TOKYO • Japan yesterday unveiled its first stealth fighter jet, with the maiden test flight planned for next month.
The defence ministry's acquisition agency showed off the domestically developed, radar-dodging X-2 fighter at a heavily guarded hangar at a regional airport near the central city of Komaki.
Its first flight is scheduled in mid-February before delivery to the defence ministry by the end of March next year, the agency said.
The X-2, developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, was built as a successor to the F-2 fighter jets developed jointly with the United States.
Japan has reportedly spent about 39.4 billion yen (S$474 million) to develop the red-and-white-painted aircraft, which at 14m in length, is smaller than a standard jet fighter.
It is unarmed and its engines are underpowered, according to the Wall Street Journal, which said it would take many years for Japan to develop the X-2 into an actual warplane.
Currently, only the United States, Russia and China have been internationally recognised as having successfully developed and flown manned stealth jets.
Quoting analysts, the Wall Street Journal said that rather than aiming to build its own plane, Japan may be signalling its hopes of joining the US or other allies in developing a fighter through an international partnership - a way for allies to develop more expensive weapons systems. By unveiling the X2, Japan is showing that it can bring something to the table.
"In order to participate in a project as an equal partner, Japan has to offer knowledge, experience or technologies worthy of an equal partner," aerospace analyst Yoshitomo Aoki told the newspaper.
Defence officials said yesterday they would decide by March 2019 whether to make a fighter domestically, develop one with international partners or import one. They said they had begun exchanging information with other countries but declined to name them.
The X-2's stealthy features include a special coating on the canopy that houses the pilot, as well as a carbon-fibre composite material that absorbs radar waves, Mr Hirofumi Doi, programme manager at the defence ministry's procurement agency, was quoted as saying in an interview before the unveiling.
Demonstrating these and other technologies "puts them in a better position to negotiate with foreign manufacturers on the specifications and technologies involved in any joint development project", Mr Lance Gatling, president of Nexial Research, an aerospace consulting firm, told the Wall Street Journal.
The X-2 will also bolster Japan's defences in another way, Mr Doi said. He said that as China and Russia had developed radar-evading jets, "we can come up with countermeasures by learning what stealth technology is all about".
The X-2 also reflects the growing ambitions of Mitsubishi, which made the legendary World War II-era Zero fighter and now makes wings for the Boeing 787 jetliner.
In November, Japan's first domestically produced passenger jet, also developed by Mitsubishi Heavy, made its maiden test flight, a landmark development for the country after being barred from developing aircraft following its defeat in World War II.
Mr Mitsuru Hamada, chief engineer in its integrated space systems division, said he hoped Japan would decide to build a fighter.