As the saying goes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.”
This is a saying that the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF; 航空自衛隊, Kōkū Jieitai) have evidently taken to heart. After their plans to field a completely homegrown 5th Generation fighter plane stealth fighter plane, the Mitsubishi X-2, were scrapped, it didn’t take JASDF long to think ahead and start setting their sights on a 6th Generation stealth fighter, albeit this time in conjunction with international partners.
Say hello to the Mitsubishi F-X, Japan’s fighter plane of the near future.
From the Ashes of the X-2
It was in November 2017 that the Japanese Defense Ministry’s Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency (ATLA), after a mere 34 sorties with the X-2, decided to wrap up the X-2 program, concluding that Japan couldn’t build a stealth fighter alone and therefore an international joint venture was needed. In the interim, in order to enable JASDF to have a 5th Generation dog in the fight (bad aviation pun intended) – and in keeping with Japan’s ever-increasing defense budget in response to ever-growing Chinese and North Korean aggression – Japan ordered 147 F-35 Lightning IIs, thus becoming Lockheed Martin’s biggest international buyer of that controversial warbird.
(NOTE: the Mitsubishi X-2 is not to be confused with the American-made Bell X-2 Starburster 1940s-vintage experimental aircraft.)
So then, seeing how JASDF is going with an American-made 5th Generation fighter for the time being, that also means, by logical extension, that the United States will be Japan’s partner for the 6th Generation F-X warplane, right?
Britain and Italy “Hai (Yes),” America “Iie (No)”
As Lee Corso of ESPN College GameDay is fond of saying, “Not so fast, my friend.” On 9 December 2022, the prime ministers of Japan, the United Kingdom, and Italy issued a joint leaders’ statement, announcing their new the new Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP), which will field a sixth-generation fighter by 2035, by integrating their F-X and Tempest future combat aircraft programs.
So then, why Italy and the UK instead of the good ol’ US of A? Takahashi Kosuke, in a December 2022 article for The Diplomat, conveniently breaks it down to a Top 5 Reasons list:
“First, the ATLA official said that Tokyo chose Britain’s BAE Systems as a collaborative partner over Lockheed Martin because the developmental timeframes of both the F-X and Tempest programs aligned with each other…Second, the three nations share common tactical requirements for the future fighter. In order to ensure air superiority as a maritime nation…Third, Japan, the U.K., and Italy, which are virtually middle powers, can reduce development costs and technological risks by working together…Fourth, 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…Finally, it is thought that 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 Way Forward
Not surprisingly, once again Mitsubishi Heavy Industries will be tasked with holding up Japan’s end of the manufacturing deal. This makes perfect sense, as Mitsubishi is the same firm that built the X-“2 as well as the 4th Generation fighter that the F-X is intended to replace, the F-2 “Viper Zero” license-built copy of the F-16 Fighting Falcon/Viper (not to mention the same company that makes the F-15J “Peace Eagle” and, for good measure, built the legendary A6M Zero piston-engine fighter plane of World War II).
The concept plane has already been affectionately nicknamed “Godzilla,” and whilst the exact specifications are very much TBD and the appearance is for the time being strictly the stuff of imaginative artists’ renderings. Christopher McFadden of Interesting Engineering notes that “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.”
It is tentatively planned for “Godzilla” to make her maiden flight in 2028, followed by series production in 2035, and entry into official service to replace the F-2 in 2035.
Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security.