Japanese politicians are grappling with how to deal with future exports related to the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP), which will be developed in conjunction with Italy and the UK.

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and the Komeito party, its junior partner in a coalition, have held meetings on the issue recently, according to the latter.

GCAP pair over Tokyo

Source: BAE Systems

GCAP has replaced Japan’s Future Fighter programme to replace the Mitsubishi F-2

Komeito, which has expressed opposition to the joint fighter project, feels that there should be considerable curbs on the export of GCAP to parties beyond the original three countries.

The discussions about GCAP are part of broader discussions about Tokyo’s position towards advanced defence exports. While rules have been loosened in recent years, Tokyo remains very cautious about defence exports.

These concerns could have implications for its GCAP partners. Eurofighter partner Germany, for example, long held up a possible follow-on sale of Typhoons to Saudi Arabia, although there are signs that Berlin is softening its stance on the matter.

Japanese media has quoted chief cabinet secretary Hayashi Yoshimasa – a member of the ruling LDP – as saying that Italy and the UK deem exports essential for lowering GCAP’s procurement costs. London and Rome have also pressed this view on Tokyo.

Yoshimasa adds that GCAP exports will be a litmus test of Japan’s attractiveness as a partner in major international defence programmes.

Underlining Japan’s caution towards defence exports, Izumi Kenta of Japan’s largest opposition party, the Constitutional Democratic Party, expressed concerns that looser export guidelines could pave the way for Japanese-produced weapons being used against people in foreign countries.

Major Japanese aerospace companies such as Mitsubishi Heavy industries and engine specialist IHI are set for major involvement in GCAP.

Japan X-2 ATLA

Source: Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency

The Mitsubishi X-2. During a series of test flights between 2016-2018, the experimental aircraft explored technologies for future combat aircraft

In the 2000s and 2010s Japan invested considerable resources in its Future Fighter programme before formally joining GCAP in 2022.

The Future Fighter programme, intended as a replacement for the Mitsubishi F-2, explored a range of technologies, including flights with the Mitsubishi X-2 fighter technology demonstrator.

The aircraft, previously designated ATD-X, helped explore advanced fighter technologies such as stealth, thrust vectoring, advanced sensors, and datalinks.

In addition to the X-2 project, Japan also investigated in specific technologies such as weapons bays, sensors, data links, and other areas deemed necessary for advanced fighter aircraft.