Japan's F-35 Choice Questioned
Image Credit: U.S. Navy

Japan's F-35 Choice Questioned

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The Diplomat speaks with Gareth Jennings, IHS Jane's Aviation desk editor and managing editor of Jane's Missiles & Rockets, to discuss Japan’s choice of the F-35 fighter in its recent F-X competition.

 

Japan has just selected the F-35 as its next fighter aircraft and winner of the F-X project. Some have asserted the choice was more political than based on merit. Do you agree?

My opinion is that politics played a large part in the decision, but was not the sole reason. Ever since Japan was allowed to rebuild its air force after World War II, it has either developed and built its own types (the Mitsubishi F-1 and F-2, both based on western designs) or has bought the rights to license-build U.S. aircraft in Japan (the Mitsubishi-Boeing F-15J Eagle, Mitsubishi/McDonnell Douglas F-4EJ Phantom II). To the best of my knowledge, Japan has never bought a non-U.S. combat aircraft. The reasons for this are largely political – the United States is Japan's greatest ally and it is the U.S. that would come to Japan's aid if ever the Russians or the Chinese attacked. Also, the U.S. provides much of the technology transfer Japan requires for its own aerospace industry (the F-2 was a joint Japanese / U.S. project built around the F-16 Fighting Falcon).

Although many suggested that the Eurofighter Typhoon was best placed to fulfill the requirements of the F-X competition (it's arguably the most capable air-to-air platform, which is the main requirement of F-X), it was always going to be the outsider being a European aircraft. That left the F-18 Super Hornet and the F-35 (both U.S. aircraft). The Super Hornet is the oldest of the three (although it entered U.S. Navy service in the mid-2000s, it's based on the Hornet design that goes back to the 1970s), and many felt Japan might be put off for that reason.

That left the F-35. Over recent years, Japan has made no secret of its desire to procure the stealthy Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, but was continually rebuffed by the U.S. government. Of the F-22's many attributes, it was its stealth that made it so alluring to Japan. While both the Typhoon and the Super Hornet do have stealthy characteristics, the F-35 has been largely marketed on the back of its stealth capabilities. Japan is currently in the early stages of developing its own indigenous ATD-X stealth fighter, so any expertise that can be gained from industrial participation in F-35 production will certainly be welcome. In all likelihood it's this, coupled with Japan's long-standing political and industrial allegiance to the U.S., that secured F-X success for the F-35.

Some commentators have argued the Eurofighter would have been a better choice based on the criteria of the F-X competition. Do you agree?

In its F-X competition, Japan was looking for an air superiority fighter to replace its ageing Mitsubishi/McDonnell Douglas F-4EJ Phantom IIs. Many have suggested that the emphasis on interdiction and strike in the F-35's design may adversely affect its air-to-air capability.

Whereas the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Eurofighter Typhoon were both developed to be fighters first and bombers second (particularly so with the Typhoon), the opposite is true for the F-35.

It has been proven in the past that, while it's possible to make a bomber out of a fighter (the F-4 Phantom, F-15 Eagle and F/A-18 Hornet being prime examples), the opposite doesn't hold true (the fighter variant of the Panavia Tornado didn't acquit itself in the same manner as did the original strike variant).

For its part, Lockheed Martin dismisses such concerns, telling Jane's that the F-35 "was designed and built to counter the most advanced airborne and ground-based threats — exactly the air-defense environment that Japan faces today and in the future. The F-35 has exceptional air-to-air capabilities based on its stealth, full-fighter aerodynamic performance, advanced sensors, sensor fusion and advanced datalinks."

This may be true, but all of the attributes listed above, with the exception of "full-fighter aerodynamic performance," are primarily of importance in the beyond-visual-range (BVR) environment. This BVR environment isn't normally encountered outside a full-scale war as pilots are usually required to visually identify potential targets before engaging them.

While Lockheed Martin talks up the aircraft's aerodynamic performance, its been noted that the F-35's relatively small wing area will translate into high wing loadings during a turning dogfight. Such loadings aren't good in an air-to-air combat scenario as they severely limit maneuverability. As such, questions have been raised over the F-35's ability to match the maneuverability of Chinese types such as the J-10 and J-11 during close-in aerial combat.

Of the three aircraft, the Typhoon is most widely held up to be the best in aerial combat, and so on this basis you have to suppose it would have been best place to fulfill Japan’s requirements in this instance.

If the Eurofighter had been selected, how would it measure up against new regional planes like China's J-20 fighter?

It’s hard to say as the Typhoon is a proven and battle tested aircraft, whereas the J-20 is still a developmental prototype. If the Chinese claims about the aircraft are true, then it's more in the league of the F-22, which is arguably the most capable fighter in the world today. It would seem that Japan’s indigenous ATD-X stealth fighter program would be more geared to combating threats such as the J-20, whereas the Typhoon would be a peer rival to the J-10 and J-11 fighters currently in service with the PLAF.

There have been some reports that suggest had Japan selected the Eurofighter or F-18, there could have been opportunities for technology sharing and possible domestic production of the aircraft. How beneficial would have this been to Japan's domestic fighter aircraft industry?

Like most other countries, Japan is always looking to further its own domestic aerospace industry and technology transfer is always one of the carrots that competing manufacturers will offer. In its competition, Brazil has voiced concerns about the extent to which Boeing can transfer the technology of its Super Hornet, so it would be interesting to see what transfer was offered to Japan. However, local assembly is a requirement of the competition, so whoever won it would have to offer something in this regard.

Some have made the argument the F-18 would have been a better choice, with its having a lower cost per plane. What advantages would there have been with going with this aircraft?

The Super Hornet is arguably the cheapest of the three (although it depends on how you calculate this – some figures include engines, others don’t and have them as an "optional extra"). Already being in service with the U.S. Navy and Australia there's a huge logistical support base in place, which Japan could tap into for further savings. In addition, Boeing is committed to a capability enhancement program called ‘the International Roadmap’ for the aircraft.

Japan in the next few years will have a need to replace its aging F-15 fleet. As it stands now, what aircraft do you feel is in the lead position for such a role?

In my opinion, either F-35 or ATD-X or a combination of the two.

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