Japan plans to choose the U.S. as its partner for developing its next-gen stealth fighter jet, the successor to the F-2 fighter jet.
The fighters, 100 of which Tokyo plans to buy, are set to replace the F-2 jets when they retire in 2035. The project is expected to cost $40 billion.
Tokyo was weighing the U.S. offer against a U.K. proposal that would have guaranteed it the freedom to update the new planes at will. But ultimately, it decided to stick with its top ally given that their security ties have significantly expanded in scope in recent years. An official decision will be made within this year.
“Ensuring we can freely modify and upgrade [the new jets] in the future is extremely important,” Defense Minister Taro Kono said. Japan’s inability to freely update the F-2 has limited the usability of much of its fleet.
Japan’s defense industry is envisioned as playing the central role in the project, which is expected to cost tens of billions of dollars. Deployment of the new jets is now slated for the mid-2030s.
The government has been in talks with the U.S. and U.K. on the project since last summer, with American contractors Lockheed Martin and Boeing and London-based BAE Systems named as possible partners.
The move toward the American bid comes amid deepening defense cooperation between Tokyo and Washington. As joint defense exercises between the two expand both in number and in content, Tokyo needs more advanced tactical networks that are compatible with those used by the U.S. military. A Defense Ministry proposal for the jet project last year cited the need for interoperability.
Japan looks to create a completely new manned aircraft, opting against a Lockheed Martin proposal for a hybrid of the F-22 and F-35. Tokyo will stick with domestic development for the plane’s mission systems, which control such crucial equipment as radar, sensors and electronic warfare gear. It will not limit itself to a single American partner company.
Japan opted against picking the U.K. as a main partner for the project, concluding that even a three-way arrangement would not let the Japan-U.S. alliance maintain its technological edge.
On the domestic side, Japanese companies have begun research into high-output engines and powerful but compact radar systems that can detect stealth fighters. Participants in the project are expected to include Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Toshiba and IHI.