According to Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono, the country’s next fighter plane must be capable of carrying more air-to-air missiles than the current Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter.
“We will prioritize network functions while demanding high stealth performance,” Kono told reporters. “It will be capable of carrying more missiles than the F-35.”
It should come as no surprise that this is a requirement. One of the most common complaints from F-35 operators is the aircraft’s limited weapon capacity while in stealth mode. In its current configuration, the conventional-takeoff F-35A can only carry four AIM-120 air-to-air missiles in its internal bays.
The presence of external weapons has a significant impact on the radar signature produced by an aircraft. A radar-evading fighter needs to carry its munitions internally so that it can maintain its stealthy characteristics. However, this may place restrictions on a plane’s loadout, which may put it at a disadvantage in a fierce battle where every missile counts.
Russian and Chinese fighter aircraft that are not stealthy and are of an older generation are capable, in certain configurations, of carrying a dozen or more air-to-air missiles. It appears that both the Russian Su-57 stealth fighter and the Chinese J-20 stealth fighter are capable of carrying six missiles within their internal bays. The F-22, which is used by the United States Air Force and is also a product of Lockheed, has bays that are capable of holding eight missiles.
The superior missile capacity of a conventional fighter design played a role in the decision of the United States Air Force to begin purchasing upgraded Boeing F-15EXs in parallel with their ongoing purchases of F-35s. The first eight of potentially 144 F-15EX will be purchased by the Air Force in the year 2020. The military organization already maintains a fleet of approximately 200 F-35As and has been purchasing additional examples at a rate of approximately 50 per year. Both the F-15EX and the F-35A have a price tag of approximately $100 million.
According to Boeing test pilot Matt Geise, the F-15EX is capable of carrying an astounding 22 missiles, while the F-35 can only carry a maximum of four air-to-air missiles in its internal bays.
The additional weight and resistance to movement caused by twenty-two missiles would render this loadout undesirable for use in everyday activities. However, an F-15EX can easily carry into battle twice or even three times as many missiles as an F-35 can, even with a much smaller missile load than the F-35 can carry.
This design would combine the airframe of the F-22 stealth fighter with the sensors and electronics of the F-35
If Japan wants its new F-3 fighter to be able to carry more missiles, it will either need to develop a stealth fighter with a layout comparable to that of the F-22 or acquire a non-stealthy plane in the same class as the F-15EX. Neither option is ideal.
It is not a coincidence that Lockheed has proposed to the Japanese industry that they collaborate on the development of an F-3 design. This design would combine the airframe of the F-22 stealth fighter with the sensors and electronics of the F-35. But it’s important to keep in mind that Japan already has around 200 older F-15Js in its inventory.
While the Japanese government considers its options, Lockheed Martin is working to increase the number of missiles that can be carried by the F-35. According to company spokesman Michael Friedman, who spoke with Breaking Defense, Lockheed Martin has matured design concepts in order to integrate six air-to-air missiles within the internal weapons bays of the F-35A and F-35C variants. This was accomplished through the company’s own internal research and development over the course of the last several years.
“This effort allows for further enhancement of the F-35’s lethality and survivability by increasing internal weapons capacity by two additional missiles while maintaining a very low-observable stealth configuration,”
But in order to implement the concept, the internal configuration of the F-35 needs to be altered. It is not entirely clear whether any of the F-35 operators have been willing to pay for the changes.