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Japan picks Mitsubishi Heavy to develop own stealth fighter

This June 15, 2020 photo shows the headquarters of Japan's Defense Ministry in Tokyo. (Kyodo)

TOKYO (AP) -- Japan has picked Mitsubishi Heavy Industries as a main contractor to develop the country's own next generation stealth fighter for launch in the 2030s, the defense minister said Friday.

    The next generation fighters, currently known as F-X, are part of Japan's upgrading of its aging fighter jet fleet as the country builds up its military capability to counter growing threats from China and North Korea.

    The next generation stealth jet will replace F-2s that Japan co-developed with the U.S. They are due to be retired around 2035. The Defense Ministry is seeking 58.7 billion yen ($556 million) in the 2021 budget for research into developing the aircraft.

    "We will steadily push forward the development of our next generation fighter jets," Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters in making the announcement.

    Mitsubishi will decide on other participants in the project, including avionics, engine and other parts makers. Japan also is considering co-developing some parts with foreign contractors including those in the U.S. and Britain.

    Japan's Air Self-Defense Force has a fleet of about 290 fighter jets and is also replacing its F-4 fighters with dozens of F-35s to strengthen its missile deterrence out of concern over North Korea's missiles and nuclear program.

    Japan's purchases of American weapons have helped reduce its trade surplus with the U.S. while also responding to demands from President Donald Trump to do more to pay for its defense. But the purchases have raised concerns about weakening efforts to build up Japan's fledgling defense industry .

    The announcement came as Mitsubishi announced a decision to freeze its plans to build a regional passenger aircraft as it cuts costs in response to the uncertainty over the future of the pandemic-hit travel industry.

    Kishi said the company's decision about its commercial aircraft had no bearing on the fighter jet development plan.

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