Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of F-35 jets that Japan plans to operate. That amount has been updated to 147.
MELBOURNE, Australia — Japan has created a timeline for the development and fielding of its locally made next-generation fighter jet, with serial production set to start at the beginning of the next decade.
The Japanese Ministry of Defense presented the draft development plan for the fighter program to a group of lawmakers from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Tuesday, which showed that full-scale production is due to begin in 2031.
The ministry added that the prime contractor for the program will be selected by early next year, although it could happen as soon as October 2020. This is to allow for the basic design for the airframe and engine to be launched before the end of the current Japanese fiscal year, which ends March 31, 2021.
The next step would be the production of the first fighter prototype, which is planned to begin in 2024, with flight tests earmarked to start in 2028 following finalization of the design and production plans.
The new fighter is slated to replace about 90 Mitsubishi Heavy Industries F-2 fighters, which are due to be phased out in the mid-2030s, as its replacement is to be formally introduced into service in 2035. Japan previously said the new fighter will be stealthy and interoperable with the U.S. military.
Japan has researched and developed fighter technology over the past decade, including work on stealth designs and materials, active electronically scanned array radars, and afterburning turbofan engines.
In addition, the U.S. ally also conducted a series of test flights of a locally designed and built fighter technology demonstrator between 2016 and 2018 in order to validate its work. The country used the data gleaned from the test program to further refine its indigenous capabilities.
Despite these efforts, the country is still the largest customer of the American Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jet, with plans to eventually operate 147 F-35s, including 42 of the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing F-35B variant. These will be used to equip the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s anti-submarine helicopter destroyer Izumo, which is being refurbished to accommodate F-35B operations.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News. He wrote his first defense-related magazine article in 1998 before pursuing an aerospace engineering degree at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia. Following a stint in engineering, he became a freelance defense reporter in 2013 and has written for several media outlets.