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Japan’s New Stealth Fighter: No Help from America?

UK Stealth Tempest Fighter
UK Stealth Tempest Fighter

Japan’s New Stealth Fighter – No Help from the USA? The British appear to have outfoxed the Americans regarding a partnership for Japan’s homegrown, next-generation fighter called the F-X. The F-X is a stealth warplane originally based on a partnership between the Japanese and Lockheed Martin. But that relationship has reportedly soured. The Japanese are now going with BAE Systems instead of Lockheed to work with Japan’s prime contractor – Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. 

Prime Minister Johnson Looks to Have the Upper Hand

The last few weeks have seen heightened politicking on the project between the British and the Americans. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson expended some of his political capital to lobby for BAE Systems to be the main partner for the F-X project. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met with Johnson on May 5. They hammered out an agreement “in principle to cooperate on future fighter programs” by the end of the year.

U.S. Defense Secretary Makes His Case

But Americans were represented by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who made a case for United States-based contractors to continue to be the primary partners during his meeting with Japanese Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi on May 4.   

It looks like Johnson’s efforts will bear more fruit than Austin’s. The Japanese are closely negotiating with BAE Systems while also working with other British defense contractors on an engine and missiles for the F-X.

The UK and Japan Are Working Together in Other Ways

The Drive’s Thomas Newdick described the UK-Japan collaboration in more specific detail. “Further bilateral cooperation includes the UK Ministry of Defense’s support to Japan’s Joint New Air-to-Air Missile program, or JNAAM. This weapon is expected to combine British expertise relating to the MBDA Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) with a Japanese-developed advanced radio frequency (RF) seeker.”

Japan’s New Stealth Fighter – Lockheed Has a Past With Japan’s Defense Industry

Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force had previously announced it was going with Lockheed Martin as the “potential” partner for the F-X in 2020. The total project cost for the F-X will be $7.7 billion, so this would have been a bountiful contract, had Lockheed continued building toward an official partnership. Lockheed has prior performance with the Japanese in helping develop the F-2 fighter based on the F-16 Fighting Falcon in the 1980s.

The Americans Have Quirks When It Comes to Sharing Defense Technology

The Japanese may have fallen out with Lockheed due to the way the U.S. military handles technology that is transferred to other countries. The Diplomat explained the American tech transfer process. “The U.S. tends to prevent other countries, even allies, from attempting to reverse engineer parts such as radar and sensor components, by putting most sensitive aircraft technologies in a ‘black box.’” 

The Japanese wanted more control over updating the hardware and software components for the airplane.

But Lockheed should be satisfied that the Japanese have 147 F-35 jets in its current fleet. The F-X may take the best of the F-22 airframe and combine it with the adroitly designed radar and sensors of the F-35. The F-X may also be larger than the F-22. The Japanese stealth fighter will not be ready until 2035.

It’s Not Over Yet 

Lockheed will probably not give up on working with the F-X so easily. Japan likely won’t ink anything officially finalized with BAE Systems until the end of the year. That gives time for President Joe Biden to potentially discuss future defense relationships with Japan during his visit there on May 23. The White House already released a read-out of Biden’s meeting with Fumio Kishida and the president mentioned that the United States “remains fully committed to Japan’s defense.” That’s at least a start for more substantive dialogue away from the cameras that could include military partnerships.

Now serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, Ph.D., is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.