Mitsubishi To Lead Japan’s Next-Gen Stealth Fighter Jet; To Partner US’ Lockheed Martin Or British BAE Systems

The sudden departure of long-serving former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe especially at the advent of the Coronavirus pandemic caught Tokyo off-guard, with the newly appointed PM Yoshihide Suga now doing his all to steady the boat at a time when his country faces increasing security threats from China and North Korea.

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One of the high priority areas that need urgent addressing by the Suga-led Japanese government is the development of a next-generation fighter jet which could replace the country’s long-serving F-2 fighters while also supplementing the US F-35s in bolstering the military capabilities.

After putting a lot of thought, Japan’s Defense Ministry announced on Friday (October 30) that the responsibility to build its advanced manned fighter under the F-X program has been put on the shoulders of Tokyo-based Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), who will be the primary contractor.

Japan’s Defense Ministry issued a brief statement on its website which said – “We will steadily proceed with the development of the next fighter (F-X) together with the company.”

Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, while speaking to reporters also announced that Mitsubishi, which already has an enhanced association with the country, will be working jointly on the future fighter with an overseas which will be selected by the end of the year.

It is no surprise that MHI has been selected for the development of the fighter, with the company having vast experience in the production of combat aircraft as per the needs of the nation, having already produced the F-2 multi-role fighter and F-1 Supersonic strike aircraft.

At a time when Japan was juggling the idea of producing the next-generation fighter indigenously or as part of a joint-program, MHI fit the bill perfectly owing to be the only aviation company based in Japan with fighter jet experience.

Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin - Wikipedia
FILE IMAGE: Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin – Wikipedia

Founded almost 136 years ago, MHI has been a mainstay in Japan’s aviation sector for quite some time having built the US F-16-derived F-2, a successor to the 1960s F-1 combat fighter jet, which was also developed by MHI.

Not only that, but the company had also undertaken the license-production of the F-4EJ Phantom II and the subsequent F-15J Eagle air superiority fighters.

While the indigenously-led program has found its head in MHI, the fight for candidacy for the position of the overseas partner is likely to be between American aerospace heavyweights Lockheed Martin and UK’s BAE Systems, with Boeing and Northrop Grumman also being in the fold.

Earlier this year, Japan’s Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency (ATLA) had issued a statement, saying – “The (Japanese Ministry of Defense) is in discussion with the U.S. and the UK from the viewpoint of ensuring interoperability, cost-effectiveness, and technical reliability,”

We have been exploring the possibility of cooperation with these two countries.”

The joint venture is likely to be that of a similar nature as that of the F-2 fighter program under which MHI teamed up with Lockheed Martin to develop the F-16-based multirole fighter, with a 60/40 split in manufacturing between Tokyo and Washington.

As per reports in the Japanese media, one of the key elements of the joint program will be the sharing of stealth technology, with the next-generation fighter having stealth as a prerequisite.

Lockheed Martin, which is considered the absolute top dog in devising stealth technology already exhibited by the F-35s, F-22 Raptors, Nighthawks, and the SR-71 Blackbird, will have an edge in that department over any other aerospace firm.

“Not only does (Lockheed Martin) have vast experience in producing radar-defeating combat jets but also has an established relationship providing F-35s for Japan and working with MHI to produce them.

Lockheed Martin and MHI have partnered on the Final Assembly and Check-Out (FACO) facility for the JASDF’s F-35A variant in Nagoya, Japan,” says Defence Writer, Thomas Newdick, while writing for The Drive.

Japan could also look to enhance their prospering defensive relations with the United Kingdom by becoming a potential partner for its sixth-generation Tempest Future Combat Air System (FCAS) Program which involves BAE Systems, Leonardo’s UK Arm, MBDA, Rolls-Royce, DE&S, Saab, and the Royal Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office.

“The UK offer would give Tokyo more options to update the aircraft – tentatively designated F-3 – as needed, and that this freedom has been an issue with the F-2, which is based on the Lockheed Martin F-16.” as per a report in a Japanese publication, Nikkei.

Moreover, what is tremendous support for the F-X fighter program, said to be around $40 billion, is that Japan’s defense budget request for the 2021 fiscal year is to be around $55 billion, the biggest so far.