After laying to rest its pacifist post-World War II posture since the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power, Japan has its eyes set on matching if not overtaking the United States and Europe in aerospace and defense technology.
The setting up of the Boei Sobi-cho or Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency (ATLA) in 2015 set the trend for the future course of Japan’s defence manufacturing and technology. The ALTA’s statement of objectives says it all: “In order to secure technological superiority under the increasingly severe security environment surrounding Japan, ATLA will grasp trends in advanced technologies, …cooperate with various R&D organizations within Japan and overseas, apply advanced dual-use technologies, and enhance technological capabilities through R&D projects. Also ATLA will reflect operational needs of Japanese Self Defence Force (JSDF) in every stage of defense equipment acquisition through project management.”
Since then the ALTA has embarked on a number of programs covering land, sea and air. Harnessing local expertise and its partnership with American and European defence firms and research agencies, the ALTA has drawn up an ambitious road-map to master aviation and defence technology over the next 10-20 years.
Some of the key ALTA programs are enumerated below.
Stealth aircraft program
The ALTA has revealed the details of a future fighter jet replete with futuristic technologies such as “superior stealth, networked shooting and slim thrust-vectoring engine.” These program highlights put it in the league of the US-F-35 and F-22, and future programs such as the UK’s Tempest and the European Future Combat Air System (FCAS).
In March 2020, Japan revealed the concept of its Mitsubishi F-X fighter jet project rivaling the F-22 Raptor in size and performance. Some of the key technologies under development are highlighted below:
Network shooting: The F-X will feature “network shooting” using an Integrated Fire Control for Fighter (IFCF) system which is under development.
With this capability, air-to-air combat beyond visual range is expected to become highly effective, since each of fighter can be free from positional and directional constraints by switching or by sharing missile shooting process among a fighter formation. IFCF system consists of high-speed intra-formation datalink subsystem, fire control computer and software.
The prototype of IFCF software has been tested and modified through the pilot-in-the-loop simulations, which demonstrate the effectiveness of network shooting under various situations, such as air defense operations in a quantitatively disadvantageous manner. Prototyping of intra-formation datalink subsystem is now undergoing, and will be verified in the flight test.
Stealth: The internal weapon bay system and the stealth intake duct are effective measures to reduce radar reflection from externally carried weapons and engine inlet, respectively. Other technologies, the lightweight airframe structure and the electric actuation system are also required to realize the stealth fighter.
Air Systems Research Center (ASRC), which is part of the ATLA, has developed ground-based prototype of an internal weapon bay system with an air-to-air missile launcher. Safe and quick sequences of door-open, weapon-separation, and door-close were successfully demonstrated through ground tests under various simulated flight conditions.
XF9-1 engine for F-X fighter jet
The success with the F-2 has given Japan the confidence to go right to sixth generation fighter jets as its next indigenous development. Key to this development is an engine like no other in the world. According to the Air Systems Research Center (ASRC), a part of the ALTA, “to realize the stealth, high-altitude, and high-speed combat capability of a future fighter, ASRC is actively carrying out research on a fighter engine that achieves both "slimness" and "high-power thrust" simultaneously.
Following the research of low-pressure components and of core engine system, the XF9-1, a prototype high-power and slim fighter engine was successfully manufactured in June 2018 . ASRC is now evaluating the performance of the XF9-1 through engine run testing.
According to the ASRC, the XF9-1 has completed manufacturing in June 2018 and started testing from July 2018 to demonstrate design performance. In early August (2019), ASRC successfully demonstrated the targeted maximum thrust of the 15 ton force. The technical demonstration by engine tests is planned until March 2020.
In addition the ASRC is prototyping a thrust vectoring nozzle (TVN) which can change the direction of the engine exhaust jet by up to 20 degrees all around from the engine axial direction. ASRC plans to mount the prototyped TVN on XF9-1 and evaluate its performance by ground engine tests.
Future unmanned aerial vehicle
Another interesting concept is the R&D roadmap of Future Unmanned Aerial Vehicle where in near term it is planned to develop optionally piloted vehicle followed by beyond line of sight drones in 10 years leading up to “fighter type” drones in 20 years.
Research has been ongoing to develop technologies such as autonomous flight-path generation. Following some demonstrations, a KM-2D type aircraft is customized as an optionally piloted vehicle (OPV) demonstrator with an infra R=red sensor and equipment for demonstrating autonomous flight. The maiden flight was in October, 2018.
From October 2019 to November 2019, ASRC conducted the flight tests of this demonstrator aircraft for the verification of the continuous surveillance technology, in Taiki Multi-Purpose Aerospace Park and surrounding airspace, Hokkaido.
Hypersonic weapons program
In March 2020, ALTA published a blueprint where it revealed its plans to develop a hypersonic cruise missile (HCM) and a Hyper Velocity Gliding Projectile (HVGP) to equip its fighter jets to take on land or sea based targets.
Tokyo is targeting the induction of HCM powered by scramjet engine, and HVGP powered by solid-fuel rocket engine, in early 2030s. The hypersonic missiles would reportedly be able to fly three times faster than the speed of sound and would replace previous transonic missiles.
The blueprint stipulates using different warheads, which will be navigated via satellites, to tackle seaborne and ground targets.
Missile Guidance Technology for High Altitude & Speed Target
In order to exclude threats, such as ballistic missiles and supersonic cruise missiles efficiently, it is indispensable to have ability to defeat missile in a high altitude domain.
This research is aimed to realize missile body control technology which combines two different forces. One is side thruster which generates hot gas toward orthogonal direction of missile. Another one is thrust vector control, which deviate direction of rocket motor thrust by the small valve called jet tab. Combination of these two forces are expected to realize missile intercept in a high altitude domain.
ATLA aims to ensure the technological superiority of Japan and to establish the foundation for effective and efficient development of future land systems equipment. The result of this research is utilized in the five-year US Japan cooperative research program, which started in May 2019.
Amphibious vehicles: The purpose of this research is to acquire technical information that can be used for the improvement of future amphibious technologies, which enables waterborne maneuverability and rapid deployment of combat units into the theater.
Howitzers: 155mm Self-Propelled Howitzer (Wheeled), which is planned to replace 155mm howitzer FH70 and to be equipped to field artillery units, is able to maneuver in wide-area rapidly and used for long-range fire supports to destroy enemy units in various contingencies.
Armored vehicles: Wheeled armored fighting vehicle (MCV) mounting a 105mm tank gun. The vehicle engages and destroys enemy armor and provides direct fire support to infantry units. High on-road mobility and air transportability of this vehicle will enhance strategic mobility of JGSDF.
Network Electronic Warfare System (NEWS)
This system is developed for analysis of electronic wave and for electronic attack of enemy’s electronic activity in order to obtain information superiority.
Variable Depth Sonar system
Develop a Variable Depth Sonar system which will serve as a new sonar system mounted on destroyers. The system with active sonar function and the Towed Array Sonar System will enable mutually coordinated searches among multiple destroyers, in order to enhance capabilities to detect and classify submarines under layer depth.
Research on high-efficient electricity storage and supply system for submarines
Conduct research on electricity storage system with large capacity and high density, electricity supply system with high efficient and compact sized to extend submarines’ underwater endurance without increasing ship size.
Long-life battery conventional submarines
Japan’s Soryu-class of submarines are the first to be fitted with air-independent propulsion (AIP) systems that enable them to remain fully submerged for longer periods of time. These submarines are said to be the world’s largest conventionally powered boats. They are an improved version of Japanese Oyashio-class submarines.
The eleventh Soryu-class boat, JS Oryu, powered by Lithium-ion batteries was inducted by Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) in March 2019. In November 2019, Kawasaki launched the 84-meter long "Toryu" that has a displacement of 2,950 tonnes. It is powered by two Kawasaki 12V 25/25 SB-type diesel engines. The boat is the second in the class to be fitted with lithium-ion batteries.
Research on Future Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile
In this research, the ALTA will establish the technologies for miniaturised and high-performance seekers applicable to various kinds of missiles, including medium range air to air missiles equipped in weapon bay of the fighter aircraft.
Also, the research will seek to validate the compatibility between the miniaturised and high-performance seeker with the ducted rocket engine, one of the best options of propulsion devices for the future medium range air to air missiles. This research is conducted as the cooperative research with the UK by using Meteor(missile) components applied practically in European nations.
Surface-to-ship, air-to-ship and multi-purpose missiles
Japan has two projects designed to counter any invasion of its islands by enemy ships: surface-to-ship and air-to-ship missiles.
In recent years, countries around Japan have been increasing the number of surface ships. In response to the attack on Japanese islands, by improving the ability to deal with enemy surface ships, the sea superiority is acquired and maintained. The Type-12 surface-to-ship missile and the new air-to-ship missile for maritime patrol aircraft will be developed with improved function and performance.
Multi-purpose missile system
Countries around Japan are improving their landing capability quantitatively and qualitatively. As a response to the attack on the island, the function and performance such as range extension, ability to shoot many targets at the same time, ability to shoot at high speed targets, ability to shoot all around, etc. is improved and acquisition cost is reduced. For that purpose, MULTI-PURPOSE MISSILE SYSTEM will be developed. The new missile is aimed at landing assault vessels such as landing craft, amphibious vessels and air cushion vehicles.
Restricting high-tech exports
In addition to developing new defence products, Japan is ensuring that its high-tech products such as semi-conductors and the raw material required to manufacture them does not land into the hands of its competitors.
Japan had stopped export of certain semi-conductor raw material to South Korea in mid-2019 but later approved the export after the importing companies obtained licenses. Tokyo tightened export restrictions on three chemical materials to South Korea in July 2019, citing national security concerns. The curbs require Japanese companies to apply for licenses for each of the products, a process that can take up to 90 days.
Japan dropped South Korea as a preferred trading partner, meaning that Japanese exports to South Korea now require additional screening to make sure they are not used for weapons and military applications. The new restrictions went into effect August 28 2019.
Challenges to increasing defence production
The Trump administration is putting pressure on Japan to meet its trade deficit with Washington by increasing purchase of US defence equipment; a factor responsible for Tokyo agreeing to buy F-35 jets. This has triggered demands from Japanese lawmakers to attain a level of autonomy in meeting its defense needs.
However, Japan may not be able to achieve economies of scale in military equipment by supplying only to the JSDF. A case to point is the country’s Finance Ministry recommending abandoning production of the Mitsubishi C-2 heavy lift aircraft in favor of buying the Lockheed C-130J Hercules, which costs half of the Japanese plane.
The answer, partly is to increase local procurement by hiking Japan’s defence budget, increase the role of the JSDF from pure self defence to overseas deployment and focus on exports.
The SDF opened its first permanent overseas base in Djibouti in 2011 and in recent years started participating in peace-keeping missions. In 2018, Japanese lawmakers approved a $47 billion defense budget which is expected to $240 billion by 2023.
Export of Japanese defence products are be the next big step after its companies get into the manufacturing game and fulfil the needs of the JSDF.
However, following the failure to sell Mitsubishi-Kawasaki manufactured submarines worth $38.5 billion to Australia in 2018 and another one to sell Shinmaywa amphibious aircraft to India worth $1.65 Billion; doubts have been cast over the ability of Japanese companies to sell in the international arms marketplace.
Nevertheless two recent deals with the Philippines have showed that the arms market is receptive to Japanese technology supported by the deep pockets of the Japanese government to lease-finance defence export deals.
Mitsubishi Shipbuilding has signed an agreement with the Republic of Philippines in March 2020 to construct two multi-role response vessels (MRRVs) for its Navy which will be built at Shimonoseki Shipyard in Japan for delivery in 2022. The vessels will be equipped with secure communication systems, sensors for Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) surveillance, helideck and a hangar for helicopter storage besides an underwater remotely operated vehicle for subsurface search and survey. The MRRVs are being provided as a project financed by the Japanese government.
In addition, the Philippine Air Force is close to deal on buying an air defense radar from Mitsubishi Electric but a contract scheduled for May 2010 is likely delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Manila was to sign a contract valued 90 million for the radars by May. The radar systems are developed from JFPS3 and JTPS-P14 radars. JFPS3, installed on coastal grounds and elsewhere, is capable of detecting approaching fighter jets and missiles, and is used as part of Japan’s defense system against North Korea’s missile threats. JTPS-P14 is an antiaircraft radar system usually carried on vehicles.
Figures released by the Japanese Ministry of Defense show that from April 2017 to March 2018, the top 10 Japanese defense manufacturers were awarded contracts worth $7.5 billion. This includes articles supplied as part of Japan’s purchase of US defence equipment under the foreign military sales (FMS) program of which Japan has purchased weapons worth $4.4 billion during the same period.
Japan is hoping to build its defence industry by partnering with American firms from whom it has close partnerships. Among ongoing programs in which Japanese companies are participating with US firms are new wheeled, self-propelled artillery; armored fighting vehicles; and infantry fighting vehicles for the country’s Ground Self-Defense Force, while its Maritime Self-Defense Force is due to receive more ballistic missile defense-capable destroyers, multipurpose destroyers and submarines.