Japan is grappling with a serious military modernization challenge that has broad operational and strategic implications for the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific theater. The Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) must soon decide how to replace its aging F-2 multirole fighter aircraft and how much it’s willing to pay to develop a replacement.
Derived from the F-16, the F-2 entered active service in 2000 as the JASDF’s mainline multi-role aircraft. Today, 20 years later, the F-2 is approaching obsolescence just as China is becoming more aggressive in the region about its own air force modernization. Whatever aircraft Japan settles on will arrive roughly a decade from now to face off against Chinese fifth-generation aircraft.
The Japanese government recently authorized $102 million for fiscal 2020 to formally begin “Japan-led development of a new aircraft with international collaboration.” The intent is to reduce cost and risk, potentially through the reuse or adaptation of existing or emerging systems and technologies. Among the options: leverage or merge the attributes of the F-22 and F-35, while also fielding custom features to address specific JASDF mission demands. This would harness the latest stealth technology to survive threats, advanced sensors for situational awareness, cutting-edge data-processing to manage all that sensor data, and data links to support the ability to collaborate with other combat partners in real-time. Such advances are exceedingly important given China’s indigenous pursuit of fifth-generation aircraft; its sophisticated anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) technologies; and its advanced power-projection systems.
An F-2 replacement based on the F-22 and F-35 would buy down risk, development time, and cost, equating to tens of billions of dollars. In any event, the case for a fifth-generation successor to the F-2 is clear—and Japan does not have the time (or the defense budget) to reinvent proven and available U.S. technologies.
While other options exist to replace the F-2, none are as compelling as the approach that leverages the proven F-22 and F-35. Alternatively, Japan could continue procuring new-build, fourth-generation aircraft, such as a Eurofighter Typhoon or a modernized F-15 tailored to Japanese requirements. But without organic stealth designs and built-in, fifth-generation information systems, these aircraft would lack the attributes necessary for future Japanese pilots to survive in an A2/AD environment.
Another option under consideration is to partner with a European consortium to develop a new-build advanced fighter. While this approach could yield a promising aircraft, time is a significant factor—neither the Franco-German nor the United Kingdom’s advanced aircraft efforts have yet to move past the concept phase. This contrasts with both the Chinese J-20 and FC-31, which are well on their way to being operational. Workshare factors and political equities are problematic when thinking about any European defense project. It is likely Japan would be a minority stakeholder in any agreement.
Given China’s aggressive fifth-generation development and modernization drive, a partnership with a European firm might not deliver the capability Japan needs in the time frame and at the price it wants. The last option is for Japan to develop an all-new fighter on its own. However, given the potential high cost and risk, this option could potentially weaken the posture of the U.S.-Japan alliance by fielding capability later than needed, or diverting budget away from other defense priorities.
Looking back throughout the annals of air combat, much has changed as technology has progressed. But the mission still relies on a foundation of enduring tenets. First and foremost, air superiority is a crucial mission and a condition necessary for military victory. Second, the ability to gather, process, and act upon high quality information will significantly enhance a pilot’s ability to net desired effects, while minimizing undue projection of vulnerability. Third, survival is paramount, for aircraft losses will impede the attainment of desired effects and rapidly erode the ability to sustain a military campaign over time. A nation that fails to abide by these time-proven realities risks defeat.
In past eras, achieving these goals involved a disparate force of mission-specific aircraft—air superiority fighters; command and control, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C2ISR) airplanes; and, more recently, tailored stealth aircraft. Today, modern technology merges these federated mission areas into a single airplane in the form of a fifth-generation fighter. F-22 Raptors and F-35 Lightning IIs are highly lethal kinetic platforms able to strike targets in the sky or on the ground. They are loaded with sensors, processing power, and advanced pilot interfaces. Their stealth designs, situational awareness, and ability to process real-time threat information, —while sharing key data with mission partners—ensures tactical advantage and survivability. While many legacy aircraft possess one or two of these attributes, only fifth-generation airplanes offer the complete package.
On the night of Sept. 22, 2014, F-22s executed their first combat mission as part of the opening phase of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) against the Islamic State (ISIS) over Syria. Pilots had to overcome advanced air defenses, multifaceted international dynamics, and the risk of unintended escalation at the state-on-state level. As one of the F-22 pilots recalled, “We’re essentially going after and targeting a nonstate actor within the sovereign state borders of another country that we are not technically at war with, and we’re not friends with. … Part of the coalition’s objective … is to not do anything that’s going to escalate the situation.” The arrival of Russian combat forces in Syria in 2015 raised the stakes further.
On that first night of OIR, and well into the campaign, F-22s focused on understanding the battlespace and communicating with coalition aircraft to ensure they were in the right place at the right time, out of harm’s way, and deconflicted from adversary forces. “We have more information at our fingertips than other aircraft,” recalled one F-22 pilot. “We have an easier time making big decisions.” Aircraft like the E-3 AWACS and E-8 JSTARS have been gathering, processing, and disseminating battlespace intelligence for decades.
Yet as derivatives of commercial airliners, these aircraft require air superiority to execute their missions and return home safely. This was not possible over Syria, where the brutal execution of a Jordanian fighter pilot by ISIS a few months into the campaign left no ambiguity about the need to ensure the safety of all coalition actors. Upward of 100 aircraft have been shot down during the Syrian Civil War, including an F-16 flown by the Turkish Air Force. Stealth-enabled survivability, paired with situational awareness, set the F-22 apart.
Combat commanders recognize these distinct attributes and have kept the F-22 in the OIR fight since that first combat mission in 2014. “The F-22’s low observable characteristics, combined with its integrated avionics, in the hands of our outstanding aviators, provided us the ability to project power and freedom to maneuver,” said Gen. Jeffery Harrigian, then-commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command and now-commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa. “Importantly, the Raptors drove down strategic risk to our people in a very complex and dynamic environment with significant threats.”
In one 2018 deployment, F-22s flying defensive counterair missions deterred 587 aircraft during 590 sorties over Syria and in the Middle East. The deployment included flying offensive counterair missions deep into Syria, deterring Syrian fighters and air defenses during the April 2018 U.S.-led military strike responding to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. The fact that these F-22s achieved this air superiority objective without kinetic action speaks to the respect commanded by the airplane—by friend and foe alike.
This is exactly why nations like Russia and China are focused on developing their own fifth-generation fighters and why allied sales for the F-35 continue picking up pace. Whether signaling for deterrence, defending personnel on the ground, executing limited operations, or guaranteeing sovereignty, fifth-generation aircraft are now an essential tool underpinning statecraft.
The China Threat
The threat posed by China is not abstract. The Asian superpower has already militarized much of the South China Sea by constructing 3,000-plus acres of manmade islands that are now outfitted with military airstrips, sensors, and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). To the north, it has forcefully challenged claims over disputed areas in the East China Sea, such as the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands. In 2013, China unilaterally extended an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) into Japan’s internationally recognized ADIZ in the East China Sea. Japanese intercepts of Chinese aircraft have grown significantly from around 300 a year in 2012, to 1,200 in 2016, and today’s rates also remain high. Of these intercepts, 55 percent are Chinese intruders, while the remainder are typically identified by the JASDF as Russian intelligence-collection aircraft.
Beijing’s aggressive actions are backed up by its investment in robust military capabilities. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) now possesses 1,700 fighter aircraft, 400 bombers, 475 transports, and 115 special-mission aircraft. The PLAAF has also invested in modernizing its fighter inventory with fourth-generation variants based on Russian designs such as the Su-27 and the Su-30, along with its indigenous J-10 fighter. It also developed and fielded two new fifth-generation fighter aircraft in rapid succession, the J-20 and FC-31, the second of which is understood to be available to China’s arms customers. Several analyses also suggest the Chinese are seeking to arm their new fifth-generation fighters with hypersonic weapons. DOD’s annual China report notes that Chinese engineers announced they successfully tested a solid-fuel ramjet missile engine and have suggested this capability could enable the J-20 to carry future hypersonic air-to-air missiles with a range of 300 kilometers (180 miles).
These new capabilities will pose critical challenges to most JASDF, U.S. Air Force, and U.S. Navy aircraft, which are predominantly fourth-generation fighters such as the F-15, F-16, F/A-18, and the F-2.
China’s growing arsenal goes well beyond aircraft. The PLA has 150 to 450 medium-range ballistic missiles, 750 to 1,500 short-range ballistic missiles, and 270 to 540 ground-launched land attack cruise missiles for standoff precision strikes. Its Navy boasts the region’s largest fleet, with more than 300 surface ships, submarines, amphibious ships, patrol craft, and other specialized vessels. China’s first domestically built aircraft carrier will soon join its fleet, and a second, larger carrier is under construction.
China has also enhanced the reach of its SAMs, air-to-air missiles, and standoff strike missiles and declared its intention to develop a new long-range stealth bomber. According to DOD estimates, this aircraft could become operational by 2025 with a range of 5,000 miles, enough to hold all of Japan’s territory at risk. The sum effect of these investments transforms China from a regional actor with robust defensive capabilities to a global superpower with significant power-projection capability. This ability to shape circumstances beyond its borders through military means will grow with further investments.
According to the Department of Defense (DOD) Annual Report to Congress, Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2019 (hereafter referred to as the DOD China Report), “China’s continuing improvements of air and ground-based missile strike capabilities within and, increasingly, beyond the first island chain enable other military assets to operate farther from China. These assets can conduct a variety of missions to include presence and sovereignty enforcement, as well as offensive missions such as blockades. China also focuses on enhancing the PLA’s ISR capabilities, extending the reach of the PLA’s situational awareness, as well as enabling improved targeting and timely responses to perceived threats.”
These operations have included long-range bomber flights over the Sea of Japan, and more exercising of long-range power-projection capabilities. In 2016, two Chinese H-6 bombers were accompanied by Y-8 airborne early warning and control aircraft on a sortie through the region. This was expanded in January of the following year, with six bombers and two reconnaissance aircraft in the same area. Eight months later, a formation of H-6 bombers flew through the Miyako Strait toward Okinawa, and then to the Kii Peninsula of Honshu. In May 2018, the PLAAF flew fighter aircraft and long-range cruise missile-capable bombers around Taiwan and employed an early warning aircraft to support Su-35 and J-11 fighter flights to the Miyako Strait near Okinawa and the Bashi Channel between the Philippines and Taiwan. Such operations represent deliberate actions to demonstrate Chinese power, normalize military presence in international regions, and project power operationally.
Chinese investment decisions are also aligned with these activities and increasingly aggressive military stance. PLAAF Deputy Commander Lt. Gen. Xu Anxiang recently said, “The building of a modern Air Force will essentially be achieved by 2035.” Manned fighters and sophisticated SAMs, long-range strike via manned bombers and guided missiles, logistics functions like aerial refueling and cargo aircraft capacity, and capabilities through the Chinese concept of “informationized warfare”—gathering data, processing it, and fusing it into actionable information—are all underway.
To protect itself, China relies on advanced SAMs that can be based on ships, on land, or on its man-made islands in the South China Sea. The PLAAF, Pentagon officials believe, possesses “one of the largest forces of advanced long-range SAM systems in the world,” with both Russian SA-20 and SA-21 designs, as well as indigenous types such as the HQ-9. These systems are linked to airborne early warning and control aircraft in order to target threats in varying conditions, in larger volumes, and at greater distances.
China’s inventory of ballistic and cruise missiles are also cause for concern as are China’s manned bomber aircraft, the legacy Soviet H-6, which is equipped with an estimated six land-attack cruise missiles per aircraft, and a new long-range stealthy bomber now in development. That new aircraft (likely designated the H-20) could debut in the next decade, featuring both a conventional and nuclear weapons carriage, a payload of at least 10 metric tons, and a range greater than 5,200 miles.
Drawing these disparate tools together is China’s continued focus on “informationized” war. At a macro level, this concept refers to a combat cloud-type enterprise, whereby a broad net of distributed sensors continually gather data, process it into actionable knowledge, and operationalize it through a robust, agile command and control system. Chinese President Xi Jinping has touted the need to accelerate “informationization” efforts, and endorsed a range of national development plans that focus on improving not only information and communications technology, but also “disruptive technologies” to give China a competitive advantage over the United States.
Righting the Air Superiority Imbalance
To ensure Japanese security, the F-2 replacement should be the most capable fifth-generation aircraft possible, empowered with superior range and payload capacity.
Fifth-generation aircraft share four basic attributes: all- aspect stealth; superior aerodynamic performance; advanced automated sensors; and information fusion. The synergy of these capabilities is what makes fifth-generation aircraft so survivable and so lethal, projecting unprecedented lethal power at the right time and place to maximize desired effects, minimize vulnerabilities, and team with friendly assets in real time.
From an operational perspective, the value of a fifth-generation solution based on the F-22 and F-35 combines the proven strengths of each aircraft with enough room for novel modifications specifically designed to address Japan’s unique threat environment. Conceptually, this approach would likely combine the prime advantages of both aircraft. For Japan’s purposes, though, the attributes from the F-22 would include high-altitude operations, high-performance fighter maneuverability with the use of thrust vectoring, and high Mach speeds to sustain supersonic flight without the need to use high fuel consuming afterburners.
But Japan’s security environment demands an aircraft with greater range to patrol the airspace over areas such as the Senkaku Islands, requiring increased internal fuel capacity that could be provided by fitting the F-22 with larger wings. While this would be a major modification, it would not be unprecedented. Lockheed Martin studied a fighter-bomber variant of the F-22 as far back as 2002—but it was never built. In that design, the large delta-like wing decreased the maximum G-force limits of the airframe, but the wing design reduced the need for aerial refueling while retaining the fuselage mold lines, thereby enhancing the aircraft’s stealth. That “FB-22” design concept, while originally conceived as a regional bomber for the U.S. Air Force, could now be adapted for Japan’s long-range air-dominance mission as the F-2 replacement aircraft.
Another benefit would be the opportunity to redesign the internal structure of the mid- and aft-fuselage to extend the side bays. This would allow the new aircraft to carry up to eight, rather than six, medium-range guided missiles internally. An F-2 replacement aircraft utilizing a modified F-22 fuselage, a larger delta wing, and F-35 skin and coatings would provide unprecedented survivability in the threat environment Japan faces. At the same time, the advanced, integrated sensors and fused processing from today’s F-35 would significantly surpass the F-22’s informational capabilities in sensors, avionics, data links, fusion processing, and presentation. Likewise, an advanced active electronically scanned array radar would offer passive and active modes, and more powerful and effective electronic attack and electronic protection capabilities than are available on any legacy aircraft, while the F-35’s infrared sensor and display system could help pilots with dynamic targeting and managing their signature presentation.
In Context with the Threat
Japan lies within China’s A2/AD threat ranges, and Chinese military power continues to grow. In addition to Chinese power, regional threats still loom next to Japan, such as the unpredictable North Korean regime and Russia, which holds the Kuril Islands north of Hokkaido in a territorial dispute dating back to World War II. Even advanced fourth-generation variants, such as the F-15J, will not be able to meet mission requirements as they are increasingly threatened by adversary fifth-generation aircraft, modern SAMs, and advanced air-to-air weapons. Unless Japan invests in fifth-generation capabilities, the JASDF will forfeit air superiority to China.
Whatever solution Japan chooses should leverage the F-22 and F-35. Rather than risking schedule delays, cost growth, and technological unknowns as the result of a clean-sheet approach, Japan can capitalize on proven technology. This approach could leverage much of the F-22 airframe and its favorable performance at high altitude, ample speed, and excellent maneuverability, while adding a larger wing for enhanced range. These attributes would be paired with the information superiority of the F-35—cutting-edge sensors, robust processing power, fusion, and ability to collaborate in real-time with other combat assets. The F-35 program could also contribute other technological advances, such as newer radar absorbing coatings and stealth “skins.” All of this adds up to unprecedented survivability and performance in an A2/AD threat environment. Importantly, harnessing proven technologies would assure interoperability with other allied fifth-generation aircraft in such environments.
A fifth-generation F-2 replacement aircraft can become a critical node in building toward a “combat cloud”-capable force. Just as F-22s and F-35s share information through advanced data links and networks, expanding these connections across a battlespace increases situational awareness for all combat aircraft and assets. Instead of flying as isolated platforms, the combat cloud enables a highly integrated enterprise where informationized collaboration determines mission success or failure. In combat cloud operations, the kill chain becomes a “kill web,” where finding, fixing, tracking, targeting, engaging, and assessing targets is weapon- and platform-agnostic, a constantly updating process that cannot be broken by a single point of failure.
Fifth-generation connectivity and processing power are critical to this new concept of operation. However, this is only possible in a fully matured fifth-generation force. In fact, the presence of fourth-generation aircraft will degrade this potential, restraining operations because these older systems do not feature modern stealth, battlespace awareness, and decision superiority enabled by advanced sensors and avionics key to fifth-generation aircraft.
While there are other options to replace the F-2, none are as compelling as this fifth-generation approach that leverages the F-22 and F-35. For example, Japan could continue to acquire new-build fourth-generation aircraft, such as a Eurofighter Typhoon tailored to Japanese requirements, but without organic stealth and built-in fifth-generation information systems, these aircraft would lack the attributes necessary to survive in an A2/AD environment.
Leveraging the F-22 and F-35 would likely prove the most cost-effective and timely way to field an F-2 successor Japan requires to respond to the Chinese military challenge. Paired with Japan’s own growing F-35 force, the F-2 replacement would be unique to Japan and would take advantage of the advances in low observability, sensors, processing power, and maneuverability achieved in the field of fifth-generation combat aircraft since the F-22 line closed in 2010.
The Fifth-Generation Imperative for Japan
As a core U.S. treaty ally, Japan has the opportunity to fully leverage this significant technological and operational advantage. fifth-generation attributes must be integrated into a single aircraft. Doing otherwise risks expending resources on aircraft that will fall short in modern combat and fail to survive in the modern threat environment. A war of attrition against China, with its more abundant resources, is unsustainable.
Investing in proven fifth-generation fighter technology will be critical to Japan’s airpower modernization. Leveraging proven F-22 and F-35 technologies would help Japan put new fighters on ramps faster and avoid the trap of costly, time-intensive, and risky developmental programs.
For Japan, the chance to build its own fifth-generation solution and shorten technological development and cost risks is a significant strategic advantage, especially given China’s clear military buildup. This approach promises the added benefit of seamless integration with U.S. fifth-generation aircraft and similarly equipped allies and partners. Choosing such a course for F-2 replacement would secure a significant strategic advantage for Japan, and it would set a high bar for air power in the Asia-Pacific for decades into the future.
Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, USAF (Ret.) is the dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. Douglas A. Birkey is the executive director of Mitchell, and Heather R. Penney is a resident senior fellow. This article is adapted from the Mitchell Institute’s research study, “Securing the Pacific Skies: The Imperative for Expanding Japan’s Fifth Generation Capacity,” which can be downloaded in its entirety at: www.mitchellaerospacepower.org