A prototype of Japan's first domestically produced stealth fighter will get airborne before the end of the year, a significant development in Tokyo's efforts to improve its defence capabilities.
Known as the Advanced Technology Demonstrator-X (ATD-X) fighter, the aircraft is being developed by the defence ministry's research institute and a number of private companies, primarily Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.
Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera told the Diet's defence committee on April 10 that he had recently visited Mitsubishi Heavy's plant at Komaki Minami. "There, I was briefed that the first flight will take place this year," he said.
The single-seat, fifth-generation fighter - which has the unofficial name "Shinshin", meaning "Spirit of God" - bears a resemblance to the Russian Sukhoi Su-27 fighter, with a twin tail configuration and raised pilot canopy.
The aircraft also has a 3-D thrust vectoring capability, a fly-by-optics flight control system and an advanced radar, as well as two turbofan engines that are each capable of producing 5,000kg of thrust on afterburner.
"This is a natural reaction to the rise of China, its massive investment in military equipment and its belligerent attitude towards Japan and other nations in the region," Go Ito, a professor of international relations at Tokyo's Meiji University, said.
"But I do anticipate that China and North Korea might claim that Japan is starting a new arms race in the region by developing this sort of aircraft, although it must be remembered that Beijing is deploying the Chengdu J-20," he added.
Another opponent of the project might be the United States, Ito said. That is because the ATD-X is an alternative to US-made aircraft.
"There is the possibility that Japan will consider a joint venture with other countries on the project, although there have been problems with this approach in the past," Ito said.
In the 1980s, Japan worked with a number of firms from the US on the FSX project, which was envisaged as Japan's next-generation fighter. Tokyo was disappointed when Washington declined to go ahead with the project in its latter stages.
Ito said Tokyo was even more disappointed when many of the technological advances that Japan had shared with its ally on the FSX later appeared on US aircraft.
Japan has already committed to purchasing 42 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighters, also known as the Raptor, including a number of its vertical takeoff and landing variant, which will permit the aircraft to land on Japan's new Hyuga Class "helicopter carriers".
Washington is reportedly keen for Japan to buy more Raptors, instead of developing its own aircraft.
The ATD-X project is part of Japan's broader effort to realign its defences and upgrade its capabilities. The defence ministry's budget request for the present fiscal year increased 2.9 per cent from the previous year, rising to ¥4.9 trillion (HK$370 billion).
The Maritime Self-Defence Force was the biggest beneficiary of the additional spending, followed by the self-defence force's air arm. The MSDF is pushing ahead with vessels designed to put troops ashore on remote islands in the Japanese archipelago.