Tough challenges for Japan in its quest for a next-generation fighter

The Defense Ministry aims to seize the initiative on the development of a next-generation fighter jet, but it faces a host of technological and cost challenges. The Air Self-Defense Force’s next-generation fighter, which will replace the F-2, will feature new technologies such as stealth capacity for evading enemy radar and electronic warfare capability.


With the ministry prioritizing joint development with the United States, it is uncertain whether Japan can take control of the development. If Japan is in control, it will be able to conduct upgrades and maintenance at its own convenience.

During development of the F-2, Japan did not have the needed technology to build the engine and other key components and had to allow the United States to take the initiative in development. Bilateral trade friction also helped give the United States more control.

Japan had difficulties with upgrading and maintaining the jets because it was unable to obtain confidential design information from the United States. In light of this experience, the ministry aims to produce core components domestically — including mission-critical systems, the engine and radar — for the next-generation fighter.

The U.S. proposed a hybrid version of the state-of-the-art F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters but Japan rejected the proposal, with one senior ministry official saying, “We won’t be a subcontractor of the United States.”

Japan and the U.S. will set up a joint public-private committee to flesh out development plans. For Japan, however, it would appear to be difficult to feel optimistic.

U.S. technology is the sole available option for some components, including the Tactical Digital Information Link, which is partly used to share information on enemy aircraft caught on radar.

Other concerns include U.S. President Donald Trump’s tough sales pitch for the use of American weapons amid bilateral negotiations on Japan’s host-nation financial support for American forces in Japan. The design of the next-generation fighter cannot be decided before the selection of the technologies needed for the jet is clear.

An ASDF source said attention will be focused on how much information on core technologies owned by U.S. companies will be disclosed and whether the timely supply of American-made parts will be secured.

The development cost, said to exceed ¥20 billion per jet, will be another big challenge. Domestic production would help Japan sustain a technological base for the domestic industry, but costs will inevitably increase.

In an attempt to reduce costs, the government is holding talks on technological cooperation with Britain, which is developing a new fighter jet.

The Defense Ministry plans to reach a decision on how to promote cooperation with the United States and Britain by the end of the year in line with the government’s compilation of the budget for fiscal 2021, which starts in April next year.

Hoping to begin deploying the next-generation fighter in 2035, the ministry set aside development costs for the first time in the fiscal 2020 budget. As talks with development companies have stalled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the ministry is expected to stop short of proposing specific financial figures in its fiscal 2021 budget request in the summer.