Japanese Review Bolsters Non-F-35 Order

F-35 Lightning II B-Variant . (Photo: jsf.mil)

January 8, 2010 -- Japan is risking a rapid loss of fighter engineering skills, an official review of the industry warns, while urging the government to avoid fully importing combat aircraft.

Estimates of future engineering effort starkly illustrate an unspoken argument for Japan to buy and develop advanced versions of the Eurofighter Typhoon, Boeing F-15 or Boeing F/A-18E/F to fill its requirement for 50 fighters.

“An industrial base is difficult to rebuild once experienced engineers and mechanics leave the industry, so it is essential to keep it for future fighter development,” says the Commission on Reform of Fighter Production Technology Base.

About 70 percent of the engineering work force for the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries F-2 fighter has already been assigned to other business units, the report says. Only 60 engineers are now working on the F-16-based effort, Japan’s only fighter production program.

Moreover, F-2 production is due to end in September 2011. With it will go IHI’s production line for the General Electric F110 engine. The development of the IHI XF5-1 engine for the ATD-X stealth fighter technology demonstrator “will only delay the decline in propulsion capability,” the commission says.

“For the fighters operated by our country, it is desirable to keep a complete in-country industrial base required for maintenance, technical support and capability enhancement.”

But in a notable concession, it accepts that Japan cannot be wholly independent: “Many other countries rely on foreign sources for part of their [fighter] industrial base for budgetary and technological reasons. Japan is no exception.”

That seems to undermine the implicit threat behind the ATD-X program: that if the U.S. refuses to supply Japan with the F-22, then Japan will develop its own stealth fighter.

The Japanese fighter industrial base is composed of 1,100 companies.

The airframe engineering effort for military aircraft is now at a peak above 1.1 million worker hours, about a third of that work applied to ATD-X development, a third to maintenance and the rest to the already declining F-2 program and the C-X transport and XP-1 maritime patrol aircraft.

The end of the F-2 program will alone cut military airframe engineering by 40 percent, and by 2014 there will be negligible fighter airframe engineering under way in Japan, reports the panel. The story for engines is similar, although electronics engineering will be maintained at a higher level thanks to upgrade work.

The implication of these figures is that to maintain the industrial base, Japanese engineers need development work. The Lockheed Martin F-35, a leading contender for the F-X requirement, is unlikely to yield much — or at least not until improved versions can be considered many years from now. Production work on the F-35 would, however, be available to Japan, since Lockheed has a large parcel of work that has not been allocated to partner nations in the project.

But Eurofighter and Boeing have both stressed that Japan can take their current fighter designs and add features if it wants to do so.

Eurofighter has gone as far as saying that Japan could do anything it wanted with the Typhoon design.

A further possibility to relieve the fighter work drought in Japan would be an extra batch of F-2s, featuring improvements over the current version. Such an order may not be far from official thinking.

A former chief of aircraft development at the defense ministry’s Technical Research and Development Institute has written in Japan Military Review that if additional F-2s were ordered, the price must go down.

Despite deflation in Japan, it has cost more to build F-2s in recent years than it did in the 1990s to build F-15s, which are much larger.


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