The security environment of Japan and the whole region is threatened by expanding military and assertiveness of China and the testing of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles by North Korea.
Tensions between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute have recently increased. Japan’s Defense White Paper released in July 2020 stated that China has “relentlessly continued attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by coercion in the sea area around the Senkaku Islands” and that “Japan cannot accept China’s actions to escalate the situation.” Coast guard and military ships from both countries continue to tail one another around the uninhabited Senkaku islands, known as the Diaoyus to China.
But while China and Japan want to show that they are setting aside their differences to focus on common interests, strategic competition and mistrust still pervade every issue that defines their relationship. Those issues include territorial disputes over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and the South China Sea, technology competition, and even rivalry over trade and international connectivity projects. In April 2021, China released a landscape survey of a group of islands administered by Japan to reinforce its territorial claims in the East China Sea region amid tensions with Tokyo.
Beijing declaration of its sovereignty (via an Air Defense Identification Zone) over the disputed Sengaku or Diaoyu islets in the East China Sea, as well as over the South China Sea has worsened its relations with Japan. Japan, the US, and other Asian nations are concerned about the Chinese island building and its military buildup, including missile placement, in the South China Sea.
This has prompted the conservative government to loosen the bonds on Japan’s powerful military, and look to expand Japan’s military influence. Japan’s defence outlays for the year starting April 1 2018 will rise for a sixth straight year, increasing by 1.3 percent to 5.19 trillion yen ($45.76 billion), according to a budget breakdown published by the government. The biggest ticket item is 137 billion yen to reinforce defences against a possible North Korean ballistic missile attack. Beijing accused Tokyo of stoking military tensions in the region after Japan’s defence chief said the country might scrap its 1 per cent GDP cap on military spending to counter China’s armed forces.
Japan will also spend 2.2 billion yen to begin acquiring medium-range air-launched cruise missiles able to strike sites in North Korea in a bid to deter any potential attack by Pyongyang, which continues to test ballistic missiles. The latest rocket launched by the North on Nov. 29 2017 reached an altitude of more than 4,000 km (2,485 miles) before plunging into the Sea of Japan.
On July 16, 2015, the Japanese Parliament approved of legislation that, for the first time since the end of the Second World War, empowers the military to fight in foreign conflicts. The legislation would allow the Japanese military, known as the Self-Defense Forces, to cooperate more closely with United States forces by providing logistical support and, in certain circumstances, armed backup in international conflicts. “The security environment surrounding our country is increasingly severe. … In a world where no one nation can protect themselves by themselves alone, this legislation will help prevent wars,” Abe said told reporters
Japanese government’s new National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG)
The aircraft set to be replaced are of the variant known locally as the F-15SJ, which is unsuitable for upgrades, according to a draft of the Japanese government’s new National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) obtained by Jane’s . The NDPG draft also recommends converting the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Izumo helicopter carrier into a multiuse aircraft carrier from which F-35Bs can be operated. For the time being, the task force has decided to continue discussing the introduction of such a multiuse carrier. The draft also states that Japan should promote a “cross-domain strategy” aimed at establishing superiority in the air, at sea, on land, and in outer space as well as in the domains of electronic warfare and cyberspace.
The document also mentions plans to develop a hypersonic glide weapon to bolster the defence capabilities of the country’s remote islands. Known as the Hyper Velocity Gliding Projectile (HVGP), the weapon is being designed to be launched using a rocket, with the projectile (glide vehicle) separating from it at high altitude and then gliding at hypersonic speed to its target. The Ministry of Defense (MoD) will spend JPY67.8 billion to conduct research on the HVPG and plans to deploy it in financial year (FY) 2026.
The draft also revealed plans to develop a guided hypersonic missile powered by a scramjet engines that are expected to be capable of achieving speeds higher than Mach 5. The MoD is expected to spend JPY16.2 billion to conduct research on this weapon until FY 2025. In addition, the draft refers to plans to spend JPY6 billion to develop an unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV), with research expected to continue until FY 2024. Japanese media have reported that the platform is expected to be more than 10 m long.
Chinese J-20 Stealth Fighter threat
China’s J-20 stealth fighter jet, one of the few fifth-generation jets in the world, has been deployed to the South China Sea and is armed with live weapons to patrol the disputed waters. And it’s easily the most capable aircraft deployed by any nation in its region — giving it a significant edge over the Japanese, Korean and Indian air forces.
The US State Department signed off on a Japanese buy of 105 F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighters and associated equipment in July 2020. Japan already has on order 42 F-35As and in December 2018 the Japanese government approved an increase of the order to 147 aircraft which would also include 42 F-35B Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL). STOVL models can operate from small islands skirting the East China Sea or from ships such as the Izumo-class helicopter carriers.
The approved package consists of 63 F-35As, 42s F-35Bs and 110 Pratt and Whitney F135 engines. Also included were EW, C4I, Autonomic Logistic Global Support Systems, F-35 flares and various training, logistics and technical support plus aircraft ferry and tanker support. The package’s estimated total cost is $23.11 billion though this will depend on the contract negotiations between Japan and Lockheed Martin. Should the program go ahead, Japan will join the United Kingdom, Italy and Singapore as international customers for the B variant, pending U.S> Congress approval. That deal would make Japan the largest F-35 international customer. Japan is part of the F-35 program and has signed up to buy 42 F-35A aircraft. While four have been built in the US, the remaining 38 are slated for assembly in Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) in Nayoga Japan.
The alleged Chinese intrusions on its airspace, with china operationalising its J-20 twin-engine, stealth, fighter prototype, and need to replace its aging fleet of fighter aircraft, has necessitated Japan to develop its own modern fighter, equipped with stealth features and other advanced systems.
Japan evaluated many options to counter this threat including licensed production of an existing foreign design, joint development of a new aircraft with an international manufacturer, the development of an indigenous platform, or a program to upgrade and refurbish the F-2. Japan hopes to hand much of the work involved to domestic companies. One potential route would be to have companies such as Mitsubishi Heavy Industries take the lead on development while cooperating with American businesses. Another plan would involve joint development by Japanese and British contractors.
Japan plans to replace its fleet of approximately 90 F-2 jets with the new fighter jet starting around 2035. The F-2 was developed in conjunction with Lockheed in the 1990s, and resembles a larger version of the American company’s F-16 multirole fighter but is primarily equipped with indigenous systems.
U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin has approached Japan with plans for a next-generation fighter jet based on F-22/F-35 hybrid aircraft. Drawing technology from the F-22 would give the new plane top-of-the-line stealth capabilities as well as the ability to travel at supersonic speeds. Lockheed will draw up the details of its development plan for the F-22/F-35 hybrid aircraft as soon as this summer. The F-35, meanwhile, has unparalleled network and software capabilities that allow it to communicate with other aircraft and facilities on the ground and share radar data.
Indigenous Stealth Fighter
In Oct 2018, it was reported that Japan will develop a new aircraft to succeed its F-2 fighter after rejecting proposals Lockheed Martin, Boeing and BAE System to supply new jets. Some 92 F-2s of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force are expected to reach the end of their service life in the 2030s to replace which the Japanese government has sought bids from Lockheed Martin for its F-22, Boeing for its F-15, and BAE Systems for its Eurofighter Typhoon. All three failed to meet the cost and technical parameters set out in the procurement program, Mainichi Shimbun reported quoting unnamed MoD officials.
The new fighter jet development project will be part of the next five-year mid-term defense program. The new jet could be a joint development program with foreign companies with Japanese companies developing the engine and some other main components while a second option calls for the jet to be fully developed domestically. Japan announced Mitsubishi Heavy Industries as the prime contractor to build its next-generation fighter jet in Oct 2020.
The Japanese planned next-generation fighter project will cost around 6 trillion yen ($55 billion). This includes 1.5 trillion yen for development and another 1.5 trillion yen for acquiring round 100 of the jets, in addition to costs such as maintenance and decommissioning. This would act as a deterrent against Chinese stealth fighter J-20, the PLA Air Force has already operationalized in the south China sea. Tokyo plans to replace 99 of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s (JASDF’s) 201 Boeing (Mitsubishi) F-15J/DJ Eagle multirole combat aircraft with F-35A and F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters.
Homegrown Mitsubishi ATD-X Shinshin developed under X-2 program
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ experimental fifth-generation fighter technology demonstrator X-2 “Shinshin” (formerly the ATD-X) for the first time took to the skies in April 2016. After the United States, China, and Russia, Japan became the fourth nation to test-fly an indigenously-developed stealth aircraft. As tensions between China and the United States and its allies rise in areas such as the East China Sea and South China Sea, Tokyo wants to ensure it can defend the airspace over Japan and its territories.
The Mitsubishi ATD-X Shinshin, Japan’s first indigenous stealth fighter was developed by Japanese Ministry of Defense Technical Research and Development Institute (TRDI), with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries at a reported cost of 39.2 billion yen ($384 million). A consortium of 220 Japanese firms, with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries as the primary contractor developing the aircraft’s fuselage, has been working on the X-2 project for the past ten years.
The principal objective of the [X-2] program is to develop a research prototype aircraft — an “advanced technology demonstration unit” — to test the capacity of Japan’s defense industry to develop, among other things, a powerful fighter engine and various other indigenous stealth fighter aircraft technologies.
According to IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly, the aircraft has a length of 14.2 meters (46.5 feet) and a wingspan of 9 meters (30 feet). It is powered by two IHI XF5-1 low-bypass turbofans and has a maximum speed of Mach 2.25 (2,756 kilometers per hour) and a range of 2,900 kilometers (1,802 miles). Over the next few weeks, aviation experts ‘will continue analyzing data and check its stealth technology capability,” a Japanese defense official told AFP.
Future armament for X-2 is also under development. Japan has developed the Mitsubishi AAM-4B, a long-range missile with an active electronically scanning array (AESA) radar as a seeker. AAM-4B was the first air-to-air missile to incorporate AESA radars, However AAM-4B missiles are too large to be carried internally by the F-35 Joint Strike Fighters and in any future fighters. Japan has now entered into agreement with United Kingdom to pursue joint air-to-air missile development for incorporating AAM-4B seeker into the Meteor missile, a beyond visual range missile designed to fit in internal weapons bays and capable of speeds of up to Mach 4, Popular Mechanics reports.
The advanced fifth-generation fighter, which originates from Japan’s advanced technology demonstrator-experimental (ATD-X) program, has been designed to deliver superior performance in the four major quality indicators of stealth, supersonic cruise capability, maneuverability and integrated avionics systems.
Stealth fighter technologies being tested on the ATD-X, being developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) and the Japanese Ministry of Defence’s Technical Research and Development Institute, would also be incorporated into the new fighter, dubbed the F-3, industry and government sources said.
Future F-3 Fifth generation Stealth aircraft being planned
The Defense Ministry is also seeking more funding for F-X research and development in its latest budget request submitted to the country’s Finance Ministry in late September. The Defense Ministry requested $555.8 million for the main program and an additional $113.6 million for R&D of fighter subsystems, such as radars and mission systems integration.
The funding will allow Japan to continue its R&D work into fighter technology, which it has kept up over the past decade despite the end of production on the Mitsubishi F-2 fighter jet and the decision to buy the Lockheed Martin F-35. Work the country plans to continue includes the development and refinement of stealth designs and materials, active electronically scanned array radars, and afterburning turbofan engines. Toward that end, local engine manufacturer IHI is expected to continue work on its XF9-1 afterburning turbofan.
Japan’s Technical Research and Development Institute (TRDI) is researching technologies including infrared stealth, fiber optics, self-repairing flight control technologies, and building air-to-air radar into the actual skin of the aircraft itself (similar to Raytheon’s idea for spray-on radar). TRDI is also looking into battlefield data networking, including using unmanned aerial vehicles to provide targeting information to networked F-3 fighters.
In terms of stealth technology, the F-3’s exterior is said to contain absorbing materials that can reduce radar reflection. Apart from evading radar detection, the aircraft also aims to eliminate visible light signals, electronic signals, heat and noise in order to minimize detectability. It is reported to have 3D thrust vectoring capability. The cruise capability of the F-3 rely on its 15-ton-level high-powered engine co-developed by Japan’s IHI Corporation and the Technical Research and Development Institute of the country’s Ministry of Defense. The engine feature XF5-1 low-bypass turbofan technology and composite ceramic materials highly resistant to heat.
The F-3’s avionics system reportedly integrates high-performance Active electronically scanned array (AESA) based radar, electronic warfare systems and multi-function RF sensors, fly-by-optics flight control system, with fiber cables to enable high mobility control and improved radar technology to expand the detection area and distance, capabilities for electronic countermeasures (ECM), electronic support measures (ESM), and possibly even microwave weapon functions. ‘Self-Repairing Flight Control Capability’ feature will allow the aircraft to automatically detect failures or damage in its flight control surfaces, and using the remaining control surfaces, calibrate accordingly to retain controlled flight.
Japan conducted a series of test flights of a locally designed and built fighter technology demonstrator from 2016 to 2018 to validate its work. The country used the data gleaned from the test program to further refine its indigenous capabilities. The ministry previously said it wants to launch the basic design process for the F-X airframe and engine before the end of the current Japanese fiscal year, which ends March 31, 2021. This would be followed by the production of the first prototype, which is planned to begin in 2024, with flight tests earmarked to start in 2028 following finalization of the design and production plans.
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