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Asia’s Quest For Stealth: Japan

Japan’s indigenous stealth fighter project is the ATD-X (Advanced Technology Demonstrator eXperimental) ShinShin (Spirit of the Heart), which is being developed with the Technical Research and Development Institute (TRDI) of Japan’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The ATD-X project developed out of planning in Tokyo for a future fifth-generation aircraft to serve the Japan Air-Self Defense Force (JASDF). Early studies were done, but the project gained a new importance with Tokyo’s acceptance that it would not be able to convince U.S. lawmakers in the 2000s to export the F-22 Raptor. With few other options for a fifth-generation aircraft, Japan took the indigenous route, and now the ATD-X is meant to serve as a technology demonstrator and test bed that might ultimately be developed into a production ready design.

Asia's Quest For Stealth: Advanced Combat Aircraft Projects [PART 2]

In an interview with Bloomberg News on December 2, Hirofumi Doi, a program manager at the MoD, said that the ATD-X is now scheduled to make its maiden flight in the first quarter of 2016. While it is known that the program is well on its way towards an eventual maiden flight, the prospect of one in the past has been flirted with before. In the first quarter of 2014, the MoD then said that a flight would occur before the end of the year; now it seems the project is over a full year behind schedule. One of the causes for that delay was a software error in the engine control unit.

The Obey Amendment in the U.S., which came into law in 1998, prohibits the sale of the F-22 to any foreign power out of fear that its advanced technology, particularly stealth-related, could fall into the hands of adversaries. Tokyo genuinely desired the aircraft, and there were those who thought an exception could be made considering the strategic importance of Japan to the U.S. and the close relationship. In the late 2000s there was some belief in the U.S. and Japan that the amendment would be repealed, but despite strong efforts by supporters, the export ban remained. Hope for a watered-down version of the F-22 to be allowed for export failed to materialize in 2009. With that, Tokyo realized that the F-22 would most likely never fly in the service of the JASDF.

As a result, Japan’s existing stealth project was afforded a new importance with original hopes of fielding a flight ready prototype by 2014. In a matter of years, Radar Cross Section (RCS) models were scaled up while new technologies were developed and since 2009, well over $1 billion USD has been invested into it. In July 2014, the TRDI officially unveiled the prototype of the ATD-X. What emerged is a twin-engine technology demonstrator that is fairly small in relation to similar aircraft. Due to its nature as a demonstrator, possible weapon loads are unknown, nor can they be properly hypothesized.

What is known is that various high-end technologies are being incorporated into the ATD-X. Among its many planned technologies are 3D thrust vectoring, which is found on several Russian aircraft and allows for superior high-maneuverability and a “self-repairing flight control capability.” This latter technology can automatically detect failures in the flight control surfaces of the aircraft brought on by accidental failure or battle damage and by using the remaining control surfaces, compensate to maintain controlled flight.

If the ATD-X is successful in tests, the MoD will decide by 2018 whether or not to have it enter serial production as the F-3 or opt for a joint-development program with other countries such as Australia to utilize the lessons learned and share expenses towards the development of a future combat aircraft. Regardless, Tokyo intends to use the product of the program to replace its fleet of F-2s and F-15s by the late 2020s. The final F-2 rolled out of Mitsubishi in December 2011, and with it marked the last time Japan domestically built a jet fighter, ending a 55-year continuous stretch.

Rukmani Gupta, an analyst with IHS Jane’s, said of the aircraft, “Should the ATD-X test be deemed successful, it is very likely that Japan will pursue production of a next-generation fighter.”

Such a view is echoed in Tokyo by senior leaders.

Japan needs the testing of the ATD-X to be successful, as it needs this aircraft, given the lack of suitable alternatives. Already the JASDF fleet is ageing and shrinking, and it is hoped that the eventual F-3 will replace the 1980s-procured F-15Js by the 2030s. In late 2011, Japan grudgingly chose the F-35 as the winner of its F-X Fighter competition as the official replacement for its aging fleet of F-4 “Kai”Phantoms. If anything though, the procurement of 42 planned F-35s will be slow and seems to be a stopgap measure after the failed procurement attempts of the F-22. Plagued by problems, the F-35 has its fair share of critics and it is years behind schedule.

Regardless, Japan is on the way to becoming the fourth country to test-fly an indigenous fifth-generation stealth aircraft. One must bear in mind that of those countries, Japan is a close ally of the U.S., a stable associate of Russia, and increasingly distrustful and concerned by China. In light of the deteriorating situation in and around the South China Sea and Senkaku Islands and coupled with Prime Minister Abe’s more aggressive foreign policy and defense stances, the need for such an aircraft to serve the JASDF is clear when alternatives do not exist.

The U.S. has flat out rejected the sale of its most advanced air superiority fighter, the F-22 to any country, regardless of relationship. In any case, Japan is the third largest global economy by nominal GDP and has been a leading source of technological innovation and advancements. The development of a fifth-generation combat aircraft is by no means beyond the capabilities of the state or domestic Japanese companies. Problems do arise in funding, and though Abe’s leadership has led to small increases in defense funding, the high cost of Japan’s labor and the need to develop new technologies that cannot be purchased put a strain on the project.

South Korea and Indonesia

While not technically a fifth-generation aircraft, South Korea and Indonesia are jointly pursuing development of the KF-X, a stealth 4.5-generation fighter. For the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF), the KF-X is meant to be an economical bridge between the combat capabilities of its current fourth-generation F-16s and much higher cost and performance fifth-generation aircraft such as the F-35. Furthermore, the KF-X is intended to replace ROKAFs ageing fleet of F-4s and F-5s. For the Indonesian Air Force (TNI-AU), the project is meant to provide a replacement for ageing F-5s while also supplementing its F-16s and Su-30s. Under the $15.5 billion USD program, Korea hopes to have the KF-X operational by 2025 and 120 units deployed by 2032.

Despite being a rising industrial, technological and economic powerhouse, this is an ambitious program for South Korea and Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI). With the fact that Korea has only designed and produced one other

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