The Buzz

America's F-22 Raptor: The Fighter Jet Japan Desperately Wants (But Can't Have)

In late June, the Japanese ministry of defense made its initial request for information on next-generation jet fighters from manufacturers, kickstarting the long process of replacing the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force’s Mitsubishi F-2 multirole fighters with a new “F-3.”

But as Tokyo looks to counter an increasingly sophisticated Chinese air and naval threat, none of the existing aircraft that are currently available for purchase seems likely to fit Japan’s needs.

What Japan really wants is the American F-22. Legally barred from buying that plane, Japan’s likely next-best option is to design and manufacture a new stealth fighter entirely on its own. It’s a weighty decision with huge implications.

On June 24, Aviation Week assessed Japan’s X-2 fighter research program — a kind of precursor to the F-3 effort—and posited that Tokyo is looking for “a large, twin-engine aircraft with long endurance and internal carriage of six big air-to-air missiles.”

Although this is a plausible interpretation of Japan’s needs, if true it means that Tokyo could ditch the F-2’s strike-fighter role and focus its next warplane on fast, long-range interception. In other words, Japan’s air force could shift away from ground-attack missions and devote more effort to waging war against other planes in the air.

Jane’s Defense Weekly also reported on the request for information, estimating that Tokyo’s new fighter project could produce a fleet of up to 100 F-3 aircraft, whatever type the government chooses.

As of the time of writing, the only Japanese coverage of this story comes from a translation of a Reuters article on the same issue dated June 30. According to the Reuters piece, the Defense Ministry in Tokyo asked Boeing and Lockheed Martin to pitch their products for the new fighter program. Reuters estimated the potential contract to be worth up to $40 billion.

Out with the F-2, in with the F-35

The Mitsubishi F-2 is a mutt. Its designers crammed Japanese research into the body of an American F-16 to produce platform that hasn’t ever flown in actual combat. And with a price tag of $171 million dollars per plane—four times as much as an F-16 — it didn’t come cheap. Tokyo maintains 94 F-2s.

The F-2 is a multi-role fighter. At the annual Fuji Firepower event — when Japan shows off its military might in the shadow of Mount Fuji — F-2s drop bombs and fly top cover for ground troops. Critically for an island country, the F-2 is also Japan’s go-to anti-ship fighter.

But if the rumors are true and Japan’s F-2 successor is to be a twin-engine stealth plane, then what will become of the F-2’s role in Japan’s current doctrine?

The answer to that question must be the F-35.

Japan committed to purchasing 42 F-35As in 2011 after choosing the controversial fighter to succeed Japan’s long-running F-4 Phantoms. The first four airframes are under construction in Texas and Italy and at Mitsubishi’s Komaki South Plant, and should arrive in Japan in 2017.

Lockheed designed the F-35 to replace a wide range of strike-fighters in the U.S. inventory. It wasn’t the natural choice for Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force — the ASDF had coveted Lockheed’s F-22 for years, but in 2006 the U.S. Congress extended an export ban, destroying the chances of Tokyo ever getting its own Raptors.

If Japan had been able to purchase the F-22, it would have traded in an old but very capable twin-engine multirole fighter — the F-4 — for a stealthy, twin-engine multirole fighter with world-beating air-to-air capability. Instead, Tokyo had to settle for the only other available fifth-generation fighter — the somewhat less-capable, single-engine F-35, which Lockheed has always intended for export and which Congress has been eager to promote abroad.

The difference between a twin-engine and a single-engine aircraft is largely academic. Although a twin-engine aircraft is theoretically more survivable thanks to the redundancy of a second engine, in reality the loss of one of those engines is likely to result in a crash.

A twin-engine jet typically makes for a better stealth jet as its engines are not only smaller, but also emit less detectable exhaust than a comparable single engine does — a factor evident in the comparative stealthiness of the F-22 relative to the F-35.

Any way you look at it, the F-35 is a worthy replacement for the F-2 and F-4, but with just 42 aircraft replacing around 90 F-4s, Japan is running up a fighter deficit. Delays in choosing the F-35 and further delays in actuallygetting the planes are pushing Japan’s existing fighters to the brink.

The F-15 — Japan has around 150 of the powerful fighters — is currently solely responsible for protecting Japan’s air space from escalating Chinese probing. In Japanese service, the venerable F-15 has benefited from several service-life extension upgrades, as has the F-2 — but the gap left by the F-4’s retirement fleet isn’t going away any time soon.

Even if Jane’s figure of 100 new F-3 aircraft is correct, it would still leave Japan short of jets.