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Watch: Japan’s Stealth Fighter Makes Its Maiden Flight

The X-2 is a signal to Beijing that Tokyo means business.

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Analysts say it’s underpowered, hasn’t been equipped with weapons, and is a far cry from the world’s most advanced jets, but this week Japan’s stealth fighter took a major step forward: It lifted off for its maiden flight.

Wrapped in the red and white of the Japanese flag, the X-2 taxied out on the runway of Nagoya Aerospace Systems Works airport Friday and flew skyward to cheers from a crowd of spectators. As noted by the Aviatonist blog, a clearinghouse for aerospace news, we can expect the fighter to eventually be painted in a radar-absorbing gray paint as it nears deployment. But for now the plane bears Japan’s national colors.

With canted vertical stabilizers and angular geometry to deflect radar beams, the jet bears the basic hallmarks of a stealth jet. It is also equipped with a thrust vectoring system, or panels that are mounted around the engine exhaust. Those panels can be used to steer the exhaust from the engines, giving the X-2 a high degree of maneuverability.

The American F-22 jet is equipped with a similar system, allowing the stealth fighter to show off some truly wild feats of acrobatic maneuverability. Tokyo had pushed to purchase the F-22, but Congress blocked the sale.

It is unclear whether the X-2 will be deployed with Japanese forces, but at the very least it could serve as a blueprint for Japanese engineers 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.

With China increasingly flexing its muscles, and Tokyo and Beijing engaged in a high-stakes stand over island chains in shared ocean waters, the X-2 sends a clear message to Japan’s rival. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has pushed to modernize the Japanese military and expand its ability to fight alongside allies in the event of war.

At the center of that revival is Japan’s premier military contractor, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which leads the development of the X-2. The company builds wings for Boeing’s Dreamliner passenger plane, and Mitsubishi’s own passenger jet recently made its first test-flight.

The X-2 serves as a major component of Japan’s argument that it be taken seriously as a supplier of military equipment. The country is currently pushing the export of attack submarines, radar systems, and rescue planes.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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