New Proposed Stealth Hybrid Fighter to Expand Japanese Fighter Capability. Re-opening the F-22 Production Line might be an option too.
Late Friday, April 20, Reuters journalists Tim Kelly and Nobuhiro Kubo reported that Lockheed Martin will propose a new 5th generation low-observable (stealth) combat aircraft to Japan. According to Kelly and Kubo’s article, the two sources who provided the information to Reuters have direct knowledge of the upcoming proposal.
According to the sources with direct knowledge of the program quoted in the April 20 Reuters story, “Lockheed has discussed the idea with Japanese defense ministry officials and will make a formal proposal in response to a Japanese request for information (RFI) after it receives permission from the U.S. government to offer the sensitive military technology.”
Reuters quoted one of the two unnamed sources as telling them, “The proposed aircraft would combine the F-22 and F-35 and could be superior to both of them.”
The F-22 Raptor is only used by the United States Air Force and is not exported because some of its capabilities remain a national security asset. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was originally conceived as an export project to provide cost sharing and capability commonality between partner nations as a force multiplier.
The new Japanese aircraft to be proposed by Lockheed Martin will be an air superiority aircraft with a similar role to the F-22 Raptor.
The Japanese rolled out their first domestically built F-35A Joint Strike Fighter from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Komaki South F-35 Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO) facility on June 5, 2017. Lockheed Martin built four of the first Japanese F-35s in the U.S. and delivered them to Japan. The remaining 38 of 42 total F-35As Japan has planned will be built at the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Komaki South facility. Mitsubishi was the builder of the famous A6M Zero fighter used in WWII.
The Reuters report about the new Lockheed Martin proposal is set alongside the existing Japanese Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin design originally designated the ATD-X for “Advanced Technology Demonstrator – X”. This aircraft bears a strong resemblance to the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, using the same basic overall configuration. The ATD-X/X-2 Shinshin is a two-seat experimental aircraft whereas the F-22 and F-35 are only single seat aircraft. Only one X-2 Shinshin has been produced by Japan as a technology testbed. It first flew on April 22, 2016.
The reports of the new upcoming proposal from Lockheed Martin could suggest that Japan is considering abandoning its own indigenous fifth generation air superiority development program in favor of a design from another country. One stipulation reported by the source who spoke to Reuters was that any new proposed aircraft from outside Japan must have Japanese engines, radar and other components. This suggests that an additional, new vendor like Lockheed Martin may be primarily an airframe supplier.
The Reuters report did quote the Japanese Ministry of Defense as saying, “We are considering domestic development, joint development and the possibility of improving existing aircraft performance, but we have not yet come to any decision.”
There are a number of motives for Japan to consider a ground-up aircraft development for its own Gen 5+ aircraft. Perhaps the most compelling reason to consider a new direction are the lessons learned from the massive development processes for both the U.S. F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter.
Both the F-22 and F-35 programs were expensive and groundbreaking in terms of leading the Gen 5 integration of combat aircraft into an air force. The attendant costs of those programs can be amortized and benefitted from in new development aircraft. The implication is they could be both better and cheaper.
Another reason for the shift in interest to a new Gen5+ direction for Japan’s next air superiority fighter is China. A March 15, 2018 article by Kyle Mizokami in Popular Mechanics quoted Chinese aircraft developer Yang Wei, deputy director of advanced of science and technology at Aviation Industry Corp of China and member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, as saying, “We are not complacent about what we have achieved. We will develop the J-20 into a large family and keep strengthening its information-processing and intelligent capacities. At the same time, we will think about our next-generation combat plane to meet the nation’s future requirements.”
China has also been active in expanding its export market for tactical aircraft, although advanced aircraft like the J-20s are likely to remain exclusively Chinese. Japan may look to co-develop a new aircraft that could possibly have limited export appeal in the region, provided the buy-in were lower than F-35.
The costs of re-opening the F-22 production line, or even some version of it, have been generally regarded as prohibitive. However, Tyler Rogoway at The War Zone has long been advocating a sale of Raptors to Japan. In the 2016 story “Just Allow The F-22 To Be Exported To Japan Already“. Here’s a short excerpt from Tyler’s latest article on this subject (but I strongly recommend reading the whole story):
“Although Japan has put forward notional Raptor-like designs, what they could also be talking about here is merging the higher kinematic performance and low-observability of the F-22 with the F-35’s smarter attributes—including updated avionics, mission computers, and sensors—as well as new lower-maintenance skin coatings.
That cost [to put an updated F-22 back into production] may be too high for the USAF to stomach, but for Japan, it’s highly unlikely they will be able to field something superior to an updated F-22 for anywhere near less. It’s also likely that once the U.S.-specific politics of putting the Raptor back into production are removed from the equation, the cost of doing so would drop.
But if Japan is willing to buy an updated Raptor instead of developing a near identical but still unique design, clearly doing so would present a mutually beneficial opportunity. If the U.S. would become a minority stakeholder in an F-22 production line restart of sorts, with the intent on buying a number of airframes to bolster the USAF’s undersized and cherished F-22 fleet, then the opportunity could work out for both parties.
We will watch how this story develops closely, but if the Pentagon was smart, they would embrace an upgraded F-22 restart with Japan, and if Tokyo is willing to foot the majority of the bill for doing so, the USAF would be nuts not to take advantage of it. “
Indeed, this cost-sharing strategy between the U.S. and Japan would be a significant win-win, especially with the U.S. need for more F-22s. Let’s see what happens.
Top image: A wind tunnel model of Japan’s indigenous gen 5 stealth air superiority fighter. (Photo: Tom Demerly/TheAviationist.com)