Japan’s Stealth Fighter Gambit

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Japan’s Stealth Fighter Gambit

Tokyo seems poised to spend billions developing the country’s first homegrown stealth warplane. But is the Shinshin really meant for military service?

It’s an arms race Beijing claims it doesn’t want, Russia can’t afford, the United States believes it can’t afford and Japan probably isn’t prepared for on its own.

All the same, the intensifying competition to build radar-evading jet fighters has had a powerful effect on the politics, industry and military forces of the Pacific's four greatest powers – and none more so than Japan’s.

The most recent chapter in a tale that began in 2005 opened with a grainy photograph of a black-painted warplane, published on an Internet forum six months ago. On Christmas Day, Chinese government Internet censors allowed the first amateur photo of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s new J-20 stealth-fighter demonstrator to linger online.

The J-20, a product of the Chengdu design bureau, is a visually impressive aircraft, substantially bigger than Western warplanes such as the F-15 and F/A-18 and adorned with sharp angles meant to reduce its radar reflectivity. Such angles are also seen on the latest US F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters, both built by Lockheed Martin, plus on the Sukhoi T-50 from Russia.

More photos and videos of the J-20 soon followed. But Beijing remained silent about the new plane’s purpose and capability. Foreign analysts, meanwhile, worked themselves into something of a panic.

‘Any notion that an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or F/A-18E/F Super Hornet will be capable of competing against this Chengdu design in air combat, let alone penetrate airspace defended by this fighter, would be simply absurd,’ wrote Carlo Kopp and Peter Goon, from the think tank Air Power Australia.

If the PLAAF masters engines to match the J-20’s airframe, ‘Asian Pacific’s political landscape will be changed,’ claimed Arthur Ding, a Taiwanese analyst.

Finally, a Chinese official opened up about the J-20. It was in late May, at a press conference during PLA chief Gen. Chen Bingde’s weeklong visit to Washington, D.C. ‘We do not want to use our money to buy equipment or advanced weapons to challenge the United States,’ Chen said in response to a question about the J-20.

There was a ‘gaping gap’ between US and Chinese technology, the general admitted.

But it was too late for Chen to stop an arms race. The J-20’s appearance had already prompted the United States and its closest Pacific ally, Japan, to accelerate the modernization of their own air arsenals. Russia, cash-strapped as always, doggedly plugged away at a planned decade-long test programme using two T-50 prototypes.

Despite a ballooning federal budget deficit and flattening defence spending, Washington shifted billions of dollars into efforts to improve its fleet of F-15 Eagle and F-22 Raptor fighters, while also reaffirming its commitment to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the total cost of which was projected to exceed $1 trillion.

Tokyo’s reaction to the J-20 was arguably even more dramatic. In a surprise move for a country that carefully avoids military confrontation, Japan revived a plan to develop its own stealth warplane – from scratch.

Today, the so-called Shinshin (‘spirit’) fighter – the product of the Advanced Technology Demonstrator, or ‘ATD-X,’ programme – exists only as a small-scale, radio-controlled model, two non-flying mock-ups and various isolated bits of technology including engines, electronics and the canopy. But plans are in place to fly a fully-functioning demonstrator no later than 2014.

What happens after that is open to speculation. Sometime after 2016, a derivative of the Shinshin could join the F-22, the F-35, the T-50 and potentially the J-20 as combat-ready stealth warplanes in widespread military use.

More likely, Tokyo will continue using Shinshin for its original purpose, as a sacrificial player in a complex political, military and industrial game, the ultimate goal of which is to win Japan a stake in a more affordable (for Japan) and potentially more effective US stealth fighter.

Either way, the J-20’s appearance has raised the stakes for Tokyo and the Japanese air force. Tokyo is facing a shortage of combat-ready fighters, a problem the Chinese warplane’s appearance underscored in dramatic fashion.

The question is whether Japan will design and build new fighters on its own, despite the high cost and extreme risk of such an endeavour – or continue relying on the Americans to supply its warplanes, a strategy that comes with its own political and industrial costs.

Bargaining Chip

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.

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

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

Price of Admission

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. 

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.