Japan Allocates $33B To Develop Hydrogen-Powered, Next-Gen Airliner; Looks To Challenge China’s COMAC

In a bid to revitalize its aviation industry and avoid past setbacks, Japan’s government has unveiled an ambitious plan to collaborate with the private sector on the development of a next-generation passenger aircraft. 

The plan, announced by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry on March 27, aims to harness the collective expertise of multiple companies while setting new technology standards.

Speaking at the unveiling, Kazuchika Iwata, vice minister of economy, trade, and industry, emphasized the transformative potential of the project.  “We aim to transform the aircraft industry from being component suppliers to one that can take the initiative in providing value-added products,” stated Iwata.  

He highlighted the importance of leveraging both public and private knowledge, drawing from the experiences learned from previous endeavors such as the ill-fated Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ SpaceJet. 

Central to the project’s objectives is the exploration of advanced propulsion systems, particularly hydrogen-combustion engines, aiming to surpass conventional jet engine technology. 

Mitsubishi SpaceJet.

With an investment totaling 5 trillion yen ($33 billion) from both the public and private sectors, the goal is to introduce the innovative airliner by around 2035. 

Government support for the initiative extends beyond financial backing to encompass the establishment of global technology standards, ensuring stable parts procurement, and refining testing methodologies. 

Funding mechanisms will primarily rely on sovereign climate transition bonds, aligning with Japan’s commitment to sustainability.

The initiative reflects a broader industry trend towards achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, driving demand for eco-friendly materials and technologies. 

Japan’s foray into next-generation aircraft development aims to revitalize its aviation sector and enhance the global value proposition of domestically produced parts and related technologies.

Japan’s Commercial Aircraft Development Lags Behind China 

Japan’s aerospace aspirations have encountered turbulence since the downfall of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ SpaceJet project, formerly known as the Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ). 

Launched in 2008 with significant government backing, the MRJ aimed to revolutionize the regional jet market but stumbled amidst delays and limited support. 

In stark contrast, China’s aviation industry has soared, exemplified by the success of the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) and its C919 airliner. The development program for the C919 was also started in 2008. 

While Mitsubishi initially envisioned leveraging its role as a Boeing 787 supplier to create a composite aircraft with next-generation engines, the MRJ’s journey was fraught with challenges. 

The goal was ambitious: capture 20% of the global market for 70 to 100-seat regional jets by 2013. However, changes to US pilots’ union contracts, known as scope clauses, hindered the MRJ’s appeal to major American carriers, dampening its prospects in a key market segment.

How Mitsubishi Heavy's hubris brought SpaceJet down to earth
The SpaceJet project was designed to bring Japan to the forefront of the aerospace value chain. Mitsubishi Aircraft/Twitter

In the United States, contracts between pilots and airlines incorporate “scope clauses,” which set a maximum limit of 76 seats on aircraft operating regional routes. 

In contrast, COMAC’s approach with the C919 was strategic from the outset. Designed as the inaugural model in a series of commercial jets, the C919 targeted a larger segment with 160 to 175 seats. 

Leveraging experience from its predecessor’s ARJ21 regional jet program, COMAC navigated design challenges more adeptly. More, strong government support and a built-in customer base from state-owned airlines provided crucial momentum for the C919 project, enabling it to weather obstacles more effectively.

The Chinese-manufactured aircraft has been capturing global interest for its development progress, despite facing US sanctions. The aircraft recently debuted outside China at the Singapore Airshow 2024. During the event, China’s domestically produced C919 secured 40 new orders from Tibet Airlines.  

According to the Chinese media, to date, the C919, which competes with narrow-body aircraft like the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737 series, has secured over 1,100 orders from both domestic and international markets.

Hi Fly lands the first-ever Airbus A340 In Antarctica. (Image: Hi Fly)

On the other hand, the MRJ’s struggle stemmed from its standalone approach, coupled with evolving market dynamics that diminished its appeal to key stakeholders. 

In 2019, Mitsubishi revamped certain elements of the MRJ70 to enhance its appeal in the global market, rebranding the aircraft as the SpaceJet M100.

However, despite these efforts, constrained demand, extensive development expenses, and challenges in obtaining aircraft certification compelled Mitsubishi to cease the program.

As a result, Tokyo’s new strategy emphasizes a collaborative framework involving established manufacturers like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, parts suppliers, and automakers at the forefront of hydrogen engine technology. International cooperation is also being actively pursued to harness diverse expertise and resources.