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Following a shift in government policy, hopes are high among Japanese aircraft manufacturers that at last they will be able to challenge for Western business

Japanese defence contractors' long wait for an opportunity to tap into the global export market may finally come to an end over the next few years, with a variety of indigenously developed aircraft, engines and other equipment ready to compete with Western-built products.

The Japanese government's long-standing ban on defence exports was relaxed at the end of last year to allow the export of missile components and other specific equipment. Although the country's largest aerospace manufacturers had been hoping for blanket authorisation to pursue exports, they believe that, eventually, more of their defence products will be approved for sale outside Japan. Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI) has been lobbying the Japan Defence Agency (JDA) to authorise export sales of its new C-X military transport. KHI believes the aircraft can be sold to countries seeking new transport aircraft with short take-off and landing capability along with a cargo capacity bigger than that of the Lockheed Martin C-130, but smaller than that of the Boeing C-17. "Whether we can export the C-X to other countries depends on a change in government policy, which has not happened," says KHI. "So we have to wait and see how the government will do that job. We have a strong hope [for exports], but it's only our own hope."

The company says it has been given no indication when the JDA may decide on further exemptions to the export ban. KHI will begin gauging potential outside interest in the C-X at next month's Paris air show, where it will display a model. Although it was hoping to have received export clearance, KHI is in no hurry to begin an international sales campaign because the C-X's first flight is still two years away. KHI realises the aircraft will be hard to sell overseas, especially before it enters service with the Japanese air force in 2011. It is powered by two General Electric CF6-80C2 engines and has a Western cockpit.

The ShinMaywa Industries US-1A Kai amphibious aircraft is a more near-term export prospect, with entry into service with the Japanese navy set for 2007. The aircraft has been developed for military search-and-rescue (SAR) missions, but ShinMaywa is seeking JDA approval to sell it overseas, initially as a civil firefighter. "For now, it's just search and rescue, but we have the possibility to expand this programme in the future," says ShinMaywa. In the 1970s, the company had modified the US-1A's predecessor, the PS-1 anti-submarine-warfare aircraft, into a firefighter and test-flew the aircraft in co-operation with the Japanese firefighting department. However, budget constraints prevented the department from buying it, and ShinMaywa was unable to approach potential export customers because of the government's ban on the export of aircraft produced for the military.

In 1985, ShinMaywa tested a water tank intended for the original variant of the US-1A, but again elected not to pursue a proposed firefighting version further because of the ban. "Many considered this a weapon, so it was very difficult to sell, especially 30 years ago. But the situation is changing," it says.

Bigger challenge

Although the JDA has not yet included the US-1A Kai in its list of exempted equipment, ShinMaywa believes that once it lines up a launch customer for the firefighter, government approval will be swift. However, the manufacturer realises a bigger challenge may be to convince an operator in Europe or North America to buy from a Japanese firm with no experience in supporting aircraft worldwide. To persuade potential customers, ShinMaywa may offer a leasing alternative and team with a foreign maintenance company to provide product support.

Last year, ShinMaywa conducted a market study among operators in Europe and North America which concluded that 200 firefighters of the US-1A Kai's size would be required over the next few years. ShinMaywa plans to fit the aircraft with the same two water tanks it tested in 1985, which give 15t of capacity – 9t more than the Bombardier 415 – but with a claimed life-cycle cost identical to that of the 415. It says the Kai will be able to scoop 15t of water in 20-30s, over a gliding distance of 400m (1,140ft) and be able to cruise to a fire area at up to 300kt (555km/h).

In January, the company formed a special engineering team to draft a concept design "to show customers the design and performance capabilities". After receiving input from firefighting operators, ShinMaywa plans to complete a detailed design and will consider developing a prototype. The first aircraft will be delivered 18-24 months after a launch order is placed. Although the company is now concentrating on the niche firefighting market, ShinMaywa says it may consider marketing the US-1A Kai to civil and military operators of SAR aircraft in the future. The first SAR prototype flew in December 2003 and has since been joined by a second prototype in a JDA-led flight-test programme scheduled to conclude next year. When it enters service in 2007, the aircraft will be renamed the US-2.

Industry observers question the size of the export market for the C-X and the US-2 and believe another Japanese indigenous defence product, the Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries (IHI) XF7 engine, has the best export potential. Developed by the JDA to power the new Kawasaki P-X maritime patrol aircraft, the XF7 could power commercial aircraft in the future as long as it is exempted from the defence export ban. IHI says the engine has similar thrust to the General Electric CF34, but is quieter and more fuel-efficient. "This is really a high bypass-ratio engine compared with others of the same class," says IHI, "and because of the high bypass ratio, the jet engine noise is very low." It also betters new International Civil Aviation Organisation noise standards.

IHI declines to provide performance details because the engine has been developed exclusively for the military using technology partially incubated by the third research centre of the JDA's Technical Research and Development Institute (TRDI). Five prototype XF7 engines are now being tested, including one on a Kawasaki C-1 flying testbed. Two more prototypes will be delivered to the JDA later this year for propulsion-system testing, followed by seven next year – four for the P-X's planned 2007 first flight and three for qualification tests. The XF7's core technology was initially developed as part of a fighter-engine study by the TRDI. Some other technologies – such as simulation, mechanical and aerodynamic design – were incubated by IHI.

"In order to apply the technology produced by the XF7 programme to other projects, we need JDA approval," says IHI. "We are concentrating on engine development completion for the P-X. In the future, we have a chance [for other applications], but for now our focus is on the P-X." Aircraft manufacturers are believed to have expressed interest in the XF7, but IHI says it is prohibited from sharing information with outside companies. At IHI and other Japanese aerospace companies, there is a divide between the commercial and defence divisions that prevents any sharing of technology, and manufacturers are eager to overcome this, particularly concerning non-offensive defence products developed with JDA funds.

The Japanese government also seems interested in authorising the use of technology from the defence sector to help pursue an ambition to produce commercial aircraft and engines, and is funding a feasibility study of using technology from the C-X and P-X programmes to develop a new commercial aircraft. Two further studies are exploring the development of an indigenous regional jet and an indigenous regional jet engine. Japan has not produced a commercial aircraft since the NAMC YS-11 turboprop, developed in the early 1960s, and has never produced a commercial engine.

Lobbying

ShinMaywa believes its firefighting project also complements the government's policy of pursuing a return to civil aircraft manufacturing, and is lobbying for national funds to help cover further studies and development. ShinMaywa and other Japanese manufacturers have had to increase their reliance on commercial aircraft supplier contracts to offset declining sales to JDA. Industry sources say manufacturers need the versatility to export defence products and apply defence technology to new commercial products to generate future revenue growth.

The manufacturers are also concerned that Japan, in an attempt to spend its increasingly constrained defence budget prudently, may pursue direct imports instead of continuing to fund licence production of aircraft such as next-generation fighters. To offset the loss of these assembly lines and survive, Japanese manufacturers will have to boost production of their remaining aircraft programmes, which may only be possible through the pursuit of exports.

Case-by-case

Along with the US-1A Kai and C-X, the P-X, Kawasaki OH-1 scout helicopter and Fuji F-7 trainer are other Japanese products that could benefit from a policy shift. While a carte-blanche approval of exports is unlikely, case-by-case approval – as long as the products are not offensive and are being sold to an ally – is expected.

Japanese manufacturers point out that approval to pursue exports would also help the JDA to balance its budget, because the cost of the aircraft it acquires will fall. In recent years, Japan has had to cut military aircraft spending to free funds for ballistic missile defence and other new requirements, forcing a slowdown in assembly lines that were already inefficient. For example, one or at most two US-1A Kais will be produced annually, based on the current five-year budget.

"We realise the price for the JDA is too high," says ShinMaywa, adding that the JDA may be willing to approve a civilian export sale to get a better deal on its aircraft. But, as usually is the case in Japan, change will not necessary come quickly. "The door is open – but not a whole lot," says a US government source. "I think it's going to be a slow process."

BRENDAN SOBIE/TOKYO