Japan’s Stealth Fighter Gambit (Page 5 of 6)

Stealth Jobs Programme

It’s possible Tokyo suspended ATD-X after calculating the Shinshin's long-term cost in the context of its limited ability to attack naval vessels. But that was before the events of 2010, which altered the strategic calculus not only for Tokyo, but for governments across Asia and the Pacific

In a roughly 12-month span beginning in January last year, both Russia and China unveiled, and flew, stealth fighter prototypes or demonstrators. The T-50 and J-20 are both big enough, and apparently sufficiently advanced, to be readily adapted for full-scale production – possibly within a decade's time.

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It’s debatable just how much the T-50 and J-20 could actually alter the overall Pacific balance of power. But their effect on the thinking of Russia’s and China's neighbours is undeniable. ‘At this stage it’s only a psychological impact,’ Ding said of the J-20's impact. ‘It shows China's determination to spend tremendous resources to develop new fighters.’

The United States responded with a demonstration of its own determination. In one of his last major speeches as US Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates reaffirmed the US commitment to air power. ‘The most plausible, high-end scenarios for the US military are primarily naval and air engagements,’ Gates said. ‘The weight of America’s deterrent and strategic military strength has shifted to our air and naval forces.’ 

Cash flowed with the rhetoric. This year, the Pentagon announced plans to spend $25 billion annually over three decades developing, buying and maintaining F-15s, F/A-18E/Fs, F-22s, F-35s and other warplanes. The investment is meant to preserve, indefinitely, the United States’ position as the world’s biggest and most advanced air power. 

The ASDF began talking about the Shinshin again. For two years after Tokyo effectively suspended the ATD-X programme, Japanese officials were all silent about the stealth fighter. But the T-50 and J-20 changed that. ‘If the countries surrounding Japan have stealth capabilities, Japan will need to develop those capabilities itself to ensure our own defence,’ TRDI's Col. Yoshikazu Takizawa told the Associated Press in March.

Yoshioka, the ASDF general, told the same reporter that Shinshin was back in development, and should fly by 2014. He said the government would decide by 2016 whether to proceed with a combat-ready version of the plane. 

With an infusion of cash and firm plans in place, suddenly the Shinshin was more viable than it had ever been during the early days of the F-X competition and Tokyo’s efforts to wheedle F-22s from Washington – or so it seemed.

In truth, the factors that rendered the Shinshin unaffordable and less than suitable operationally back in 2008 remained in 2011. The Japanese stealth fighter was still too expensive and too small to meet the ASDF's needs in the medium term.

But what if Shinshin in 2011 is just a pawn in a political, military and industrial game, as it had been in 2005? That’s Aboulafia's view. ‘I really don’t think it’s intended as a production programme,’ he says of ATD-X.

It could be that the Shinshin is now a jobs initiative, meant to keep Japan’s several hundred remaining fighter engineers employed, and their skills current, until a new warplane enters production following the F-X decision. ‘Japan’s ATD-X is an important way for Japan’s defence industry to remain ready for joint production of a new-generation fighter,’ Cronin says.

Today, just one fighter, the F-2, is still in production in Japan. After Mitsubishi delivers the last F-2 in September, the ATD-X will be the only fighter programme requiring advanced engineering. All other fighter work will be focused on maintenance and basic upgrades to existing planes. 

Keeping engineers busy designing and assembling the Shinshin demonstrator would be particularly relevant to one of the three warplanes still in the F-X competition. The F-35 is the only stealth fighter vying for the Japanese contract. And signs point to it as the likely winner.

For starters, the F-35 is the closest thing to an F-22 that Japan is likely to have access to, now or in the near future. While not as fast as the Raptor or capable of carrying as many air-to-air missiles internally, the F-35 is equally stealthy by some metrics and even holds several key advantages over its larger Lockheed stable mate.

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