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

At as little as $100 million per copy, it’s potentially cheaper than the $150-million F-22, provided several ongoing cost-cutting efforts pan out. And in any event, it would certainly be far less expensive than a derivative of the Shinshin, while also more capable in many, if not most, respects.

Also, the F-35 is designed to balance both air-to-air and surface-attack missions, meaning it could replace the F-4 in both of that plane’s major roles – with one caveat. To preserve the F-35’s stealth while attacking naval vessels, Japan would need to design a new, smaller anti-ship missile…or buy into a missile being developed by Norway and Australia specifically for carriage inside the Joint Strike Fighter.

Most importantly, the F-35 isn’t only not barred from export, it’s specifically designed to be sold abroad, with electronic ‘locks’ on certain systems to prevent tampering.

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Lockheed has promised to give Japanese industry – meaning Mitsubishi – a share of F-35 production. Whether that means producing or assembling parts, or building entire planes, remains to be seen. In any event, that’s more involvement than Japan would have enjoyed with the strictly US-made F-22. 

Gates pushed hard for Tokyo to select the F-35. At a January press conference, he called the Joint Strike Fighter ‘the right airplane’ and the only one that could give Japan so-called ‘fifth-generation’ capability on par with the F-22. 

Continuing ATD-X is the best way to preserve Japanese industry to participate in, though not monopolize, production of the ASDF’s next fighter, particularly if that fighter shares the Shinshin's stealthy qualities.

Will the Shinshin demonstrator fly in 2014, as Yoshioka said it would? It doesn’t really matter. From its beginning as a bargaining chip in negotiations for one US stealth fighter, the Shinshin has apparently evolved over the years into a front for Japanese involvement with another US stealth fighter. It can play that role without ever taking to the air. 

The ASDF will probably operate warplanes equal or better to Russia’s T-50 and China’s J-20, technologically matching those countries in an escalating Pacific arms race. But if so, these planes will most likely be US designs, partially built in Japan, rather than anything purely Japanese.

Having played its sacrificial part in a complex political, industrial and military game, the Shinshin is likely to begin fading from memory as soon as the first F-35s arrive in Japan painted with the ASDF’s traditional red roundel.

Alternative Future

Or maybe not. Just as the ATD-X programme survived the F-22 campaign in order to play an equally important role in the current deliberation over F-35s or alternative fighters, the tiny Japanese stealth warplane could live on well into the 2030s, as a technology incubator for a far-term domestic fighter programme.

A panel of engineers proposed the programme in late 2010, at a meeting of the Society of Japanese Aerospace Companies. They said the fighter chosen for F-X should remain in production through 2028, replacing the ASDF’s F-4s and some of its F-15s. 

At which point, production should switch to an indigenous fighter to replace the rest of the F-15s and all the F-2s. The government should fly the Shinshin demonstrator for several years beginning in 2014, afterwards launching full-scale development of a new warplane using the Shinshin’s technology, the engineers said.

Essentially, the engineers’ plan delays and expands the government’s existing, but highly ambiguous, F-XX concept.

It’s a grand ambition for a country quickly ceding its ability to affordably design and produce its own fighters. And if recent trends hold, the Shinshin’s homegrown successor, as imagined by the engineers, would have less chance of actually entering service.

More likely, it would wind up a pawn in a government gambit to acquire whatever US fighter succeeds the F-35.

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