Sometimes it can be tough to appreciate the logic behind which defense technologies the United States Government deems suitable for export. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for instance, is regularly touted as the most advanced aircraft ever developed, but Uncle Sam is happy to distribute them willingly to paying nations with friendly relations to help share the massive cost of research and development associated with the aircraft. The F-22 Raptor, on the other hand, is considered the superior dog fighter when compared to its newer fifth generation sibling, but possesses comparably dated technology in a number of realms, including its stealth coating. Advancements made on the F-22 led to improvements put into place on the F-35 in this and similar realms, making the tech on display throughout the F-35, arguably, more sensitive than that on the F-22. Yet, the F-22 has been banned from export, citing national security.

The real reason the F-22 will never see export, of course, is because its production lines have been shut down and cannibalized in favor of expanded production facilities for the F-35, meaning the 180 or so F-22s that the United States received from Lockheed Martin will likely be the only F-22s to ever exist… but that doesn’t mean the aircraft many believe is the best air-to-air combat platform the world has ever seen is fated for the history books. America plans to keep their small fleet of F-22s operational for as long as possible — but more importantly, Lockheed Martin is now looking for new ways to bring the successful elements of the F-22 back from the dead, even if American coffers are running dry thanks to the immense expense of the perpetually delayed and trouble ridden F-35.

Two F-22 Raptors fly over the Pacific Ocean during a theater security mission March 9 as part of a deployment to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. The Raptors are deployed from Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald)

Japan’s importance as a U.S. ally in the Pacific continues to grow, thanks in no small part to its proximity to America’s primarily diplomatic opponent, China. China’s aggressive expansion throughout the South China Sea represents a threat to American and Japanese military and economic interests throughout the region, and with smaller but significant threats posed by nations like North Korea in the same area of the globe, America and Japan have increasingly sought ways to cooperate that eases not only the threats posed by these nations, but the expense associated with countering them. Lockheed Martin, aware that Japan is in need of an advanced air superiority fighter that can counter China’s growing fleet of F-22 derived J-20 fighters, now hopes that air of cooperation will extend to the development of an all-new fighter based on the successful elements of their two previous fifth generation efforts: an F-22/F-35 hybrid that could feasibly be superior to both.

The United States, of course, would never foot the bill for such an endeavor while still working feverishly to both find a way to pay for the F-35 and convince the American public that it’s a worthwhile expenditure. If anything, Lockheed’s representatives may have been met with some angry, or anguished, looks from the Defense officials when proposing another new aircraft that could feasibly fly circles around the plane they’ve been painfully developing for years (and with a price tag will undoubtedly exceed a trillion dollars). So Lockheed turned to Japan, aware that they’re facing a legitimate fighter threat, have close ties with the United States, and most importantly, may be willing to pay for the development of this new hybrid aircraft.

Concerns persist that the F-35 may be too expensive to operate. (DoD Photo)

According to reports, Lockheed Martin has even suggested a willingness to outsource many of the aircraft’s components to Japanese companies, placing the majority of the research and development costs associated with individual components of the new plane squarely on Japanese shores. The only problem is, the United States has to approve the export of F-22 technologies to Japan for this new aircraft — but with so few F-22s in existence, doing it would be a calculated risk… but one that may make sense to make.

The new aircraft, Lockheed insiders have claimed, would combine the advanced computing power and state of the art, inter-linked sensor suite that makes the comparably heavy and slow F-35 so dangerous, with an air frame derived from the much faster and more maneuverable F-22. The stealth coatings from the F-22, which are difficult and expensive to maintain, would be gone in favor of the more advance stealth coating used on the F-35. Furthermore, the manufacturing process would be more cost effective and streamlined than either previous program thanks to lessons learned in the production of each. The result would be a fighter as fast and nimble as an F-22, with the over-the-horizon combat capabilities of the F-35 and a radar envelope that may even be smaller than either of its predecessors. Most damning, this new aircraft could potentially cost less than either the F-22 or F-35, thanks to its ability to skip the setbacks and mistakes of previous generations.

That all sounds like a great deal for Japan, but it begs the question: why would the United States want to give away trade secrets just so Japan can have better fighters than America does? Well the answer is simple: America would buy the aircraft as well. If Japan absorbed the brunt of the development side of this new hybrid fighter, America could step in and purchase them at a dramatically reduced cost when compared to the lengthy F-22 and F-35 development programs. Further, depending on how similar the new air frame would be to the F-22, Japanese factories may even be able to produce components that are suitable for either plane, dramatically reducing the costs associated with keeping the small fleet of F-22s operational for years to come.

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Whether or not Lockheed Martin manages to convince both the Trump administration and Japan that the future of fighters is an F-35/F-22 hybrid is yet to be determined, but it seems clear that, with China’s J-20 already in service and J-31 rapidly approaching it, the skies above the Pacific will soon be seeing an influx of fifth generation fighters. The only question seems to be: whose fighters will they be.

 

Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force