The Japanese Air Force Needs an Upgrade

Faced with China’s increasing aggression, Japan must invest in fifth-generation fighter jets to deter Beijing’s expansion.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (C) leaves after an inspection of a mock-up F35A fighter  during a review ceremony at the Japan Air Self-Defense Force's Hyakuri air base Ibaraki prefecture on Oct. 26, 2014.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (C) leaves after an inspection of a mock-up F35A fighter during a review ceremony at the Japan Air Self-Defense Force's Hyakuri air base Ibaraki prefecture on Oct. 26, 2014. (KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)

Japanese leaders will soon need to make a decision that will fundamentally shape their nation’s security: the replacement of their aging F-2 fighter aircraft. One overarching threat sets the bar for Japan: China. Beijing’s increasingly aggressive actions throughout the Pacific, backed by rapid and cutting-edge military buildup, leave no margin for error. Japan must respond to this threat by defending its interests through robust deterrence, while also cultivating the capabilities it would need to win a war should conflict arise.

That means investing in advanced fighter aircraft with radar-evading stealth technology, advanced sensors to maintain situational awareness in battlespace, ample data-processing power, and the ability to conduct secure, automated, real-time communications with other combat systems—a set of capabilities commonly referred to as “fifth-generation” air superiority. With Japan slated to replace its F-2 fighters, it is crucial that their new aircraft possess these technologies. Anything less will leave too much at risk and place Japan at a perilous disadvantage in a region where fifth-generation capabilities are redefining what it means to project credible power.

China is projected to acquire and develop aircraft that will make its fifth-generation capacity more than double Japan’s by 2030 if Japan only procures its currently planned 147 F-35s. As China continues to expand its power in Japan’s backyard, Tokyo must maximize the options afforded by air power.

China’s threat to its neighbors is very real: Without any meaningful pushback, it continues to pursue territorial holdings outside established, internationally recognized boundaries. China has expanded its zone of stated control in the South China Sea in direct contravention of the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea and the corresponding claims of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. To do this, China has constructed more than 3,200 acres’ worth of man-made islands equipped with military facilities, sensors, airstrips suitable for fighter aircraft, and long-range surface-to-air missiles.

Worryingly for Japan, such tactics have not been limited to the South China Sea. China has also sought to expand its zone of control in the East China Sea, disputing ownership of the Senkaku Islands with Japan through proclamations and the presence of coast guard ships and combat aircraft patrols. China’s goal is clear: erode Japanese claims to sovereignty by applying steady, deliberate military pressure. Just as it has in the South China Sea, China’s military presence, left unchecked, could rapidly become permanent and may be met with de facto acceptance by other nations.

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Defense wrote in its annual report that China describes its military strategy as “active defense,” an approach it sees as “operationally offensive.” This concept might be acceptable if China abided by international norms. However, it is not acceptable when China unilaterally expands its zone of control and then defends the areas it claims with overt military force. China’s declaration in November 2013 of an extended Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) that overlaps with Japan’s internationally recognized ADIZ in the East China Sea is a clear indicator of China’s long-term intent.

China’s ambition is more than backed up by its means. In raw numbers, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) possesses 1,700 fighter aircraft, 400 bombers, 475 transport planes, and 115 special-mission aircraft. In comparison, the U.S. Air Force has a total of about 1,900 fighter aircraft, 157 bombers, 570 transport planes, and 140 special-mission aircraft for operations around the world—not just in the Pacific. China has invested in modernizing its large fighter aircraft inventory with fourth-generation aircraft derived from Russian designs such as the SU-27 and SU-30, as well as indigenous designs such as the J-10.

It is also developing two new fifth-generation stealth fighters—the J-20 and J-31—which will pose crucial challenges to the legacy fourth-generation aircraft which form the bulk of U.S. and Japanese fighters currently in the region, such as the F-15, F/A-18, and F-2. Estimates suggest China will have 200 to 500 fifth-generation fighters by 2030. This would vastly outnumber Japan’s projected fifth-generation capacity, even with the planned procurement of additional F-35s.

On top of these strengths in fighter aviation, the Chinese military can rely on advanced surface-to-air-missiles that can be based beyond the Chinese mainland, on ships and reclaimed islands in the South China Sea. Long-range strike capability is also a priority: in a 2016 speech, then PLAAF Commander General Ma Xiaotian stated that the Chinese were developing a new long-range stealth bomber. The U.S. Department of Defense estimates this aircraft could debut as soon as 2025 and have a range of 5,000 miles. This would put all of Japan within its range, elevating today’s existing threats to a truly catastrophic level of risk.

To counterbalance China’s power, Japan must focus military investments on solutions that will give it asymmetric advantages. Nowhere is this more important than in Japan’s first line of deterrence and defense—the Japan Air Self-Defense Force. Acquiring the most capable fifth-generation fighter aircraft with adequate range and payload is critical, because operating in the Pacific demands a far reach and enough weapons to prevail in a potential fight. China has pushed so aggressively in the South China Sea because it has faced few tangible consequences to date. Angry speeches and diplomatic posturing from protesting nations are the small price China has been willing to pay. Japan must not fall victim to a similar set of dynamics. Attaining credible hard power is the only way to check China’s actions.

In this context, Japan is seeking to replace its force of more than 90 F-2 aircraft fighters. Unable to meet the demands of the evolving threat environment, the aging F-2s are slated for retirement in the mid-2030s. Replacing these aircraft with fourth-generation aircraft such as existing or modified, newly built F-2s, F-15s, F-16s, F/A-18s, or European Typhoons would not be a wise decision, given China’s capacity to outstrip fourth-generation models.

Even if these aircraft were given significant upgrades—such as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) sensors that allow the pilot to detect threats in the area and gain situational awareness; processing power to turn raw data into actionable information; and data links to automatically share this information with others—they lack the organic stealth design necessary to ensure that they could execute a mission and come home safely. Given that China is already moving to field two fifth-generation fighters and an advanced stealth bomber, this is no longer an option for the Japanese defense ministry.

Fortunately, Japan’s Ministry of Defense is considering other options to replace the F-2s, including developing an indigenous stealth fighter with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries; partnering with a European consortium such as the United Kingdom-led Tempest fighter project; or soliciting support from the United States on a fifth-generation aircraft approach that would combine the strong suits of previous models, creating a derivative design that would become the most capable fifth-generation fighter in the world.

The first two options have drawbacks in terms of feasibility. An indigenous F-2 replacement would entail high costs and high risk from a technological development perspective and high costs. Cooperation with Europe may offset some development expenses, but would risk falling short of becoming operational in the next decade.

Europe has yet to develop and produce a fifth-generation fighter—no prototypes have flown, no production lines exist, and the political support necessary to see these aircraft through to production has not materialized. Given that China is aggressively pressing forward with developing and fielding fifth-generation aircraft, a partnership with Europe would likely not give Japan the advantage it needs in time to rely upon it.

By contrast, the “hybrid” fifth-generation derivative aircraft that has been purportedly proposed by Lockheed Martin would combine the strengths of proven technologies from the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightning II. These include all-aspect stealth, superior aerodynamic performance, advanced automated sensors, and information fusion—with enough room for modifications specifically designed to address Japan’s unique vulnerabilities and environment. For example, a hybrid concept could include improvements in range and patrol time, which would allow the Japan Air Self-Defense Force to patrol its sovereign airspace without the need for aerial refueling.

A hybrid would likely be the most cost-effective and quick way to build the necessary capabilities to meet China’s threats, while working effectively with the 147 F-35s Japan has already ordered (two have been delivered to date). Furthermore, the fifth-generation hybrid fighter would be an aircraft unique to Japan, and Tokyo could lead the effort to build it.

China’s actions in the South China Sea present a stark picture of the cost of inaction. Checking China’s aggressive movements in the Pacific in order to guard Japan’s territory demands concerted investment and research to develop a realistic deterrent. Fifth-generation air superiority is a crucial part of this investment. Peace through strength works—moving forward with a fifth-generation hybrid fighter is Japan’s most viable way to assure peace in the Pacific.

China projects the vast majority of its regional power by air and by sea. Advanced fifth-generation hybrid strike-fighter aircraft could defeat these threats rapidly and decisively. If Japan’s air force had the power to engage the full breadth of Chinese threats, China would be deterred from aggression. In the event miscalculation did cause an outbreak of hostilities, a fifth-generation hybrid fighter would allow Japanese pilots to carry out their missions and come home safely.

David A. Deptula is a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general who previously commanded the joint force air component war-fighting headquarters of Pacific Command, served as vice commander of Pacific Air Forces, was stationed in Japan from 1979 to 1983 as an F-15 pilot, and is currently the dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. Twitter: @Deptula_David

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