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Monday, August 12, 2013

Quick Thoughts: Japanese 5th Generation Aircraft?

I came across an interesting video posted on the Aviationist website. The CGI video shows a mix of Japanese 5th generation aircraft destroying Chinese forces in 2035. Although the video is certainly entertaining, the status of Japan's 5th generation domestic fighter program, the ATD-X, is far from materializing into anything. The planned ATD-X demonstrator is basically an F-22A; the program was created in part as a result of the export ban on the F-22 by the United States Congress. Japan's aerospace industry is a classic example of how NOT to develop new fighter aircraft. Japanese Government policy in regards to prioritizing domestic aerospace development has historically produced aircraft at exorbitant prices with little to no added benefit in capabilities.

"Japan is still trying to dig itself out of the financial hole resulting from its last national fighter, the ill-starred F-2. That warplane began development in the late 1980s as a ‘Japanization’ of the Lockheed Martin F-16, adding a bigger wing and better electronics. But the modifications, performed by Mitsubishi, proved difficult. And the limited production run – fewer than 100 copies over 20 years – made it impossible for Mitsubishi to achieve economies of scale. It’s been claimed that an F-2 costs four times as much as an F-16, without providing anywhere near a fourfold increase in capability." - David Axe, 2011

The F-2 program is just one of many minimally effective Japanese domestic aerospace development programs. In 2008 Japan cancelled its order of licence built (Fuji Heavy Industries) AH-64D Apaches from 62 to just 14 as each helicopter had a unit price of $85 million dollars; Boeing produced AH-64D's cost less than $30 million per unit. The Japanese defense industry is ill-suited to take on an aerospace mega project like the ATD-X. The Japanese military budget is limited to 1% of GDP meaning the ATD-X is doomed if past aerospace projects are any indication.

"ATD-X could eventually set Japan back $100 billion once design, production, maintenance and operations were factored in. Assuming a 40-year service life for the plane, that would mean the Shinshin could consume more than 5 percent of Japan’s roughly $50-billion-a-year defence budget – and produce just a few dozen copies." - David Axe, 2011

Its worth noting that the ATD-X won't start development in earnest until 2016-2017 meaning a final product (designated F-3) won't be viable until at least the mid 2020s and deployment in the late 2020s. By the time the F-3 fighter enters service it will be of little use. American 6th generation aircraft such as the F/A-XX and the Lockheed concept shown below are planned to enter service by 2030-2035.

If Japan really wants to develop a domestic 5th generation program, they need to make substantial reforms to their defense industry. As far as both intellectual capital and monetary resources are concerned, only the United States, China, and Russia are in a position to develop 5th generation aircraft for the foreseeable future. The prudent path forward for Japan is to learn as much as it can from co-producing the F-35 before attempting to create a new ultra ambitious aerospace program of its own.

The only 5th generation fighter program that stands a reasonable degree of success outside of China, Russia and the United States is the South Korean KF-X program. Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) is much more practical in its ambition when compared to Japan's ATD-X program. The KF-X-E concept is intended replace the the KF-16 by 2030 and features a relaxed low observable design.

"Retention of the single tail on the KF-X-E is emblematic of the limited ambition of the designers, who appear to have aimed at achieving a level of stealth above that of the Eurofighter Typhoon and Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet but well below that of the Lockheed Martin F-22 and F-35. The latter two, like other stealth aircraft, have canted twin tail fins." - Bradley Perrett, Bill Sweetman, 2013

KAI knows that the KF-X-E will enter service at a time where the F-35 is the dominant 5th generation export, thus its strategy is to market the KF-X-E as a 5th generation Gripen of sorts: a low cost, lower performance fighter for lower budget militaries. The KF-X program still has a very long way to go and could easily fail but other foreign stealth fighter programs are even more dubious.

Before anyone shouts at me for forgetting India, I didn't. India is trying to develop the 5th generation advanced medium combat aircraft. Given the myriad of problems with the comparatively technologically simple 4th generation HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) Tejas, I seriously doubt HAL is in any position to develop 5th generation aircraft without substantial Russian assistance in the near future. Even with Russian cooperation, the current 5th generation FGFA order was cut from 200 to 144 due to price overruns.  



Author's Note: I wrote this article in about 1 hour as opposed to a week just for the purpose of getting out content while I work on major articles. Let me know what you think, if this more relaxed style of writing is acceptable to you, I can put out more content more frequently (I would still continue the more substantial more in depth type articles as well). 


  1. Matt, IMO, Japan will buy/place an order for 80-100 F35A/B/C. By 2020-25. The F35 vertical landing is great for the NEW Japan Carrier. As to Japan developing a new 5th Fighter, they will do 3 things, (1). Spend More money down the drain and then cancel the project. Or (2). Buy the engines and most parts form the USA, and put it all together and hope for the best. With Japan electronics. (3) Buy a up-grade 2 engine design of the F18 or F15 with stealth design and radar reduction features a 4+++ or Just a 5th with vertical outlets. There are Photo's flying around. USA will not sell the next generation fighter Jet, just like the F22. As for SK, there are very long way off. (Just look at there tank, most expensive in the World and has been in development for over 10 years and expensive as, and that's a tank) As for India, the T-50 will be there main Plan, and even with Russia helps it will take time. I would be more interested with India and France Doing a 5th Gen Aircraft together. Because the French have not said Boooo about a 5th Gen Plane in there Air force. EU will just buy f35 due to cost. France, will be interesting to see what they make. Rather than Japan,SK,India. There is only one country that has an 5th gen plan and that's USA, when China and Russia start Building there 5th gen plan in numbers, the USA will announce to the world there 6th gen aircraft with new type of jet engines

    1. Japan has the F-XX program (seperate from the F-X which the F-35A already won) to replace its F-15J aircraft which is worth up to 100 more aircraft.
      But it is unlikely that its going to be either the B or C variant. With regards to the Izumo, its actually an LHA/LHD type ship and I think Japan is going to order VH-22's for it long before any F-35B buy but its technically possible.

      I would agree in regards to SK but its more plausible than any other programs aside from the F-35, Pak Fa/FGFA, and J-20. I don't mean to step on any toes politically but many, including myself, view the EU as becoming "strategically irrelevant". Personnel costs are out of control in most EU militaries meaning funding for actual equipment gets smaller each year plus growing entitlement programs strip the already less than 1% GDP funding allocated to most EU militaries; its a mess. Out of the 28 members, only four spend the agreed upon 2% GDP standard and its only getting worse. Out of all the NATO countries, only the US, UK, and France can actually project power across the globe and France is slipping from that list. The EU won't get a 5th gen let alone a 6th generation aircraft for sometime.

    2. Agree Matt thanks for doing the update.
      About the EU, the best example, is the War in libya, Where the USA stayed out on the side lines *cough*

      When a British General was asked from a USA reporter how many cruise missiles where fired over the 48 hrs period.
      He answered "102 curse missiles where fired"
      The US reporter fellow up question was "So general how many where fired by the French and How many By Britain"
      The General just look like a dear in the head lights. His response was "Out of the 102 missiles fired 99 where fired by the USA, 1 by France and 2 by Britain"

      That is the capability of EU power. That's was before all this major budget cut's.
      Where as for Japan and SK, there money will be spent on military might and Air-force, But I don't think they will get Far. USA is the only one True military power, the rest Just want military on the cheap. But the Biggest casualty is the USA Tax payers.

      F-35 in 10 years will be bought up like the F/16,F18 and F15. All these other F-XX program will be in small numbers and the F-X IMO will be the F-18 with new stealth and modified vertical outlets.
      Have a look at this.

    3. Although Japan has the political intention to stand up to China, especially with PM Abe, the 1% GDP limit restricts what they can do they aught to consider amending the limit (the world is very different from 1945). Australia will hopefully follow through with its JSF buys (at least partially)and figure out which submarines to buy.

      The new Super Hornet upgrades are pretty interesting but I doubt the USN has the money to get all of the upgrades en masse. I've been doing some research into the new upgrades as part of one of my future articles. Here's an interesting Boeing PDF on the subject.

  2. I was surprised by the critical view of the ATD-X feasibility, but your analysis convinced me. Well done!

    Now, even though these other fighters may never see production, I'd love to see articles that disect their designs/production goals where you note elements they have that could be useful for 6th generation fighter production from the likes of US, China, or Russia- if that's even the case, of course.

    1. Thanks, I'm nothing if not pragmatic. It doesn't matter how shiny a concept is on paper or how many new features it has if you don't have the intellectual capital, materiel, infrastructure, or funds to produce it. Ambition with regards to science and technology is often very valuable but one needs to be realistic when national security and billions of dollars are on the line. Sure I can do an article relating to 6th generation aircraft but little information exists that is credible. My favorite US Gov agency, DARPA, is conducting the Air Dominance Initiative to try and figure out what capabilities will constitute future 6th generation aircraft.

  3. India's time span for the AMCA 5-Gen is 15 years away by which time 6th gen fighters may be flying - its likely partner is likely to be Saab - it will still give it many viable years in service. The only thing that could mess it up is if the PAF gets F35s - which I doubt since the tech would leak to China - but hey you never know. The F35 is just another level from everything else today

    1. US is often the first to build a new generation, I doubt our own procurement system will deliver any major platform earlier than 2035, likely 2040 unless major reforms occur. I hope the IAF will choose the F-16 though for their 90 fighter requirement now that the MMRCA has failed and Rafales are too expensive. I'm doubtful of Saab's experience in developing 5th generation aircraft, the three companies that could likely do it bid for KF-X (the Korean indigenous program): Airbus Defense with Boeing vs. Lockheed Martin.

      I think rather then going for 5th gen. strait out of the gate, they need to get 4th gen down. The Tejas is still mediocre and I doubt it will get much better until the MK 2. Its an order of magnitude difference in difficulty between building not only the airframe but networked a fused systems in 5th gen aircraft. Which is why the PAK FA and FGFA are often discussed as having 4th gen. avionics with a 5th gen. airframe.