Tokyo continues to weigh options for procuring a successor to the Mitsubishi F-2 fighter, but technology and cost are concerns.
The programme is certain to be in focus at Japan Aerospace in late November, as aerospace manufacturers pitch options and know-how. For its part, Tokyo's Acquisition, Technology, & Logistics Agency, the defence ministry, the Japan Air Self Defense Force and Japanese industry are still weighing options.
While timelines, technology, numbers to be procured and development partners for the F-3 are uncertain, there is no doubt that the F-2, derived from the Lockheed Martin F-16, will need replacing. Flight Fleets Analyzer shows that the JASDF has 96 examples. The average age is 14.1 years, with some examples over 20 years old.
The government continues to review responses to a request for information about the F-3 from three companies: Lockheed Martin, Boeing and BAE Systems. These parties will not comment in any detail, but media reports from Japan indicate that Lockheed is pitching an upgraded version of the F-22, or a hybrid of the F-35A and F-22. Boeing’s proposal is apparently based on the F-15, and the BAE Systems offer on the Eurofighter Typhoon.
Some reports have suggested that Northrop Grumman even pitched technology derived from its YF-23, which lost out to the F-22 in the USA's Advanced Tactical Fighter competition.
The F-22 idea is tantalising, but Tokyo was previously denied access to this advanced fighter. Boeing could propose an updated concept for the F-15, as it did with its Silent Eagle proposal in South Korea’s F-X III competition, which was ultimately won by the F-35A.
Finally, there is the most interesting possibility of all: a locally developed fighter made mostly with home-grown technology. Media reports suggest Lockheed's offering, which apparently provides a generous local industrial package and an indigenous approach, are the two favoured options.
A recent report from the Nikkei news agency indicated the government hoped to make a decision this year, but will instead decide in the next mid-term defence plan for 2019-2023. The proposal from Lockheed is reportedly the most thorough, but the government wants more information from Japanese industry and other parties.
"The two options appear to be a fully domestic development versus joint development with a foreign entity, either a vendor or government," says Forecast International analyst Dan Darling. "Considering the cost and development hurdles in the solely domestic avenue, the more likely option will be to seek partnership with a vendor, such as Lockheed Martin, or foreign government, such as the United Kingdom."
The UK's unveiling of the sixth-generation Tempest concept at the Farnborough Air Show will have caught the attention of Japanese officials attending the show. The Tempest resembles conceptual drawings of the F-3 with twin canted tails, two engines, and a low-observable profile.
Tokyo has made a concerted effort to explore advanced technologies. The most visible product of this has been the experimental Mitsubishi X-2, which conducted 34 flights from late 2017 to early 2018 to explore areas such as stealth and thrust vectoring.
Other Japanese efforts relate to advanced sensors, datalinks, weapons bays, and engines. In June, IHI delivered the XF9-1 engine, which can produce 33,000lb-thrust (147kN) with afterburner. Lab tests with this engine, which could be the forerunner to the F-3 powerplant, are going well and will continue until February 2019.
Malcolm Davis, senior analyst, defence strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, is dubious about an indigenous development, pointing to the high costs associated with the F-2 programme. He suggests that allied nations such as Australia, Japan and the USA collaborate on new manned and unmanned systems.
"The terminology of 5th gen, 5.5 gen, 6th gen seems increasingly passé and runs the risk of another 20-30 year multibillion-dollar programme that delivers capability too slowly," he says. "We need to think in terms of rapid development, spiral acquisition and experimentation towards a systems-of-systems approach – rather than an exquisite, very expensive single platform that does it all."