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Japanese Fighter Aircraft


In World War II, both the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy also had outstanding aircraft. The hallmark of Japanese fighters had always been superb maneuverability. Early biplanes - which had been developed from British and French designs - set the pace. A major and fatal disadvantage of most Japanese fighters was their light armament - usually a pair of .30-caliber machine guns - and lack of armor, as well as their great flammability. The Japanese Mitsubishi Zero probably is the best-remembered Japanese fighter in this country because of the role it played in the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

At the end of World War II, the United States and the other occupying powers moved to ensure that Japan had no defense industry. They sought to dismantle the remaining Japanese aircraft and shipbuilding industries to prevent the country from becoming a threat to the region again. The Korean War, however, pushed the United States to reconsider its attitude toward Japanese rearmament.

Japanese forces need only concern themselves with self-defense in the most local sense, that is, defense of the Home Islands. In general, Japanese weapons show little evidence of being superior to foreign systems in terms of their performance. The Japanese F-1 fighter of the 1960s, for example, despite high costs, showed no performance advantage over the F-104 or the F-4, both of which entered the Air Self Defense Force (ASDF) at approximately the same time as the F-1, or the Anglo-French Jaguar, upon which the F-1 is modeled.

Higher weapons costs are accepted because of the incentives under which the Japanese industry and the overall defense structure are operating. The Japanese rank production of cutting-edge military equipment, with a preponderance of militarily unique technologies, relatively lower than does the United States. The primary Japanese interest, instead, is the development of dual-use technologies, particularly those that might have great financial rewards as well as potential military applications. The F-1 gave the Japanese at least some experience in the design of an aircraft, particularly systems integration. The American security security guarantee has allowed the Japanese to focus on the development of the commercial aspect of advanced product and process technologies, particularly their efficient production, rather than on the military aspects. MITI, for example, places much greater emphasis on developing superior technologies than on building better weapons.

Ever since the late 1970's, U.S. aircraft manufacturers tried to market the F-15, F-16, and F/A-18 as off-the-shelf or licensed production replacements for Japan's aging F-1. As is the case with most modern, industrialized nations, Japan instead made a decision to develop and produce its own fighter. It had two primary goals in doing so. First, to be as self-sufficient as feasible in its own national defense, and second to benefit economically from the employment and skill levels inherent in long-running production lines. Japan's desire to produce its own fighter aircraft went beyond economic and security considerations. It was a matter of national pride and symbolized the state of a country's industrial capability. This trend was evident in many other industrialized states, and at one time seemed certain to lead Japan to develop and produce a fighter aircraft independently.

However, in the mid-1980's -- when it appeared certain that Japan had decided to develop and produce its own replacement fighter support aircraft [FSX] -- United States industry appealed to the Secretaries of Commerce, State, and Defense for assistance. The Defense Department responded by redoubling its efforts to influence Japan to consider a United States aircraft or at least enter into a co-development agreement using United States aircraft as a base model.

This effort by the Defense Department was in keeping with the Nunn-Quayle-Warner amendments contained in the Fiscal Year 1986 Defense Authorization Act which allowed for co-development projects with NATO allies in which each side shared equitably in financing the development work. This legislation was later extended to other friendly countries, including Israel, Egypt, Japan, Korea, and Australia. After considerable high level talks between the Defense Department and the Japan Defense Agency, Japan agreed to study the F-15, F-16, and the F-18 as a basis of codevelopment. In October 1987 Japan formally decided to base the FSX on the United States F-16, and to pay all costs associated with its development.

The skills and technologies involved in such high-technology areas as composite materials and aerospace are considered to be of such potential usefulness to the overall Japanese economy, and particularly the civilian industry, that they must be developed domestically. Development of a domestic aerospace industry, for example, has long been a Japanese objective. The FS-X was originally conceived as a way to facilitate this development, with particular emphasis on systems-integration capabilities. Foreign components would be used only after Japanese sources had been exhausted. The originally planned aircraft would have been much more expensive than the current design (based on the F-16), but only marginally more capable than modified F-16 fighter aircraft purchased purchased directly from the United States. The acquisition of the relevant skills, however, was believed to be sufficiently important to justify the enormous cost differential.

The F-X, is a requirement for a new fighter to enter service early in the post-2010 decade. This may involve license production at Mitsubishi, replacing F-2 production. Options include later model Boeing F-15s (F-15K equivalents, or better) or Boeing F/A-18E/Fs, Eurofighters, Lockheed Martin F-22s, and a new upgraded version of the F-2. It is notable that F-X will not involve significant technology development work. The next Japanese fighter will not provide support to a fighter design department. The Japanese military aircraft downturn speaks to the desirability of off-the-shelf purchases or workshares in programs with larger production volumes, rather than indigenous solutions.

The F-2 was designed to give Japanese industry a boost in platform design and integration, but this capability went nowhere. By early 2011 Japan was studying options for retiring the 40 year old F-4J fighters without losing combat capability, until the F-35 / F-X fighters are delivered. Two options are either purchasing additional F-2 fighters, or upgrading the F-15 fleet. Production of the F-2, at US$100 million per copy, had been extended beyond the scheduled termination in fiscal 2011.

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Page last modified: 23-07-2011 18:12:53 ZULU