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Aerospace & Defense

Lockheed to back Mitsubishi Heavy-led Japan fighter project

IHI, Subaru, Toshiba and Fujitsu among homegrown jet co-developers

Japan's Ministry of Defense signed a contract with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in October as the main developer, with Lockheed Martin providing tech support. (Source photos by Reuters and Japan Ministry of Defense/Kyodo) 

TOKYO -- The Japanese government has outlined the country's next-generation fighter jet project, selecting Mitsubishi Heavy Industries as the main contractor to lead Japanese and U.S. companies, with American defense contractor Lockheed Martin providing technological support, Nikkei has learned.

The plan for the homegrown fighter jet, which will be jointly operated by Japan's Self-Defense Forces and the American military, is set to be announced by the Ministry of Defense imminently. The move comes as Japan hopes to strengthen its alliance with the U.S. in the face of increased Chinese military activity in the Asian region.

Japan plans to manufacture about 90 jets, which will succeed the aging F-2, with deployment slated for 2035. The cost of the project is expected to exceed 5 trillion yen ($48 billion). The initial planning costs will be included in the fiscal 2021 budget draft to be approved by the Japanese cabinet later this month.

The Tokyo government stated in its medium-term defense capability development plan in 2018 that it would develop its next fighter aircraft mainly via its domestic defense industry.

In October, the Ministry of Defense signed a contract with Mitsubishi Heavy as the main developer. The manufacturer is responsible for the design of the aircraft and systems integration. While engineering corporation IHI will develop the engine, auto and aerospace manufacturer Subaru will be in charge of the landing device, and Toshiba and IT group Fujitsu will produce its radar. Its mission system, which controls electronic warfare, will be developed by Mitsubishi Electric.

If the 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.

Lockheed Martin led the development of the F-35 fighter, which Japan's Self-Defense Forces have also deployed.

The Japanese government envisions the new jet as a multirole fighter, capable of attacking land and sea targets as well as engaging in aerial combat. It will have stealth in addition to networking functions to continue operations even if it is disturbed by electromagnetic waves.

With the cutting-edge fighter jets, Tokyo is seeking to create a bulwark against China and Russia's growing regional influence.

According to the Ministry of Defense, China has more than 1,000 "fourth generation" fighters, which it considers as the mainstay of its defense forces. Its number of these jets has tripled in the past 10 years. Beijing also aims to deploy a "fifth generation" with stealth capabilities. Meanwhile, Russia is also planning to introduce a fifth-generation aircraft, while also developing a large unmanned aerial vehicle.

As Japanese companies' last experience of leading fighter development was more than 40 years ago with the F-1, Tokyo is seeking technical support from foreign companies. 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.

Lockheed was chosen for its potential to deepen the Japan-U.S. alliance, as well as for its development record. The American company developed the world's leading fighter jets, the F-22 and F-35, and has a strong reputation in stealth technology. The technical support it will provide to Mitsubishi Heavy will mainly be in airframe design and systems integration.

Tokyo is emphasizing the interoperability of the jet with Japan and the U.S. In preparation for an emergency, it will be able to share data with the U.S military's F-22 and F-35, making it easier to jointly develop operations.

Lockheed works with U.S. defense contractor Northrop Grumman on fighter jet development. Northrop is strong in sensors as well as in linking data technology connecting multiple fighters. Teaming up with Lockheed will thus make it easier for Mitsubishi Heavy to receive technical assistance from Northrop.

On individual components, Tokyo is also seeking cooperation with British companies that are building partnerships with Japan in the development of defense technology. BAE has a reputation for electronic warfare technology that uses electromagnetic waves to prevent opponents from attacking.

About 1,000 companies are involved in the manufacture of each model of fighter jet, with required technologies ranging from high-power engines to infrared sensors, lightweight airframes and information systems -- each of which require advanced technological capabilities.

While receiving technical assistance from foreign companies, Japan hopes the project will nurture innovation among domestic companies and create new industries.

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