The Japanese Defence Ministry has accelerated discussions regarding work on the country’s sixth generation fighter program, and is reportedly seeking a design specifically suited to the task of countering the Chineses People’s Liberation Army over ongoing territorial disputes. While initially Japan was set to partner with the United States or Britain to develop a next generation fighter, it has since moved to rely more heavily on domestic firms - meaning the new aircraft is likely to be the most fully indigenous combat jet developed in Japan since the Second World War. This will provide Japan with a greater degree of independence and self reliance in its defence, and will also allow it to export its next generation fighter which it would not be able to do if depending on foreign technologies. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries notably previously unveiled a flyable prototype for a very advanced fifth generation fighter, the Shinshin X2, which boasted multiple features not found on Western fighters including a self repair system and three dimensional thrust vectoring engines. The prototype was notably powered by twin IHI Corporation XF5 afterburning turbofan engines, which had an impressive performance and demonstrated that Japan had the potential to develop a modern powerplant despite the costs of producing in on such a small scale.
Japan’s sixth generation fighter is expected to replace the F-2 lightweight jet, one of the world’s first ‘4+ generation’ fighters and the first in the world to integrate in AESA radar. An estimated 98 F-2 fighters are currently in service, and while they were built in Japan they notably rely heavily on American technologies and are based very closely on the American F-16 Fighting Falcon. Other than the F-2 the Japanese Air Force currently relies on the F-4EJ Phantom and F-15J Eagle to form the bulk of its fleet, although the F-4 and the majority of the F-15 fleet are set to shortly be replaced by F-35A stealth fighters. The F-35A was designed primarily with an air to ground role in mind, raising questions regarding its suitability for Japan’s defence needs, but its low cost by the standards of Western stealth aircraft as a lightweight single engine design made it an attractive option despite its limitations in air to air combat. The upcoming sixth generation jet will replace both the F-2 and the remainder of the F-15 fleet, and F-15s will in the interim be upgraded to a ‘4+ generation’ standard with AESA radars, new avionics and electronic warfare systems and superior air to air munitions.