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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Tokyo, Seoul Mull Advanced Fighters sixth-generation


Japan’s defense ministry sees a sixth-generation manned fighter with counter-stealth capability for the 2030s, while South Korea is trying to form a consortium of developing countries to field an affordable fighter in the 2020s, positioning it between the Lockheed Martin F-16 and F-35.

The Japanese sixth-generation fighter concept, called i3 (informed, intelligent and instantaneous), has seven features that the defense ministry regard as crucial for the fighter to be effective against potential opponents, according to the ministry’s Future Fighter Research & Development Vision, released on Aug. 25.

One feature, jamming-resistant fly-by-light controls, has been introduced in the Kawasaki P-1 maritime patroller, which first flew in 2007. The ministry believes four more features could be ready by 2030:

•Greater stealth than that of opponents, requiring developments in coatings, internal weapon bays and intake design.

•Next-generation high-power radar that detects and tracks stealthy targets, requiring development of advanced integrated sensors and all-around protection.

•Cloud-shooting, in which the fighters fire missiles using targeting data from other sources—for example, each other and early-warning aircraft.

•A powerful next-generation engine with a slim cross-section and heat-resistant turbine discs and ceramic nozzle.

The engine, radar and stealth technologies are in development and should be ready in 2016-20. The Mitsubishi ATD-X fighter technology demonstrator that will fly for the first time in 2014 will be the testing platform.

The next two technologies would be ready in the 2040s: networking with sensor drones that fly ahead of the manned fighters, helping them remain undetected while detecting stealthy targets; and a directed-energy weapon, based on research that would begin next year, focusing on lasers and high-power microwaves.

Cloud-shooting is similar in concept to the silent attack tactics of the Saab Gripen, in which four aircraft flying together share targeting data, allowing one or two to shoot without turning on their radars. The Eurofighter Typhoon demonstrated third-party targeting capability in 2009, but the shooter’s radar had to provide mid-course updates to the missile.

The Japanese concept may allow mid-course updates to the missile from another friendly source. It envisions unarmed sensor drones controlled by manned fighters in the air-defense mission, unlike some European concepts, in which the manned fighters would control combat drones conducting strike missions.

The ministry summarizes its philosophy behind cloud shooting thus: “Once one side locks on and shoots, there will always be a hit.”

The ministry is ambiguous about planning, but expects that full-scale development of the i3 fighter would begin in 2021 after a decade of predevelopment of the first batch of key technologies. The aircraft, if developed, would enter service in the 2030s, replacing the Mitsubishi F-2, which was fielded in 2000. The estimated development cost of the i3 is ¥500-800 billion ($5.9-9.5 billion).

Japan’s F-2, an F-16 derivative developed with the U.S. for ¥376.6 billion, could provide a model for South Korea’s KF-X project, which aims to develop an affordable fighter with Western technological assistance and up to 40% cost-sharing by developing countries that wish to foster their aerospace industries.

The KF-X is to have capabilities between the fourth-generation F-16 and fifth-generation F-35, says Dae-yeol Lee, head of air systems development at the government’s defense development agency. KF-X would have two options: an adaptation of an existing design, following the F-2 model; or a clean-sheet design, the approach Taiwan adopted with its Ching Kuo aircraft in the 1980s.

If the KF-X follows the F-2 model, it could end up as a modified version of a U.S. or European fighter, such as the Boeing F/A-18 or Eurofighter Typhoon. South Korean companies would prefer a new design, but the country was unwilling to go that far with a utility helicopter, let alone a 4.5-generation fighter. The Korean Utility Helicopter was conceived as a new and independent design but eventually developed with advice from Eurocopter, using the configuration of the Cougar.

The first country interested in joining the KF-X program is Indonesia, whose defense ministry signed a memorandum of understanding on July 15, saying it would pay 20% of development costs and buy 50 aircraft. Turkey is being courted to take 20% of the development program.

Whether South Korea’s attempt to create and lead a joint development program succeeds will hinge upon the KF-X’s concept definition, to be carried out in 2011-12.

By Bradley Perrett

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