MELBOURNE, Australia — Japan is continuing to push its defense-industrial base to grow as the country slowly builds up its self-defense forces to counter China’s growing military.

This year’s Defense News Top 100 list, which ranks the largest defense companies in the world, is host to three Japanese firms, including Subaru Corporation (85th place with $805.5 million in defense revenue), which did not make the previous year’s list.

Other Japanese companies include Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, or MHI, (32nd with $3.788 billion in defense revenue) and Kawasaki Heavy Industries (51st with $2.026 billion in defense revenue). KHI made a return to the list after dropping out of the previous year’s version.

See the 2021 Top 100 list here!

MHI has retained a clear lead as the biggest Japanese defense contractor, despite its defense revenue falling 42 percent, having made $6.57 billion in defense revenue the previous year. However, the global automotive conglomerate brought in $31.465 billion in total revenue.

The company is also collaborating on hypersonic technology research — for both a hypersonic cruise missile and a hypervelocity gliding projectile — with the government’s Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency.

Fighter jet, loyal wingman

The biggest ongoing Japanese defense program is the stealthy F-X fighter the government plans to use as the replacement for its approximately 90-strong fleet of Mitsubishi F-2 fighters. Japan awarded the F-X development contract to MHI in 2020, and has been steadily budgeting for the development program over the past few years.

This included $685.5 million for the overall F-X program; $520 million of that was earmarked for the conceptual and initial engine designs. Funding was also made available to continue research and development of radar technology and mission systems integration for the next-generation fighter.

Japan plans for the production of the first F-X prototype to begin in 2024, with flight tests earmarked to start in 2028 following finalization of the design and production plans. The new fighter is expected to enter service with the Japan Air Self-Defense Force starting around 2035.

The new fighter will be accompanied into service by a “loyal wingman” — an autonomous unmanned aircraft. Japanese newspaper Sankei Shimbun reported in October last year that Japan would begin development of a small-scale test bed this year, with flight testing to validate the technology planned for 2024 and full-scale development beginning as early as 2025, if previous phases are successful.

The Japanese “loyal wingman is expected to be fitted to operate in a manned-unmanned teaming setup with the F-X, carrying a sensor payload that allows it to scout for the F-X and is also capable of carrying air-to-air missiles for air combat,” Sankei Shimbun reported.

Japanese media outlet Nikkei followed up with a report in December that said the development program has three stages: The unmanned aircraft will first be controlled from a ground station typical of current systems. It will then evolve into manned-unmanned teaming with a single manned F-X directing several unmanned aircraft, and then it will eventually become a fully autonomous system.

Subaru Corporation (formerly known as Fuji Heavy Industries) is tasked with developing the remote flight control systems, while MHI is in charge of developing a data link for use between unmanned and manned aircraft.

Aegis ship

Japan’s decision to cancel the planned acquisition and installation of the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system meant it had to quickly seek an alternative to counter the threat of ballistic missiles from North Korea and China. The cancellation was officially blamed on difficulties in developing a safe way for the booster of the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor to separate from the missile without risking the chance that debris would fall onto civilians and local infrastructure.

What the government didn’t highlight is that the deployment of two Aegis Ashore systems was opposed by residents living near the planned locations over safety concerns. It quickly became apparent to officials that the same kind of opposition would manifest regardless of where any systems were to be based.

Japan has since decided to order ships dedicated to the ballistic missile defense mission. The final design of the ships have not been announced, but it’s been reported the government is considering equipping the ships to use the J7.B Aegis system. J7.B is a combination of the SPY-7 solid-state radar selected for Japan’s Aegis Ashore system and the Japanese J7 baseline that is equivalent to the U.S. Baseline 9 Aegis system.

The idea of equipping the ships with the SM-6 missile to enable them to engage hypersonic weapons and cruise missiles has gained traction as China begins to field increasing numbers of both types of weapons.

Given the ships’ dedicated ballistic missile defense mission, it has also been envisaged that they will be deployed close inshore and thus will not need the kind of performance or weaponry found on Japan’s Aegis destroyers, which are also assigned to the fleet defense mission, among other maritime combat roles.

Mogami export

Japan is also continuing low-key efforts to export defense equipment, following its first successful arms export deal since restrictive defense export laws were relaxed by then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in 2014. The move was made to broaden Japan’s defense-industrial base and make it more sustainable.

That export deal, signed in August 2020, was for fixed and mobile air defense radars to the Philippines. Now Japan is targeting Indonesia’s requirement for frigates, for which it is offering the Mogami-class multirole frigate under a proposal that will see four of eight frigates for Indonesia built at shipyards in the latter country.

The Mogami class is a 3,900-ton design being built for the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force. Three ships were already launched, and there are plans for five more. The 130-meter-long frigates are designed for missions ranging from mine countermeasures, surface and subsurface warfare, and they can deploy unmanned surface and underwater vehicles.

Indonesia recently announced it will acquire the Italian FREMM frigate from Fincantieri, but it’s unclear if Indonesia would buy the Mogami class under a different program since the Japanese ships are vastly different in size and capabilities from the Italian design.

Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.

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