Why Is Japan Buying F-3 Fighters Instead of the Stealth F-35

Charlie Gao

Key Point: The F-3 is a better fit for the Japanese domestic aerospace market.

In February 2019, Japan turned heads with its decision to proceed with the development of an indigenous stealth fighter jet. This came in the wake of the decision to purchase more than one hundred American F-35 jets, and the supposed cancellation of the Japanese X-2 stealth fighter prototype in 2018.

The Japanese Ministry of Defense announced the move to develop the new fighter, currently named Future Fighter or F-3 as part of their Mid-Term Defense Program (MTDP) that lays out modernization and procurement decisions for the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) for the next ten years.

The addition of a new fighter to Japan’s MTDP is a surprise but not out of character. The last revision of the MTDP significantly increases defense spending in response to what Japan perceives as a worsening security situation in the region.

But what will the F-3 actually look like?

According to the Japanese MoD, the F-3 is expected to replace Japan’s Mitsubishi F-2 fighter jets. The F-3 is a single-engine light tactical fighter developed from the American F-16, with the addition of Japanese technology.

At the turn of the millennium, it was one of the most advanced fighters in the world, featuring an AESA radar and composite materials for limited radar cross-section minimization. It also had increased wing area to be able to carry powerful anti-ship missiles. The last production F-2 rolled off the line in 2011 and the type is expected to exit service in the 2030s.

However, based on earlier projects the new F-3 may not look much like the F-2. Being based on the F-16, the F-2 is a single engine design. But the two airplanes that were offered for the new Japanese stealth fighter contract are both double-engine designs.

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