Japan puts first stealth jet on back burner as costs soar, technical problems mount

Japan’s experimental X-2 stealth jet made its maiden test flight in 2016

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 March, 2018, 1:47pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 March, 2018, 9:57pm

Japan is to drop plans to develop a new stealth fighter jet as a result of soaring costs and the technical hurdles that need to be overcome, with analysts suggesting that Tokyo will instead replace obsolescent fighters with foreign-built aircraft bought “off the shelf”.

Tasked with replacing the domestically developed F-2 fighter, which is expected to be phased out of service from around 2030, the Defence Ministry initially had three options.

The preferred option has until now been to develop a completely new aircraft using only domestic companies, although the alternatives were to work with foreign aviation firms on a replacement or to extend the operational life of the 90 existing F-2s with a series of upgrades.

The planned replacement, the X-2 stealth fighter, was the product of years of experience in fighter-aircraft manufacturing by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd, which also made the A6M or Zero.

The US, Russia and China all are developing stealth jets, which have reduced visibility to infrared sensors and can cruise at supersonic speeds.

An official of the Defence Ministry in Tokyo told the Asahi newspaper that it was considered important to maintain the nation’s indigenous fighter jet technology, although the Finance Ministry eventually stepped in to question the financial sense of the project.

Sources told the Asahi that the Defence Ministry will not now seek funding for a domestically developed next-generation fighter under the next budget but will instead open discussions with the US on joint construction of a replacement aircraft.

Alternatively, Tokyo may simply opt to purchase tried-and-tested US aircraft, analysts told South China Morning Post, pointing out that Japan has already committed to buying 42 F-35A fighters and might choose to add to that deal.

“The aircraft was seen as a research-and-development platform for Japanese companies to explore stealth technology, but the design engineers such as Mitsubishi Heavy and the supporting companies were operating in a long time period between fighter platforms,” said Lance Gatling, a defence analyst and founder of Tokyo-based Nexial Research Inc.

“Japan’s participation in the building of the F-35 has been very limited and this raised the question of whether Japanese companies would be able to maintain the ability to produce aircraft of the required standard.

Tokyo was also keen to use the project as a negotiating tactic when it was in the market for a fighter, Gatling suggested, and could have threatened to continue development on its own if it was not given an advantageous deal on purchases.

Little is known of just how far the X-2 project had advanced, although Gatling said the costs would have been “astronomically expensive”.

Japan carried out the first test flight for the X-2 in 2016. That jet was equipped with engines from IHI Corp and was reported at the time to cost about 40 billion yen (US$366 million) to develop.

And while acquiring more F-35As would be similarly costly and not benefit Japanese companies because of their limited involvement in the project, it is possible that Tokyo might reach a deal to add to its existing fleet of 200 F-15 fighters.

One upside would be that such a deal would provide a lot of contracts for Japanese companies, which have in the past built the aircraft under licence.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg and Associated Press