Japan’s fleet of fighter jets is a pillar of the country’s defense. Tokyo fields a force of more than 200 F-15J fighters, the largest F-15 fleet outside of the U.S. Air Force. Japan’s F-15 fleet is also one of the oldest.
At one point the country banked on replacing those F-15s with F-22 Raptors. But a 1998 American law meant to protect the fighter’s secrets restricted the F-22 from export, even to an ally. Suddenly Japan was left without any viable replacement for its fleet of air superiority fighters. The country spent several years working on a domestic technology demonstrator, named ATD-X, but concluded it would be too expensive to develop alone.
Now Japan is soliciting for help from abroad, hoping to cut the amount of time it would take to field a new fighter. Defense giant Lockheed Martin, developer of the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was the first to answer the call, offering a hybrid of those two planes.
Now, according to Reuters, another American defense giant is tossing its hat in the ring. Northrop Grumman has responded to Japan’s request. The company ticked off a list of technologies it could contribute to the F-3 fighter program, but has not made a formal proposal. (Other defense contractors could still enter the F-3 competition, particularly Boeing and BAE.)
Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman went head-to-head back in the early 1990s during the Advanced Tactical Fighter competition. After a fly-off between LockMart’s YF-22 and Northrop’s YF-23, the YF-22 was declared the winner and went on to become the F-22 Raptor.
Northrop enters the competition at a disadvantage. Although it’s one of the biggest aviation companies in the world, it hasn’t designed and built a fighter since the YF-23. The company has concentrated on drones, particularly the RQ-4 Global Hawk, and bombers—both the B-2 Spirit and upcoming B-21 Raider.
What could Northrop offer Japan? Despite a reputation as a technological powerhouse, Japan’s aerospace industry lags behind in key areas, including avionics, systems integration, networking, and stealth. Japan could eventually develop all of these things by itself, but at staggering cost. Time is also not Japan’s side, as the oldest of the country’s F-15J fighters is nearing 40.
The F-3 fighter will need cutting edge technologies to offset any numerical advantages China’s air force will bring to a future fight. A fleet of F-3s equipped with stealth and networking technology could coordinate attacks against numerically superior enemies. Northrop Grumman touts itself as a master of combat aircraft technology, including “system design, air vehicle design, flight controls, vehicle management systems, network-enabling technologies and survivability.” Japan needs all the tech, especially “survivability,” otherwise known as stealth technology. As developer of the B-21 Raider bomber, Northrop will have access to the absolute latest in American stealth technology.
What would the Northrop jet look like? It would almost certainly have two engines, a longer range to allow more Japanese air bases to contribute to patrolling national borders facing North Korea and China, and the ability to cruise above Mach 1. Northrop’s recent manned combat jets have all been flying wings, but a flying wing design is generally a poor dogfighter. In 2016, the company teased an image of a tailless sixth-generation fighter in a promotional video (see above) but there may not be time and money to develop a new airframe.
One possibility is the resurrection of the YF-23 design, with modernized electronics and a Japanese engine. (One positive outcome of the ATD-X program has been Japanese advances in high performance jet engines.) If that’s Northrop’s proposal, then we could be living through the 1990s all over again, pitting Son of F-22/F-35 versus a reincarnated Son of YF-23.