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  • IN FOCUS: China crisis adds urgency to Japanese air force modernisation

IN FOCUS: China crisis adds urgency to Japanese air force modernisation

The Japan Air Self-Defence Force (JASDF) has long been Asia's most capable air force in terms of technology, training and doctrine. In the 1980s it entered the elite group of McDonnell Douglas F-15 operators, alongside USA and Israel. It also operates a locally developed fighter in the form of the Mitsubishi F-2, which is based on the Lockheed Martin F-16 C/D. While the high cost of this indigenous type raised eyebrows, Japanese technological prowess ensured it is a capable platform. The air force also boasts Asia's leading airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) capability, in the form of its four Boeing E-767s.

Japanese E-767 AEW&C US Air Force

 US Air Force

An AEW-configured Japanese 767 flew at the USA’s Red Flag exercise

But Tokyo is struggling to retain this edge. The USA's steely resolve to not export the Lockheed F-22 was a blow to its efforts to move the air force further up the capability ladder. Its repeated calls for the stealthy type went unheeded, even as production for the US Air Force wound down and ended. Meanwhile, Japan's large force of 1960s-era McDonnell Douglas/Mitsubishi F-4EJ Kai Phantoms is all but obsolete, and its powerful force of ­F-15Js is ageing. This is particularly vexing for Tokyo in light of the rapid development of Chinese airpower since 2000. Twelve years ago, China's air force comprised thousands of aircraft but, except for a handful of Sukhoi Su-27s, was decades out of date and of dubious combat potential. In the most likely conflict scenarios - over Taiwan or disputed islands in the East China Sea - China's fighter force of the time would have been no match for Japan's air force, and in any such conflict the service would have been aided by the immense power of the US Air Force and US Navy.

The situation has changed radically. China continues to cull older types from its inventory, and has about 400-500 advanced types such as the Su-30, Shenyang J-11 (a locally built version of the Su-27) and Chengdu J-10. It also continues to make advances with key support elements, such as aerial refuelling, which extends power-projection capabilities, and AEW&C. Beijing is also deploying modern warships that would greatly complicate the threat environment facing Japan's air force, and has invested in a large arsenal of short-range ballistic missiles, which threaten Japanese and USAF-run air bases.

NUMBERS GAME

Japan Air Self-Defence force fleet"The biggest challenge facing Japan is the growing fourth-generation-plus aircraft the PLAAF [Peoples' Liberation Army Air Force] is putting out there," says Richard Bitzinger, of the Military Transformations Programme at Singapore's Rajaratnam School of International Studies. "Ten years ago the PLAAF didn't have airpower with the legs they have now. It's not just qualitative, but quantitative. If you look at China's number of fourth-generation fighters it about matches what the JASDF has. They can match the Japanese in terms of overall numbers of advanced fighters." Bitzinger adds that while Japan retains substantial deterrent capability, it will be hard-pressed to keep up as China's airpower rises: "The issue for Japan is how to deal with this. Could they match the Chinese if something gets out of hand? I'm not sure they have the answer."

In January 2011, the Chengdu J-20's maiden flight revealed China's ambition to further enhance the quality of its air force. Although little is known about this type's radar cross section, avionics or intended mission - pure fighter or long-range strike aircraft - the J-20 raised the spectre of China deploying a credible stealth aircraft by 2018. In mid-September, another advanced aircraft appeared at the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation airfield bearing all the characteristics of a stealthy airframe. Whether the type, variously designated the J-21, J-31 or F-60, is a rival programme to the J-20 or will be developed at the same time is impossible to know. Nonetheless, both programmes show how serious China takes air force modernisation. Japan's answer to the J-20 and China's general military development came in December 2011, when it selected the Lockheed F-35A Joint Strike Fighter over the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Eurofighter Typhoon in its F-X competition for 42 aircraft. Tokyo secured the deal in June, when it signed a letter of acceptance for an initial four F-35s and two simulators under its fiscal year 2012 budget.

Tokyo's mid-term defence procurement guidelines suggest it will order an additional eight F-35As before March 2015, but this number could change depending on retirement of the F-4s and "fiscal issues", Japan's ministry of defence says. As with all major defence deals, Tokyo's F-35 decision was calibrated to satisfy a number of interests. The original tender called for an aircraft optimised for air-to-air combat but Japan chose the F-35, primarily designed for ground attack, over the Typhoon, an extremely capable air-to-air platform.

Despite budgetary issues, Tokyo dismissed the Super Hornet, a cost-effective yet highly flexible fighter that will be the mainstay of the US Navy for decades. There was also a vast political dimension to the F-X competition, given Tokyo's historic ties to Washington.

"Japan, arguably, had the opportunity to establish a strategic relationship with Europe using its recent fighter competition," says Douglas Barrie, air warfare analyst with London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. "It was an option it decided not to exercise, instead reinforcing its relationship with the US through the F-35 selection. The original requirement was slanted toward air superiority, whereas the F-35 is fundamentally an air-to-surface platform with a secondary air-to-air capacity." In the end the competition turned largely on stealth, a capability Tokyo would have preferred to have obtained in the form of the F-22. Japan also faced the threat of losing industrial capacity with the closure of its F-2 line in 2011, meaning that for the first time in decades, no fighter was being produced in the country. Not surprisingly, of the 42 F-35s Tokyo will obtain under the F-X requirement, it intends to produce 38 at home. "We are in discussions with the US government and US companies about co-operation with domestic industries and the period required to manufacture various parts, the period required to launch manufacturing, and cost," the defence ministry says. "We are also discussing which parts to start manufacturing, in addition to a final assembly and checkout line. We plan to get a conclusion by the end of this year."

Japanese F-15J US Department of Defense

 US Department of Defense

Japan’s F-15Js are growing aged

However, Bitzinger is sceptical about any industrial benefits Japan will accrue from its F-35 decision: "They already have experience with licence production with the F-4 and F-15, and with the F-35 they will have very minimal participation, probably just licence assembly. They didn't join at the right time, so they really can't get a piece of the pie that the international consortium has developed."

Irrespective of benefits the F-35 will bring, Japan also needs to address modernisation issues with other key types, namely the F-15J and F-2. Taiwan and South Korea, under a similar threat environment to Japan, have made upgrading their F-16s' avionics and radar a high priority. The salient element of these upgrades is the addition of an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, which requires far less maintenance than conventional radars thanks to a lack of moving parts. AESA sets can also interleave air-to-air and air-to-ground search modes, allowing a single aircraft to perform a range of roles that previously required several aircraft. Japan has yet to announce plans to install AESA on its F-2s.

While Japan has undertaken incremental upgrades of its F-15J fleet, industry sources suggest it has yet to start seriously exploring an AESA upgrade for the type. Any such effort would ­involve replacing the aircraft's Raytheon ­APG-63(V1) radar, with candidates to potentially include the same manufacturer's APG-63(V3) or APG-82. The former is deployed in Singapore's fleet of F-15SGs, while the latter is a component of Boeing's F-15 Silent Eagle proposal for South Korea's F-X III competition.

Japanese KC-767 formation Commonwealth of Australia

 US Air Force

Japanese KC-767s fly in formation

North Asia has been peaceful for decades, a strong US presence guaranteeing security and allowing the region to blossom economically - yet the potential for conflict is real. At the time of writing, China and Japan were having another spat over disputed islands in the East China Sea, and North Korea is an ever-present threat. To ensure these foreign policy challenges do not escalate to real threats, Tokyo must continue to invest in the deterrent capabilities of its air force.

JAPAN CONTINUES INDIGENOUS AIRCRAFT TRADITION

Few nations can rival Japan's indigenous aerospace heritage. Japanese industry was responsible for perhaps the most elegant Second World War fighter, the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. In the 1970s, it designed and produced the Mitsubishi F-1 fighter, and in the 1990s the Mitsubishi F-2.

It also developed the Kawasaki C-1 transport. "The Japanese have a lot of national feeling and a sense of pride in developing aircraft," says Siemon Wezeman, an analyst at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. "The export potential, however, is very small given limitations on their exports of military equipment."

Japan's small domestic market and lack of export potential means unit costs of indigenous military aircraft are among the world's highest. Nonetheless, the nation is immersed in two major programmes, the Kawasaki Heavy Industries XP-1 maritime patrol aircraft and the XC-2 military transport. It also continues to invest in the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries ATD-X experimental aircraft programme. The XP-1 is intended to replace Japan's 80-plus Lockheed Martin P-3C Orions. Powered by four Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries F7-10 turbofans, the ground-test vehicle developed rips in 2011, with anomalies found inside the main wing fuel tank and on the fuselage. Japan's defence ministry says the problem areas have been retested and "have sufficient strength", with six aircraft to be deployed to Atsugi naval air base by March 2013.

"In comparison with the P-3C, the P-1 has improved capabilities in various aspects, including detection and identification capability, flight capability, information processing capability and strike capability," it says. "This will enable it to conduct continuous information collecting and warning/surveillance more efficiently."

The ministry says its other major programme, the C-2, is also going well, although the end of development has been postponed by 12 months to financial year 2014. Powered by two General Electric CF6 turbofans, the type will eventually replace the nation's Lockheed C-130Hs and Kawasaki C-1s. The deployment delay is attributed to data gathered from test flights of the first two prototypes. "The strength of the aircraft was calculated again in FY2011 based on the data accumulated through the progress of the tests," says the ministry. "As a result, it was found that some parts require structural reinforcement."

Japan air self defense force F-2 US Air Force

 US Air Force

Japan Air Self-Defence Force F-2

Both programmes have been criticised over limited production runs, with Tokyo likely to buy no more than 40 C-2s and only 65 P-1s. Critics say the maritime patrol aircraft role would have been better filled by the Boeing 737-based P-8A Poseidon, and the transport role by Lockheed's new-generation C-130J. Both of these programmes offer far greater economies of scale. "In procuring [C-2] and [P-1], foreign aircraft did not satisfy the required capability and there was a possibility that foreign aircraft would not meet the required period of introduction," the defence ministry says. "Therefore, Japan decided that it is necessary to domestically develop the aircraft, and not to produce foreign aircraft under license."

But Japan appears to have bitten the bullet when it comes to development costs for fighter aircraft. The ATD-X stealth fighter technology demonstrator has first flight scheduled for 2014 with an indigenously produced engine. But Richard Bitzinger, of Singapore's Rajaratnam School of International Studies, is dubious: "It might fly, but I doubt they'll turn this into a fighter. The cost of this aircraft if they only end up buying 40 or 50 does not make sense from an economic or military perspective. I think they may use ATD-X as a bargaining chip to get co-production and offsets from the Americans [on programmes such as the Lockheed F-35]."

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