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Japanese Military Technology Advances

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by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on December 6th, 2007

On November 7 and 8 in Tokyo, the Japanese Defense Ministry’s Technical Research and Development Institute (TRDI) held a briefing on its new programs, which was accompanied by a small display of many of these same programs.  Currently led by Director General Dr. Yasue Masahiro, TRDI traces its origins to the National Safety Agency’s Research and Development Center, founded in 1952.  TRDI is responsible for developing all of Japan’s indigenous weapon systems in cooperation with Japan’s defense companies.  Though it has wide responsibilities, TRDI only has 1,135 formal employees, and its 2007 budget of about $1.5 billion marks a nearly 7.5 percent decline from its 2006 budget.

While Japan has remained largely dependent on imported American technology for major weapon systems since the 1950s, through the work of TRDI Japan has also succeeded in building a modern domestic defense industry dedicated to meeting Japan’s specific requirements.  Recent TRDI successes include the new Kawasaki-built P-X four-turbofan engine maritime patrol aircraft with a TRDI designed high-bypass turbofan engine, and the new 30-ton capacity C-X twin-turbofan military transport.  While the TRDI-designed  “indigenous” Mitsubishi F-2 fighter has been marred by controversy, issues of U.S. intervention and a reduced purchase order, it did demonstrate TRDI’s capacity to design a 4th generation fighter and develop new technologies like advanced composite structures and active phased array radar. 

In marked contrast to China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which provides no official public information on its future advanced weapons development programs, Japan’s TRDI provides regular updates on its activities on the Defense Ministry’s web page, publishes literature on its future research and holds occasional briefings.  The November briefings and displays were also accompanied by the release of two new brochures which offered insights into the direction of Japan’s ability to apply new advanced technologies to the challenges of defense.

5th Generation Combat Aircraft Demonstrator

Japan is now in the midst of trying to determine its requirements and then whether it can  fund the purchase of what it hopes will be an advanced 5th generation jet fighter to replace about 90 remaining 1960s vintage technology co-produced McDonnell Douglas F-4EJ fighters.  Much attention has been focused on Tokyo’s diplomatic approaches to seek information to advance the goal of possibly purchasing the Lockheed-Martin F-22A, the world’s only operational 5th generation fighter.  However, Washington has refused to supply classified information on the F-22 in part due to the preference by some U.S. military leaders that the F-22A not be sold abroad, and the existence of a law barring its sale.  Tokyo is also interested in the Lockheed-Martin F-35, which would be made available, but is concerned that this fighter cannot be delivered until late in the next decade. Defense Minister Ishiba Shigeru has even suggested that Japan could opt for the European Eurofighter if the F-22A will not be made available. 

Foreign or Domestic: Seen at a recent military display sponsored by the National Security Research Group in Tokyo, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II and F-22A Raptor are two foreign candidates to meet Japan’s 5th generation fighter requirement. Source: RD Fisher

However, in August 2007 the Japanese Ministry of Defense gave approval for the go ahead of the next phase for a 5th generation fighter program, which now exists as the “Advanced Technology Demonstrator,” or ATD-X, or “Shinshin.”  In about a decade this program is intended to develop a 1/3 size or 8-ton manned test fighter, with two new-technology 5-ton maximum thrust engines.  The ATD-X program will serve to validate indigenous Japanese stealth, advanced maneuvering, engine, radar and “fly by light” aircraft control technologies.  This program is apparently intended to avoid U.S. participation, at least in part to avoid the political complications surrounding the previous TRDI/Mitsubishi F-2 fighter program. In 2005 a full scale model was sent to France to test its stealth characteristics, an indication that TRDI may be pursuing French assistance with other aspects of this program. In general the ADT-X design shows similarities to the F-22 in that it is a twin-engine tailed-delta with thrust vectoring and an advanced active phased array radar.  The November 2007 TRDI display contained a metal wind-tunnel model and previous Japanese television coverage has shown that a small radio-control test model of the ATD-X has been flown. 

Advanced Technology Demonstrator: These two views of a model of the TRDI’s ATD-X show its stealth shaping characteristics, to include the use of faceted wheel covers. Source: RD Fisher

Japan’s new XF5-1 fighter turbofan is now in testing, and claims a thrust-to-weight ratio about equal to the French M88 turbofan engine that powers its new Rafale fighter.  While this test engine only produces about 5 tons of thrust, its full scale model will likely be able to “supercruise,” or enable supersonic flight without use of fuel guzzling afterburners.  This amounts to a major advance for Japan’s combat aircraft engine technology.  To save weight, the 1/3 scale prototype aircraft will use simple “paddle” type thrust vectors to prove high maneuverability.  The U.S. has demonstrated “paddle” thrust vectors on the F/A-18 and the X-31 test aircraft in the 1980s and early 1990s.  But for the full scale engine TRDI is also developing an axis-symmetric thrust vectoring nozzle.

Advanced Turbofan: TRDI’s XF5-1 turbofan engine technology demonstrator promises a thrust-to-weight ratio similar to France’s M88 turbofan engine. A full scale development will feature an axisymetric thrust vectoring nozzle. Source: TRDI via RD Fisher

Also on display was data about Japan’s new active phased array radar, the “Multi-Function RF Sensor.”  It will be developed by the Mitsubishi Electronics Corporation.  This radar is advertised as having features which are only shared by the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-81, now the most advanced U.S. active phased array radar, which will equip the Lockheed-Martin F-35.  For example, the Japanese radar claims spectrum agility between the C and Ku Bands, which today is only achieved by the AN/APG-81.  Such band agility increases the stealth of the radar, provides a defense against jamming, while also allowing it to jam other radar with similar agility. The Japanese radar also intends for this radar to combine search and tracking, electromagnetic countermeasures (ECM), electronic sensory measures (ESM) and communication functions, also a current U.S. goal for its fighter radar. 

New Radar: TRDI’s Multi Function RF Sensor, an advanced active electronically scanned array (AESA), seeks to develop a system with performance similar to the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-81, currently the most advanced U.S. AESA radar. Source: TRDI via RD Fisher

Also on display was a representative transmit-receive “TR” module, the heart of an active phased array radar antennae.  This TR module is viewed as a new advanced version of the “brick” technology which was featured in early U.S. active phased arrays like the Raytheon APG-62(V)2, less advanced than the “tile” TR module technology now being offered by Raytheon APG-62(V)3, or future planned very thin “conformal” TR arrays, intended to be embedded into an aircraft’s skin.  Japanese officials at the display note that this radar eventually will have “weapon” functions like high-power microwave attack which the U.S. is now developing for its fighter active phased array radar.  While U.S. industry observers have noted that Japan experienced some trouble with its first active phased array radar in its Mitsubishi F-2 fighter (actually the first active phased array to enter service in the world), they also seem impressed that Japan intended to develop a “world class” active phased array radar.

New TR Modules: TRDI’s new “transmit-receive” modules being developed to support its new AESA radar. Source: RD Fisher

Japan’s serious defense budget constraints cast a pall over the whole Japanese 5th generation fighter ambition, whether foreign sourced or domestic.  But the November TRDI display offered new data which indicates, assuming sufficient funding, that it is increasingly apparent that Japan’s indigenous 5th generation fighter program could become a serious endeavor. 

ATD-X Wind tunnel model: This wind tunnel model was featured at the November 2007TRDI display in Tokyo. Source: RD Fisher

Unmanned Aircraft Research System

At a TRDI display the author was able to attend in 2006, a TRDI brochure contained a small illustration of what looked like a jet powered unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that could also lead to an unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV).  At the time TRDI officials were reluctant to speak about the program other than to confirm the picture represented a program.  But TRDI decided to release far more data in its November 2007, to include brochure information, a larger color illustration and a small model of the UAV.  According to Japanese officials, the “Unmanned Aircraft Research System” UAV technology demonstrator program started in 2003 and will yield a completed prototype in 2008, with test flights to commence in 2009.  It is intended to serve first as a technology demonstrator but TRDI officials concede that it may also be used for high-speed surveillance, as a target drone or as a decoy.  The use of an odd looking faring over its optical surveillance turret is explained as necessary because a nose-mounted optics package would produce aerodynamic instability.  But this use also suggests the UAV will be used for weapon targeting, inasmuch as the turret configuration will allow better in flight tactical flexibility.  It will be powered by a U.S. made small turbojet produced by the Teledyne Company.

Unmanned Research: Poster from the recent TRDI exhibit on their Unmanned Aircraft Research System. Source; TRDI via RD Fisher

While the UAV is about the right size for a cruise missile, and sized to be carried under the wing of a F-15 fighter, Japanese officials are quick to deny that is an intended mission.  The necessity for air launching is explained by the lack of a formal Japanese airspace control regulation regime for unmanned aircraft.  While new regulations are being developed, such unmanned aircraft tests are to be confined to the island of Iwo Jima.  This past summer TRDI successfully tested autonomous UAV control technologies in a modified Diamond powered glider. 

Two UAV Views: A model of the TRDI Unmanned Aircraft Research System seen in early November 2007. Source: RD Fisher

The U.S., Europe, Britain, Sweden, Russia, South Korea, and China are also pursuing jet-powered UCAV technology demonstrator or actual UCAV programs.  The first U.S. jet powered UCAV will emerge from the U.S. Navy’s UCAS-D program now led by Northrop Grumman.  Russia’s Mikoyan company revealed a mock-up of its “Skate” attack UCAV at the 2007 Moscow Airshow.  A Chinese AVIC-1 calendar issued at the 2006 Zhuhai Airshow contains a depiction of what may be a jet-powered UCAV technology demonstrator.  Japan’s TRDI is also apparently investigating advanced UCAV concepts according to a brochure describing its future research.

Possible Chinese UCAV Demonstrator: A nondescript calendar from China’s AVIC-1 consortium issued at the 2006 Zhuhai Airshow apparently showed an unmanned aerial vehicle program, initiated between 2001 and 2005, similar to that produced by other countries to validate future unmanned combat aircraft technologies. Chinese sources have revealed nothing about this program. Source: AVIC-1

Japan is also pursuing the development of new high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) UAVs.  About two years ago Japan was interested in purchasing the U.S. Northrop Grumman Global Hawk HALE UAV, and at the same time, TRDI produced concepts for a Japanese HALE UAV.  TRDI officials indicate that government interest in the HALE UAV has declined since 2005, but that Japan’s ongoing development of new advanced optical sensors to support missile defense missions may necessitate a revival of interest in the HALE UAV.  One potential concept for a HALE UAV was contained in a new TRDI brochure. 

One TRDI HALE Concept: This high altitude UAV concept from TRDI uses reciprocating engines and features a new optical sensor being developed to support TRDI’s anti-ballistic missile defense research. Source: TRDI

Unmanned Air and Naval Combat Systems.

TRDI has also identified unmanned combat aircraft, plus naval surface and underwater combat ship technology for development.  A TRDI brochure gave no indication when Japan might be able to field weapon systems based on this technology, but did state that these technologies had been identified for future development.  As such, Japan is following the U.S., Europe, Russia and China in developing unmanned combat platforms. 

TRDI Unmanned Weapon Concepts: TRDI has identified unmanned combat system technologies for future development. Source: TRDI

High Speed Stealthy Naval Combatant 

A TRDI brochure also indicates an interest in advanced naval ship platform concepts.  One concept hull illustrated is a stealthy trimaran that apparently uses bow and “tumblehome” hull designed intended for the next U.S. DDG 1000 destroyer.  An apparent 4,000 ton ship appears to be one concept under consideration. The TRDI brochure indicates it will be capable of high and low speeds while using radar and materials that enhance its stealth.  The design is similar to the trimaran hull used by ---  LSC-2 (Littoral Combat Ship) design, one of two designs in competition for a potential U.S. Navy 50-ship order.

Future High Speed Stealth Ship: TRDI has also identified several naval combat technologies for future development, This is a concept high-speed trimaran with stealth features. Source: TRDI

Implications of the TRDI Display

TRDI’s display constitutes a level of military transparency necessary for a well developed democracy as is Japan.  Military programs compete with those of many other ministries for scarce funding and so it behooves TRDI to educate Japanese legislators and the public about its plans.  What happens when Japanese seek “nontransparent” or corrupt advantages was also on display in early November, as the nation was focused on the influence scandal surrounding the supply of turbofan engines for TRDI’s new C-X transport aircraft that engulfed former Yamada Trading Company President Miyazaki Motonobu, former Administrative Vice Defense Minister Moriya Takemasa, and potentially members of the Japanese Diet.  Yet in contrast to China, where corruption is  prevasive, there are few to no revelations of corruption or influence interfering in PLA procurement. 

P-X and C-X: This summer TRDI rolled out its two large aircraft programs, the P-X maritime patrol aircraft designed to replace its Lockheed-Martin P-3Cs, and the 30-ton capacity C-X military transport aircraft. The P-X, renamed XP-1, made its first flight in September. Source: RD Fisher

Another conclusion of the TRDI’s education efforts is that Japan remains focused on developing military capabilities essentially limited to the defense of Japan’s territory and larger economic exclusion zone.  The new 16 DDH helicopter carrying destroyer cannot yet support advanced combat aircraft like the F-35, though it can accommodate lighter V/STOL aircraft like the AV-8B Harrier.  As such, this ship, as well as TRDI’s concentration of new AIP powered submarines indicates that Japan does not yet have intentions to match China’s ambitions to build aircraft carriers, new nuclear attack submarines, amphibious projection ships and C-17 size strategic transports. 

Regional Focus: TRDI’s 16 DDH helicopter carrying destroyer can only accommodate light V/STOL aircraft, for which there are no current plans, and is intended to support the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force’s existing anti-submarine escort squadrons. Source: TRDI

However, the TRDI displays do illustrate that Japan does intend to remain abreast of cutting edge and “transformational” military technologies.  While remaining optimistic about China’s intent, on November 18, Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda told CNN, ``I believe their [China’s] military capability today is not really that great, but if at the current pace they continue to build up their military, then in the future they could become a major threat.''  It is not difficult to imagine, that if pushed by excessive Chinese military buildups, or by the crisis that would follow a PLA conquest of Taiwan, or some China-influenced break in the U.S.-Japan alliance, that Japan has many options to rapidly accumulate a broad range of military capabilities that would challenge Chinese military power.  It would be wise for China’s leaders to consider that their successive campaigns of national hatred against Japan for its World War II occupation and atrocities, designed to bolster the legitimacy of the Communist Party, plus their increasing encroachment in Japan’s EEZ, only serve to increase Japanese alarm and interest in rearmament.  Furthermore, the Chinese government’s anti-Japanese propaganda campaigns cannot change the historical fact that Japan has a long-standing martial heritage that has seen far more success than China’s in the last century.  Should it become cornered, Japan is capable of building missiles, 5th generation fighters and larger aircraft carriers to help defend its vital access to critical sea lanes and resources.

Army Systems: TRDI is also developing a new version of Japan’s T-90 main battle tank, new digital soldier systems, and a new navigation-satellite guided artillery shell, seen above. Source: TRDI via RD Fisher

For Washington the November 2007 TRDI displays serve as a reminder of what has become quite clear in the last decade: Japan is able to continue to develop military technologies and capabilities that also can enhance the security of Americans in the context of their ongoing alliance.  Tokyo’s apparent decision to pursue its ATD-X program without U.S. inputs reflects its dissatisfaction with Washington’s 1980s intervention in its F-2 fighter program.  However, there has been more success and mutual satisfaction with recent cooperation regarding missile defense technology co-development. U.S. and Japanese officials remark that Japan is able to build Raytheon Patriot air defense missiles and their associated radar to finer tolerances than their U.S. made counterparts.  American officials are quite impressed with Japan’s contribution to the joint development of the Raytheon SM-3 anti-missile interceptor, and are eager to pursue existing programs that seek to use advanced Japanese laser technologies for military systems.  The U.S. should look for opportunities to co-develop 5th and 6th generation air combat platforms and perhaps new naval unmanned platforms.  The TRDI displays underscores that the United States is fortunate to be allied with a technically creative society that is fully capable of making yet unforeseen contributions to American security.

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