Reading about Japan's fifth-generation fighter program I found myself thinking of the country's last effort to build an indigenous fighter plane, the FS-X.
The United States, variously described as concerned at the prospect of losing a major customer and gaining a competitor in the fighter market (with all that spelled for the trade balance); hostile reactions from Korea and China; and even Japan's diminishing its capacity to act as an ally (by sinking its limited defense funds in a costly and unnecessary project, and diminishing the interoperability of American and Japanese forces); responded negatively.1 In fact, it pressed Japan to settle for cooperative development of a modified F-16 instead. The resulting negotiations, and the agreement to which they led, were highly publicized and deeply controversial on both sides of the Pacific, many in each country claiming that their nation got the worst of the deal. Shintaro Ishihara fulminated quite a bit about the arrangement in The Japan That Can Say No (discussed here), while many in the United States saw the program as a technological giveaway to the country's chief economic rival.
Of course, interest in the whole issue subsided along with American anxieties about Japanese competition, with the entry into service of ninety-four F-2 fighters in 2007 barely noticed in the press. And nothing like the old controversy has arisen in response to the announcement of Japan's "F-3" program.
I suppose this reflects, in part, the unsatisfactory nature of the compromise. While Ishihara was angry that Japan was getting a modified F-16 instead of its own aircraft, a RAND Corporation study of the affair--Mark Lorell's Troubled Partnership--made the case that the F-2 actually ended up much more than a mere variant of the American plane, and indeed, a "virtually all-new world-class fighter aircraft developed largely by the Japanese."2 Additionally, at least as far as the writers of Troubled Partnership were concerned, the U.S. got the worse end of the technology sharing aspect of the deal. (In fact, one of the main lessons that Lorell draws from the affair is that codevelopment should be genuinely voluntary.)
However, this also reflects the changed relations between the two countries. The U.S. is much less anxious about Japanese competition--and far more interested in containing China, to which end a cooperative Japan is indispensable. And with China, Russia--and even South Korea--building fifth-generation fighters, and the U.S. clearly not exporting the F-22, it can hardly expect the country to not pursue such a program. Still another factor may be the program's schedule: Japan's fifth-generation fighter is not expected to enter service until the 2030s. The U.S. Air Force has its sights set on a sixth-generation fighter by then.
1. Mark Lorell, Troubled Partnership: An Assessment of U.S.-Japan Collaboration on the FS-X Fighter (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1995), p. 2.
2. Lorell, p. 2. Lorell points to the F-2's being a longer and heavier aircraft than the F-16, with substantially enlarged wings of a new design and a larger tail; an enlarged radome housing a phased array radar, while the aircraft also contains numerous other, Japanese-built avionics (like the inertial navigation system, mission computer and electronic warfare suite); the incorporation of stealth technology; and its configuration to launch ASM-1 and ASM-2 anti-ship missiles (actually the plane's primary mission). Lorell, p. 2.
My Posts on the Sixth Generation Fighter
Shintaro Ishihara, Novelist