Japan has rejected designs for the indigenous stealth fighter project proposed by the United States and the United Kingdom to favour a home-grown design.
"Japan wants to develop a stealth fighter domestically. It has rejected designs from Lockheed Martin and Boeing in the United States and Britain's BAE Systems," three sources with knowledge of the programme were quoted as saying by Reuters on March 27.
That would put Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, in the lead for the $40 billion military contract to build the next-generation plane, referred to as F-3 or F-X. Although the company has not submitted a design for the new fighter, it has developed Japan's stealth fighter technology demonstrator, the X-2, in 2016.
"Japan's stealth designs have performed well in tests so far," said one of the sources.
A spokesman for Mitsubishi Heavy said the company would work with the government on whatever policy it decided to follow. "We understand the Japanese government will lead the development programme," a Mitsubishi Heavy spokesman said.
Tokyo plans to take a call and finalise its international partners by the end of this year. Japan's Air Self Defence Force is replacing squadrons of decades-old F-4 fighters with Lockheed Martin F-35s. The new F-3 will succeed the F-2, a derivative of the F-16 Fighting Falcon jointly developed by Mitsubishi Heavy and Lockheed more than two decades ago.
An official at the Japanese defense ministry's Acquisition, Technology & Logistics Agency (Atla) said "Proposals from Lockheed, Boeing and BAE were judged not to have met our needs. No decision has yet been reached on the airframe."
After settling on the airframe, Japan's government will select suppliers for the engine, flight systems, sensors and other components that will give the proposed jet its advanced capabilities, the sources said.
"US companies, including Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman, are still potential partners," they added.
While Lockheed Martin has proposed a jet combining the elements of its F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters; Boeing and BAE Systems have offered to build Japan an aircraft derived from F-18 Super Hornet and Eurofighter Typhoon respectively.
The UK has, in addition, been courting Japan as a possible partner on its proposed next-generation jet, the Tempest. If built, it would deploy in the 2030s.