MELBOURNE, Australia — Japan’s and South Korea’s aspirations for homegrown fighter jets have run into headwinds, even though both are set to press on with their respective projects.
The two Asian nations are customers of the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, but are keen to develop their indigenous fighter jet programs to develop their industrial base and boost local aerospace industries.
An FMS shift in Japan
Japan originally planned to develop its indigenous fighter, tentatively designated the F-3, and introduce it into service by the early 2030s. However, reports from late 2017 indicate that the decision on whether to go ahead with the program will be pushed back to 2018.
These reports came as Japan’s Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency announced that the flight test program of the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries X-2 Advanced Technology Demonstrator X, or ATD-X, experimental aircraft will conclude in March 2018.
The ATD-X was developed by the Japanese Ministry of Defense’s Technical Research and Development Institute for research purposes and to test advanced stealth fighter technologies. The aircraft is powered by a pair of Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries XF5 low-bypass turbofan engines, each producing more than 11,000 pounds of thrust.
The ATD-X made its first flight in 2016 and is being flown from the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s Air Development and Test Wing at Gifu Air Base, having completed 34 of 50 planned test flights in November 2017.
Despite uncertainty about the F-3’s future, development of the program continues, with concept designs being refined. Japan is keen to restart indigenous fighter development and manufacturing, which ended in 2011 when the last Mitsubishi F-2 fighter was delivered to the Japan Air Self-Defense Force and the decision was made to acquire the F-35A with local industry participating in the final assembly of JASDF’s F-35s.
This has disappointed local industry, which had hoped to secure component manufacturing contracts in the F-35 program to retain industrial capabilities. Since the 1970s, Japan had pursued a policy of developing a domestic, autonomous defense industrial base that can meet its defense needs through licensing agreements and other methods of technology transfer and acquisition.
However, Japan’s uncertain security situation, with North Korea’s continuing ballistic missile and nuclear weapons program as well as China’s rising military might, means Japan’s defense needs have become more urgent. Priorities are shifting onto programs with shorter entry-into-service dates.
One consequence of this shift is that Japan has significantly increased the amount of defense equipment acquired via the U.S. government’s Foreign Military Sales program, with Japan allocating $4.43 billion for FMS acquisitions in its fiscal 2016 budget compared to just $392 million in FY2011.
That figure is set to grow even higher in the coming years. More F-35s, Boeing KC-46A tankers, Lockheed Martin Aegis Ashore systems and other ballistic missile defense-related acquisitions are planned.
According to Corey Wallace, a postdoctoral fellow in the Graduate School of East Asian Studies at Freie Universitat in Berlin, Germany, this trend toward FMS is understandable. Still, he believes the trend should eventually be reversed because local defense companies are hurt when they lose out on contracts and capabilities. The trend, he added, also contributes to underfunding of other defense priorities as well as research and development.
South Korea‘s partnership problem
Meanwhile, South Korea is developing the KF-X multirole fighter with Indonesia. Korea Aerospace Industries is the program’s primary contractor, and Indonesia’s government-owned PT Dirgantara Indonesia is the project partner.
South Korea will be the majority partner in the program, while Indonesia will contribute 20 percent of the project cost in return for one prototype, design participation, technical data and production sharing, with the option to procure 50 aircraft at a later date.
The overall development program is estimated to cost $8 billion, with the first prototype scheduled to roll out in 2022 and deliveries due to begin in 2026.
The KF-X is a twin-engine, twin-tail, low-observable design. General Electric has been picked to supply the F414 turbofan engine ― which currently powers the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet ― for the KF-X. South Korea’s Hanwha will supply an infrared search and track system, an active electronically scanned array radar, and a targeting pod.
South Korea plans to integrate the European Meteor and IRIS-T air-to-air missiles on the KF-X.
However, reports have emerged that Indonesia has fallen behind in its share of program payments. A South Korean politician revealed in November 2017 that a payment of $124.5 million that was due the month before had not been paid. Recently, Indonesian defense officials told local media that Indonesia still owes $140 million to South Korea for its share in the program.
The payment delay is a consequence of the continuing budget crunch in Indonesia, which has in turn led to weak growth for the country’s defense budget, with its budget increasing by 1.2 percent in 2017 following a cut the year before.
Sources in Indonesia tell Defense News that the Southeast Asian country is renegotiating its financial position in the program, including the repayment of its contribution shortfall.
Despite this news ― and recent reports that Indonesia has sought information on pricing for new fighters including the Lockheed Martin F-16 and the Eurofighter Typhoon ― Indonesia remains keen on participating in the KF-X program, although the scope of its involvement may be reduced as a result.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.