Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has been confirmed as the producer of Japan’s next-gen fighter jet.
– In line with expectations, Japan’s Ministry of Defence has selected Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to produce its first indigenous fighter to replace existing systems
– Strategic competition in Asia and domestic industry struggles with the COVID-19 downturn have generated the political will to spend big on defence
– Little about the fighter and its capabilities is known at this point, but if it follows current trends, it will likely come in a small number of variants designed to achieve air superiority and strike at supporting craft
STEADILY PUSHING FORWARD
On October 31, Japan’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) announced that it had signed a contract with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) to build the country’s new sixth-gen fighter. This is significant, if not unexpected, news for both Japan and MHI — previous estimates of the contract were valued at $40 billion. Whilst a total sum hasn’t been confirmed, the MoD is seeking 58.7 billion Yen ($556 million) for the 2021 budget to go towards the research and development costs of the platform.
The new fighter, known as the F-X, picks up on previous attempts by Japan to produce an indigenous fighter platform that can eventually replace aging systems like the F-2 and current cutting-edge fighters like the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, which belong to the fifth-generation or “fifth-gen” of aircraft. To this end, the F-X program aims to deliver a sixth-gen fighter, surpassing the stealth, manoeuvrability, and strike capabilities of the previous generations. This puts Japan among only a handful of powers working on post-fifth-gen systems, including China, Russia, the UK and the US.
BACK IN THE PILOT’S SEAT
The MoD’s decision to back MHI looks fairly straight-cut. MHI is a well-established domestic company carrying on a long defence manufacturing tradition that includes the iconic Mitsubishi ‘Zero’, a naval fighter that was crucial to Japan’s early victories and rapid expansion across the Pacific during WWII. Later in the century, MHI was engaged in the joint development and production of the F-2 ‘Viper Zero’ alongside the US firm Lockheed Martin, and in 2016 MHI launched the X-2 Shinshin. It is this depth of experience coupled with the fact that MHI is Japan’s largest defence contractor that likely led to the MoD’s decision.
The injection of funds via a long-term government defence contract will also be a welcome relief for MHI. The company is currently staring down its worst financial losses in nearly two decades and the F-X contract will help Japan protect one of its key civilian and defence manufacturers from the economic shock of the COVID-19 downturn. Furthermore, backing MHI to develop a sixth-gen fighter is undoubtedly part of Japan’s endeavours to expand its flailing arms export industry that hasn’t seen much success since major legislative changes took place half a decade ago.
Apart from propping up the domestic industry and expanding its arms export capacity, Japan’s decision to invest so heavily in MHI and an indigenous sixth-gen fighter is probably linked to current anxieties around Beijing’s growing air capabilities. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force recently announced that it was moving its new J-20B into mass production. Nicknamed the ‘Mighty Dragon,’ the J-20B is a multirole, fifth-gen fighter that Beijing hopes can contest the air superiority of the US and its allies. Developing a sixth-gen fighter that can be produced at home will help Tokyo maintain its defensive posture against an increasingly assertive CCP eyeing disputed territories in the East Sea/Sea of Japan. This drive to maintain its capabilities against the perceived threat of Beijing can also be seen in Tokyo’s planned acquisition of 147 F-35s, including 42 F-35Bs that can utilise vertical take-off and landing to operate from modified Japanese helicopter destroyers.
A NEW ZERO?
Despite having announced MHI as the developer, there are still important decisions that need to be made by Japan in the near future. Requests for Information about supporting roles have gone out and some of the world’s biggest players in defence have responded, including Lockheed Martin and Boeing, which are keen to play in the F-X’s development. The next steps will see the formation of international partnerships that will draw on the extensive resources and experience of larger firms and make effective interoperability between Japan and her allies more viable. Looking at recent history and previous partnerships between the firms, it is highly likely that Tokyo will select Lockheed Martin to play a significant part in the design and development of the F-X. According to Lockheed Martin, this partnership would help decrease the costs while maintaining “indigenous design and sovereignty” over the project. Of course, this doesn’t rule out Boeing playing a role, but an MHI-Lockheed Martin partnership is likely to form the core of the project.
Questions remain over the role and capabilities of the sixth-gen F-X. What is likely though is that the F-X will follow other modern fighter families and come as a base platform with multiple variants. These variants are likely to fall into three categories: a strike interceptor, an air-superiority fighter and a hybrid, multi-role fighter. However, all of these will rely on advanced stealth capabilities and sensors to perform their roles effectively and would probably see some form of AI-assisted decision making if Tokyo wants to keep up with its East Asia competitors. If Japan succeeds in building its fighter, which it seems likely to do with the help of international firms and increased defence spending, the sixth-gen system will then need to move into mass production before it can effectively displace fifth-gen systems.
Whether Tokyo actualises this is hard to say at this point. Security concerns and political expediency may dictate the purchase of more US-built systems and by then the sixth-gen system may simply be outdated. Lacking foresight and with few recent examples of peer-competitors engaged in direct military conflict to drawn lessons from, the decision to move an expensive system into mass production may not favour the circumstances of the future combat environment. Furthermore, the ‘generation’ model of development may be supplanted by a process of continual, incremental upgrading of systems that factor in the rapidity of technological change.
Having laid out these potential issues, it is unclear whether Tokyo will be able to challenge Beijing in the skies of the future. The time necessary for development and production means that we are unlikely to see the F-X in service before the end of the next decade, bringing the issue of technological change sharply into focus. However, the F-35 will be ready to go well before that, and considering that platform’s current dominance — and the production woes of indigenous Chinese systems — Japan should be able to maintain a capability edge in the skies until the F-X comes into play.
Should the F-X be a success, perceptions of Japanese defence are likely to see a paradigm shift with regards to Tokyo’s warfighting and manufacturing capability.
Josh is the Deputy Chief Editor and Analyst with the Analysis division. His key interests include war-fighting technologies and strategic policy.