The new-generation fighter jet is set to challenge China’s J-20 aircraft fighter and will replace the Mitsubishi F-2 fighter jet (based on the American F-16 Fighting Falcon) currently in service with the Japanese Air Force. The unnamed stealth fighter is slated to enter series production by 2031 and is said to be stealthy and interoperable with the US military.
The Japanese Air Force’s new jet fighter is designed for air-to-air combat to maintain aerial superiority over North Korean and Chinese aircraft. Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has proposed a timeline for development and manufacture of its new fighter, selecting a prime contractor for airframe and engine design by October 2020, and construction of the first aircraft by 2024. Initial flight tests would begin by 2028, followed by full-scale production by 2031.
The new fighter jet is scheduled to be officially inducted into the Japanese Air Force (Japan Air Self Defense Force) in 2035.
The Japanese Air Force had initially planned to replace its fleet of 200+ F-15J Eagle fighter jets with the technically advanced Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. These plans were stymied with a U.S. Congress law prohibiting export of the aircraft due to patented technology used on the F-22 and fears of it being reverse engineered abroad.
Japan has decided to continue service with approximately 90 Mitsubishi Heavy Industry F-2 fighter jets and will purchase 147 F-35 joint strikers, including 42 short-takeoff-vertical-landing F-35B variants to augment their fleet. The F-35B variants will be accommodated on the refurbished Izumo-class multipurpose anti-submarine and helicopter destroyer. The Mitsubishi F-2 fighter jet was designed as a larger, more robust version of the 1990s developed F-16. The new fighter jet for Japan will replace the ageing Mitsubishi F-2 which will be considered outdated and phased-out by the 2030s.
Over the past decade, Japan has carried out extensive research and development on stealth technology and materials, active electronic scanning radars, and powerful afterburning turbofan powerplants.
The Japanese Government has not revealed how many aircraft they will ultimately produce or if they will be offered for export on the international market. However, given the extreme cost of developing and manufacturing an advanced fighter jet, Japan will most likely sell as many aircraft overseas as possible.
Japan faces military pressure from its neighbours Russia, China and North Korea in part due to territorial disputes. Moscow and Beijing regularly execute a show of force in Japanese Airspace with advanced warplanes. Although North Korea has an ageing and obsolete air force, it is a nuclear-armed state and poses a threat to Japan’s security.
Japan’s ambitious plans for a new fighter jet are supported with the ATD-X technology demonstrator it flew between 2016 and 2018, and flight test data will be used to refine capabilities of the new aircraft. They will also receive assistance from the U.K. for development of the jet’s turbine engine. The scheduled timeline and foreign assistance should provide a development boost for a technologically advanced fighter jet for Japan.