Win-Win: U.S.-Japan Technological Cooperation and the F-2 Fighter Replacement

As Japan works on its next generation fighter, joint development with the United States has challenges and rewards
Part of the US-Japan Alliance Project
By Thomas Lattanzio Author

The accelerating pace of territorial air incursions by the Chinese military continues to put a great deal of pressure on Japan’s defensive capabilities. Members of the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF), cite from first-hand experience that “the number of scrambles against airspace violations has been increasing rapidly over the past decade,” to the point that every time Chinese aircraft take off from a base in Fujian Province, the JASDF instantly launch interceptors. In response to a more muscular, modernizing, and quantitatively larger Chinese military, Japan should make all efforts to retain a qualitative edge. In jointly developing the next generation fighter for the JASDF, the F-3, with the United States, Japan can deepen already strong ties with its most significant and staunch ally, while capitalizing on already mature U.S. technologies.

Since at least December 2009, the Japanese Ministry of Defense (MoD) has officially been working on this replacement. These efforts have yielded an advanced technology demonstrator, the Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin, which has been used for testing.

The main challenges that are prompted by the joint development of the F-3 can be found in the process by which the F-2 was designed. There are three areas of friction. First, the balance of technology transfer could be limited in terms of U.S. gain. The most successful joint development programs, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon designed by Britain, Germany, Italy, and Spain, have required all participants to share proprietary knowledge and financial resources so that the states felt a unity of effort. If joint development is pursued, it must be ensured that Japanese companies do not feel like simply subcontractors of U.S. firms, a concerned voiced by members of the Japanese defense establishment. To this end, MoD has articulated that the program must be Japan-led. Second, joint development brings inherent risks in terms of cost overruns and other expenditures. A main criticism of the F-2 program was that the final product was essentially a slightly enlarged and improved F-16, yet at four times the price-per-aircraft—even accounting for the cost of a modernized F-16. For the same cost, Japan would have been able to purchase expensive stealth fighters like the F-35s, if they had been on the market, a truly astounding failure of the program. Third, both nations are driven by different motivating factors. The MoD desires to procure an aircraft that grows Japan’s industrial base and fosters future innovations. U.S. firms do not have the same incentive to support Japan’s industrial base.

However, despite these challenges, there are compelling factors that motivate the United States and Japan to cooperate on this program. First, both states have a history of cooperation which primes future partnerships. This partnership has evolved with time, beginning with the 1954 Mutual Agreement, growing from a one-sided transitional relationship, in which the U.S. would sell Japan technologies and equipment, to a more balanced one, such as the joint design of the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor. Further, the U.S.-Japan mutual defense pact, undergirded by pressure from North Korea and a rising China, should alleviate some fears of an unbalanced level of technology transfer. Additionally, Japanese industry needs assistance with the design and production of the F-3. The U.S. has designed some of the world’s most advanced aircraft and avionics systems for almost seven decades. Some technologies, like the Advanced Display Core mission computers, which are used to process information during flight operations, are only practically available through the United States. For Japanese companies to attempt to develop so many capabilities indigenously could result in an unacceptable level of risk. Many defense programs are canceled or downscaled due to an overextension of integrating unproven technologies or procurement restructurings, as evident in a recent report on the U.S. Navy’s DDG-1000 program. To mitigate this possibility, the Japan and the U.S. have set up a joint public-private development committee.

Japanese policymakers have valid concerns on cooperation, as fears of the cost-overruns of the F-2 program or the desire to grow the defense industrial base are valid. Yet, within cooperation lies an opportunity not only to generate savings in R&D and time spent in development, but to procure technologies Japan would have difficulty obtaining through indigenous efforts. These reasons and others prompted Japan to request assistance in the first place. If the F-3 is not produced within an acceptable cost framework and timeframe, Japan risks not being able to execute its mission in the face of China’s larger and technologically ascendant air force. While the U.S.-Japan alliance is very strong, and developing the F-3 with another nation or indigenously wouldn’t fragment this relationship, co-development with the U.S. would produce an advanced fighter for Japan, mitigate risk, and undoubtably serve as another factor strengthening the partnership between the two nations.

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