The Yomiuri Shimbun
The Defense Ministry has compiled a design concept of new fighter jets that will replace the Air Self-Defense Forces’ F-2 fighter jets, planning for the succeeding jets to be able to carry and launch drones to detect distant enemy planes and also to share radar information with the drones, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned.
The new planes will be large stealth fighters, exceeding the capability of the cutting-edge F-35A fighter jets introduced by the ASDF. The Defense Ministry will examine how to develop the new jets, such as joint development with the United States, in a bid to deal with China’s modernizing air force.
In March, the ministry notified the governments of the United States and Britain of part of the design concept of the F-2 successor, such as its performance requirements. Other than carrying small drones, the ministry considers that the new jets will have the capacity to internally carry eight air-to-air missiles, doubling the load of the F-35A. Its maximum speed will be Mach 2, almost equal to that of the F-2, and key features will be designed to be similar or superior to the F-35A, such as its radars’ detection range, stealth technology and cruising distance. Regarding carrying air-to-ship missiles, the ministry assumes they will be carried externally depending on their missions.
As Japan’s neighboring countries have been enhancing their level of stealth technology, which guards against radar detection, the ministry has recognized the need to handle the situation by having the new jets carry drones.
China announced deployment of its domestically developed cutting-edge Chengdu J-20 stealth fighters in February. High stealth technology used by other countries’ aircraft means an overwhelming disadvantage in combat for Japanese aircraft as it will become difficult to detect other planes until they approach very close to the Japanese planes. For this reason, the ministry came up with the idea of carrying drones to detect enemy planes from a long distance. The ministry plans to develop the drones along with the new fighter jets.
Doubling the number of air-to-air missiles the plane can carry compared to the F-35A is also a part of the idea to counter China’s moves.
F-35A jets are state-of-the-art aircraft, jointly developed by nine countries, including the United States and Britain. Their deployment to Misawa Air Base in Aomori Prefecture started in January. While the F-35A is highly capable, it is said to be able to internally carry only four air-to-air missile because it is somewhat smaller than other jets.
The F-2 fighter jet was jointly developed by Japan and the United States based on U.S. F-16 jets, and they have been manufactured by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Ltd. The jets have high offensive capability against ships to suit Japan’s security environment as a nation surrounded by the sea. The ASDF introduced F-2 jets in 2000 and the fighters are expected to retire from around 2030. The ASDF currently deploys about 90 F-2 jets.
In total, Japan has about 300 fighters, excluding the aging F-4 jets, while China has about 800 jets with similar capabilities.
To avoid being overwhelmed by the number of Chinese fighter jets, the ministry decided to fill the gap by strengthening the fighting capability of each fighter jet, such as making the F-2 successor larger and increasing its missile load.
The ministry has examined three options regarding the method of developing an F-2 successor — domestic development, joint development with other countries, or improving existing foreign-made fighter jets.
The government is likely to abandon the idea of domestic development due to the estimated cost of ¥1 trillion to ¥2 trillion.
Lockheed Martin Corp. of the United States has unofficially approached the ministry about joint development of the F-2 successor based on the high-performance F-22 and F-35 stealth fighter jets.
The government plans to compile the next Medium Term Defense Program that covers fiscal 2019 to 2023 at the end of this year, and is likely to decide how to develop the new fighter jets during these years under the new program.