Japan is seeking proposals for a new advanced jet fighter based on an existing Western aircraft, and is seeking American and British cooperation to help kick-start development of the project, three sources have said.
The estimated cost of the program will be around $40 billion (about ¥4.24 trillion), according to the sources.
Japan this month issued a third request for information (RFI) to defense companies seeking proposals for the new aircraft, which has been dubbed the F-3. Unlike the first two requests, the latest went only to foreign companies in the United States and Europe — with a separate, more detailed document delivered to London and Washington, according to the sources who have direct knowledge of the requests.
“Japan expects specific proposals for designs based on existing aircraft,” said one of the sources. The two previous RFIs did not attract any detailed proposals, he added.
The requests for a design based on existing aircraft and the separate documents sent to the British and U.S. governments have not been previously reported.
The sources declined to be identified because they are not authorized to speak to the media.
Existing airframes Japan could use include the F-35 Lightning II stealth jet, built by Lockheed Martin Corp.; Boeing Co.’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet; or the Eurofighter Typhoon, which is manufactured by a European consortium including BAE Systems PLC.
Japan’s last domestically produced jet fighter, the F-2, which entered service in 2000, was built jointly by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. (MHI) and Lockheed Martin based on the U.S. F-16 multirole fighter. As Japan’s leading fighter-maker, MHI — which built the World War Two-era A6M Zero — would anchor the Japanese share of the F-3 project.
“We are considering domestic development, joint development and the possibility of improving existing aircraft performance, but we have not yet come to any decision,” a Ministry of Defense representative said.
Building a domestic next-generation fighter based on a foreign aircraft already in service could save money, but would come at the expense of advanced features like stealthy shaping. Neither the Typhoon nor Super Hornet are designed to be near-invisible to radar.
Lockheed Martin, Boeing and BAE Systems, Britain’s largest defense company, were not immediately available for comment.
Japan’s approaches to the U.S. and U.K. governments come as Washington considers its replacement for the F-22 Raptor. The U.K., which has sought closer security ties to Japan including cooperation on developing other defense equipment, may eventually need a fighter to succeed the Typhoon.
Japan, which is buying the radar-evading F-35 stealth jet to modernize its air defenses in the face of growing Chinese military strength, wants to introduce a separate air superiority fighter in the 2030s to help deter intrusions into its airspace.
Japan has so far struggled to come up with its own design for a new aircraft, raising a question mark over the country’s first jet fighter program since the F-2.
Tokyo will need to begin preliminary talks with Washington soon if it wants to include anything substantial about the F-3 in the new five-year defense equipment plan, which begins in April 2019. Details on that plan will be released at the end of the year, another of the sources said.
Although some defense ministry officials and lawmakers have lobbied for a domestically made aircraft to help sustain the defense companies in Japan that have been hurt by increased spending on U.S. gear, finance officials have questioned whether that is cost effective.
Opting for international cooperation should lower the cost of a new jet by expanding the number of users, spreading the unit cost beyond Japan’s air force.
Mitsubishi Heavy tested a prototype stealth jet in 2016, known as the ATD-X or X-2 Shinshin, which cost the Japanese government $350 million to develop.
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