Japan Is Building a Next-Gen Stealth Fighter Jet of Its Own

Kyle Mizokami
·4-min read

From Popular Mechanics

  • Japan has given the nod to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to develop a new indigenous fighter jet.

  • The fighter will borrow American technology, likely from the F-22 and F-35 fighters.

  • The new fighter jet, known as the F-X, is Japan’s first new fighter in nearly 30 years.

Japan has selected Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) as the lead contractor for the country’s new fighter jet. The fighter, tentatively named F-X, will fly by 2028, with production scheduled for the 2030s.

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The new fighter will replace the F-2, also built by Mitsubishi, and will incorporate American aerospace technology and know-how.

Photo credit: KAZUHIRO NOGI - Getty Images
Photo credit: KAZUHIRO NOGI - Getty Images

Mitsubishi built a number of famous World War II aircraft, including the A6M “Zero” naval fighter, but Japan stopped developing and producing warplanes after the war. The country, which for decades manufactured American fighters under license, has made no secret of its desire to reignite its fighter aircraft development.

Japan's latest fighter, the F-2, is a derivative of the F-16 Fighting Falcon that Lockheed Martin developed in the 1990s.

Photo credit: KAZUHIRO NOGI - Getty Images
Photo credit: KAZUHIRO NOGI - Getty Images

The news comes as Japan faces an aging fighter jet problem. For decades, the country operated F-15J fighters, a locally built version of the F-15 Eagle, the outdated F-4J Phantom, and the F-2. Japan intended on buying Lockheed's F-22 Raptor, but those plans were dashed by the imposition of an export ban on the high-tech fighter.

Japan has retired the F-4J, is upgrading and refurbishing half of the 200-strong F-15J fleet, and is purchasing 147 F-35A and -B fighters. The new fighter will replace what remains of an original order of 98 F-2s in the 2030s, five of which were damaged beyond repair during Japan's 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The F-X will also likely replace a portion of the remaining F-15J fleet.

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Japan flew a flight demonstrator aircraft, the X-2 Shinshin, between 2016 and 2018 and will likely use knowledge obtained from those flights to shape its future fighter. Japan has also stated it will request assistance from U.S. aerospace companies to assist building the plane.

Photo credit: AFP - Getty Images
Photo credit: AFP - Getty Images

Earlier this year, Nikkei News reported Lockheed, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman all presented Tokyo with proposals for how their respective companies could provide technological assistance with the new fighter. Japan will also share fighter technology with the United Kingdom, which is developing its new Tempest fighter.

Photo credit: Kaz Photography - Getty Images
Photo credit: Kaz Photography - Getty Images

So what will the F-X look like? The fighter will incorporate a stealthy design, and Japan has emphasized interoperability with American fighter jets. One priority will be air-to-air combat, as Japan will already operate the F-35 as a multi-role air-to-air and air-to-ground fighter.

Japan will also prioritize long range, which will help the F-X fly from bases nearer to central Japan and still face off against Chinese warplanes operating in and around the East China Sea. The fighter will be capable of directing up to three “loyal wingman” combat drones.

The fighter will likely be armed with the Joint New Air to Air Missile, a Japan/U.K. collaboration that experts believe will combine the built-in advanced radar seeker of Japan’s AAM-4B medium-range, air-to-air missile with the ramjet engine of the U.K.’s Meteor missile.

The F-X may not carry a gun, as Japan doesn't domestically produce an aircraft-mounted gun, although MHI could license the GAU-22 25-millimeter Gatling gun mounted on the F-35 fighter. Other possible payloads include the American Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), the Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER), and hypersonic air-to-ground weapons.

Photo credit: Richard Baker - Getty Images
Photo credit: Richard Baker - Getty Images

MHI is a prime Japanese defense contractor, responsible for the development and construction of the new Type 10 main battle tank and Soryu-class submarines. The company is also a partner with Lockheed in operating a final assembly and checkout (FACO) facility for F-35s operated by countries in the Asia Pacific region. Plus, MHI designed and built the F-2 fighter in cooperation with Lockheed, and built the F-15J, F-4EJ, and F-104J fighter jets under license.

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