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​Tokyo eyes multiple routes for new fighter jet

Japan’s Acquisition, Technology, & Logistics Agency (ATLA) continues to weigh ideas for a futuristic fighter to replace the nation’s Mitsubishi F-2 aircraft.

“We have been doing the RFI process continuously, and our questions have been changing,” says an official familiar with the programme to develop a new aircraft, likely to be designated F-3.

He declined to comment on a story from Reuters, citing anonymous sources, that Lockheed Martin wants to offer a hybrid of its F-22 and F-35 for the long-term Japanese requirement.

The Reuters report quoted one source as saying that the hybrid jet would be “superior to both of them.”

The official, however, said that a number of proposals are being weighed, noting that Japan and Great Britain also have a joint study to look at “potential opportunities for the future fighter programme.”

Tokyo has been exploring a new fighter in earnest for several years. Options include developing an all-new fighter indigenously, collaborating with a foreign partner for a new aircraft, or buying or upgrading an existing type.

Developing an aircraft based on a US fighter not entirely without precedent, as the locally made F-2 is largely based on the F-16. Designed to carry a larger payload especially in an anti-shipping configuration, the F-2 has a 25% greater wing area than the F-16, and other modifications such as greater use of composites.

Unfortunately, the F-2 was so expensive that Tokyo only obtained 94 examples of planned acquisition of 144. An aircraft that blended the attributes of the F-35 with those of the F-22 would effectively be a new aircraft, with great potential for cost overruns.

Tokyo wanted to obtain the F-22, but in 1998 the US Congress blocked the sale and licensing of the jet overseas. A downgraded export variant seemed briefly possible in 2006, but the USA had concerns about Tokyo’s ability to keep technology following a 2002 leak of data concerning the Aegis combat system.

While Mitsubishi is license producing 42 F-35s in Nagoya, it is not clear how far the US government will go to provide the technology transfer necessary were it to jointly develop a hybrid of the F-22 and F-35.

Meanwhile, the official confirms that work with the X-2 technology demonstrator aircraft has ended after a total of 34 flights. Originally the programme had envisaged up to 50 flights.

“We’ve finished the testing that we planned,” he says. “Nothing is determined about the X-2’s future. We may do more testing.”

The aircraft remains at Gifu air base. Originally designed ATDX, it formed part of Tokyo’s efforts to jump start its industrial base and explore technologies necessary for stealthy fifth- or sixth-generation aircraft. The effort comprises 15 separate programmes investigating specific technologies such as weapons bays, sensors, data links, and other areas deemed necessary for advanced fighter aircraft.

The X-2 programme was also seen as a way for the country’s older aircraft engineers to pass knowledge on to a younger generation.

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