Saturday, April 28, 2018

JAPAN WANTS A "HYBRID" F-22/F-35?

Can we mash these together and make a baby?
Unfortunately for fighter buffs, it appears as though Japan may discontinue its homegrown 5th generation fighter plans.

Despite a relatively successful run of its ATD-X, Tokyo has balked at the overwhelming cost of developing it into a combat-ready production model.  The decision is not yet final, but there seems to be little hope left for the "Shinshin".

While Japan is already on the list to receive the F-35, the JSF has always been considered a consolation price for not getting the F-22.  Unfortunately for  Japan, US law forbade any Raptor exports.  While many would argue that the F-35 is "good enough" it may have a hard time facing Russia's Su-57 and China's J-20.  This has left Japan pining for a high performance air-superiority fighter to replace its aging F-15J fleet.  

So what is Japan to do?

Like a superhero leaping into action (or a vulture swooping in) Lockheed Martin is there.  It has proposed a F-22/F-35 hybrid that "would combine the F-22 and F-35 and could be superior to both of them".   

Yeah...  Right...

So what would a F-22/F-35 hybrid even look like?

Option 1:  Modernized F-22


What Japan really wants...

It would be nice to imagine something as simple and elegant as an updated F-22.  This "F-22J" would use the Raptor's current airframe and engines but upgraded with F-35's improved sensor technology and avionics.  Such a fighter would maintain the F-22's supercruise and super-manueverability while adding much needed IRST (in the form of DAS/EOTS) and networking capability.  It would also modernize the cockpit with the F-35's touchscreen and helmet mounted display.  This would certainly be the "best of both worlds" and would undoubtedly peak the interest of other foreign buyers with deep pockets, not to mention the USAF.  

Unfortunately, the cost to restart F-22 production would be astronomical.  Even producing additional Raptors as is would be well over $200 million per unit.  Add to this the additional cost needed to modify and test those fighters to modern-day standards would push this even higher.  



Option 2:  New F-35 Variant

"F-35E" (from http://www.moddb.com/games/vector-thrust/news/report-045-f-35)
While an upgraded F-22 is a possibility, Lockheed Martin will likely propose a variant of the F-35.  Not only would this keep costs down for Japan, but it would benefit the JSF program as a whole by spreading out development costs and economies of scale even further.

An F-35 variant that emphasizes air superiority over multi-role capability would certainly be doable.  Such a beast would be radically different than the current versions, however.  Design emphasis would be on speed on agility rather than payload.  This F-35 would have to be placed on a massive diet, and its engine and wings would ideally be allow for supercruise capability. 

The image above applies the YF-23's trapezoidal wings and pelikan tail to the F-35's main fuselage.  It also replaces the F-35's conventional engine nozzle for the the F-22's two-dimensional thrust vectoring one.  While this is a work of fan fiction, the general idea seems sound.  Such radical reworkings are not unheard of (witness the F-16XL).

A new F-35 variant may not be practical however.  Given the F-35's troubled development, there may not be much desire to complicate the program more than it already is.  There is also the possibility that the JSF's design is "baked in" to the point that any major design changes are impossible at this point.  

Option 3:  An All New Aircraft



No point in letting this go to waste...
It would be a shame for Japan to abandon the ATD-X entirely.  It is an impressive technology demonstrator in its own right, utilizing fly-by-light (instead of fly-by-wire) flight controls and 3D thrust vectoring.  From a hardware perspective, the ATD-X is an impressive machine.  

Perhaps the answer is to utilize the ATD-X's (upscaled) design while relying on Lockheed Martin's expertise in avionics and stealth.  Whenever possible, technology would be shared with the F-35 to reduce costs.  Focus would remain on air-superiority, with a eye on affordability and sustainability.

In order to reduce costs even further, the aircraft should be marketed to other buyers.  Not the least of which should be the USAF which is facing a existensial crisis in replacing its rapidly aging fleet of F-15Cs.

The risk with going with an all-new fighter is letting "feature creep" take over.  What would be a new "5th Generation" (5.5th gen?) fighter turns into a proposed 6th Generation fighter with all the complexities, budget overruns, and development delays that inevitably follow.  


Uh oh...

As usual, budget considerations will likely be the driving force behind a decision. 

Fighter jet program budgets tend to spiral out of control quite quickly.  Building a fighter custom-tailored a single nation's needs would seem to be incredibly inefficient in this day and age.  

One would think that Japan learned its lesson after the Mitsubishi F-2 debacle, which resulted in a slightly upgraded F-16 at nearly quadruple the cost.  It is unlikely Japan would be willing to fund development of a new fighter or even a variant of an existing one on its own.  At the very least, additional partners willing to share the cost (and risk) would be needed.

Amalgamation with other 5th generation fighter programs; like South Korea's KF-X are a possibility, but generations-old animosities could get in the way.  One might also wonder if Japan would be willing to swallow some of its pride as the world's third largest economical power to do so.  

Given Japan's current debt crisis; it may not be able to afford to do anything at all.  







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