‘Japan’s New Stealth Aircraft Prototype: How Disruptive Will It Be?

On 29 January, Japan’s Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Agency unveiled its new X-2 demonstration fighter. Meant as a demonstration of capabilities, the plane is officially titled the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Advances Technology Demonstrator (ATD-X) and is the first step towards Japan’s stated goal of an indigenous 5th generation stealth combat aircraft. The plane is only a test of the various technologies required to produce a full fighter, but is already making waves in the media. However, concerns are overstated: the plane is unlikely to have a major effect on either the security balance in Northeast Asia or the international market for combat aircraft.

Image courtesy of Hunini © 2012, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Hunini © 2012, some rights reserved.

The project which led up to this prototype began in the 2000s when the Japanese Air Self-Defence force attempted to purchase several American F-22s, but were prevented from doing so when Congress placed an export ban on the plane. The Air Self-Defence force consists mostly of American F-2s and F-15s, but these planes are aging and need to be replaced. While Japan has placed an order for 42 F-35As, the fifth generation stealth fighter developed internationally by Boeing. While the technology displayed in the F-35 is unparalleled, the prohibitively high unit cost (more than $100 million per plane) prevents Japan from purchasing enough F-35s to replace their entire aging fleet.

Enter the X-2. Colloquially known as the ‘Shinshin’, or ‘spirit of the heart’, the plane clearly has a long way to go before production. For instance, the version on display lacks the wingtips or hardpoints to mount the armaments necessary for a combat role. The earliest the plane could enter production is 2027, and considering the delays in similar programmes like the F-35 and the Chinese Chengdu J-20, the X-2 could enter service quite a bit later.  Yet the X-2 programme appears to be Japan’s most likely solution to its encroaching fighter gap.

However, Japan does not exist in a vacuum: a new fighter programme is bound to be noticed far away from Tokyo. Northeast Asian security balance is already delicate, and a significant Japanese procurement effort could destabilise it. Moreover, should the X-2 be marketed for export, it could upset the already densely populated Asian market for fighter planes.

A Fragile Balance in Northeast Asia

The X-2 is only one part of a larger procurement trend in Northeast Asia. Across the sea, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has been steadily modernising its fleet, most notably with two separate fifth generation fighter programmes. Chengdu Aerospace Corporation, the state owned firm which produced the J-7 and J-10 multirole fighters which constitute the mainstay of the PLAAF, is responsible for one of these projects. The J-20, which is expected to enter service in 2018, is a stealth air superiority fighter similar to (and some would say reverse engineered from) the F-22. The other project is the Shenyang J-31, which could be deployed on China’s growing carrier fleet, or could be marketed for export. When combined with other facets of Chinese military build-up, such as the increase in carrier capability or the development of anti-ship ballistic missiles, these fighter programmes paint a clear picture of a Chinese military establishment intent on growing its capabilities.

Japan has also been engaged in building up its offensive capabilities. This intention was made clear when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe succeeded in passing a bill through the Japanese legislature reinterpreting Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. This article, a cornerstone of Japanese foreign policy since the end of the Second World War, states that the Japanese people ‘forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation.’ The reinterpretation allows for ‘collective self-defense’, granting Japan grated flexibility in deploying its armed forces. The commissioning of the helicopter carrier Izumo means that this new willingness to use offensive force is matched by ability.

Both Japan and China are clearly engaged in a military build-up, with Korea and Taiwan also participating, albeit in a lesser fashion. Such a build-up is particularly concerning given the disputed status of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, which are claimed by both China and Japan. Japan announced earlier in January that it will begin patrolling the islands regularly, which will only increase the possibility for mishap.

 How will the introduction of the X-2 affect this delicate balance? Even though the project may not come to fruition until 2027 at the earliest, the effect of the programme will be felt soon because of the length of the procurement process needed for advanced fighter jets. However, the effect will probably not be huge. The procurement programme fits into a broader programme of military procurement on both sides of the conflict. Because both China and Japan are in the process of procuring 5th generation stealth fighters, the effect of the X-2 programme would be a quantitative, not qualitative one. In short, while the programme will no doubt increase Japanese aerial strike capabilities relative to China, the effect is unlikely to be hugely destabilising.

The Market for Fighter Jets: Already Saturated?

The export potential of the X-2 has been hinted, but it would emerge on an already crowded market. India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) is bringing its Tejas light attack fighters onto the market after a number of serious delays, and they are being marketed for export. More prominently, China and Pakistan have collaborated to produce the JF-17, a low cost fighter marketed towards smaller Asian states. Myanmar, Nigeria, Azerbaijan, and Sri Lanka have all expressed interest in purchasing the JF-17, although Sri Lanka appears to be leaning more towards procuring the HAL Tejas. Both planes are looking to take advantage of the market for low-cost fighters, as the MiG 21s which are popular across low and middle income states become further and further obsolete.

The higher end of the aircraft market is likewise densely populated. American and European aircraft remain popular choices: Korea and Australia have both purchased F-35s, with Singapore also likely to purchase several of the planes.  Malaysia has received 18 Russian Sukhoi-30MKIs, an improved version of the original 4th generation combat aircraft. Despite the HAL Tejas programme nearing fruition, India has signed a deal to import 36 French Dassault Rafales. Lastly, Korea and Indonesia are embarked on a joint fighter development programme to create a ‘4.5th’ generation fighter, the KF-X, including some but not all technologies which distinguish modern 5th generation combat aircraft like the F-35. The Eurofighter Tycoon and the Saab JAS-39 Grippen also remain on the market.

 With Japan’s X-2 unlikely to enter production until 2027, and its export status unsure, it is unlikely that its appearance will disturb the market for combat aircraft. Both the low-cost and high-value markets are already saturated, and purchasing countries are spoiled for choice.

 Conclusion

It’s easy to make a big deal of Japan’s X-2 protoype. New aircraft are always exciting, new 5th generation stealth combat aircraft especially so. However, the aircraft is unlikely to upset either the security balance in Northeast Asia or the market for fighter aircraft.  China and Japan are both already engaged in military build-ups, of which the X-2 will be only one component, meaning the effect of the programme is unlikely to be profound. The effect of the new Japanese fighter on the international market will be similarly muted, if Japan even decides to export the system. There are simply too many competitors for one new aircraft to have a huge effect. All these conditions may change in the decade before the X-2 is slated to enter production, but for now the plane is nothing to worry about.