The final delivery ceremony for the F-2 marks the end of domestic fighter production in Japan... for the time being.

The final delivery ceremony for the F-2 marks the end of domestic fighter production in Japan... for the time being. (Source: Jiji)

Weekly Diamond, a Japanese current affairs and business magazine, discusses the future of the defense aircraft industry as delays in the F-X program for Japan’s next-generation fighter have left Japan without domestic fighter production for the first time in 55 years:

(Roughly translated for your convenience)

End to Domestic Fighter Production After 55 Years – Aviation Industry Watches the Direction of FX Program Closely

By Hiroshi Tahara, Diamond Weekly

On Sept. 27th, at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ (MHI) Komaki-Minami Factory (Toyoyama, Aichi Prefecture), a handover ceremony was held for the final F-2 support fighter destined for the Air Self-Defense Force.

Contrary to the showy ceremony, personally attended by MHI’s President, Hideaki Omiya, a dark cloud must certainly have clouded the hearts of the MHI officials there that day. Since the beginning of its production in 2000, a total of 94 F-2 fighters were supplied to the ASDF, the handover of this final F-2 means the end of the continuous domestic fighter production that has taken place since 1956.

The aircraft was constructed by MHI alongside Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI) and Fuji Heavy Industries (FHI), the engine by IHI, the electronics by Mitsubishi Electric… the production of these fighters represented and affects Japanese enterprise as a whole. In FY2010, defense production demand accounted for 40% of the Japanese aviation industry; the end to new orders for fighters is a serious blow for the industry. In this vacuum, it will be become difficult for manufacturers to generate next-generation technologies, and most of all, it will become difficult to maintain the industry’s level of employment and facilities.

Why has fighter production come to an end? This is the unfortunate result of significant delays in the selection process for the next-generation main fighter (F-X).

On the day before the delivery of the final F-2, Sept. 26th, three foreign aircraft manufacturers submitted F-X proposals to the Ministry of Defense, whittling down the final candidates to American Boeing’s FA-18 Super Hornet, American Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning 2, in joint development between 9 countries, and the British BAe Systems and 4 other European companies’ Eurofighter Typhoon.

From this point, the MoD’s Project Team plans to select the F-X candidate from these three proposals by the end of November, passing on their recommendation to the Minister of Defense and the Security Council of Japan, to be followed by a cabinet decision by mid-December, with the project predicted to be apportioned in the FY2012 budget.

However, this process is 3-4 years behind its initial schedule. Originally, the F-X project was determined by the previous Mid-Term Defense Guidlines (covering 2005-2009) to be the successor of the F-4 currently in-use, but FY2009 came and went without any F-X being supplied.

The project didn’t proceed as originally planned because of the MoD’s fixation on Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor, which has been called ‘the world’s strongest fighter’. Fear of this state-of-the-art aircraft’s secrets being leaked, the US Congress opposed the deal and the possible acquisition of the F-22 ran aground, nevertheless the MoD didn’t give up and continued to wait for Congressional approval. “If the Republican Party administration continued, there was a possibility that approval would be granted,” an MoD official observed, but with the end of the Bush administration and start of the Obama administration, the US government stopped the production of the extremely high priced F-22, and then finally, the MoD was no longer able to hold out hope.

The loss of these 3-4 years in the selection process is directly connected to the end of our domestic fighter production.

Now, the criteria for the F-X program has come down to three points: performance, cost and delivery date.

First, performance: the F-35′s state-of-the-art low-radar observability system far exceeds the other two aircraft, one specialist agreed.

Aviation journalist Yoshitomo Aoki points out, “The F-18 was originally developed 20 years ago. Over ten years have also passed since the development of the Eurofighter. If we consider that we might use this aircraft for the next 30 years, the most practical long-lasting choice would be the F-35.

In reality, the ASDF has said that it already considers the F-35 the most powerful option. Considering the Chinese and Russian independently-developed 5th generation high-power fighters, it is only natural that the ASDF would want a state-of-the-art fighter for its air-defense function.

However, when it comes to the cost and delivery date, the F-35 hits a bottleneck. The cost of a single F-35 is said to be $65 million (around ¥5 billion), if the aircraft are built under domestic license like the F-4 and F-15 before it, the price will more than double. As the FA-18 and Eurofighter are already in production, they could potentially be much cheaper options.

Furthermore, the F-35 is still in development, and will not be officially deployed by the US military until 2017 at the earliest, it has been said. With the MoD plans aiming for deployment in 2016, the F-35 won’t be ready on time. If an aircraft that still in development was chosen, possibly requiring later revisions, further delays in the delivery of the aircraft would be a serious problem due to the considerable deterioration of the F-4 currently in-use. This puts the FA-18 and Eurofighter one step ahead.

Also, the F-35 has some drawbacks – industrial cooperation with Japanese companies. The F-35 is being jointly developed by the US, British and seven other nations, and as Japan is bound by the Three Principles on Arms Exports, Japan is unable to participate. Because of this, important technologies and methods will not be disclosed, it is likely that the role of Japanese companies will be limited to assembly and finishing.

On the other hand, the Eurofighter group is ‘black-box free’, meaning that all the technology would be disclosed, including the software’s source code, and Boeing has also stated that “There is a possibility of participation by Japanese companies in the design and production of the FA-18.”

In short, for the Japanese aviation industry, the Eurofighter and FA-18 would be of great benefit for their business.

Nevertheless, aside from the F-X, we must also look towards the successor for the F-15, which will be retired in the next 10 years, which raises its own problems.

According to Aoki, “In the selection process for the successor of the F-15, without any changes, the line-up of possible candidates will most probably be the same three aircraft on offer today.” Replacing the 200 F-15s in service is a great business opportunity, and it would be lucrative for Japanese companies could possibly Lockheed Martin cooperate with them, making the F-35 an even brighter prospect.

While only a few of the officials in the MoD know the contents of the three proposals, in two months, the F-X will finally be decided. The aviation industry is watching with bated breath.

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A former contributor to World Intelligence (Japan Military Review), James Simpson joined Japan Security Watch in 2011, migrating with his blog Defending Japan. He has a Masters in Security Studies from Aberystwyth University and is currently living in Kawasaki, Japan. His primary interests include the so-called 'normalization' of Japanese security (i.e. militarization), and the political impact of the abduction issue with North Korea.
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