Japan and the F-35: What to do?
Many critics have questioned the viability of a single engine strike aircraft that has a limited range, no ability to super-cruise, does not work well from short landing strips, and might be an overly-complex hangar queen, as the sole fighter aircraft for nations such as Australia and Canada; but what about Japan?
As more nations develop stealth fighters, then the use of radar as the main target acquisition device will be taken over by infrared, wake tracking, electro-optics, and radio/electronic chatter detection – thereby side-stepping radar stealth features – in short order.
If the F-35’s many technical problems are finally resolved and it becomes a proven combat capable aircraft, then it might be a valuable first-day-of-war weapons platform that can take out an enemy’s air defense capabilities, and decimate their command, control and communications infrastructure.
But does that meet Japan’s military doctrine? Self-defense against incursion threats from fighters, bombers, future drones, and cruise missiles will require the ability to scramble fighters that can quickly extend beyond territorial shores, and have to engage without aerial refuelers, which are a primary first attack target.
Lockheed’s F-22 Raptor is seen as the best air supremacy allied fighter, but has operational troubles requiring many maintenance hours per flight time, and is not exportable in any case. Both Australia and Japan have been firmly rebuffed in the past, but who knows what will happen if the Raptor’s cost and operational difficulties are moderated, and it becomes exportable to close allies.
The Eurofighter Typhoon is considered the next best modern and upgradable air superiority fighter, and the manufacturing consortium is seeking partners that would be fully involved in production and ongoing development, with a complete transfer of technology.
The Dassault Rafale, chosen by India as its medium fighter, is very similar, but is more of a French closed shop. It is perhaps the best omni-role fighter available right now.
Saab’s multi-role single-engine Gripen fighter is a smaller, less advanced option to the two other European competitors, but as noted in Brazil’s fighter competition, it has the best performance by cost capabilities.
A moderate-cost American replacement option for the 1960-era F-4EJ Phantom is Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, especially in conjunction with the electronic warfare EA-18G Growler variant. But in doing so, Japan would dedicate itself to an older technology jet that has a shortish range and does not have the performance envelope of a true superiority fighter.
Boeing has proposed a new stealthy F-15 Silent Eagle variant that may be worth investigation, but that project will need several years to yield a proven aircraft, and it will be costly, like all previous Eagles.
From a rational perspective, the JSF program (if it continues) might produce a cost-effective fighter-bomber that Japan can make use of, somewhere in the mid 2020s, but that is far too late to replace the F-4 Phantoms.
The 4-nation consortium (Britain, Germany, Italy, and Spain) that has developed the Typhoon, of which several hundred have been ordered or built, may well be the forerunner among potential competitors for an aircraft that would meet the medium-term air force needs, and provide the greatest boost to aerospace research and development, and industrial growth.
This may also prove true for Canada, when they have to re-think the JSF. This could create acquisition and production synergies between our two nations; potentially making for a consortium of several allied nations, thereby reducing costs, and increasing effectiveness.
Factor in the announcement that Mitsubishi Heavy Industries will assemble a full-scale test model of the ATD-X as the basis for the fifth-generation Shinshin fighter, and future considerations become complex indeed.
Lockheed Martin and the U.S. Department of Defense have failed by a large margin to meet the program goals, especially in costs and numbers produced, for the F-22 Raptor; and it looks like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will follow suit. The Americans may have to skip their broad-spectrum intentions on fifth-generation fighters, and proceed on to sixth-generation technology; of both manned and unmanned varieties.
Our world has increasingly globalized over the last decades, and Japan has been one of the primary catalysts for this broadening of trade flows. Perhaps it is time to think a little more globally on military procurement, while increasing domestic technology.
In the future, Japan will still need more than one type of fighter aircraft, though air superiority will always take priority; a bit of European flavor may just enhance the American and Japanese joint-ventures that have produced the Self Defense Forces fighter aircraft, to date.