The Japanese Defense Ministry is about to formalize Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) as the prime contractor of the future F-X fighter jet.

Defense Minister Taro Kono announced at a press conference on September 1, 2020, that the contract would be awarded in October 2020. The F-X will replace the Mitsubishi F-2, a Japanese version of the F-16, currently operated by the Japanese Air Self Defense Force.

The indigenously developed sixth-generation fighter jet could be deployed by 2035.

Japanese contractors will be trusted with the critical aspects of the design, such as radars, sensors, and electronic warfare systems. Nonetheless, a tender was opened for foreign companies to provide support regarding aspects such as stealth technology and airframe design. Seven undisclosed foreign manufacturers have applied, according to Kono.

Long time coming sixth-generation fighter jet program

The replacement of the F-2 has been an extremely long process. It started back in 1997 when the United States Congress took the decision not to export the F-22 Raptor. Despite strong interest from Japan, technologies inside the fighter jet, the first of its generation, were judged too critical.

This forced Japan to design its own fifth-generation fighter jet, leading to the birth of the experimental X-2 Shinshin. Despite a successful maiden flight in 2016, the project was deemed too costly. A subsequent proposal was made by Lockheed Martin for a hybrid that would merge both designs of the F-35 Lightning II and of the F-22 Raptor – a unique opportunity, but too pricey and too risky for the Japanese Ministry of Defense.

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Lockheed Martin is the first company to answer the tender of the Japan air force for a new air superiority fighter. And Reuters reported that the U.S.-based manufacturer came with a proposal never seen before: a hybrid that could use both designs of the popular F-35 Lightning II and, more surprisingly, the F-22 Raptor, despite the latter being banned for export by the Congress.
 

The idea of developing a fifth-generation fighter jet was eventually scrapped, and in 2018, Japan emitted a procurement request for 63 Lockheed Martin F-35A fighter jets and 42 F-35B, the short takeoff and landing variant, concomitantly with the commissioning of two helicopter carriers of the Izumo-class. The two ships, the biggest in the Japanese fleet, are to be modified to accommodate the carrier-capable F-35B. The order was greenlighted by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency and the U.S. Congress in July 2020.

Much like European manufacturers that also have abandoned the idea of catching up with the fifth generation, Japan skipped it in favor of a sixth-generation fighter jet development. The F-X will be a twin-engine stealth fighter jet which will include the research done on the X-2. Its main mission will be air superiority, safekeeping the sovereignty of the Japanese airspace in an increasingly contested environment.

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Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) began an assembly of KF-X, the first South Korean indigenous fighter jet. The plane is said to bear similarity to Lockheed Martin F-35A and eventually replace the ageing fleet of Korean F-4s and F-5s.