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Aerospace & Defense

Mitsubishi Heavy set to oversee Japan's homegrown fighter project

IHI, Kawasaki Heavy and Subaru also look to play role

The U.S. has played a central role in selection and development of fighter jet models used by Japan's Self-Defense Forces, including the American-made F-35.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Japan's Defense Ministry confirmed Friday it will award a contract to a single Japanese company to oversee its next-generation fighter jet project, part of an effort to preserve a domestic defense industry that has atrophied amid decades of U.S.-led development.

The winning company -- most likely Mitsubishi Heavy Industries -- would subcontract with American and domestic partners. Japanese companies are to handle the overall design as well as development and production of key components such as engines and combat systems. IHI, which has developed a prototype high-output jet engine, is a leading candidate.

Japan plans to buy about 90 of the planes, 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).

Fighter jet development involves a broad range of industries, with as many as 1,000 companies involved in making a single model.

In the past, Mitsubishi Heavy, Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Fuji Heavy Industries, now known as Subaru, have handled production of fuselages, wings and landing gear. Other parts suppliers include Nabtesco, Sumitomo Precision Products, Mitsubishi Electric and Shimadzu.

Both Japan's defense industry and the defense ministry have accumulated technology in preparation for developing the next generation of fighters. The creation of the X-2 prototype, which began test flights in 2016, involved more than 200 domestic companies, with over 90% of components made in Japan.

The project was coordinated by Mitsubishi Heavy, while IHI handled the engine, Subaru the wings and tail fin, and Kawasaki Heavy the cockpit. The collaboration could itself be seen as a prototype for a Japanese jet development alliance.

Tokyo seeks to move away from U.S.-led selection and development of Air Self-Defense Force aircraft. The F-4, F-15 and F-35 are all American-made. The F-2 was a joint U.S.-Japan project, with Mitsubishi Heavy responsible for assembly and the engine coming from General Electric, and Washington did not provide technical information about key parts.

Japan has developed only one homegrown fighter jet since the end of World War II: the F-1, back in the 1970s. The ranks of Japanese engineers who worked on the F-2 in the 1980s are dwindling.

Having domestic companies handle the new fighter provides an opportunity to pass on know-how that would otherwise risk being lost. Japan has almost no specialized defense contractors, and even the field's largest player, Mitsubishi Heavy, generates only 10% of its revenue from defense-related operations.

As Tokyo has stepped up equipment purchases through Washington's Foreign Military Sales program, domestic companies in defense-related fields have suffered. Sumitomo Electric Industries stopped producing covers for nose radar systems in aircraft, as the business was no longer economically viable, while Komatsu partly halted development of new vehicles for the Ground Self-Defense Force.

The Defense Ministry envisions the new jet as a multirole fighter, capable of attacking land and sea targets as well as aerial combat. It will need stealth and electronic warfare capabilities, in addition to networking functions to connect with allied aircraft and land- and sea-based equipment. The ministry will also consider implementing artificial intelligence.

Japanese companies have little experience with developing top-of-the-line fighter jets, making cooperation with more-experienced American peers essential. The government plans to reach a formal agreement with Washington on joint development by year-end. Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman have been named as potential partners.

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