Japan’s Stealth Fighter Gambit (Page 4 of 6)

As Japan is prohibited by law from exporting weapons, the Shinshin could only ever be a national fighter concept. It’s unclear why it took Tokyo a year to realize that, especially considering Japan is still trying to dig itself out of the financial hole resulting from its last national fighter, the ill-starred F-2.

That warplane began development in the late 1980s as a ‘Japanization’ of the Lockheed Martin F-16, adding a bigger wing and better electronics. But the modifications, performed by Mitsubishi, proved difficult. And the limited production run – fewer than 100 copies over 20 years – made it impossible for Mitsubishi to achieve economies of scale. It’s been claimed that an F-2 costs four times as much as an F-16, without providing anywhere near a fourfold increase in capability.

As expensive as US-made warplanes have become – $60 million per copy for an F/A-18E/F; at least $100 million for a single F-35 – they are still far cheaper than anything Japan could likely produce. The Shinshin threatened to take the national fighter concept to its most extreme, potentially bankrupting the JASDF in exchange for a small number of airplanes. 

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Which Niche? 

It’s also unclear that the Shinshin was the right plane at the right time. ‘Japanese officials will have to compare requirements, fleet size, availability, budget constraints and questions about interoperability (with the United States), as they seek to invest wisely in the future defence of Japan,’ Cronin says.

Besides serious cost concerns, the issue of combat requirements – that is, what the warplane was meant to do – probably factored heavily in Tokyo’s decision to suspend ATD-X in 2008. 

The JASDF’s fighter force is not, on average, old – only the F-4s are. Most of Japan’s approximately 400 fighters are F-15s and F-2s produced since the mid-1980s. The F-15 is built tough; the US Air Force intends to keep upgraded Eagles in service into the 2030s, and there’s no reason Japan couldn’t do the same. The F-2s should be good for at least as long.

The F-X competition is rather meant to pick a replacement for the 1970s-vintage F-4s, implying the new plane should also fill the same roles. But it’s not at all clear the Shinshin is suited to all the tasks currently assigned to the rugged Phantom. In Japanese service, the 30,000-pound F-4 performs two missions: it’s an interceptor and a ship-killer. In the former role, the Phantom fires long-range missiles to destroy enemy aircraft. In the latter, it’s a ‘truck’ for carrying air-to-surface missiles to attack warships.

In its current form, the Shinshin could be an effective aerial fighter, but not a ship-killer. Besides being a third lighter than the F-4, with commensurate reduction in payload over a similar range, it’s not designed to effectively use current and projected anti-ship missiles.

For one, any derivative of the Shinshin will presumably carry its weaponry in an internal bay, in order to minimize its radar-reflection. Such bays, a staple of advanced warplane design, largely dictate the overall size of a stealth fighter. The F-22 is big – 62 feet long, with a 44-foot wingspan and weighing 43,000 pounds empty – because it needs to accommodate eight air-to-air missiles in order to match the weapons load of the F-15 it partially replaced.

The 30,000-pound F-35 is slightly smaller than the F-22 because it is scaled to contain just two air-to-air missiles plus two 2,000-pound bombs simultaneously.

Forty-six feet long, with a 30-foot wingspan and weighing only 20,000 pounds without fuel or weapons, the Shinshin will be small for a modern fighter, to say nothing of a stealth fighter.

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