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F-X Support Fighter

The F-X is a requirement for a new fighter initially slated to enter service early in the post-2010 decade. This might have involved 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.

Japan received its first Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter briefing in 2004. By 2008 the Defense Ministry was having a hard time determining the next-generation mainstay fighter (FX) for the Air Self-Defense Force. Although the ASDF craved for the state-of-the-art stealth fighter F-22A, its procurement seemed difficult, as the U.S. Congress does not allow its exports for security reasons. While the F-35 and Europe's Eurofighter were rivals, they both lacked decisive factors. The protraction of coordination was inevitable. The FX is to replace some 90 F-4 fighters. The ministry planned to introduce about 50 FX fighter jets for two air squadrons. There are six candidate models: the United States' F-22A, F-35, F-15FX, and FA-18E/F, Europe's Eurofighter and France's Rafale.

The US Defense Department's decision in early 2009 to end placing orders for the F-22 Raptor fighter jet forced Japan's Defense Ministry and the Self-Defense Forces to give up their plan to introduce the state-of-the-art stealth fighte. The scheduled procurement of the FX would be delayed further, having an impact on a review of the country's air defense strategy as a result. In addition to the F-22, the Defense Ministry was checking the performance of the F-15FX and the FA-18 of the United States; the F-35 of the United States, Britain and other countries; the Eurofighter of four European countries, including Britain and Germany; and the Rafale of France.

By 2009 Tokyo considered the F-35 the best candidate to replace F-4 fighters then used by the Air Self-Defense Force. It hoped to make its selection by the fall of 2010, but as of year's end no decision had been announced. As of early 2010 the government appeared likely to incorporate the plan to acquire the F-35 in new defense policy guidelines and the medium-term defense buildup plan to be adopted in December 2010. The new government decided in October 2009 to delay its adoption by one year to allow more time to reflect the policies of the Democratic Party of Japan and its coalition partners.

The purchase is part of a wider military build up in which the Defence Ministry has sought funds to purchase around 40 F-35 fighter jets which will become the future mainstay of the nation's air force. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, was projected to cost around $90 million (nine billion yen) and was being developed by the United States, with Britain and Australia as founding partners.

In December 2009 it was reported that Tokyo and Washington were contemplating Japanese participation in a multinational project to develop the F-35 stealth fighter. Tokyo's participation would be limited to developing components to be provided exclusively to the Air Self-Defense Force so as not to conflict with Japan's principles of banning exports of weapons and arms technology. Japan may rethink selecting the US-built F-35 as its new mainstay fighter, given the high cost of the aircraft. Obama administration officials told a congressional panel in March 2010 that the F-35 was likely to cost $95 million apiece, nearly double the initial estimate. In 2001, the F-35 was given a price tag of around $50 million, but the cost has risen to an estimated $80 million to $95 million.

Japanese had not previously been partners in the F-35 project. The Japanese were set to purchase the AV-8 Harriers in 1989, but they did not do so, and were initially not partners with the international consortium building the JSF. The British and USMC STOVL (short takeoff and vertical landing) version of the JSF could be of great interest to the Japanese for use on their new 16DDH and 22DDH carrier-like "helicopter destroyers", but the Japanese Defense Agency had not taken that position.

The most notable aspect of the F-X program is that it probably entailed returning to the low-risk, high-budget seen in pre-F-2 Japanese fighter programs, which involved license production of US designs. Before the F-2, for example, Mitsubishi built 199 Boeing F-15s at a unit cost of around $100 million. Before that, Mitsu-bishi built 125 McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms.

Some elements in the JASDF favored acquisition of the F-22, the most expensive and capable choice. While the US would agree to limited industrial cooperation, there is no prospect of outright license production for this aircraft. If the F-22 were selected, Japanese industry's share of the procurement revenue would be rather limited. The loss of its fighter franchise would seriously impact Japanese aircraft industry, since it has historically been the backbone of its work.

Despite the setbacks on the military side, Japan's commercial aviation industry had made some wise partnership choices. The country's three major aviation companies - Kawasaki, Mitsubishi, and Fuji Heavy Industries - have a 21% share of Boeing's 777 airframe, and 35% of Boeing's 787 airframe. The first is well on the way becoming the second most successful widebody of all time (after the 747); while the later had the most successful commercial launch of any widebody to date.

It is also notable that F-X will not involve significant technology development work. The F-2 was designed to give Japanese industry a boost in platform design and integration, but this capability went nowhere. 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 Japanese MOD was looking at F-X procurement not just from the perspective of replacing the aging F-4 squadrons, but also with a view to replacing Japan's F-15s and countering the growing multilayered China threat. This could lead to fewer resources for the F-X and more for other assets, such as submarines for instance, depending on Japan's assessment of the threat. Domestic industrial participation will also be a factor, as Japan's indigenous F-2 line will soon be shut down, leaving Japan with no domestic fighter production program. MOD's assessment as of 2010 was that, if the F-35 was selected, there would be no room for Japanese industrial participation. Moreover, MOD would also not be able to purchase indigenously produced missiles for the F-35.

The Eurofighter Typhoon consortium had aggressively courted Tokyo. The group promised to give extensive work to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. A few years ago, the notion of Japan buying a front-line combat aircraft from a non-United States supplier would havebeen laughable; but that is no longer the case.




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