Air superiority is imperative to have an advantage in modern warfare, so countries compete fiercely to develop cutting-edge fighters.
The United States has developed the F-35, a fifth-generation stealth fighter aircraft, together with partner countries and has been deploying it for some time.
NATO countries that use F-16s are taking steps to replace them with F-35s, with plans to release F-16s for Ukraine.
Japan has already acquired F-35s to replace the third-generation F-4s. It also launched the Global Combat Air Program (GCAP) with the United Kingdom and Italy to jointly develop a next-generation fighter aircraft that will be deployed in 2035 to replace the F-2, the aircraft developed together with the US based on the F-16.
The GCAP, a massive project involving trillions of yen in development costs alone, will be the centerpiece of the three countries’ efforts to boost their domestic aviation and defense industries.
For Japan, it is important from a political and diplomatic point of view since it is the first joint fighter aircraft development project with countries other than the United States.
This means that it is difficult to manage the project, including its costs and schedule, and there are important issues, such as ensuring interoperability between Japan and the United States.
Meanwhile, Germany, France and Spain are jointly developing a next-generation combat aircraft under the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) that would become a rival to GCAP.
China and Russia are also each developing their own sixth-generation fighter jets.
The outcome of these development projects could determine not only who will have the advantage in future wars but also the future of aviation and defense industry supply chains and exports, as well as alliance relationships between countries.
On December 9, the leaders of Japan, the United Kingdom and Italy issued a joint statement on the GCAP, stating: “We share the ambition for this aircraft to be the centerpiece of a broader combat air system that will operate in multiple domains.” ».
As the British ambassador to Japan, Julia Longbottom, reportedly said in December, the system is very likely to include unmanned vehicles, new sensors, weapons, highly sophisticated data systems and secure networks.
The governments, militaries and numerous companies of the three countries will work together and cooperate in various fields in a multifaceted manner over the next decades for the development, deployment and operation of the aircraft.
If the program is successful, the security and defense ties between the three countries will certainly be further strengthened.
While joint military exercises and operations can be described as a flow of temporary military cooperation, joint development is joint or structured cooperation. In that sense, GCAP is a symbol of what the UK calls a ‘new alliance’.
GCAP was launched in the context of Japan and the UK’s renewed focus on bilateral security ties.
In June 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and British Prime Minister David Cameron reached agreements on a framework for defense equipment cooperation, the first time Japan has done so with a country other than the United States.
The following month, the two governments signed an agreement on the transfer of weapons and military technologies necessary to implement joint research, development and production of defense equipment.
In January 2015, at the two-plus-two meeting of foreign and defense ministers, the two countries welcomed the launch of a project on the feasibility of a new joint air-to-air missile (JNAAM). A trial production of the prototype was completed during fiscal 2022, and the project is scheduled to conclude by the end of fiscal 2023 in March.
They will consider mass-producing the missile for loading on F-35s, and there is a possibility it could be loaded on GCAP aircraft in the future.
The UK signed a MoU with Sweden in 2019 and with Italy in 2021 to work on a joint combat air procurement and development program for the planned Tempest fighter, which will eventually replace the existing Eurofighter Typhoon.
The UK’s Tempest and Japan’s next-generation fighter jet that will replace the F-2 have a lot in common: both aim for greater travel range and missile payload than the F-35 and deployment in 2035 , which means that a joint development will lead to a win-win relationship.
The two countries can also benefit from the ability to reduce huge development costs and technological risks, and the accumulated achievements of technological cooperation in the JNAAM project prompted them to launch the joint aircraft development program.
The GCAP began as a trilateral project, later joined by Italy, which had signed a memorandum of understanding with the United Kingdom on the Tempest program. A possible participation by Sweden cannot be ruled out either.
Autonomy versus interoperability
Japan’s development of a next-generation fighter jet began when the Defense Ministry published a research and development vision for a future fighter in August 2010.
Since then, the ministry has continued research and development of an advanced technology demonstrator and onboard engines while collecting and analyzing information by issuing requests for information (RFI) to domestic and foreign companies.
In response to a request for information issued in June 2018, US defense contractor Lockheed Martin has launched a hybrid aircraft combining an F-22 body with F-35 avionics, but disclosure of the F-‘s core technology was not guaranteed. 35.
Consequently, during a briefing on the draft fiscal year 2020 defense budget held in December 2019, the Ministry of Defense announced that no derivative aircraft met its conditions and Lockheed Martin’s hybrid aircraft plan failed.
At the time, the US military was secretly pushing its Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program to develop a successor to the F-22 and, in September 2020, announced that it had already built and flown a large-scale flight Scale demonstrator.
Japan’s next-generation fighter development project was small in size, and the development schedule did not match that of the US. There was no possibility of the two countries jointly developing an aircraft based on the NGAD program, the details of which remain rare even to this day.
Tokyo has had bitter experiences of relying heavily on the United States to develop the F-2 aircraft and importing F-35s through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program instead of conducting licensed production.
Therefore, when developing a next-generation fighter, Japan set conditions to ensure sufficient scalability to be able to respond to future threats and technological advances flexibly; freedom of modification to carry out repairs and upgrades with independent judgment; and national defense infrastructure that allows timely and adequate maintenance and updates to guarantee a high response capacity.
In other words, Japan sought autonomy in fighter aircraft, a fundamental principle of air superiority.
On the other hand, it is essential to ensure interoperability with allies. In December 2020, Japan selected Lockheed Martin as a candidate for an integration support company.
In December 2021, the Ministry of Defense said it would continue negotiations with Lockheed Martin on what type of support it will offer and that it began talks with the US Air Force in August 2021 on the future network to ensure interoperability.
At the same time, he said that the defense authorities of Japan and the United Kingdom will carry out a joint analysis on the degree of standardization.
Such moves indicate the government’s cautious attitude as it seeks to gain Washington’s understanding of Japan’s shift toward joint development with the UK, while ensuring interoperability with the US.
Japan advocated production of an indigenous fighter jet under the FS-X program in the 1980s, but was politically pressured by Washington to co-develop it with the United States based on the F-16 jet. It still failed to reveal critical technologies such as flight control.
However, Japan managed to independently develop the F-2, which can be considered almost indigenous, in the 1990s despite incurring increasing costs, allowing the country to build domestically-produced technological infrastructure and carry out upgrades and upgrade work repair while the aircraft is in operation.
Japan was unable to join the multilateral F-35 development program that began in the 2000s due to its three principles on arms exports, so it initially considered the F-22 fighter as a candidate to replace the Decades old F-4.
But he dropped the idea because the US Congress had banned F-22 exports and instead bought F-35s through the FMS.
However, Japan, which has not participated in the development, does not have access to the technologies and is forced to unilaterally keep up with the frequent technological improvements and software updates that are made.
Taking these experiences into account, Japan set out to ensure both autonomy in the manufacture and deployment of fighter aircraft through the GCAP program and interoperability with the US.
At the same time as the joint statement issued by the leaders of Japan, the United Kingdom and Italy in December, the US Ministry of Defense and Department of Defense issued a statement saying the US supports GCAP.
The statement also said: “Together, we have initiated an important collaboration through a series of discussions on the capabilities of autonomous systems, which could complement Japan’s upcoming combat program, among other platforms.”
Indeed, the mature alliance between Japan and the United States made it possible for Tokyo to find a balance between autonomy and interoperability.
Multilateral development collaboration has become a major trend among Western countries, as it offers the merit of member countries pooling their technological prowess to share and reduce development costs and technological risks.
However, there are also many conflicts of interest, including differences in operational requirements, cost sharing, manufacturing work sharing, and intellectual property attribution.
In fact, France abandoned the Eurofighter joint development consortium and managed to develop the Rafale fighter jet independently.
FCAS, which began as German-French cooperation in 2017 and was later joined by Spain, has taken a backseat due to infighting over work-sharing agreements. Its implementation is expected to be years behind schedule.
Regarding GCAP, the Japanese, UK and Italian governments, as well as participating companies including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, BAE Systems and Leonardo, are currently negotiating the details of the program and production sharing. Future developments will be closely monitored.
Another critical issue for GCAP is the export of developed aircraft. Japan needs to consider revising the three principles on transferring defense equipment and technology to allow for its own and third-party exports (the UK and Italy in this case).
The leaders’ joint statement on GCAP reads: “This program has been designed with our allies and partners in mind,” indicating that it is intended for exports.
In fact, exporting developed combat aircraft will lead to price reductions due to increased production and maintenance of technological and manufacturing bases and increased mutual dependence with importing countries.
The three countries plan to replace a total of around 350 fighters with the new aircraft, but there is the potential to export several hundred, and countries such as Saudi Arabia have reportedly expressed interest in joining the program.
With the FCAS program severely delayed and US NGAD aircraft not intended for export, the UK and Italy have high hopes of exporting the product developed under GCAP.
Needless to say, the benefits of exporting finished aircraft are enormous for Japan’s defense industry.
To that end, a political decision must be made to review the three principles of transferring defense equipment and technology.
Russia and China are developing their own next-generation fighters, as authoritarian regimes want to avoid losing autonomy in the field of combat aircraft.
However, its independent aircraft development will face difficulties as Moscow is isolated after the war in Ukraine, and Beijing is affected by technological restrictions from Western countries.
Multilateral joint development initiatives are offering a competitive advantage to Western industrialized countries.
Japan, the United Kingdom and Italy should press ahead with the GCAP program without overemphasizing their national interests and circumstances to gain the upper hand over the authoritarian regimes of China and Russia.