With the Air Self-Defense Force’s F-2 aircraft due to be retired in the mid-2030s, Japan has begun to examine potential replacement fighter jets.
The government has set five criteria for the selection — performance, capability for long-term use through future modifications, the ability to carry out its own modifications, cost and contributions to domestic industry, according to Defense Ministry officials.
Although the date for choosing the successor aircraft has yet to be decided, a broad direction for the choice may be included in the new National Defense Program Guidelines that are due to be adopted late this year.
Costs may be reduced through joint development with other nations and industry giants from countries such as the U.S. and the U.K. have proposed development plans based on existing aircraft.
Lockheed Martin Corp. proposed a plan to add electronic devices from the F-35, its latest stealth fighter, to the F-22 stealth planes that are solely owned by the U.S.
The potential introduction of such hybrid aircraft may help provide some input to the Japanese defense industry, but concerns remain that the project may lead to higher costs. Japan had previously attempted to import the F-22s but failed due to opposition from U.S. lawmakers and others wishing to forestall technology outflows.
Lockheed Martin’s proposal would enable Japan to gain access to the secret U.S. technology. Negotiations on the share of Japan’s participation in production and technology transfers from the United States will draw strong attention because the Japanese defense industry will likely be affected if the share is low and they are unable to conduct modifications without technology transfers.
The cost of procurement will also affect Tokyo’s decision because outlays per plane are seen exceeding ¥20 billion.
The development of a totally new fighter jet is another option. In July, Britain announced a plan to develop a new stealth fighter called “Tempest,” and is believed to have sounded out Japan about cooperating.
U.S. President Donald Trump may become a key factor in the selection of the successor plane for the F-2 as he is pushing Japan to sharply increase its purchases of U.S.-made defense equipment. Some Defense Ministry officials say Japan should buy the latest U.S. fighter aircraft to avoid the cost of domestic or joint development.
The F-1 aircraft, in use by the ASDF from 1977 until 2006, was the only fighter jet to have been solely produced by Japan. Its F-2 successor, which began deployment in 2000, was developed jointly with the United States against a backdrop of bilateral trade friction. Tokyo had originally sought to develop the aircraft on its own. There are domestic calls, therefore, for the independent development and production of the F-2’s successor.
Advocates stress that this option would enable the Japanese defense industry to improve its technology, warning that Japan may lose its infrastructure for the development and production of fighter aircraft if it shuns domestic production for too long.
Given the time and cost required for domestic development, however, skeptics point out that the project would not be completed in time for the retirement of the F-2.
An official at the ministry’s Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency, which developed the X-2 prototype stealth fighter, said, “Domestic development would not necessarily produce the best performance and involves risks in terms of cost.”
“But we have accumulated technologies for the production of the next-generation fighter jet,” the official added.