Approval of Fighter Exports Puts Japan on Same Footing as U.K., Italy in Development Talks

From BAE Systems website
A rendering of next-generation fighter jets

The Cabinet’s approval on Tuesday of a plan allowing the export of next-generation fighter jets to third-party countries has finally paved the way for Japan to negotiate on an equal footing with Britain and Italy, with whom it will jointly develop the jets.

The government aims to establish a domestic production base and achieve cost reductions through exports, drawing on lessons from the F-2 and F-15 fighter jets, whose development relied heavily on the United States.

“We’ll steadily move forward our discussions with Britain and Italy to realize a fighter jet suitable for our country’s security environment,” said Defense Minister Minoru Kihara at a press conference on Tuesday.

In December 2022, the three countries decided to jointly develop the next-generation fighter, aiming to complete its development by 2035. Japan plans to deploy it as the successor to the Air Self-Defense Force’s F-2 jet. The international organization GIGO is expected to be launched this fall to manage the project.

Due to difficulties the ruling Liberal Democratic Party had in coordinating with its junior coalition partner Komeito, the decision to allow exports of the fighter to third countries was delayed from February, as initially planned, to March.

Bitter experience

Promoting exports and mass production is essential to reducing the development cost per jet.

In a parliamentary session last December, British Secretary of State for Defence Grant Shapps said: “We recognise that such an aircraft can only be truly successful if the market is greater than the U.K., Italy and Japan.”

Therefore, there was concern that if Japan did not try to lower prices by exporting the jets to third countries, it might put Japan at a disadvantage in negotiations. Britain and Italy then might have, for example, refused the performance sought by Japan.

Japan was unable to take the lead in developing its previous fighters, which proved a bitter experience. While Japan wanted to independently develop the F-2, it was forced to develop the jet jointly based on the U.S. F-16. The F-15 is produced domestically under license from the United States and any modifications require consultation with the U.S. side, resulting in limited freedom for Japan in production.

Long-held ambition

The Defense Ministry has long wanted its own technology for domestic fighter jet development and to be able to modify its fighters as it likes.

“A joint development of fighter jets that allows proactive involvement of Japan from the design stage presents a valuable opportunity to bolster the nation’s defense industry,” said Hirohito Ogi, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Geoeconomics and an expert on security policy.

A production base in Japan would also open the way to future jet exports to members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and beyond. As China continues to expand its military capabilities, the Japanese government is considering aiding the deterrence capacities of allied nations through the export of the next-generation fighter.

Race to 6th-gen dominance

The sixth-generation fighter that Japan, Britain and Italy are aiming to develop would surpass fifth-generation jets such as the advanced F-35. Fighter jets from the third generation onward can engage in combat beyond the pilot’s visual range, thanks to long-range radar and missile capabilities.

The fourth generation, which includes Japan’s F-2 and F-15, saw improvements in radar and communications.

Japan plans to introduce 147 of the F-35s, which are made in the United States. These fifth-generation jets feature stealth capabilities that make them difficult to detect, along with precise sensors and advanced information processing abilities.

According to Japan’s 2023 Defense White Paper, the Chinese military has about 1,500 fourth and fifth-generation fighter jets.

The sixth-generation fighter will improve on features of the fifth generation and be designed to work in conjunction with unmanned drones. It will instantly share data, including data from satellites, to enable advanced networked warfare.

France, Germany and Spain have also started joint development of their sixth-generation fighter, while the United States is considering developing its own model.