A prototype of the first Japan-made stealth fighter is pictured at a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries' factory in Toyoyama town, Aichi Prefecture, central Japan, in this file photo taken by Kyodo January 28, 2016. REUTERS/Kyodo/Files

n”>Japan has opened talks with Western defense contractors about building a new generation of fighter jets, sources say, in what would mark an important milestone in Tokyo’s strategy to maintain its air superiority over rival China.

A prototype of the first Japan-made stealth fighter displayed at a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ factory in Toyoyama town

The discussions with defense companies including Boeing Co and Lockheed Martin Ltd come as Japan readies its ATD-X experimental aircraft for its first test flights within days.

Stealth fighter technologies being tested on the ATD-X, being developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) and the Japanese Ministry of Defense’s Technical Research and Development Institute, would also be incorporated into the new fighter, dubbed the F-3, industry and government sources said.

“They have begun exploratory engagement to look at our capabilities,” said a source with a Western defense contractor. “There is no policy decision and no program of record for the next fighter. There is only some discussion that, logically, there will be a fighter at some point.”

Analysts estimate the cost of such a program at $40 billion or more, a price tag that could yet prove prohibitive.

Japan has already committed to buying 42 Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. But that aircraft’s perceived shortcomings in air-to-air combat and the United States’ refusal to sell its Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor have encouraged Japan to consider a domestic-led program to replace its fleet of aging Boeing F-15J warplanes.

Plans are likely to be firmed by end-2017 or early 2018, which would enable the F-3 program to secure funding in Japan’s 2018-2022 five-year plan and be in service by around 2030, the sources added.

Upgrades to a large portion of over 150 aging Japan Air Self Defence Force F-15Js, to incorporate new engines and radars among other advanced capabilities, could proceed while research into the F-3 program continues, said the sources. Read More

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