Tokyo is still assessing its options for F-X Future Fighter development partnerships, but there are signs that it is leaning toward the UK for help with the programme.

According to Japan’s Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency (ATLA), the Japan Ministry of Defense (JMoD) is still in talks with Lockheed Martin about F-X work. This follows recent media reports suggesting that it now favours working with the UK’s BAE Systems, supposedly out of dissatisfaction with the amount of technology transfer available from the USA.

Japan Future Fighter

Source: Japanese Ministry of Defense

Conceptual image of Japan’s Future Fighter

“JMoD is still discussing the content of the support from Lockheed Martin, which is the candidate for integration support company,” the ATLA says. “Therefore, we would like to refrain from any comment on the content of the discussion.”

BAE, for its part, sees clear potential in working on Asia’s premiere fighter programme – but also the need for caution.

Speaking at the UK company’s Warton site in Lancashire on 24 May, BAE Systems Air chief operating officer Ian Muldowney described the nation’s collaboration with Tokyo on advanced fighter technologies as being “a real opportunity”.

“There is a real close match on how we are working together to refine that – there is a lot of working going on,” he says, noting that Japan is also working with BAE’s Team Tempest partners Leonardo UK, MBDA UK and Rolls-Royce, respectively on radar/electronic warfare equipment, weapons, and propulsion.

Referring to recent reports about proposed closer links on Japan’s Future Fighter programme and noting Tokyo’s traditional reliance on the USA for military technology, Muldowney says: “My experience of working internationally says that until it’s all locked down, signed and sealed, there is still a risk.”

In December 2020, Tokyo selected a team comprising Lockheed and Northrop Grumman to work with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) to develop the fighter, which will replace the F-2 – a type closely related to Lockheed the F-16 – in Japan Air Self-Defense Force service in the 2030s.

At the time it named Lockheed, it noted the company’s experience with stealth aircraft, such as the F-22 and F-35. Northrop also produced the B-2 stealth bomber and is developing the B-21 Raider. This set the stage for Lockheed and MHI to hammer out the contract details over the course of 2021.

Asked for its view on recent F-X news reports, Lockheed had this to say: “As leaders in 5th Generation technologies, Lockheed Martin offers a comprehensive approach to ensure capabilities and interoperability, while significantly reducing development cost, schedule, and risk. Lockheed Martin is standing ready as the Government of Japan considers its F-3/F-X partnerships.”


Source: Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force

The MHI F-2 is based on the F-16. The F-X (tentatively designated F-3) will replace it in the 2030s

Although the ATLA was reticent to remark specifically on the state of play with Lockheed, it does highlight Tokyo’s close ties with London on the programme, noting that the JMoD and the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) “continue discussions to explore the possibility of wider collaboration on the F-X at sub-system level including engine”.

It adds that at a 5 May summit between UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida, the pair agreed “to reach mutual understanding on the full scope of the collaboration by the end of 2022”.

From the US government’s perspective, the key priority with Tokyo’s F-X programme is ensuring interoperability with US forces. Kelli Seybolt, Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force, International Affairs, has made this position clear.

“Japan has approached us regarding their F-X programme to replace the F-2 and the United States government’s position is that we want to work with Japan to help them create an interoperable capability,” said Seybolt in a February 2020 interview.

“And our desire is that the fighter they want to develop will be interoperable with our capabilities… we’re open to Japan working with industry to formulate some partnerships, so that Japan can gain the benefit of some of what our industry has learned.”

Mitsubishi X-2 Shinsin

Source: Japan Ministry of Defense

Tokyo developed the Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin to explore technologies for the F-X/F-3 programme

The JMoD does not believe that working with the UK on the programme will necessarily be to the detriment of interoperability with the USA. It notes that it has undertaken a joint study with the US Air Force on the concept of future networks.

“As the UK, as well as Japan, is a close ally to the US, JMoD is confident that the cooperation with the UK is compatible with the cooperation with the US for ensuring interoperability,” says the ATLA. “In addition, defense minister [Nobuo] Kishi explained the possibility of Japan-UK cooperation at the Japan-US Defense Ministerial Meeting on 4 May, and defense secretary Austin welcomed it.”

BAE’s Muldowney stresses that working closely with Japan on F-X involves a broad range of stakeholders.

“We have got to work hard collectively as a UK enterprise to make sure that from government through the MoD into industry that we are working at this in the right way, to make sure we are the right partners for Japan, and that they are the right partners for us.”

Pointing to the current partnership arrangement, Muldowney says: “MHI are working closely with us in terms of how we evolve things. It is moving in the right direction, they have got great technology, great engineers, have a drive and a similarity in terms of where we see the FCAS [Future Combat Air System] system going.”

Additional reporting by Craig Hoyle in Warton