Japan is closing in on becoming the fourth nation to test fly its own stealth jet, a move that could further antagonize neighboring Asian countries who’ve opposed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s bid to strengthen the role of its armed forces.
The aircraft is scheduled to make its maiden flight in the first quarter of 2016, Hirofumi Doi, a program manager at the Ministry of Defense, said in an interview in Tokyo. The plane, called Advanced Technology Demonstrator X, will then be handed over to the nation’s self-defense forces, which will start conducting their own tests, he said.
The plane made by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. will strengthen Abe’s military ambitions after he succeeded in pushing through U.S.-endorsed legislation to allow Japanese troops to fight in overseas conflicts, despite concerns abroad and at home. Japanese militarism is a particularly sensitive topic for China and South Korea because of the aggression they endured before and during World War II.
“The security environment around Japan is becoming increasingly complex and Japan needs to maintain air capabilities commensurate to those of other air forces in the region,” said Rukmani Gupta, an analyst in New Delhi at IHS Jane’s. “Should the ATD-X test be deemed successful, it is very likely that Japan will pursue production of a next-generation fighter.”
The 14-meter-long (46-foot-long) jet, equipped with engines from IHI Corp., will cost 40 billion yen ($324 million) to develop, Doi said. The ATD-X could become the basis for a new fighter jet to replace the nation’s F-2, said Takahiro Yoshida, a director in the ministry.
If Japan decides to make a fighter jet version, its engines would be about three times the strength of the stealth jet’s, and the plane would have enough space to store missiles, Doi said.
It’s not a given that Japan will go ahead with the project.
“These experimental fighters are an exercise in the realm of the possible,” said Lance Gatling, head of aerospace consultancy Nexial Research. “In terms of international relations, it’s a bargaining chip. They can say: ’We did a credible job on this, we may just build our own if you don’t give us a better deal or you don’t give us a portion of the production in Japan.’”
IHI is supporting flight tests of the latest jet, said Yuki Takahashi, a Tokyo-based spokeswoman. Hideo Ikuno, a spokesman for Mitsubishi Heavy in Tokyo, declined to comment on the jet’s development.
The U.S., Russia and China have all built and flown stealth planes, known as fifth-generation jets, which are harder to detect by radar. Other countries such as India and Turkey also are developing stealth jets, according to Gupta at IHS Jane’s. South Korea and Indonesia are also investing in the joint development of a next-generation fighter aircraft, he said.
Japan will have a stealth fighter jet capability in coming years even without replacing its F-2s. The country placed an order for 42 of Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 jets in 2011. The planes are the Pentagon’s costliest weapons program, and Japan will use them to replace jets made more than three decades ago.
The Japanese government will make a decision on a replacement for its F-2 fighter jets by the end of March 2019, Doi said.
“We’re building this in preparation for the development of a new fighter jet,” Doi said. “Neighboring countries are developing stealth jets and so this research is to allow us to understand what technology is needed for such a project.”