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When Will Japan's Prototype Fighter Fly?

Aug. 16, 2014 - 03:58PM   |  
JASDF F-2 fighters arrive for Cope North Guam 2009
Homegrown Plane: Japan reportedly plans to test fly its next-generation indigenous fighter — its first locally built fighter since the F-2, here — in January. (Airman 1st Class Courtney Witt/ / US Air Force)
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WASHINGTON AND TOKYO — When will Japan’s ATD-X indigenous stealth fighter prototype make its first flight? Hard to tell.

The consortium that is developing the jet is planning a test flight for January, according to an Aug. 12 report in the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper. But the following day, a spokesman for Japan’s Defense Ministry told IHS Janes that the organization, led by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, has “not firmed up” when the first flight will occur.

The Mainichi Shimbun report, which did not cite sources, said the jet’s first flight would be followed by about two years of Defense Ministry testing. Tokyo would decide whether to buy the plane by early 2019, it said. The report also said that about ¥39.2 billion ($384 million) has been spent on the ATD-X so far.

Given Japan’s traditional security alliance with the US, some question whether the country will really shell out the funds to develop a boutique jet fleet.

“So far, it’s just a demonstrator, and it’s far from clear that the country will provide the tens of billions of dollars needed to create a producible fighter,” said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group. “They have the technology, or they can buy it. It’s just a question of resources.”

The ATD-X is designed to fill the role of the US F-22, which shut down production before any potential international partners could buy it. Japan has signed on as a foreign military sales customer for the American-led F-35 joint strike fighter, the next-generation fighter of choice for the US Air Force, Marines and Navy and 10 other countries.

As F-35 executives are quick to point out, the per-plane price of a fighter jet depends heavily on its total production run. Any Japanese indigenous fighter would be procured in small quantities — unless a foreign partner can be found. That would have been unthinkable a year ago, but Japan’s conservative government is expanding the country’s military influence, and recently relaxed a self-imposed ban on weapons exports.

Last month, Tokyo loosened the bonds on Japan’s powerful military. In a controversial shift for the officially pacifist country, the government declared its right to go into battle to defend allies.

“Homegrown fighters were never a good idea, but with the US abandoning most segments of the market except the high end, there might be space for a new competitor,” Aboulafia said. “It really depends on the price point, because the F-16, which will exit in a few years, enjoys a sweet spot in the market.

“If they do develop a new fighter, it might be good for the Japan market, and not many other places,” Aboulafia said. “After all, the last time they developed a fighter [the F-2], they produced an ‘F-16’ with a tripled price tag. If they had permitted its export, that wouldn’t have made much of a difference.”

Japan recently strengthened ties with Australia, but that country is also a partner on the F-35. One potential customer is Taiwan, whose quest for the F-35 has so far been thwarted by Washington’s security concerns and disinclination to strain relations with China.

But Tokyo might be happy to tweak Beijing by selling jets to Taipei. Chinese government ships and planes have been seen off a set of disputed islands dozens of times since Japan nationalized some of the archipelago nearly two years ago. Japan said last month that its military scrambled fighter jets a record 340 times in the three months to June in response to feared intrusions on its airspace.

Over the past few years, the island nation has been taking a greater interest in projecting regional power. Air Force Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, commander of US Pacific Air Forces, said in a February interview that Japan is more aware of the need to work with partners.

“For a long time, [Japan was] the second-largest economy in the world. They moved to No. 3 behind China,” he said. “And some of those things make them probably more attuned to the interdependency that exists.

“I think they understand that security still building in the Asian Pacific is paramount to them in Northeast Asia,” Carlisle said. “So they are becoming much more regionally engaged in maintaining security and stability in Asia-Pacific. And as part of that, that also leads to more work towards general outfit ability and integration and working in multilateral environments.” ■


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