The Japanese Air Self-Defence Force, in cooperation with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, launched the Shinshin programme around six years ago. At the time, Tokyo was trying to talk Washington into selling to Japan the F-22, which entered service in 2005 and is widely considered the world's best air-to-air fighter.
It’s fair to say that the Shinshin's fortunes have always been tied to those of other countries’ stealth planes: first the F-22, next the J-20 and finally the F-35.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
In 2005, the Japanese Air Self-Defence Force needed around 50 fighters to replace 30-year-old, American-designed F-4 Phantoms. A competition dubbed ‘F-X’ was launched to select the new warplane. Six years later, the F-4s are still flying and F-X, repeatedly delayed, is scheduled to wrap up sometime this year.
The JASDF wants the first of the new fighters to enter service no later than 2017. Depending on the model selected, F-X could dovetail with another fighter competition known as ‘F-XX,’ which would select a type to begin replacing the oldest of Japan’s roughly 200 F-15s.
Pretty much every major, in-production Western jet fighter has been associated with F-X over the years. Today just three are still in the running: the European Typhoon, Boeing's F/A-18E/F and the F-35.
In the beginning, the F-22 was the preferred solution to the F-X requirement. But Tokyo’s lobbying for the Raptor was complicated by a US law, passed in 2000, that prohibited the stealthy plane’s export in order to protect its technology.
The Shinshin was widely viewed as an effort by Tokyo to pressure Washington into changing its F-22 policy, by showing the US leadership that Japan was determined to have a stealth fighter one way or another. Washington could either profit from Tokyo's acquisition of stealth warplanes, or stand idly by and let Japan reap all the benefits itself. That was what Aviation Week writer Bradley Perrett called ‘the implicit threat behind the ATD-X programme.’
To lend credibility to the veiled threat, Japan’s Technical Research and Development Institute – the defence ministry's main weapons-development agency – sketched out the basic shape of a radar-evading airframe and began work on a jet engine, called the XF5-1, plus other technologies.
TRDI reportedly also built at least three test models to support Shinshin development. One, a full-scale, non-flying example, was shipped to a radar range in France in 2005 to gather data on its ‘radar cross-section’ – in other words, how big the plane might appear on enemy radars. In 2006, the defence ministry released photos of the radar model for the first time.
In addition, a smaller model, around six feet-long, was built for wind-tunnel testing. Finally, TRDI assembled a 1/5-scale, radio-controlled, flying version to observe the airframe’s basic flight characteristics.
Even with all this hardware to demonstrate its seriousness, Tokyo’s stealth fighter gambit failed. The US Congress repeatedly declined to repeal the Raptor export ban, and in 2007 the US State Department made it official. ‘US law prohibits the U.S. from selling the F-22,’ the department stated. ‘The United States is committed to working with Japan as Japan chooses its future fighter aircraft, to find the appropriate capabilities for a strong and credible alliance.’
At that point, Tokyo began talking about the Shinshin as something other than a bargaining chip. Now the ATD-X programme represented Japan’s best chance for acquiring a stealth fighter – a certain kind of stealth fighter, at least. In August 2007, Japan’s Defence Ministry authorized the TRDI to construct a flying Shinshin demonstrator. ‘We realized that it was important for us to develop our domestic capabilities,’ TRDI’s Lt. Gen. Hideyuki Yoshioka explained.