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Next-Gen Fighter: Co-Developed With UK & Spain, Japan Intends To Export Its 6th-Gen Aircraft To Other Nations

In a strategic maneuver geared toward facilitating the export of next-generation fighters to other countries, the Japanese government conveyed its intention to the ruling parties to expand the scope of permissible exports for jointly developed defense equipment, including lethal weapons. 

Tokyo is developing a next-generation fighter aircraft in partnership with the United Kingdom and Italy. This collaborative effort falls under the Global Combat Air Program, unveiled in December. 

During a working group meeting of the ruling party on August 23, the government introduced its proposal to amend the three principles governing defense exports in the country. 

The National Security Council is expected to finalize these guideline modifications by the end of the year. As per the existing framework, exports of jointly developed defense equipment are solely permissible to partner nations.

In July, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its coalition partner, Komeito, reached a consensus on permitting the export of such equipment to nations beyond the participants of joint projects. 

Their joint stance, as highlighted in a report issued then, noted that the current prohibition on exporting finalized equipment also restricted the export of components created by international partners, placing those partners in an unfavorable position.

The three principles permit sharing defense equipment and technology for non-combat uses like rescue, transportation, vigilance, surveillance, and naval minesweeping. 

According to the ruling parties’ perspective on these guidelines, the exchange of lethal weapons is acceptable if they fall within these specified categories and serve the purpose of self-defense. 

However, a divergence exists between the LDP and Komeito regarding the extent of relaxation of the overarching guidelines to permit the export of lethal weaponry under the aforementioned circumstances. 

The LDP proposes scrapping the five specified areas altogether; some even want to export ammunition. On the other hand, Komeito prefers limited exports, like mine removal gear, for Ukraine’s reconstruction.

Komeito also aims to provide mine removal equipment to Ukraine, contrasting with the government’s past provision of only bulletproof vests and helmets. The government notes that even if finished equipment has lethal capabilities, non-lethal parts can be exported. 

Understanding The Motive

In light of its collaboration with Britain and Italy to build a next-generation fighter jet, a project that Japan might find daunting, the government is actively seeking to streamline regulations governing the transfer of jointly developed equipment. 

During comprehensive discussions on August 23, the government emphasized on the potential negative ramifications for the joint fighter development framework if Japan were to impose restrictions on the export of the jointly developed fighter jet. 

Recognizing the multifaceted nature of the issue, the government pointed out the need to address the proper management of defense equipment exports to prevent conflicts from escalating and guard against the unintended resale of such equipment, which could exacerbate regional tensions.

Additionally, the government proposed that certain components of weaponry, incapable of causing harm or injury, should not be classified under the umbrella of weapons. 

This notion seems to be considering the prospective scenario of exporting retired Air Self-Defense Force’s F-15 fighter engines, as previously reported by the EurAsian Times. 

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Promotional art for GCAP from electronics firm ELT. (Courtesy ELT)

Nonetheless, the Global Combat Air Program marks Japan’s first major military development effort in collaboration with partners other than the US since the end of World War II.

Japan has frequently ranked among the largest purchasers of US-made aircraft for years. Thus, developing the next-generation fighter jet reflects Tokyo’s readiness to amplify investments in its domestic arms manufacturers. 

Japan’s endeavor to ease the constitutional limitations can partly be associated with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This situation has also opened avenues for Japan’s neighbor, South Korea, which has significantly augmented its defense exports gradually.

Buyers’ quest to replace outdated Soviet-era weaponry with advanced technology has driven this trend. Besides all these factors, the next-generation fighter jet is highlighted as a potential catalyst for enhancing the overall defense sector in all three nations. 

This holds particular importance for Japan, where certain small and medium-sized enterprises have faced challenges sustaining their operations due to limited profits and fluctuating demand. This situation has led to disruptions in the supply chain.

Hence, Japan’s current initiatives appear well-aligned, pointing toward the right direction. These efforts have the potential to boost Japan’s overall defense sector, mirroring the advancements made by its neighboring counterpart, South Korea, in the export of domestically developed weaponry.

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