Japan Developing An ‘Invincible’ Fighter Jet By Merging Capabilities Of Both F-22 Raptor & F-35 Lightning II

Japan is one of the biggest buyers of Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II stealth fighter jets. However, the world’s “most advanced” combat jet has a major shortcoming, prompting Tokyo to expedite its next-generation F-3 or F-X fighter program in the face of growing threats from China.

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The Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) has been strictly enforcing its Air-Defense Identification Zone, intercepting Chinese planes violating its airspace in recent times.

Last July, the US had approved a mammoth deal of 105 F-35 jets, including a combination of F-35A and F-35B. The $23 billion deal will make Japan the largest foreign customer of F-35s and the second largest operator — 147 stealth jets — after the US. 

The US Air Force is the biggest customer of the Lockheed Martin F-35, accounting for 70 percent of the total 2,443 aircraft.

The F-35 program is also the most expensive weapons system in the US’ military history. Japan, however, is concerned about some limitations of the F-35 in terms of its weapon-carrying capacity.

According to Lockheed Martin, the fifth-generation F-35 is a “very low observable stealth, advanced sensors, information fusion, and network connectivity all packaged within in a supersonic, long-range, highly maneuverable fighter”.

Reports indicate that there could be 450 F-35 Joint Strike fighters with the US and its NATO allies in Europe by 2030. Globally, 600 F-35s are operational from approximately 30 locations.

F-35. (via Twitter)

According to Kyodo News Agency, the Japanese Defense Ministry has shifted its focus from reactive mobilization of the aircraft to proactive surveillance.

Furthermore, it perceives the F-35B as a crucial component of its defense strategy for isolated islands, including the JASDF base of Nyutabaru on the east coast of the island of Kyushu owing to its short-takeoff and vertical-landing capabilities.

Japan’s Izumo-class helicopter-destroyers deployed from various bases have also been modified for F-35Bs.

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F-35’s Limitation

However, concerns have been raised about F-35’s weapon-carrying limitations. Japanese defense minister Taro Kono said the country’s next fighter plane must carry more air-to-air missiles than the F-35 stealth fighter can do.

“We will emphasize network functions and demand high stealth performance, Kono told reporters. “It will carry more missiles than the F-35.”

According to the National Interest, F-35 can hold only 4 missiles in its internal weapons bay as external armaments are a major booster of a plane’s radar signature.

An F-35 releases an air-to-ground missile. (via Twitter)

The Japanese government wants to develop indigenous capabilities and to that end, intends to create an advanced stealth jet by merging aspects of the US F-22 and F-35 fighters.

The plans include the amalgamation of the airframe of Lockheed’s F-22 stealth fighter with the F-35’s sensors and electronics. The US is believed to have offered its support for such a program.

A Japanese newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, maintains that Washington is also willing to disclose classified specifics including source code to encourage collaboration on the Japanese F-3 program.

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The F-X Program

The next-generation F-3 or F-X will be a twin-engine fighter capable of mounting six internal weapons. The aircraft will complement the lighter F-35 jets, according to The Eurasian Times.

The F-3 is aimed at bridging the gap between China and Russia which have developed and deployed advanced jets in the region. The F-3 is also expected to replace the aging F-2s and F-15Js.

Concept of Japan’s next-generation F-X fighter jet. (via UK Defence Journal)

On October 30, Tokyo had announced the sixth-generation F-X program as one of the high-priority areas that need urgent attention by the newly appointed PM Yoshihide Suga and his cabinet.

In December 2020, Nikkei Asia published details of Japan’s $48 billion ambitious program to develop the F-X stealth fighter jet, to stay in the race with the US, China, and Europe.

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Its production will start by 2031 and deployment by 2035. The F-X will be equipped with advanced radars and will have remote drone control and electromagnetic warfare capabilities along with heatshields and air-to-air missiles.

One of the reasons behind the F-X or F-3 program is the need for an aircraft that can carry more weapons than the Japanese F-35s can do given that China and Russia are already ahead in this aspect.

The Russian Su-57 and Chinese J-20 stealth fighters can fit in 6 missiles in their internal bays. Similarly, US F-22 Raptor, another Lockheed Martin product, can carry eight missiles.

China’s J-20 Mighty Dragon.

According to National Interest, Lockheed has proposed to co-develop with the Japanese industry an F-3 design that combines the airframe of the F-22 stealth fighter with the F-35’s sensors and electronics.

Military experts have highlighted this capability gap in F-35, suggesting this may be exploited by its adversary China. Peter Layton, an analyst with the Griffith Asia Institute in Australia, said, “China wants to keep the JASDF off-balance and reactive, wear out its aircraft and aircrew, gain training and keep the pressure up daily.”

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Therefore, to preempt such liabilities, the Japanese defense ministry has revealed the official timeframe for designing, constructing, testing, and fielding the supersonic F-3 fighter.

The prototype is expected to be completed by 2024 and production is to be undertaken by Mitsubishi Heavy Industry’s factory with the initial aircraft being ready by 2030. Additionally, F-3s are slated to be flown by squadrons in 2035.