Japan is eyeing proposals for its new advanced jet fighter worth around $40 billion based on existing western aircraft and has issued a third request for information (RFI) to American and European nations.
"Japan expects specific proposals for designs based on existing aircraft," said one of the sources. The two previous RFIs did not attract any detailed proposal,” Reuters reported quoting an unnamed source as saying Wednesday.
Unlike the first two requests, the third one was sent only to foreign companies in the US and Europe with a separate, more detailed document delivered to London and Washington, the sources said.
The requests for a design based on existing aircraft and the separate documents sent to the British and U.S. governments have not been previously reported.
The sources declined to be identified because they are not authorized to speak to the media.
Japan could use existing airframes that include Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning stealth jet fighter, Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Eurofighter Typhoon.
Japan's last domestically produced jet fighter, the F-2, which entered service in 2000, was built jointly by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) and Lockheed Martin based on the U.S. F-16 multi-role fighter. As Japan's leading fighter maker, MHI, which built the World War Two-era A6M Zero, would anchor the Japanese share of the F-3 project.
"We are considering domestic development, joint development and the possibility of improving existing aircraft performance, but we have not yet come to any decision," a Ministry of Defense representative said.
Building Japan's next-generation fighter based on a foreign aircraft already in service could save money, but come at the expense of advanced features like stealthy shaping. Neither the Typhoon nor Super Hornet are designed to be near-invisible to radar.
Japan's approaches to the US and British government come as Washington considers its replacement for the F-22 Raptor. Britain, which has sought closer security ties to Japan, including cooperation on developing other defense equipment, may eventually need a fighter to succeed the Typhoon, Reuters reported.
Japan, which is buying the radar-evading F-35 stealth jet to modernize its air defenses in the face of growing Chinese military strength, wants to introduce a separate air superiority fighter in the 2030s to help deter intrusions into its airspace.
Japan has so far struggled to come up with its own design for a new aircraft, raising a question mark over the country's first jet fighter program since the F-2.
Japan will have to begin preliminary talks with Washington soon if it wants to include anything substantial about the F-3 in the new five-year defense equipment plan, which begins in April 2019. Details on that plan will be released at the end of the year, another of the sources said.
Although some defense ministry officials and lawmakers have lobbied for a domestically made aircraft to help sustain Japan defense companies hurt by increased spending on US gear, finance officials have questioned whether that is cost effective.
Opting for international cooperation should lower the cost of a new jet by expanding the number of users, spreading the unit cost beyond Japan's air force.
Mitsubishi Heavy tested a prototype stealth jet in 2016, the ATD-X or X-2, which cost the Japanese government $350 million to develop.