During the Cold War, Japan’s Air Force deployed some of the most advanced aerial warfare capabilities in the world. The country’s large economy and strategic importance to the U.S.-led alliance network led it to be provided with the most elite American made fighters available. While lower tier U.S. allies such as South Vietnam and the Philippines were provided with lighter second generation F-5 fighters, Japan was sold large numbers of the heavy F-4 Phantom and was even permitted to jointly produce the fighters domestically. Japan went on to become an early operator of the fourth generation F-15, one of only three U.S. allies sold advanced air superiority variants of the fighter alongside Israel and Saudi Arabia. Most U.S. allies had to make do with the lighter and less capable F-16.
While Japan expected receive to and showed strong interest in acquiring the U.S. F-22 Raptor, an elite fifth generation air superiority fighter and the successor to the F-4 and F-15, in the mid 2000s Tokyo was prevented from acquiring the fighter due to a blanket congressional export ban. The decision not to sell Japan a modern replacement to the F-15 continues to seriously hinder Japan’s security to this day, and the country has all but completely lost its Cold War era air superiority advantage in light of the fast growing capabilities of neighboring China – with Beijing’s fleet today vastly surpassing that of Tokyo both quantitatively and qualitatively.
While Japan was unable to acquire the F-22, the United States has heavily marketed the F-35 to Tokyo. Though the F-35 is also a fifth generation fighter, it was designed as a single engine light platform and its air-to-air combat capabilities leave much to be desired compared to those of the elite F-22 — and even those of advanced fourth generation fighters such as the F-15J and China’s J-11B. The platform was designed as a lower cost complement to the Raptor to be widely exported, a successor to the F-5 and F-16 lacking the cutting edge air-to-air combat capabilities of heavier fighters Japan was able to acquire during the Cold War.
While the F-35 retains some radar evading capabilities, its radar cross section far exceeds that of the F-22, making it far less survivable — leading some analysts to term it a “pseudo stealthy” fighter. As a single engine light platform with a small arsenal of just four air-to-air missiles, restricted to a below average speed of Mach 1.6 and a very low altitude relative to the Raptor, the F-15J, and elite twin engine Chinese fighters, the F-35 hardly presents an adequate solution to counter China’s growing fleet of advanced twin engine air superiority fighters, most notably its own equivalent to the F-22, the J-20. Indeed, it was never designed for such an air superiority role.
U.S. military officials and numerous think tanks have repeatedly stressed that the F-35 is not an air superiority platform and cannot replace the F-15. Former Air Force chief of staff General Mark Welsh stated that the F-35 “was never designed to be the next dog fighting machine. It was designed to be the multipurpose, data-integration platform that could do all kinds of things in the air-to-ground arena including dismantle enemy, integrated, air defenses. It had an air-to-air capability, but it was not intended to be an air-superiority fighter. That was the F-22.” Air Combat Command chief General Mike Hostage similarly stated regarding the F-35’s lack of air superiority capabilities: “If I do not keep that F-22 fleet viable, the F-35 fleet frankly will be irrelevant. The F-35 is not built as an air superiority platform. It needs the F-22.” Stressing the Raptor’s importance, Hostage predicted that, while the F-35 was unsuitable for an air superiority role, the F-15 would be obsolete by 2024.
With Tokyo unable to acquire the F-22 and with none of its allies producing a fighter capable of replacing its aging F-15 fleet, Japan sought to develop a fighter indigenously to fulfill an advanced air superiority role and match China’s top of the line new combat jets such as the J-20. The program, at technology demonstrator stages known as the Mitsubishi Shinshin X2, saw its first demonstrator flight in April 2016 and appeared highly promising. The fighter featured potent active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, fly by wire fire control systems, and several other advanced features. The platform also incorporated three dimensional thrust vectoring, giving it supermaneuverable capabilities previously found only on the most advanced Russian fighters such as the Su-57. Another outstanding feature under development for the fighter was a “Self Repairing Flight Control Capability” to allow the aircraft to detect failures or damage in its flight control surfaces automatically — and use remaining control surfaces to calibrate accordingly and retain controlled flight. These features are notably absent on the F-22 as well as the Chinese J-20, and could well give the new Japanese fighter the ability to outperform all contenders for air superiority in the Pacific.
Another option for Japan to modernize its air superiority capabilities — which Tokyo appears to have been highly receptive to, possibly as a result of difficulties developing its own fighter — is for Lockheed Martin, which developed both the F-22 and the F-35, to produce a new platform specifically for the country’s needs. With the F-22 program already halted, Lockheed has recently marketed this new platform as a “hybrid” of the Raptor and its newer and lighter fighter. A heavy twin-engine variant of the F-35 specialized for air superiority, or alternatively a more modern version of the F-22 which fixes problems with the Raptor’s aging computer architecture , remain distinct possibilities.
With Japan’s F-35 unsuitable for its needs and its F-15 far too old to allow it to retain parity with its neighbors, Tokyo is highly likely to acquire such a fighter from the United States should its Shinshin X2 fail to make progress. A joint venture between Mitsubishi and Lockheed Martin to produce the elite fighter for Japan, much like that which developed the F-2 from the U.S. F-16 with significant Japanese technological inputs in the 1990s, remains a highly feasible alternative which could combine both programs to give Japan a truly lethal next generation fighter. With the capabilities of China’s elite fighters fast growing, and the J-20 threatening to surpass even the F-22 in its sophistication in the near future, such a fighter program is sorely needed by Tokyo.
Abraham Ait is a military analyst specializing in Asia-Pacific security and the role of air power in modern warfare. He is chief editor of Military Watch Magazine.