Japan’s suggestion that it could invest around $33 billion in a future domestic airliner programme came as a surprise to many observers – not least because its proposal was outlined little more than a year after its last such endeavour was axed.

That venture had led to the development of the Mitsubishi Regional Jet; later rebadged as the SpaceJet. After a period of dormancy during the Covid-19 pandemic, Mitsubishi Aircraft finally pulled the plug on the ambitious but long-delayed effort in February 2023.

Multiple factors led to the SpaceJet’s demise, including protracted certification activities and most crucially a weight issue which saw it fall foul of the scope-clause regulations which limit the size of aircraft flown by US regional operators: the bulk of its potential customers.


Source: AirTeamImages

Painful memories

With the pain of that programme’s failure still fresh in the mind, why would Tokyo contemplate the possibility of repeating the exercise?

The answer lies with a strong desire to empower the Japanese aerospace industry, and to retain and grow key skills in development and manufacturing.

Crucially, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Investment notes that hard lessons have been learned as a result of the SpaceJet’s cancellation, including acknowledging the capacity of the nation’s domestic industry. “There are limits to tackling the aircraft business with Japanese resources alone,” it notes.

Perhaps by taking a multi-national approach, similar to that of the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP), jointly established by Italy, Japan and the UK, it could hope for a better outcome next time around?

A major challenge though would be to find a suitably skilled and financially flush partner willing to work with national champions also including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries without expecting to assume a lead role.

Japan’s aerospace industry was bitten badly when its last commercial poster project fell apart, and while its early involvement in the tri-national GCAP effort appears encouraging, the nation should consider carefully whether it could be at risk of over-stretching its ambitions.

Equally, the timing of such a new programme is unfortunate, given industry’s need to meet a target for aviation to achieve net-zero status by 2050 while the essential technology that will support such a shift is not yet near maturity.

This means that Japan could run the risk of backing the wrong horse when it comes to the selection of fuel type for a future platform – while hydrogen is widely backed today for enabling the removal of carbon emissions, it is by no means certain to succeed. Alternatively, by selecting a more efficient conventional engine it could risk being left behind by a new solution.

Tokyo must also decide whether its priority would be to develop a narrowbody offering, as it is certain not to venture down the regional jet route again.

Unlikely to compete with the market dominance of Airbus and Boeing, it must assess whether a large enough domestic and export market could make such a major investment worthwhile.