TOKYO • Japan is closing in on becoming the fourth nation to test fly its own stealth jet - a move that could further antagonise neighbouring Asian countries that have opposed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's bid to strengthen the role of the country's armed forces.
The aircraft is scheduled to make its maiden flight in the first quarter of next year, said Mr Hirofumi Doi, a programme manager at the Ministry of Defence.
The plane, called the Advanced Technology Demonstrator X (ATD-X), will then be handed over to the defence forces, which will conduct its own tests, he said.
The aircraft, made by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, will strengthen Mr Abe's military ambitions after he succeeded in pushing through legislation to allow Japanese troops to fight in overseas conflicts, despite concerns abroad and at home.
Japanese militarism is a particularly sensitive topic for China and South Korea because of the aggression they endured before and during World War II.
"The security environment around Japan is becoming increasingly complex and Japan needs to maintain air capabilities commensurate to those of other air forces in the region," said Mr Rukmani Gupta, an IHS Jane's analyst in New Delhi.
"Should the ATD-X test be deemed successful, it is very likely that Japan will pursue production of a next-generation fighter."
The 14m-long jet will cost 40 billion yen (S$458 million) to develop, Mr Doi said.
The ATD-X could become the basis for a new fighter jet to replace the nation's F-2s, said Mr Takahiro Yoshida, a director at the Defence Ministry.
If Japan decides to make a fighter jet version, its engines would be about three times the power of the stealth jet's, and the plane would have enough space to carry missiles, Mr Doi said.
However, it is not a given that Japan will go ahead with the project.
"These experimental fighters are an exercise in the realm of the possible," said Mr Lance Gatling, head of aerospace consultancy Nexial Research.
"In terms of international relations, it's a bargaining chip. They can say: 'We did a credible job on this, we may just build our own if you don't give us a better deal or you don't give us a portion of the production in Japan,'" he added.