Japan is set to become the fourth country to test-fly its own stealth jet — a move that is likely to increase its military presence in the region.
Air supremacy is crucial for today’s combat and for national defense. Yet after Japan was defeated in World War II, its once superior aerospace industry, famous for the Zero fighter, has lagged behind the United States and other nations in development.
We look at what development of indigenous stealth jets, as well as Japan’s homegrown fighters, means for Japan and the region.
How does stealth technology work?
Stealth technology is a key feature of state-of-the-art fighter aircraft. It makes the aircraft almost invisible on radar. Every aircraft has a so-called radar cross-section of detectability, and the aerospace industry has been working to minimize this profile.
To do this, aircraft are coated with radar-absorbing materials or designed to deflect radar, making them hard to detect. Stealth aircraft thus sport flat surfaces and sharp edges, instead of being rounded, a shape that paints an easier radar profile.
Fighter aircraft are ever-evolving, with each generation incorporating the latest technology. The latest, or fifth-generation, fighter called the F-35 Lightning II has advanced stealth capabilities, integrated avionics, sensor fusion and superior logistics support.
Lockheed Martin, the maker of the Lightning II, said, “advanced materials and other features make the F-35 virtually undetectable to enemy radar.”
An F-35 radar blip is said to be about the size of a small bird.
What other countries have stealth aircraft?
The U.S. has been the leader in stealth jets, with an inventory that includes the Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk, the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and the F-35.
Russia together with India have been developing the PAK-FA or T-50 directly to compete with the F-22 Raptor. And China’s Chengdu J-10B, which has some stealth capabilities, is also in service.
The U.S. is the only country that has used stealth jets in combat.
What kind of stealth jet is Japan developing?
Japan started developing the Advanced Technology Demonstrator, a stealth jet called X-2, in 2009.
It has so far invested some ¥40 billion in its development, according to the Defense Ministry. The X-2 fuselage is developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, while its engines, which have after-burner capability to provide extra thrust to launch from an aircraft carrier, are developed by IHI Corp.
Japan has been conducting test runs of the 14-meter-long demonstrator since earlier this year and it is slated to take its maiden flight later this month or after. After test flights, the aircraft will be delivered to the Defense Ministry, which will gauge its capabilities at the Air Self-Defense Force’s Gifu Air Field.
What is behind Japan’s recent move to develop fighters?
Developing stealth jets is considered crucial, but producing state-of-the art fighters is also key to maintaining air superiority, and keeping the aerospace industry viable.
Japan has wanted to develop a sophisticated indigenous fighter for years. Despite its technological advancement, the country has lagged behind the United States, Russia and European nations in the aerospace-aeronautics sector since the end of World War II.
The first fighter jet Japan developed, the F-1, had limited air-to-air combat capability due to its lack of sufficient weaponry.
Japan’s most recent homegrown fighter, the F-2, lacks stealth capability.
Its design, however, was based on the U.S. General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon. The U.S. had pressured Japan not to develop its own fighter jets.
Mitsubishi Heavy has been building U.S.-designed fighter jets under license, but Japan cannot access critical information via the assembly process because it is kept secret.
But now Japan has embarked on development of a homegrown fighter to replace the F-2, which it plans to retire around 2030. The country will need to decide whether to develop its own fighters, buy those sold by other countries, or jointly develop them by 2018.
Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow and coordinator of the Military Transformations Program at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said Japan’s stealth jet quest was a significant step forward from the F-2.
“This is actually kind of a leap for them in a way, coming out of a relative failure of the F-2 program,” said Bitzinger. “It shows that Japan still wants to be a major player in the global aerospace community.”
How did Japan’s lifting of its arms export ban change the situation?
The F-35 resulted in a bitter experience for Japan, which bought the aircraft to technically replace the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II fleet.
Even though Mitsubishi Heavy can assemble the aircraft, the country cannot participate in the joint development project because in the initial stage the arms export ban was still in place.
The 2014 easing of the ban allows Japan to develop arms with allies and give its defense industry the latest technology. It also enables the industry to potentially sell arms to countries other than those involved in conflicts with Japan or subject to U.N. embargoes, which could help bring down development costs.
Experts say that the chances are slim that Japan would go ahead with development on its own, given the costs. But having the technology makes it easier to participate in the joint project.
“The question is if Japan can develop an engine with much power,” said Yoshitomo Aoki, a journalist who specializes in the aerospace defense industry. “If Japan can come up with . . . notable technology in anything, it would be a ‘souvenir’ that would open the door for the joint development program.”
Will this change the military balance in the region?
Possibly. Experts say that Japan’s potential stealth jet could unnerve China, which is flexing its military muscle in both the East and South China seas.
Beijing is getting more wary that Japan is indirectly trying to keep China in check in the South China Sea by supplying technological support to neighboring nations.
China is now developing the fifth-generation fighter jet Chengdu J-20, which could go into service in five years. Even though experts are skeptical of the quality and capability of Chinese military assets, they say it’s important for Japan to have indigenous fighter jets with stealth capability and powerful engines amid China’s increasing efforts to develop technology.
“If China can develop really advanced stealth jets, China will have the air supremacy,” said Tetsuo Kotani, a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA). “The F-35 can deal with the J-20, but we have to look beyond the J-20. It is about the competition for air supremacy.”