Japan’s Stealth Fighter Gambit
Image Credit: Japan Defence Ministry

Japan’s Stealth Fighter Gambit


It’s an arms race Beijing claims it doesn’t want, Russia can’t afford, the United States believes it can’t afford and Japan probably isn’t prepared for on its own.

All the same, the intensifying competition to build radar-evading jet fighters has had a powerful effect on the politics, industry and military forces of the Pacific's four greatest powers – and none more so than Japan’s.

The most recent chapter in a tale that began in 2005 opened with a grainy photograph of a black-painted warplane, published on an Internet forum six months ago. On Christmas Day, Chinese government Internet censors allowed the first amateur photo of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s new J-20 stealth-fighter demonstrator to linger online.

The J-20, a product of the Chengdu design bureau, is a visually impressive aircraft, substantially bigger than Western warplanes such as the F-15 and F/A-18 and adorned with sharp angles meant to reduce its radar reflectivity. Such angles are also seen on the latest US F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters, both built by Lockheed Martin, plus on the Sukhoi T-50 from Russia.

More photos and videos of the J-20 soon followed. But Beijing remained silent about the new plane’s purpose and capability. Foreign analysts, meanwhile, worked themselves into something of a panic.

‘Any notion that an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or F/A-18E/F Super Hornet will be capable of competing against this Chengdu design in air combat, let alone penetrate airspace defended by this fighter, would be simply absurd,’ wrote Carlo Kopp and Peter Goon, from the think tank Air Power Australia.

If the PLAAF masters engines to match the J-20’s airframe, ‘Asian Pacific’s political landscape will be changed,’ claimed Arthur Ding, a Taiwanese analyst.

Finally, a Chinese official opened up about the J-20. It was in late May, at a press conference during PLA chief Gen. Chen Bingde’s weeklong visit to Washington, D.C. ‘We do not want to use our money to buy equipment or advanced weapons to challenge the United States,’ Chen said in response to a question about the J-20.

There was a ‘gaping gap’ between US and Chinese technology, the general admitted.

But it was too late for Chen to stop an arms race. The J-20’s appearance had already prompted the United States and its closest Pacific ally, Japan, to accelerate the modernization of their own air arsenals. Russia, cash-strapped as always, doggedly plugged away at a planned decade-long test programme using two T-50 prototypes.

Despite a ballooning federal budget deficit and flattening defence spending, Washington shifted billions of dollars into efforts to improve its fleet of F-15 Eagle and F-22 Raptor fighters, while also reaffirming its commitment to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the total cost of which was projected to exceed $1 trillion.

Tokyo’s reaction to the J-20 was arguably even more dramatic. In a surprise move for a country that carefully avoids military confrontation, Japan revived a plan to develop its own stealth warplane – from scratch.

Today, the so-called Shinshin (‘spirit’) fighter – the product of the Advanced Technology Demonstrator, or ‘ATD-X,’ programme – exists only as a small-scale, radio-controlled model, two non-flying mock-ups and various isolated bits of technology including engines, electronics and the canopy. But plans are in place to fly a fully-functioning demonstrator no later than 2014.

What happens after that is open to speculation. Sometime after 2016, a derivative of the Shinshin could join the F-22, the F-35, the T-50 and potentially the J-20 as combat-ready stealth warplanes in widespread military use.

More likely, Tokyo will continue using Shinshin for its original purpose, as a sacrificial player in a complex political, military and industrial game, the ultimate goal of which is to win Japan a stake in a more affordable (for Japan) and potentially more effective US stealth fighter.

Either way, the J-20’s appearance has raised the stakes for Tokyo and the Japanese air force. Tokyo is facing a shortage of combat-ready fighters, a problem the Chinese warplane’s appearance underscored in dramatic fashion.

The question is whether Japan will design and build new fighters on its own, despite the high cost and extreme risk of such an endeavour – or continue relying on the Americans to supply its warplanes, a strategy that comes with its own political and industrial costs.

October 23, 2012 at 21:25

China keep makeing your neighbours enemy and Nato countries will be eager to wash you off from world map egostic chinese your country and economy only rely on foreign trade and you don’t have sence of keeping peaceful foreign relations!

Rong Do sao Vang
September 21, 2012 at 23:51

 Simple Mind and denial of historical fact when you think Vietnamese is a puppet of China. Even US government does not think like that !

July 28, 2011 at 01:48

I cannot see the Japanese buying into the F-35, (in fact when told the need 150, they balked) even though they are not signed on they are being blackmailed like the rest of us, the Indians have money, but are not stupid, the ROK are doing their own thing.

When the US can no longer afford them unit cost number procured that is when the fun starts. And it is getting up there. See during peace time the contractors could get away with this sort of extortion, there was always money. Now not so much. As long as they know that there are limit options the price will continue to rise.

But there are options first we cancel the program, the foreign partner cannot support it, like the EFV the contractor will come back to us with an offer, we perhaps tell them to destroy the tooling. And make a counter offer. If a deal is done a deal is done.

Putting 25 for the Australian (PRC), 25 for Israel (Iran) and for the UK carrier fleet (US/UK coalition operations) into the US deal probably 1500 units for the US with the UK/AUS/IAF on top of that, for 90 million each. Which will upset the other foreign partners that are left out.

If not fixed wing rotary aircraft for the Marines LHD’s to bash the savages, reopen the F-22 production for a certain procurement, it has become fiscally viable, buy more super hornets for the carriers and deploy a larger number of carrier based UAV’s. And then go straight for 6 gen unmanned fighters.

No one is locked in on numbers to be procured, the numbers stated are from when people originally signed on or showed interest, at those prices. The price have gone up it has come to the stage that in each region the aircraft was to be sold that the total procurement number are close to what a single nation was going procure. Example Japan need around 150, but they can only afford between 25 to 50 at the current increasing costs. Australia need 150, due to cost signed on 100, but will only be able to afford 65, Singapore the same.

So instead of 500 to 600 in that region there may be 150, the number one country required. All this pushes the price up which puts pressure on the US procurements which is support the whole program, their number go down from 2400 to perhaps 1800 which further pushes the price up. And that is how it gets canceled.

And the whole point was for an aircraft that would operate in coalition operations to lift the burden off the US. Those cost are not factored in, instead of the US deploying 1000 5th generation around 500 with another 500 made up of the coalition.

Tom Tran
July 27, 2011 at 03:47

Yes exactly, but that WAS 60 years ago. Loo at Japan vs China now. And you missed something more important than that. Chinese communist party and its puppet regimes in Vietnam, Cambodia’s Polpot, Kim dynasty had killed many millions and IS killing millions in their own countries.

July 27, 2011 at 03:40

Typical brainwashed Chinese response. China’s Guanxi and Kunming was Vietnam territory. Vietnam should demand its lands to be returned. Same for Mongolia, Tibet, Taiwan, India, Laos. We should break China into many parts so the world can live with peace some day.

johny pusong
July 4, 2011 at 05:31

Don’t worry. China is playing the role of former Japanese empire prior to WWII.

June 27, 2011 at 02:33

China had historic claims to those islands, and simple internet research will tell you that.

Vice Foreign Minister Ung Van Khien said to Li Zhimin, Charge d’Affaires of the Chinese Embassy in Vietnam, that “according to Vietnamese data, the Xisha and Nansha islands (paracel and spratly islands) are historically part of Chinese territory.”
WOW hipocritical pro vietnamnese sure like to change their faces. you guys only changed your stance in the 70s after speculated oil reserve.

also the north east border with russia was NEVER clearly drawn before modern times. before the Treaty of Nerchinsk those land gained was only losely connected with Chinese courts, locally they are more or less independent tribes.

China never bullies, China only make moves based upon solid facts, while greedy south east asia countries are only driven by possible oil reserves.

June 26, 2011 at 18:35

LOL no suprises here very hipocritical pro-Chinese comments.

Why do you think Paracel Islands and Spratly Islands are yours? Is it because you invaded and murdered South Vietnamese sailors in 1974? China, get out of those islands and return them to their rightful owners.

Speaking of USSR/Russia, why don’t you read this article – http://thediplomat.com/2011/06/22/china-looms-over-russia-far-east/

“a sizeable portion of the lands north of the Amur River and the lands east of Jilin and Heilongjiang, which are now part of Russia, were considered Chinese territory for more than 150 years under the terms of the Treaty of Nerchinsk.”

Go ahead and bully Russia to get your land back. What is the matter? Not that easy, right? Typical of China bully, so scared of stronger nations.

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