) allocated for “conceptual design in Japan-led development” activity.
The Japan Times, reporting on information provided by the Japanese Ministry of Defense confirmed from early July, stated, "The Defense Ministry on Tuesday presented a plan to build from fiscal 2024 a prototype of a next-generation fighter jet to succeed the existing F-2 for the Air Self-Defense Force.
"The ministry showed a draft schedule for the next-generation fighter development project to a meeting of a group of lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party studying national defense on the day."
Building on this, The Japan Times has reported that "Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is in talks with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Boeing of the United States on how they can co-operate in the project, according to the ministry. Talks are also underway with four British firms".
Drawing support from the the US heavyweights will enable the program to have flight tests for the air frame by 2028, with a "mass production model is slated to start in fiscal 2031" with the ambition of having the aircraft ready to replace the ageing F-16 based F-2 fighter aircraft by 2035.
Renewed international collaboration opens possibilities
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 has 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 RAAF 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.