For centuries, the West has dominated the state-of-the-art when it comes to military technology. Nearly all the great breakthroughs in weaponry — from muskets to missiles — have originated in Europe or North America. And perhaps no field of military technology has been more consistently and overwhelmingly the purview of the occidental West than the modern jet-powered fighter aircraft.
Since the end of World War II, a handful of countries — basically, the US, the USSR/Russia, Britain, France and Sweden — have controlled the global fighter-jet industry. Even today, perhaps 90% of all combat aircraft flown by all the world's air forces are produced by these five countries, or are based on copies of their planes. In fact, one of the hardest things to do, because it is so intensely and extensively complex, is the design and development of modern fighter jets.
Many countries have tried to break this monopoly: Argentina in the 1950s, Egypt and India in the 1960s, Israel and South Africa in the 1980s; none were particularly successful, and some — such as the Indian HF-24 Marut — were spectacular failures. Today, several Asian nations are challenging this traditional Western dominance with a host of new fighter jet programs, all of which are intended to come into service over the next 10 to 20 years. India and South Korea have established indigenous aircraft industries and produced hundreds of combat aircraft, but most of these were licensed-produced copies. Both possess ambitious plans when it comes to designing and building homegrown fighters, but success has been elusive.
On the other hand, some Asian fighter aircraft producers are obviously on the rise, despite all odds. China, for example, has two 'fifth-generation' fighter jets in the works, the J-20 and the J-31. Not much is known about these aircraft; the J-20 bears a close resemblance to the F-22, while the J-31 looks a lot like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). Nevertheless, the existence of these parallel programs certainly demonstrates China's ambitions, and the aggressive steps it is prepared to take in order to claw its way up into the vanguard of fighter-jet producers.
Then there is Japan. For decades, Japan was Asia's leader in aerospace. It was the only regional country that possessed a sizable military aircraft industry before World War II. It was a centre of innovation and invention when it came to aviation, and some of its combat aircraft, particularly the A6M 'Zero', were among the best in the world. After 1945, Japan spent decades rebuilding its aerospace sector.
Yet even a technological leviathan like Japan has struggled with its aerospace and aeronautics sector, both civil and military. In the 1960s, it built the YS-11, a 60-seat turboprop commuter plane that many thought would be the first in a series of Japanese-made commercial airliners; less than 200 were built, and no follow-on programs ever materialised.
Japan's most recent homegrown fighter jet, the F-2, has been a technological and programmatic dead-end. Originally, it was supposed to be a true 'Rising Sun' combat aircraft, totally indigenous from stem to stern. Conceived in the 1980s, it was supposed to incorporate the latest technology found in Japan's highly advanced industrial base, including the heavy use of nonmetal composites and an electronically scanned, phased array radar. However, US political pressure, together with the growing realisation that a totally indigenous fighter was technologically a stretch, forced the Japanese to settle for a hybrid design, one derived from the US F-16, albeit heavily modified and optimised for maritime strike.
Even this more modest program proved to be a challenge for Japan's aerospace industry. Structural problems, including cracking in its all-composite air frame and severe flutter, set the program back years. Meanwhile, the plane became outrageously expensive, each unit costing about three times that of the F-16 on which it was based. Consequently, procurement was cut from more than 200 fighters, first to 130, and eventually to just 98 planes. The last F-2 was delivered in 2011, leaving Japan with no fighter aircraft in production. In addition, even though Japan is acquiring the F-35, its access to JSF technology will likely be severely limited.
By the mid-2000s, Japan's aircraft industry faced a crisis of confidence. It had plenty of business, subcontracting for Boeing and Airbus on various commercial airliners, but few aircraft projects of its own. Hence, since the late 2000s, Japan has been quietly working on a fifth-generation fighter aircraft of its own, the ATD-X (Advanced Technology Demonstrator – Experimental), also called the X-2. So far, the ATD-X has cost around 39.4 billion yen (around US$331 million); it will likely fly early this year.
Bear in mind, however, that the X-2 is just a technology demonstrator, not a prototype of a new fighter jet. According to The Diplomat, it is 'a testbed platform for multiple technologies', including next-generation electronically scanned array radar, multi-dimensional thrust vectoring, an indigenous low-bypass turbofan engine and radar-absorbing composite materials. Production of an 'F-3' fighter will not begin until 2027, at the earliest. It is likely that this plane could turn out to be so expensive — a single F-3 could cost US$200 million or more — that Japan may never buy more than a handful.
If successful, the ADT-X/F-3 could shift the centre of gravity in the fighter jet industry from the North Atlantic closer to the Asia-Pacific. If Japan decided to market this fighter to overseas customers — increasingly likely, as Tokyo is quietly watering down its near-total arms export ban — then the F-3 could seriously challenge the West's predominance in this highly lucrative business sector. That, however, depends on the cosmic alignment of a great many technological, economic and political factors, a 'harmonic convergence' that is hardly assured. Japan, despite all its advantages, will continue to struggle in building and maintaining a state-of-the-art aerospace industry.