Did America Just Miss Its Chance To Help Build Japan’s Future Fighter?

Reports suggest that Japan may well join the British Team Tempest future fighter program by year-end.

byThomas Newdick|
Japan F-3 fighter


Reports in the Japanese media suggest that Tokyo is thinking about teaming up with the United Kingdom, not the United States, to help build its next-generation combat aircraft, known as the F-X. Apparently, BAE Systems has been earmarked as the most likely partner for the program, which aims to field a new fighter jet around 2035, the same timeline as for the British company’s Tempest Future Combat Air System (FCAS), which you can read more about here.

It seems the latest decisions in the program were made in the course of high-level meetings between Japanese, British, and U.S. officials earlier this month. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met his British counterpart Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom on May 5, with reports of an “agreement in principle to cooperate on future fighter programs” to be finalized by the end of the year. A day earlier, Japanese Minister of Defense Nobuo Kishi met U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, with the future fighter apparently also on the agenda.

A Tempest mock-up at the Farnborough International Air Show in 2018. BAE Systems

According to the reports, Tokyo has already begun negotiations with BAE Systems about expanding its role in the Japanese next-generation fighter. British companies have already reached agreements with Japan to assist in the development of the powerplant and to partner on new-generation air-to-air missiles that would likely arm the new aircraft.

Further bilateral cooperation includes the U.K. Ministry of Defense’s support to Japan’s Joint New Air-to-Air Missile program, or JNAAM. This weapon is expected to combine British expertise relating to the MBDA Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) with a Japanese-developed advanced radio frequency (RF) seeker.

Concept artwork of a possible F-X fighter configuration. Japan Ministry of Defense

Having BAE Systems join the Japanese future fighter program as a developmental partner would be a hugely significant step. It would also be bad news for U.S. defense contractors, in particular Lockheed Martin. In late 2020, the Japan Ministry of Defense announced Lockheed as a potential partner on the program. Since then, however, it appears that the two parties have fallen out over technology transfer issues.

Lockheed Martin had previously collaborated with Japan on the Mitsubishi F-2 multirole fighter, based on the F-16 airframe, which the eventual F-X is scheduled to replace.

The Mitsubishi F-2, developed in collaboration with Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin

In particular, it seems that Japan is unhappy with how the aircraft would be upgraded once in service. While the specifics are unclear, it’s possible that Lockheed envisaged taking control of software and potentially hardware updates for the jet, limiting the degree of autonomy enjoyed by its Japanese operator. 

Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) is reprising its role from the F-2 as the prime contractor in the development of the new aircraft. Other industry partners include Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries (IHI), responsible for the powerplant, and working in partnership with Rolls-Royce. Last year it was announced that work on a joint full-scale demonstrator power system would begin in early 2020. The British engine-maker is also producing the powerplant for the Tempest.

An infographic from Rolls-Royce showing planned features for the Tempest propulsion system. Rolls-Royce

In the past, there have also been reports in the Japanese press suggesting that the Tempest and F-X will share not only engines but also “air intakes … and the area near the exhaust” and that these components will be optimized for stealth. Both sections are some of the most challenging to engineer for low-observable qualities and performance.

Clearly, a firm agreement between Tokyo and London could pave the way for MHI, and other Japanese industrial partners, to formally join the Tempest program. As a medium-to-large, stealthy, twin-engined fighter, the Tempest would appear to be a fair match to at least some of the Japanese requirements. The U.K. Royal Air Force also plans to have Tempest replacing its Typhoons by 2035, matching Japanese ambitions.

For the United Kingdom, and BAE Systems, in particular, having an international partner on the Tempest program should bring down costs and reduce overall risk, especially as Japan would likely join with a firm commitment to buy aircraft at the end of the development period.

So far, the Team Tempest efforts also includes Italian defense contractor Leonardo and European missile consortium MBDA, while Sweden is also on board as an international partner. However, neither Italy nor Sweden have so far announced firm plans to actually buy examples of the sixth-generation fighter.

For Japan, meanwhile, there could be much to gain from joining Team Tempest, since its scope extends well beyond the stealthy manned fighter that is its centerpiece. The program ultimately aims to field a sixth-generation ‘system of systems’ air combat capability, to include complementary loyal wingman-type drones, sensors, air-launched weapons, and supporting architecture.

BAE Systems

Historically, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) has relied primarily on U.S.-made combat aircraft and its air defense fighter force is currently spearheaded by the F-15J Eagle and growing numbers of F-35A stealth fighters. The next-generation fighter would be expected to offer interoperability with American-made equipment, but that should not necessarily be a major problem if Tokyo goes with BAE Systems. After all, the United Kingdom also plans for the Tempest to be able to work alongside its own F-35Bs.

According to Nikkei, there still seems to be at least the potential for the United States to salvage something from Japan’s next-generation combat aircraft program. Their report suggests that a final decision on the development workshare will be taken later this year and the long-established relationships with Lockheed Martin, and others, might still work out in favor of a U.S. partner.

Currently, however, the momentum seems to be with BAE Systems, which would appear to offer Japan the opportunity to step into a readymade sixth-generation air combat program, something that is unlikely for U.S. rivals, at this stage at least, to match. It’s worth recalling that when Japan showed interest in acquiring the F-22 Raptor, at the time America’s latest air dominance fighter, the request was turned down amid fears that details of its sensitive components and capabilities would leak out.

An F-22 Raptor from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska takes off at Yokota Air Base, Japan. U.S. AIR FORCE/YASUO OSAKABE

As to the reported Japanese concerns over technology transfer issues with the United States, there are few details available here, but foreign partners in the F-35 program, of which Japan is one, have, in the past, voiced worries about the level of independence they enjoy when it comes to upgrading or adapting the jets. Meanwhile, foreign operators of the Joint Strike Fighter have also been unhappy with the way the aircraft is programmed to collect and store potentially sensitive data and transfer it back to the United States.

On the other hand, joining Team Tempest would also come with its fair share of risk for Japan. While the United Kingdom has repeatedly talked up the program as a central element of the U.K Combat Air Strategy, it remains an incredibly expensive undertaking and one that places considerable pressure on an already strained British defense budget. As we have discussed in the past, it’s hard to see how Tempest can be acquired for the RAF in sufficient numbers alongside a full buy of 138 F-35Bs. Even if the final F-35B buy is reduced, Tempest will still require commitment from new and existing international partners to spread the fiscal load.

Going all-in with BAE Systems would leave the future of MHI’s X-2 Shinshin experimental aircraft and IHI’s in-development XF9 fighter engine in jeopardy. However, there is scope for both those efforts to feed into a joint Anglo-Japanese program and the X-2, in particular, was only ever intended as a test asset, rather than a developmental prototype for a future fighter.

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Politically, a broadening military relationship with Japan will surely win support from the British government as the United Kingdom increasingly switches its strategic and military priorities to the Asia Pacific region, with an eye on China’s burgeoning territorial ambitions and military expansion. U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said last year that strengthening partnerships in the Indo-Pacific was “a strategic priority” and pointed to the engine agreement with Japan as a clear example of that.

As for BAE Systems, the company will now be even more hopeful that Japan will make a firm commitment to Team Tempest in terms of sharing development costs for the future fighter and its advanced subsystems, as well as actually buying the jets once they are available.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com