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Aerospace & Defense

Japan to choose one domestic maker for new fighter production

Mitsubishi Heavy on shortlist to lead development of stealth aircraft

The F-2 Japanese Air Self-Defense Force fighter jet will be phased out by the new stealth fighter by around 2035.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- Japan's defense ministry will partner with only one Japanese company to lead the development of next-generation fighter planes, Nikkei has learned.

The selected company will develop and manufacture a replacement for the current F-2 jets as they begin to be decommissioned around 2035. It will coordinate all efforts with other companies from Japan and the U.S. as needed.

The plan reflects Tokyo's hope for an "early launch of development led by our country." Previous fighter planes were imports from the U.S. or manufactured by Japanese companies licensed by U.S. makers.

Details of the plan could be announced within the next few days.

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries is the most likely candidate, but Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Subaru and IHI are expected to cooperate in the program.

U.S.-based Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman may also play roles.

Designating a Japanese company to head the project is expected to improve the country's capacity for producing fighter planes. The budget will be allocated in the fiscal year ending March 2022, and a test plane will be produced in 2024.

The total budget is estimated at over 5 trillion yen ($47 billion), resulting in about 90 new stealth fighter jets covering sea, land and air theaters.

Japanese companies are likely to be in charge of core components such as engines, supported by technical assistance from the U.S.

The defense ministry will call for participants from August, and will decide the leading company by the end of this year. A contract with the company will be signed after agreeing on the joint development with the U.S., also by the end of the year.

The Air Self-Defense Force's cutting-edge F-35s are made in the U.S. The technology behind core components has not been disclosed, and the Japanese side's ability to make repairs are limited. The combat system is upgraded at the discretion of the U.S.

Critics in Japan have said the arrangement results in low operational flexibility and prevents the domestic defense industry from accumulating technological expertise.

Know-how from the production of fighter jets can be applied to building civilian aircraft. With the Japanese defense industry's decreased involvement in developing fighters, maintaining production expertise and sustaining spending on the latest research and development have become more difficult. Calls had grown for a contract where Japan would oversee core components.

For Japan's next-generation fighter, Lockheed Martin had proposed a hybrid of the F-22 -- considered the world's top fighter -- and the F-35. The plan was nixed as Japan pursues an alternative developed on its own, but the U.S. may revisit an American-led development plan after the presidential election in November.

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