Its Official: A Foreign Company Will Help Mitsubishi Build Japans Next Fighter – The Drive
Among the avionics specified for study are conformal radar antennas, electronic support measures, and electronic countermeasures systems, as well as an infrared search and track system. Intriguingly, reference has also been made to a “self-repairing flight control capability.” This suggests a system to automatically detect failures or battle damage and activate the remaining control surfaces, including possibly the aircraft’s thrust vectoring nozzles, to keep the aircraft under control.
Before today’s announcement, it had been confirmed that Japan would follow one of three paths to field a new fighter: developing an aircraft entirely domestically, a joint venture with the help of foreign partners, or acquiring an off-the-shelf foreign fighter. Another, more radical proposal envisaged an unmanned fighter as a replacement for the F-2 fleet. The drone fighter proposal was reportedly considered as a cost-saving measure and then dropped earlier this year, which you can read about more in this past War Zone piece.
Choosing the second option reflected a pragmatic approach, which will hopefully secure technological support and expertise from a partner with experience in the field while maintaining the domestic defense industry. This latter point might be of particular importance for MHI’s aircraft-building division. The company announced on the same day that it is suspending production of its SpaceJet commercial jetliner as a result of uncertainties in the sector stemming from the coronavirus pandemic. More generally, Japan will be looking to secure significant technology transfer gains to help boost the local industry, and this will likely play a key role in the choice of partner.
According to the Japanese Ministry of Defense, a decision on the foreign partner for the fighter project will be made before the end of this year. Possible candidates include Lockheed Martin in the United States and BAE Systems in the United Kingdom, which currently builds Typhoon multirole fighters for export as part of the multinational Eurofighter consortium. Other U.S. companies that have previously shown an interest in joining the project include Boeing and Northrop Grumman.
Reports in the Japanese media indicate that sharing of stealth technology will be an important requirement of the foreign partner, which might provide an edge for Lockheed Martin. Not only does it have vast experience in producing radar-defeating combat jets but also has an established relationship providing F-35s for Japan and working with MHI to produce them. Lockheed Martin and MHI have partnered on the Final Assembly and Check-Out (FACO) facility for the JASDF’s F-35A variant in Nagoya, Japan.
It’s notable too that Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor was once Japan’s first choice as a future fighter, but a ban on its export issued by the U.S. Congress prevented its acquisition even by one of America’s closest allies. Once the Raptor avenue was closed off, Japan also reportedly requested details from Lockheed Martin of a potential F-22/F-35 hybrid. Although Japanese officials seemed to rule out this design earlier this year, and refocus on a truly indigenous product, such a proposal could re-emerge as a contender to meet the F-3 requirement.
Another factor that could play a role in selecting a partner is Japan’s burgeoning defense relationship with the United Kingdom, one of the core partner nations in the Eurofighter multinational industry effort, which involves British companies including BAE Systems jet engine maker Rolls-Royce. The United Kingdom is now also working on the Tempest future fighter, with input from Italy and Sweden. There has been discussion in the past about Japan becoming another potential Tempest partner, and Tokyo’s aim to get a new fighter into service by 2035 might tally nicely with the United Kingdom’s plans to field the Tempest as a Typhoon successor in this timeframe.
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