Why Japan Chose These Two Countries and not the USA for Its F-X Fighter Program

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5 reasons why Japan decided to jointly develop a next-generation fighter with the U.K. and Italy, not the U.S.

A concept image of Japan’s planned next-generation fighter aircraft.
Credit: Japanese Ministry of Defense

In a joint leaders’ statement issued on December 9, the prime ministers of Japan, the United Kingdom, and Italy announced the new Global Combat Air Program (GCAP), which will field a sixth-generation fighter by 2035, by integrating their F-X and Tempest future combat aircraft programs.

The next-generation combat aircraft will be developed by Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and British defense giant BAE Systems. The fighter should eventually replace the Japanese Mitsubishi F-2 aircraft. Italy’s leading aerospace and defense company Leonardo will also participate in the development. Japan’s IHI Corporation and British aircraft engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce will play a major role in the development of new engines for the fighter. They are expected to be joined by Italy’s Avio, which also deals in aircraft engines.

Considering the close Japan-U.S. alliance in the post-war period, it is extremely rare for Tokyo to form a partnership with any other nation for a major national defense project like this. The GCAP thus marks a historic collaboration for Japan.

Why did Japan choose Britain and Italy instead of the United States? There are five main reasons, based on both a pre-press briefing held on December 8 by a defense official in charge of the program at Japan’s Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency (ATLA), and information from other defense and diplomatic officials.

  • The Timeline : “F-X and Tempest share the same schedule, facilitating collaboration between Japan, Britain, and Italy,” said an official. “Meanwhile, for the U.S., the timing of the development of Japan’s next fighter is off,” the official added.
  • Required Performance : as a maritime nation, both Japan and the United Kingdom plan to acquire a large multi-role stealth fighter with a long cruising range and twin engines with excellent missile loading capacity. “We will build a fighter that exceeds the performance of the United States’ F-35 and Europe’s Eurofighter, particularly in terms of sensor and networking capabilities,” the official envisioned.
  • Cost and Risk Reduction : Japan, the U.K., and Italy can reduce development costs and technological risks by working together. The cost of developing new fighter planes is so huge that it can hardly be covered by a single country alone.
  • A Degree of Freedom in Future Modifications : The United States’ and Lockheed’s refusal to share confidential technological information such as the source code has made Tokyo look to Britain for joint development. Tokyo is seeking access to the new fighter’s source code to allow the JASDF to introduce independent and localized upgrades. Without such access, the JASDF cannot introduce its desired modifications freely – a bitter lesson for Tokyo that has affected its F-2s and F-15s.
  • Exports : Japan, Britain, and Italy are looking to increase the number of production units through efficient and effective joint development, reduce the unit cost of mass production, and sell their fighter to overseas markets in the future. The U.K. and Italy are expected to export to the European market, while Japan is expected to export to Asian markets such as Southeast Asia.

More at the Diplomat here.