If the gleaming red-and-white X-2 plane unveiled this week in a Mitsubishi hanger delivers on its stated capabilities, Japan has just joined the United States, Russia, and China in a very exclusive club to have developed a stealth fighter.
With China investing heavily in its military and throwing its weight around in the region, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sticking to his belligerent behavior, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants to strengthen his armed forces: He has approved a controversial law allowing Japan’s military to engage in “collective self-defense” on behalf of its allies — a move that many of his critics argue violates the country’s pacifist constitution.
Unveiling the X-2 prototype sends a clear signal Tokyo wants to be taken seriously as a military-industrial power, said Jeffrey Hornung, a fellow at the security and foreign affairs program at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation.
“This may be Japan saying, ‘We can do the technology, so consider us for international consortium projects’” such as the one that developed the F-35 stealth fighter, Hornung said.
The X-2 hasn’t flown yet, and it’s unclear whether it will ever be fielded in combat. Some analysts believe its engines are underpowered, and the plane hasn’t yet been equipped with weaponry. Japanese defense officials told the Wall Street Journal they will decide by 2019 whether to domestically build a fighter or seek international partners to do so. And by the end of the quarter, they hope to test fly the X-2.
The plane bears the hallmarks of a stealth fighter, like angular geometry designed to deflect radar away from the jet. It also includes canted vertical stabilizers similar to those on American stealth jets.
The panels that extrude from the exhausts below appear to be a thrust-vectoring system, which would make the fighter highly maneuverable. Thrust vectoring may be less sexy than stealth technology, but is of key importance for a fighter jet hoping to tangle with China’s top pilots.
The mastering of complicated stealth technology may boost Japan’s participation in an international consortium to develop a next-generation fighter plane. At the least, the X-2 could serve as a blueprint for Japanese engineers to follow in designing a newer, more refined jet. More than 200 companies participated in developing the X-2, a program that has so far cost $340 million.
And as Japan continues its stand-off with China over disputed islands in the South China Sea that Beijing has significantly fortified and is using as military outposts, the X-2 sends a message that Tokyo does not plan to back down. “This is going to play big in China as yet more evidence of Abe’s militarism,” Hornung said.
Though Japan has already purchased several stealthy American-made F-35 jets, Tokyo pushed hard to be allowed to buy the F-22, the premier U.S. fighter plane. Congress banned the export of that fighter, much to Tokyo’s chagrin.
So the X-2 photo-op served as a public declaration that Japan wants to be considered a serious player in the stealth fighter game and the development of other military hardware. Japan is currently bidding on a huge military contract with Australia to supply attack submarines. It is marketing radar systems and search and rescue planes as key military exports.
At the center of the revival of the Japanese defense and aerospace industry stands its premier contractor, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. The company supplies wings for Boeing’s Dreamliner, and in November, a passenger airliner developed by the company made its first test-flight.
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