Japan plans to create its own next-generation F-X fighter, which will replace some of the existing technology in the future. Design work started at the end of last year, and the first flight is still a long way off. In addition, the real prospects of the project are still in question. However, it is already known what the customer wants in the person of the Air Self-Defense Forces (VSS), and what the new aircraft may be like.
The military and political leadership of Japan made a fundamental decision to create its own 5th generation fighter in the middle of the 2000s. Then the United States refused to export the latest F-22 aircraft, and the Japanese military insisted on the need to develop a similar machine. Soon, relevant research and experiments began.
For several years, the necessary research was carried out, after which the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) company developed and built an X-2 prototype aircraft. Flight tests of this machine took place in 2016-18. and showed the need to restart the entire program. The developments on the X-2, with all their advantages, did not allow the creation of an aircraft capable of serving for the next several decades.
The F-X program was restarted in 2018. BCC received several applications from Japanese and foreign companies and then selected a contractor. In the same year, it was announced that the leading role in the project would remain with Japanese organizations, incl. MHI. At the same time, it was planned to attract foreign companies with the necessary experience in the development of aviation equipment and its components.
In November 2020, MHI received an official order from the Air Force of Japan to carry out design work, followed by the construction of experimental equipment and the launch of serial production. Under the terms of the agreement, production aircraft will begin to enter the troops by the mid-thirties. The cost of the program is estimated at 1, 4 trillion yen (about 12, 75 billion US dollars). The price of a serial aircraft will be in the range of 20-30 billion yen (180-270 million dollars).
The main work on the F-X will be performed by the Japanese MHI, which will interact with local and foreign subcontractors. Earlier it was reported that the American company Lockheed Martin, which has extensive experience in the field of stealth technology, may be involved in the development of an unobtrusive airframe. In early July, news appeared about the development of a promising engine by the Japanese IHI Corp. and British Rolls-Royce. Joint work on other components is also expected.
Over the past few years, the Japanese Ministry of Defense has repeatedly announced certain wishes for the future F-X. In addition, the alleged appearance of the aircraft was shown last year. Whether all of this data will correspond to a real fighter of the future is unclear. As the project is developed, both the general appearance and the customer's requirements may change.
The only F-X image available shows an integrated circuit aircraft with a pointed nose, swept wing with advanced sagging and two-plane tail. The power plant includes two not yet developed engines; the air intakes are placed under the wing overlays. A cargo compartment for a combat load will be placed inside the glider.
The aerodynamic appearance and external contours of the aircraft are determined taking into account the achievement of supersonic flight speeds, high maneuverability for close combat and a reduction in radar signature. However, the exact characteristics of this kind are not named.
In 2019, the IHI corporation first published data on the promising XF9-1 turbojet engine. At that time, the estimated maximum thrust reached 11 thousand kgf, afterburner - 15 thousand kgf. The F-X should have two of these engines, which will give it high performance. In this case, the parameters of the engines allow you to determine the approximate weight of the aircraft, because weight characteristics have not yet been announced.
Especially for the F-X, MHI is developing a promising radar with AFAR. Also, the aircraft will receive a developed sighting and navigation system with the ability to integrate various systems and sensors. The PRNK will have to collect and process all information from the aircraft systems and from external sources. High requirements are imposed on the capabilities of detecting air targets, since the F-X fighter will have to confront stealthy foreign aircraft.
It was repeatedly mentioned that network capabilities are one of the key innovations of the project and will largely determine the combat qualities of the aircraft. The F-X fighter will have to interact with ground and air command posts, exchange data with other aircraft, etc. In the future, it is planned to create new types of tactical UAVs of medium and heavy class, which will be able to interact with manned aircraft. In such a system, it is the F-X that will be responsible for control.
It was reported about the possibility of creating a single and two-seat version of the fighter. The cockpit equipment will be built using LCD screens; it is possible to use full-fledged "augmented reality" helmet-mounted displays. The developed automated PrNK will take on some of the tasks and relieve the crew. The possibility of converting a manned F-X into a heavy UAV with broad combat capabilities is being considered. Aircraft with and without a crew will operate in the same flight.
The range of compatible weapons has not been disclosed. Apparently, the F-X will be able to carry modern and advanced weapons to combat air and ground / surface targets. Some of the weapons will be transported in the inner compartment to reduce visibility. The requirements for the creation of an electronic warfare complex and an airborne defense complex were mentioned. With the help of interference, electromagnetic and infrared radiation, they will protect the aircraft from being detected or hit by missiles.
Plans and problems
According to current plans, the coming years will be spent on the remaining research, project development and testing of individual solutions. In 2024-25. MHI should begin construction of the first prototype. Flight tests will begin no later than 2028, and they will last for the next several years. In parallel, preparation for serial production will be carried out.
The first production F-X is planned to be transferred to the Japanese Air Force by 2035. They are considered as a promising replacement for the existing F-2. The latter, due to repairs and modernizations, will remain in service for the time being, but in the mid-thirties they will begin to be written off due to moral and physical obsolescence.
It is not known whether it will be possible to meet such a schedule. Japan has some experience in the construction and modernization of modern aircraft, and in addition, can count on foreign assistance. This is conducive to optimism and allows ARIA to hope for the timely completion of the necessary work. At the same time, we are talking about a new generation aircraft based on a number of modern and promising technologies. Developing such a machine, even with the help of developed countries, will not be easy.
Some risks are associated with the cost of the program. The fact is that the F-X will turn out to be perhaps the most expensive modern project of the Self-Defense Forces - with unclear prospects. The development and construction of the required number of aircraft is estimated at 1, 4-1, 5 trillion yen. At the same time, we cannot yet exclude the possibility of further growth in the cost of the program. By comparison, the FY2021 military budget is is 5.33 trillion yen.
Even assuming that the work will be paid in installments over several years, the program can be considered overly complicated and expensive. The issue of price and spending has long been discussed in the press and in official circles, and in a negative way. In the future, this may lead to a revision of the program budget and corresponding changes in organization, requirements and schedule.
An uncertain future
In the distant future, the Air Force of Japan wants to abandon the outdated 4th generation fighters of one of the available types and replace them with new aircraft of the next generation. Moreover, the promising F-X is going to be developed independently, albeit with the help of foreign countries. For various reasons, it is too early to predict the unequivocal success or failure of such a program.
There are a number of factors that can change the situation for better or for worse, and their exact balance is not yet clear. Japan possesses some of the necessary technologies and competencies, but does not have experience in creating modern fighters. It can count on foreign aid, but its scope and specifics have not yet been determined. There are also ongoing disputes over the cost of the program and the appropriateness of its implementation.
Time will tell whether all plans for upgrading tactical aviation will be fulfilled. If the F-X program succeeds, Japan will be able to upgrade its tactical aviation and get a truly modern aircraft in the distant future. Otherwise, she will have to revise the plan for the procurement of equipment and look for some kind of alternative, probably of foreign production. However, every effort will be made to prevent this from happening.