The Japan International Aerospace Exhibition is a rarity among air shows, occurring not every two years, but every four. It is also a moving target. This year the show is in a Tokyo conference hall. In 2012 it was held at an exhibition centre in the industrial outskirts of Nagoya. The 2008 iteration took place in the port city of Yokohama. The most recent version was a sleepy affair from the defence perspective: major contractors showed up, but traffic was thin. The main attraction was the cabin mock-up of the Mitsubishi MRJ regional jet, where journalists and other visitors fought over access.

If geopolitics are any indication, this year’s show will be different, with the emphasis shifting to things military. The last four years has seen China – Japan’s regional arch rival – become increasingly belligerent. In November 2013, Beijing took the starkly provocative step of announcing an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea. Apart from overlapping with a Japanese ADIZ, it encompassed a collection of barren islets claimed by both countries.

Amid this environment, Japan has steadily ratcheted up its defence budget, and airpower is a key focus area.

Malcolm Davis, senior analyst, Defence Strategy and Capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, notes that Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) aircraft scrambled 873 times in 2015, of which 571 were to deal with incursions by Chinese aircraft.

“Japan must also think more about its interests further afield, including Chinese operations in the South China Sea,” he says. “This may demand a longer-range air combat capability, including more advanced fighter aircraft and greater provision for airborne tanker support.”

In the last few years Tokyo has announced upgrades to its airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) fleet in the form of the Northrop Grumman E-2D Advanced Hawkeye – it has so far ordered two, from a planned four – and new tankers, with a commitment to acquire three Boeing KC-46As. It is also to acquire Bell Boeing V-22 Osprey tiltrotors, which will be used by a new force modelled on the US Marine Corps. Such types are essential to a well-rounded, professional military, but Tokyo’s major focus right now is at the sharp end: fighters.

This adds up to a Japan Aerospace with three broad fighter-related themes: future acquisitions, indigenous developments, and upgrades of existing platforms. Each theme promises not only a strong element of combat capability, but also a strong dose of industrial work aimed at enhancing Tokyo’s already impressive aerospace sector.


Tokyo’s primary ongoing acquisition is of the Lockheed Martin F-35A. In August, the air force released images of its first conventional take-off and landing F-35A at the US firm’s Fort Worth production facility in Texas: aircraft AX-1. While the service's iconic sun roundel fails to stand out well in the aircraft’s grey paint scheme, the type represents a major upgrade of capability, and an important shot in the arm for Japan’s industrial base.

The first four F-35As for Japan will be built in Fort Worth, and the subsequent 38 at a final assembly and check-out line run by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) in Nagoya. The first Nagoya-produced aircraft, designated AX-5, commenced production in December 2015.

Acquiring the F-35A makes Japan the first nation in the region to obtain a stealth aircraft. For years, Tokyo had hoped to obtain Lockheed's more capable F-22, but US possessiveness about this advanced type’s technologies ultimately saw it disappointed. For a while there was a concept to sell Japan a scaled-down version of the Raptor, but this came to naught.

Japan’s interest in the F-35 goes well beyond its combat capabilities. It stressed the industrial ramifications in a 2014 white paper.

“It is important for Japanese companies to participate in the manufacturing process and to come into contact with cutting-edge fighter aircraft technology and knowledge in order to ensure safety and high operational availability, resulting in the safe and efficient management of JASDF F-35As,” said the report.

Tokyo’s ambitions lie far beyond licence production of the F-35A. Quite apart from Beijing’s routine aerial incursions, Tokyo is concerned about regional fighter developments, specifically China’s Chengdu J-20 and AVIC FC-31 fighters. While the J-20’s capabilities and mission are unclear, Beijing appears to have invested a considerable amount in the type. Reports from China indicate that the 11th example, apparently a low-rate initial production aircraft, is already flying. The FC-31’s future appears to be contingent on securing foreign partners, but nonetheless symbolises China’s ambitions.

These developments, along with South Korea’s determination to build its own fighter, theKFX, have spurred Tokyo’s desire to develop an advanced fighter at home.


“In terms of a broader defence industrial base context, I think it’s important that Japan sustain an advanced aerospace industry,” says Davis. “Simply buying F-35s does not really let Japan do this. Certainly Tokyo can contribute in some ways to F-35, but it does not have the same impact as an indigenously developed advanced fighter, which could then be exported, and actually compete with similar projects such as theKFX, the F-35, and the British-French FCAS [Future Combat Air System].”

In June, Japan’s defence ministry requested information from international aerospace firms to explore options for its planned F-3 fighter programme, which could see a new type deployed in the 2030s.

Three options are on the table, according to an official familiar with the matter. The first is to develop an all-new fighter indigenously; the second to collaborate with a foreign partner for a new aircraft; and the third to buy or upgrade an existing type.

“General discussions” are under way with potential partner companies, including Boeing, the Eurofighter consortium and Lockheed.

Should the programme advance, the F-3 would be produced by MHI, possibly in conjunction with overseas suppliers.

“Japan is seeking information from a variety of potential industry partners, and we are certainly interested in another potential opportunity to bolster our long-standing partnership with Japan,” Lockheed tells FlightGlobal. Boeing also replied to the request, citing its long history in Japan.

Tokyo has demonstrated a keen interest to provide a meaningful contribution to the F-3 programme through the development of the X-2 fighter technology demonstrator. Built by Mitsubishi, the X-2 conducted its first flight in April. It has been handed over to Japan’s Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency, which plans 50 or more flights to explore technologies related to advanced fighters, such as thrust vectoring and stealth.

The X-2 is a key component of a larger effort Japan has made since the 1990s to explore technologies necessary for stealthy fifth- or sixth-generation aircraft. The effort comprises 15 separate programmes, of which the X-2 itself is the most significant. The others are investigating specific technologies, such as weapons bays, sensors, data links, and other areas deemed necessary for advanced fighter aircraft.


Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow at Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, is dubious about the F-3. He contends that Japan suffers from the same challenge facing China: fighter engines. He acknowledges that while an indigenous engine equips the X-2 technology demonstrator, it is far from certain how capable Japan would be developing an engine such as the GE Aviation F414, which powers the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, or the Eurojet EJ200, used with the Eurofighter Typhoon. And even these are less advanced than the Pratt & Whitney F119 that powers the F-22.

“One key element of a fifth- or sixth-generation fighter is the ability to super-cruise, or fly supersonic speeds without afterburner,” he says. “Tokyo does not have substantial experience developing and then manufacturing advanced engines.”

The final fighter theme at the Tokyo show is likely to be upgrades for Japan’s fleet of Boeing F-15J fighters. Tokyo has reportedly expressed a desire to double the number of air-to-air missiles these aircraft are capable of carrying to 16. If true, this would help address Beijing’s numerical superiority in terms of military aircraft, as well as its growing force of cruise missiles. Experts say that while Beijing may suffer qualitative deficiencies, it has quantitative advantages that would allow it to saturate Japanese and US defences. Given the age of Japan’s F-15 fleet, other upgrades could include new avionics, cockpit upgrades, advanced data links, and active electronically scanned array radars.

All three themes – the F-35, F-3, and F-15 upgrades – play to Tokyo’s evolving strategic calculus, as well as its continued desire to maintain a vibrant aerospace sector. For fighter observers, the upcoming show will offer interesting details into the fighter decisions ahead for Japan’s defence planners.