Japan’s Stealth Fighter Gambit (Page 3 of 6)

In 2007, the goal was for the Shinshin prototype to fly for the first time around 2011. Production models could have followed a few years later. It would have been unlikely, but not impossible, for a combat-ready version of the Shinshin to enter service by the JASDF’s 2017 deadline for new fighters. And if even if the Shinshin had been delayed, it could have been ready in time for the F-XX competition. That would have meant Tokyo selecting an interim fighter to precede the Shinshin.

All the same, in theory the Shinshin could have eventually met at least a portion of Japan’s future fighter requirement, provided the Defence Ministry adequately funded its development. But in 2008, it unexpectedly cut back the ATD-X programme, allocating just $66 million for the next year’s work. At that level of funding, a Shinshin prototype was off the table

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Cost was probably the biggest factor in the 2008 decision. It’s possible Tokyo realized that a Shinshin demonstrator should be a low priority as long as a production version remained unjustifiably pricey. ‘There’s a very big jump from funding a technology demonstrator to creating a producible aircraft,’ says Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group based in Virginia. ‘That jump is at least $20 billion, which certainly isn’t in the (ASDF) budget.’

The design and production of advanced warplanes can be enormously expensive – in some cases, the most expensive national undertaking in a country's history. At a trillion dollars over 50 years, the US military’s F-35 is the costliest weapons programme ever, and is expected to exceed on an annual basis the entire US foreign aid budget.

In the late 1980s, Israel cancelled its indigenous Lavi fighter after realizing the warplane would consume around half of the country’s annual weapons budget over many years.

Cost is the major reason why only a handful of countries design and produce their own fighters, and why just three – the United States, Russia and China – make more than one type of fighter.

Japan is constitutionally limited to spending just 1 percent of its Gross Domestic Product on the military. That makes the calculations for a domestic fighter programme even more difficult than they would be for other wealthy countries. ‘No other major country spends only 1 percent of its gross domestic product on defence,’ says Patrick Cronin, an analyst with the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C.

Three percent seems to be the average, and the United States spends close to 5 percent.

Yoshioka estimated ATD-X could eventually set Japan back $100 billion once design, production, maintenance and operations were factored in. Assuming a 40-year service life for the plane, that would mean the Shinshin could consume more than 5 percent of Japan’s roughly $50-billion-a-year defence budget – and produce just a few dozen copies.

By comparison, the F-35 should account for just 3 percent of the United States’ much larger military budget. The US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps together plan to buy as many as 2,500 F-35s; foreign customers are likely to purchase hundreds more.

US fighters such as the F-35, plus their European, Russian and Chinese counterparts, are almost always meant for, and usually result in, export orders. They are often licensed for foreign production. By contrast, many smaller nations initiate what Aboulafia calls ‘national fighter concepts’ – that is, advanced combat aircraft tailored specifically to a single nation’s defence needs and produced mostly from the country’s own industrial base, with little chance of export.

‘National fighter concepts are almost always a very bad idea,’ Aboulafia says. Examples include Israel’s Lavi, an overpriced Czech fighter-bomber called the L-159 and, most catastrophically, India’s Light Combat Aircraft, which spent 30 years in development, consuming more than a billion dollars before finally producing a rudimentary, lightweight fighter this year. 

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