Japan's Next Fighter
There seems to have been a lot of talk in aviation circles of late regarding the future make up of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force. Recent delays in issuing RFPs in the long anticipated FX requirement to replace aging F-4s, as well as the development of the separate ATD-X demonstrator program have kept JASDF procurement in the spotlight. And the recent rumblings on the nearby Korean Peninsula only serve to remind everyone of the advantages of a strong conventional deterrence force.
Firstly, I read with great interest the posts on the Asian Skies blog about the ATD-X program - Japan's effort to develop the technology for a 5th generation fighter aircraft. The requirements of the aircraft include AESA radar, TVC engines, and stealth technology. The project will probably remain a solo Japanese affair for the time being, as is common for the nation which has strict self imposed limits on arms exports. But the costs to develop a functioning demonstrator or prototype are expected to be huge, given the technology hurdles and the limited potential for production return. I can understand the desire for Japan to maintain an independent combat aircraft development and manufacturing industry, but at what point do the costs outweigh the benefits? The idea of an international partnership to develop the aircraft solves some of the issues cost-wise, but creates just as many politically.
Japan's desire for the F-22 has been much discussed in the past few years, but with the impending closure of the US production line, is now a moot point. If Japan wants to put a fleet of 5th gen fighters into service, it is stuck with either its independently developed ATD-X (or whatever may spawn from it), or the F-35. Sadly for Japan, neither offers a good alternative to the F-22 however. The ATD-X is just way too costly and risky – look at the development problems, delays and overruns the US has seen with both their 5th gen fighter programs. And the F-35 just isn't a good fit for the mission profile envisioned for the JASDF. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is very much a strike aircraft first, and a fighter aircraft second. Japan's current fighter jet inventory is essentially an air combat force, with a comparatively limited strike capability. This aligns with the purely self-defense mission of Japans military in general. Going on the offensive over enemy territory, dropping bombs on bunkers and tanks while evading SAMs is not a likely JASDF mission. For Japan, the best of the F-35s capabilities are wasted, and the "worst" (according to some at least), are being counted on as their raison d'être.
To me, it seems clear that Japan needs to look at alternative options for their FX winner. Japan needs a fighter aircraft first, strike aircraft second. Japan is an island nation and threats will come from predictable directions. The classic interceptor is the perfect solution really: powerful engines to reach an incoming target aircraft quickly; excellent radar; and BVR missiles. Stealth really isn’t as important in this case. The two favorites right now are probably the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and the Typhoon. Both aircraft are modern and in service. Both aircraft were designed, to a greater or lesser degree, with the same interceptor mission profile in mind, and both were brought into service to replace more classic interceptor designs (the F-14 and Tornado F3, et al). Today’s basic Typhoon is arguably better than the F/A-18E/F, but the Super Hornet would probably offer better value for money, and you always need to consider the “buy from America” procurement history of the JASDF. That said, if Japan can get Typhoons with AESA radars, Meteor missiles and even thrust vector control engines, I think it ought to be a clear winner.
That said, the late entry could be the new F-15SE Silent Eagle. We need to wait and see on performance of this aircraft, but it seems to have a lot of potential and in the end it could provide Japan with everything it wants in a familiar package. If the F-15SE offers all that is promised, Europe’s hope for a break into the Japanese market could be dashed.