October 22, 2012
Credit: Credit: Japanese Defense Ministry
Bradley Perrett Nagoya, Japan
Sometime around 2030, if U.S. Air Force plans come to pass, a fighter that leaps ahead of Lockheed Martin F-22 and F-35 technology will enter U.S. service. At about the same time, if Japan's plans come to pass, a similarly advanced fighter will enter service on that side of the Pacific.
It might be the same fighter. Merging Japan's 2030s requirement into evolving U.S. plans for post-F-35 fighters seems to make great industrial sense. Japan plans to begin developing a homegrown fighter within five years, with the aim of beginning production under the designation F-3 around 2027. The defense ministry wants to lay the groundwork to go its own way by investing in stealth technology and building its own powerful fighter engine.
IHI Corp. is to develop a technology-demonstrator engine of 15 metric tons (33,000 lb.) thrust, according to an official document seen by Aviation Week.
Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is already building a small airframe technology demonstrator, the ATD-X Shinshin, which the ministry expects to test in the fiscal year beginning April 1, 2014. Mitsubishi Heavy is also very likely to build the F-3, which Japanese officials expect will carry a pilot.
Full-scale development would begin in 2016 or 2017 and the first prototype would fly in 2024-25, according to the ministry's plans. Series production is to begin in 2027 and the type would begin replacing Mitsubishi Heavy Industries F-2 strike fighters in the first half of the 2030s. In the second half of that decade it would begin replacing Boeing F-15Js. The F-15s are older but are likely to remain the mainstay of Japan's air-defense squadrons, with suitable upgrades (see following article).
The exact status of the ministry's plans is unclear, but they probably represent what it hopes to achieve, with some expectation of obtaining approval. It projects production of about 200 F-3s, which would follow the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning into Japanese service. Japan has decided to buy 42 F-35s and may build parts of them. The U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force tentatively plan to begin fielding new fighters in 2030-35, the former sometimes using the name F/A-XX and the latter referring to its proposed F-X.
Two years ago, the ministry disclosed a research effort for what it called the i3 Fighter, intended to assemble a suite of advanced technologies for a future combat aircraft—or, some suspect, to be offered to the U.S. as a Japanese contribution to the next U.S. fighter. The ministry's Technical and Research Development Institute is leading the i3 Fighter work.