Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made it quite clear that Japan needs to strengthen the role of its military and will look to become the fourth nation to fly a stealth fighter.

Japan Will Likely Begin Testing A Stealth Fighter In Early 2016

Reshaping the role of Japan’s armed forces

Following its defeat in World War II, Japan was stripped of its military might when it signed its surrender to the United States and her allies. In the decade that followed, Japan’s military was forced to shift to one that was solely a self-defense force and unable to act aggressively. In fact, the Japanese constitution forbids the island nation from maintaining anything but a defensive posture.

However, since Prime Minister Abe’s election in 2006, and again in 2012, Japan’s military has been undergoing a bit of a sea change. Early in 2015, with the urging of Mr. Abe and much to the chagrin of China and others, Japan’s lawmakers approved a law that could see Japan participate in international conflicts even if there is no direct threat to Japan’s many islands. Prior to the new law, Abe announced that Japan was looking to build more drones, now it seems that the nation wants more than drones in the air. The nation wants to be the fourth nation to possess a stealth fighter.

Plenty of other stealth fighters in the neighborhood

The United States was the first nation to possess a stealth fighter. The Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk was the first stealth fighter jet and flew for the first time in 1981. It was introduced to the military in 1983 but remained shrouded in mystery for over a half-a-decade. It was used “publicly” for the first time in the Gulf War of 1991. America’s present stealth fighters include the F-22s and F-35 following the retirement of the F-117 in 2008.

Russia jumped into the stealth fighter arena in 2010 with the first flight of the Sukhoi PAK FA. The single-seat stealth fighter has yet to be delivered to the Russian Air Force but they will begin to take delivery in either the last months of next year or in early 2017.

China was the next nation to fly a stealth fighter. The Chengdu J-20 had its maiden flight as the first stealth fighter for the Chinese Air Force in January of 2011. It’s expected to go into service in 2018 and has the potential to be a formidable long-range attack aircraft in the skies over Asia.

The Shenyang J-31 often called the F-60 “Snowy Owl” is another stealth fighter that will join the Chinese Air Force before the end of the decade. The plane, which is smaller than the J-20, made its first flight in late 2012 with the introduction to the Air Force set for late 2018 or early 2019.

Japan’s stealth fighter

Now Japan is looking to become the fourth nation to test its own stealth fighter which will certainly win no friends in the region. The plane, called the Advanced Technology Demonstrator X and made by Mitsubishi, is expected to make its first flight in early 2016 before its handed over to the nation’s self-defense forces who will put it through the ringer with its own testing.

“The security environment around Japan is becoming increasingly complex and Japan needs to maintain air capabilities commensurate to those of other air forces in the region,” said Rukmani Gupta, an analyst in New Delhi at IHS Jane’s. “Should the ATD-X test be deemed successful, it is very likely that Japan will pursue production of a next-generation fighter.”

If the plane is deemed a success, it will likely go into the manufacturing stage with the hope of replacing Japan’s F-2 fighter. “We’re building this in preparation for the development of a new fighter jet,”  said Hirofumi Doi, a program manager at the Ministry of Defense, in a recent interview. “Neighboring countries are developing stealth jets and so this research is to allow us to understand what technology is needed for such a project.”

Replacement for the aging F-2

Whether or not the Japanese stealth fighter becomes the replacement for the three-decade-old F-2 fighter and more modern U.S. built F-16s is still up in the air. If the stealth fighter were to go into production it would likely not be arriving to the self-defense forces until sometime in the late 2020s or even the early 2030s.

This wait, however, will be mitigated by the arrival of 42 Lockheed F-35s that Japan ordered in 2011. While the program is both over-budget and behind schedule, Japan will be one of the first nation’s to receive their shipment when delivery begins on the fifth-generation aircraft with stealth capabilities.