Back in December last year, Japan’s Nikkei newspaper unveiled tantalizing details of what could potentially become Japan’s 6th-generation fighter. The aircraft will be domestically developed and is currently penciled in to cost around 5 trillion yen (about $48 billion).
The aircraft, dubbed the F-X or F-3, has been deemed necessary in order to keep up with, and hopefully surpass, the air capabilities of many of its neighbor’s cutting-edge aerial assets — especially China or Russia.
According to current estimates made by Japan’s Ministry of Defence, China, apparently, has more than 1,000 so-called “fourth generation” fighters at its disposal. What’s worse (from Japan’s perspective) is that these numbers have tripled over the last decade or so.
To add to Tokyo’s woes, Beijing has previously expressed its ambitions to deploy “fifth-generation” fighters with stealth capability, too. Russia is also planning to introduce a fifth-generation aircraft soon, while also developing a large, unmanned aerial vehicle.
Not good from Japan’s point of view.
This news is not completely out of the blue, as Japan’s government has previously detailed its medium-term plans to develop its own next-gen fighter back in 2018. What is new, however, is the release of some of the actual details of the program.
Let’s find out.
Who will build the new fighter?
While a technologically advanced and innovative country, Japan has not led the development of a new fighter craft domestically for around 40 years or so. For this reason, the country is very interested in bringing in technical help from allied countries — like the U.S. and the United Kingdom.
According to Nikkei news release “by November , the Ministry of Defense had narrowed down potential candidates to Lockheed and Boeing of the U.S. and Britain’s BAE Systems. They were evaluated in three areas — system integration capabilities such as radar and missiles, high stealth and athletic ability, and efficient development technology.”
The international research and development program will provide the fighter with some exciting interoperability functions with allied forces — especially in an emergency. In theory, the new fighter should be able to share data with friendly U.S. aircraft, like its F-22s and F-35s, making joint operations streamlined and, more importantly, safer (for allied assets, that is).
Partnering with U.S. companies like Lockheed Martin will also come with some interesting benefits for the Japanese design team. Apart from Lockheed’s exceptional experience designing aircraft, Japanese companies will also be able to collaborate with technical teams from Northrop Grumman.
Northrup Grumman happens to be particularly adept at designing sensors and linking data technology for military aircraft. For this reason, teaming up with Lockheed will thus make it easier for Mitsubishi Heavy to receive technical assistance from Northrop.
The British company BAE is also a good choice for Japan as they are particularly skilled in developing electronic warfare technology that uses electromagnetic waves to prevent opponents from attacking. Pretty essential for Japan’s ambitions for the new fighter.
Other than these big names, it is anticipated that around 1,000 other companies will be involved in the program. This is the typical number required to build other modern fighters.
Components like infrared sensors, infrared sensors, lightweight airframes, and information systems will likely be outsourced to the program’s supply chain of, hopefully, domestic companies. So, Tokyo hopes that while outside technical assistance will be used, they will ultimately be able to nurture and upskill their domestic industrial abilities.
Do we have any idea what the F-X will look like?
As it happens, we do have some conceptual artwork for what the fighter may look like when complete. And here it is in all its glory.
Little else can really be gleaned from the image, after all, it is only a concept piece. The final aircraft will likely look very different.
Some have pointed to the fact that it will likely be bigger than the F-22 once finished, earning it the unofficial, and frankly, awesome nickname “Godzilla”.
However, what is known is that the F-X will come with electronically actuated control surfaces. To maintain a low radar profile, space will be tight inside the airframe, so conventional hydraulic systems will be used sparingly, if at all.
It will also come with a fiber-optic flight control system (so-called fly-by-light system), as well as serpentine air intakes to help further reduce its radar cross-section and heat signature in flight.
The F-X will likely also come with heat shields and an integrated bonded structure that will likely be made of composite materials. This will help reduce the overall weight of the aircraft giving the F-X a much extended operational range and give the Japanese airforce the much-needed ability to be flexible with the airbases the F-X will operate from.
With regards to propulsion, one of the main companies involved in the project, IHI Corporation, has been testing a new jet engine, the XF9-1 low-bypass turbofan engines since 2018. This engine includes some interesting “exotic” materials that will help keep its weight down while simultaneously increasing the engine’s heat tolerance to as much as 3,272 degrees Fahrenheit (1,800 degrees Celsius).
This engine is capable of pumping out around 16.5 tons of thrust with afterburners. This is impressive but it is still slightly lower than the F119 engines currently installed on U.S. F-22 Raptors. That being said, the XF-9 is slimmer and can generate more power at around 241 horsepower (180 kW) apiece.
Japanese engineers have also been toying with thrust-vectoring nozzles for the XF9-1 engine which, if successful, could provide the F-X with some impressive mid-flight maneuverability. This kind of feature is currently an integral part of the F-22 and Russian Su-30 fighters. Allegedly, the Chinese J-10 and J-20 fighters also have this capability.
Other team members for the project, including Toshiba and Fujitsu, will be taking the lead in developing the F-X’s Gallium-Nitride “Active Electronically Scanning Array” (AESA) radar system. This should be able to double as a form of a microwave defense system for the fighter mid-flight against incoming missiles.
The radar will also be supplemented by an infrared sensor and an electromagnetic sensor (ESM).
What will the F-X fighter be capable of?
We’ve already touched on a few likely capabilities of the F-X above, but these are just rumors. At present, and for obvious reasons, technical specs for the F-X are not available. However, it will likely be a twin-engine fighter with advanced technologies, including remote drone control capabilities, a VR-style helmet-mounted display, and a radar that can double as a microwave weapon to fry enemy missiles (as mentioned above).
The fighter will likely also incorporate some sophisticated mission systems and electronic warfare capabilities too. Mitsubishi Electric will likely take the lead in this area.
This system will include self-defense jamming functions, for example. The fighter may also come equipped with an “Integrated Fire Control for Fighters” (IFCF) system that could allow Japanese (and possibly U.S.) fighters to pool together their sensor and missile targeting capabilities, enhancing the accuracy of beyond visual range missiles.
The F-X’s landing systems will be developed by Subaru. While they are better known for making automobiles, the company does have an in-house aerospace division that currently builds the wings and landing gear for commercial aircraft like the Boeing 777.
Apparently, the F-X will also be able to control up to three drone-like “loyal wingmen” craft, or “Combat Support Unmanned Aircraft”. These will likely take the role of either sensor carrying or scout craft, with others being used as extra weapons platforms.
Either type of drone would dramatically improve the F-X’s offensive capability while greatly reducing the manned jet’s exposure to enemy attacks.
Lockheed Martin is likely to provide technical support to Mitsubishi in developing the F-X’s airframe and help with system integration. For the craft to be truly stealthy, the design of the airframe, and the materials used, will be critical.
It must be radar-absorbent to a greater or lesser degree to help reduce its radar cross-section as much as possible, for obvious reasons. Being so advanced, systems integration is also going to be a major headache.
The new plane will likely be used as a multirole fighter, able to attack targets on land and at sea, as well as, of course, in the air. It will have stealth in addition to networking functions to continue operations even if it is disturbed by electromagnetic waves.
It will probably also have the capacity for at least six internally-stowed weapons, including, but not limited to, air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground missiles, and anti-ship missiles, as per standard for multirole aircraft. The armaments of the aircraft during combat will obviously vary depending on the requirements.
The plane will be co-developed by some of the biggest names in Japanese technology including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries with some help from American defense companies like Lockheed Martin. Once developed, the aircraft will likely jointly operate with Japan’s own Self-Defense forces and, to a certain extent, American armed forces.
According to the press release, Japan is hoping to build around 90 of the fighters initially, which will replace the venerable, but now aging F-2 planes. It is hoped that the aircraft will be ready for deployment as soon as 2035.
Perhaps even more ambitious are the plans to have a working prototype by about 2024, with its first flight around 2028. The F-X is also hoped to be in series production by 2031, with it finally entering service by the 2035 deadline.
If this exciting Japanese-led initiative is realized, it will mark the first time that domestic groups have developed defense jets since Mitsubishi Heavy made the F-1 fighter in the 1970s.
Tokyo’s proposed timeline is, on the surface, a little unrealistic given the delays that plagued other advanced fighters over the last decade or so — like the U.S.’s fifth-gen F-35 stealth jet. But, Japan is already ahead of the game in some respects with regards to its extensive domestic research of component technologies, including tests of radars, engines, and networking systems.
Japan even has a flying stealth demonstrator jet called the X-2 “Shinshin” with thrust-vectoring engines. These existing technologies will come in very handy indeed for the years ahead.
What is a 6th-generation aircraft anyway?
If you are in any way interested in aviation, you’ll likely have been exposed to terms (as we have here) like “third-generation”, “fourth-generation”, “fifth-generation”, etc. But what, if anything, do these terms actually mean?
Just like a population of human beings, a similar concept exists for each iteration of military tech as science and technology advance inexorably forward. There are different definitions of fighter generations, but generally:
“First-generation” jet fighters, as you can probably work out, are those craft built during or just after the Second World War. These were the first of their kind, and include notable examples like the grandaddy-of-them-all the Messerschmitt Me 262.
“Second-generation” jet fighters are those built roughly around the time of the Korean War. This craft saw a move from heavy reliance on guns to heavier use of radar and homing missiles and faster speeds — often Mach 2 or above. Notable examples would include the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter or Russian Mig-21.
“Third-generation” jet fighters are those craft that were, generally speaking, designed from the ground up as multirole fighters. Such craft was expected to take on a variety of tasks from ground attack to air interception or superiority roles. Notable examples of this generation include the mighty McDonnell Douglas F-4 or famous British Hawker Siddeley Harrier jump jet.
“Fourth-generation” fighters were designed in response to rather mixed results of their predecessors. While still generally designed as multirole aircraft, they started to incorporate more advanced technology like fly-by-wire, composites, advanced avionics, and much-improved radar, sometimes stealth, and mid-air maneuverability. Notable examples would include fighters like the Panavia Tornado, the impressive General Dynamics F-16, etc.
Some also refer to a “4.5-generation” of craft that had some significant improvements on the “gen-4” but not really enough to classify them as their own class. Examples would include the Mig-29, Eurofighter Typhoon, etc.
“Fifth-generation” jet fighters are currently the most advanced jet fighters ever designed or built. These crafts tend to be characterized by their heavy reliance on digital computation and mobile networking for command, control, and communications in a battle arena. They also include other advanced tech like improved airframe construction, better, lighter engines, etc. “Fifth-gen” fighters also have advanced digital controls like smart helmets, heavier automation of the craft, and in some cases, the ability to utilize support drones.
Notable examples include the impressive Lockheed Martin F-22 and F-35, Russian Su-57, and, supposedly, the Chinese Chengdu J-20. This is the current iteration of many new fighters and one that is still very much only now “coming online”.
“Sixth generation” jet fighters are yet to see the light of day and are currently mainly experimental or on the drawing board, like the proposed Japanese F-X fighter. As such, and with little experience of the pros and cons of the “fifth-gen” of fighters, many designers are currently debating what, if any, new features and capabilities future fighters will need to have, or even should have.
That being said, there appears to be a drive for even more automation, a drive for the development of “Future Combat Air Systems”, and, potentially, eliminating the need for a human pilot, as well as, more integration of drone “wingmen”. Examples include the US F/A-XX program and UK-led BAE Systems Tempest, and of course, the subject of this article.
The news of Japan’s intention to build their next fighter domestically is both very exciting but will require them to upskill their domestic companies quite significantly. The program, if successful, will not only provide Japan with one of the most cutting-edge fighters in the world but should also help build up their domestic industrial capabilities significantly.
What’s even more interesting, is that many other countries around the world are looking to build their own 6th-gen fighters at home, if possible. The UK’s future “Tempest” stealth program, and Europe’s Future Combat Air System, being but a few examples.
What this all means is that the future of air combat appears to be moving away from reliance on manned fighters exclusively, but rather developing an integrated system of fighters and unmanned aircraft as support.
This will not be cheap, by any means, but many governments appear to have made the calculation that such programs will be necessary, not only for defense but also for fortifying their independent domestic aviation base, rather than relying solely on America for supplying the cutting-edge in defense technology.