Japan says it wants international collaboration in developing its Future Fighter for the 2030s, but it wants to lead the project despite limited experience in fighter development. And it aims at a fighter much larger than any operated by a western European country ; the U.S. is not offering a possible joint project.
That seems to leave only the choice of indigenous development, perhaps with help from a foreign technical partner.
Nevertheless, participation in the UK’s Tempest program may also be feasible. The Tempest project—which includes the Royal Air Force, BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce and MBDA—has a cooperation concept that leaves scope for Japan and other partners to use their own systems, weapons, propulsion and even airframes, says Air Commodore Daniel Storr, head of combat aircraft acquisition at the UK Defense Ministry.
The model described by Storr gives Japan the flexibility to choose the size of its own fighter. Though evidently not an objective, this mix-and-match approach also creates an opportunity for Japan to continue to claim development leadership—but also to save money by sharing systems.
The policy goal of running its own fighter program, stated in 2018, has looked like a big obstacle to Japan’s participation in the Tempest or the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) project initiated by France and Germany. But if the Future Fighter shared only some features with Tempest, Japan could reasonably say it was leading its own program.
BAE Systems promoted the Tempest program at the DSEI Japan exhibition held in Tokyo fromNov. 18-20. Prospective FCAS prime contractors, such as Airbus, did not show their concept. Storr outlined the flexible model of cooperative development at an exhibition conference, but Japanese speakers at that event did not comment on the prospect of Japan joining Tempest.
In a Nov. 1 interview with The Financial Times, newly appointed Defense Minister Taro Kono seemed to play down the possibility of participation in a European program, saying Japan should explore all possibilities but needed to maintain interoperability with U.S. forces. Storr addressed that point, emphasizing that working with the U.S. was a high priority for the UK too.
Japan’s alternative to international cooperation is developing a fighter by itself with the technical help of a foreign company. Lockheed Martin is supporting the Korea Aerospace Industries KF-X and BAE is helping the Turkish Aerospace Industries TF-X in such an arrangement.
By working with Lockheed Martin, Boeing or Northrop Grumman, Tokyo would partially compensate the U.S. for its expenditures in defending Japan. But the U.S. would gain little from technical support fees, and Japan is already committed to buying 147 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightnings as the aircraft to precede the Future Fighters.
The defense ministry has asked for the development of the Future Fighter to be launched in the fiscal year beginning April 2020. It is not clear whether that means mobilizing resources to commence full-scale development or taking some lesser step to firm up the commitment to create the aircraft.
For the past year, the government’s policy has been to launch no later than March 2024. However, Japanese companies, especially fighter builder Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI), are pushing for a launch as soon as possible. They want to transfer knowledge to young engineers from the older generation that developed Japan’s last fighter, the MHI F-2, which the Future Fighter will replace.
The UK does not want to commit to launching full-scale development of the Tempest before 2025, but its date for entry into service in 2035 meets Japan’s objective, which is sometime in the 2030s. Meanwhile, the FCAS program is aiming at 2040.
Sweden and Italy are cooperating with the UK during the current early stage of Tempest research, while Spain has joined France and Germany for FCAS work.
Like Storr, BAE has stressed the advantages of partners taking only as much of the Tempest as they want. “There is a range of different partnership models that can be considered,” says Andy Latham, who is working on the program. “Japan has some great technology that any partner can benefit from. Their avionics industry is pretty effective.”
The cooperation concept replaces the standard model, one in which partners spend years negotiating and compromising to define a design that all of them must accept. Instead, according to Storr, they can save time and money by agreeing to disagree—to the extent that each is willing to pay the extra cost of independent development and manufacturing of design elements.
The Japanese defense ministry’s studies point to a need for a very big fighter with an empty weight well above 20 metric tons (40,000 lb.), larger than the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. Superior endurance and internal weapon capacity are the key factors behind this choice.
No western European country has operated a fighter more than about two-thirds as big, but Storr said a large configuration for the Tempest cannot be ruled out. The mockup exhibited at the 2018 Farnborough International Airshow was bigger than the F-22.
Still, the UK and other European partners might want a much smaller fighter; concept designs that have not been shown are not as big as the mockup. But the concept for cooperation would allow for Japan to devise its own airframe while, for example, using the same engine and some weapons, software and avionics as other partners. The architecture of the software is intended to be open, accepting different programs easily.
Tempest researchers will consider which systems and capabilities will go into the fighter and which will be incorporated into the ammunition or an accompanying drone, which could be fully reusable or optionally expendable, Storr says. The FCAS program is taking a similar approach.
The Tempest will need great capacity for generating electricity, he says, and the weapon bay should be regarded as a payload bay, perhaps for holding additional fuel that would extend endurance on surveillance missions.
The Japanese finance ministry is insisting upon private investment in the Future Fighter program, in part to ensure contractors are fully incentivized to prevent failure. Contractors will be able to make money in civil programs from technology developed for the fighter, says the ministry, which is highly influential but does not have a final say.
“Judging from past program examples, it is clear that the Future Fighter program would bring a risk of a budget overrun and schedule slippage, but would also benefit the private sector,” the finance ministry said in an October presentation to the Council on Fiscal Policy, an advisory body.
“The government and private sector should invest funds and resources to build a failure-proof framework.”
Noting that MHI used technology from the F-2 program in its development and manufacturing of the outer wing boxes of the Boeing 787, the ministry says contractors can expect to gain similar opportunities for civil applications of technology from the Future Fighter program—so they should invest in it.