Two AH-1Z Vipers with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) 369 “Gunfighters” fly during a live-fire demonstration on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps
Amid geopolitical uncertainty and China's claims to the Senkaku Islands, Japan continues the renewal of its fleet of military helicopters through both purchases from abroad and domestic procurement of some models.
Since 2010, as territorial disputes have become heated, the number of interception flights conducted by Japanese military aircraft increased by almost three times, and these figures continue to grow.
Due to this, modernization of the military’s helicopter fleet is expected to be a priority for the Japanese government in the coming years. This is also reflected by the recent statements from the Japanese Ministry of Defense, which said the annual growth rate of the country’s fleet of military helicopters will be at least two percent during the next 20 years.
As part of these plans, particular attention will be paid to boosting local production. In recent years, helicopter manufacturing has become one of Japan's main components of the military/industrial complex.
Currently this segment accounts for about 30 percent of the total number of workers employed in the Japanese military aircraft/helicopter engineering sector and about 30 percent of the industry’s annual output in value terms.
Japanese helicopter manufacturing began in 1952, after the lifting of a post-World War II U.S. ban on research-and-development activities and production of aircraft equipment within the country.
From 1952 to 1954, Japan mainly focused on repairing U.S. military aircraft and helicopters stationed in the region. By executing orders for the repair of American aviation equipment, Japan was able to partially restore its aviation enterprises after World War II (when it employed more than 1 million workers). Since 1952, Japan began its own production of helicopters.
At present, Japan's helicopter manufacturing is a well-developed industry capable of satisfying 96 percent of the country's domestic demand.
Japan’s three main producers of helicopters are Mitsubishi, Kawasaki and Fuji Heavy Industries. The development of these companies was initially based on forming strategic partnerships with foreign — usually American — companies, which involved the licensed production of those companies’ products. Such cooperation allowed the Japanese companies to start their own design and manufacture of helicopters through a process of workshare and technology transfer.
In recent years the alliances of Mitsubishi with Sikorsky, Kawasaki with Boeing and Fuji with Bell were established, which created conditions for the building of helicopters within Japan.
Japan continues active renewal of its military helicopter fleet, most importantly replacement of the Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopter, a major pletform of the Japan Ground Self-Defence Force.
The Japanese Ministry of Defence purchased 90 Cobras between 1982 and 2000. Currently 59 of those AH-1s remain on service; however, Tokyo already launched a process for their gradual replacement by more efficient and modern models.
Exact timing for the replacement of Japan’s AH-1s is not set, but Japanese media reports say all new airrcaft purchases will take place during the five-year defense program that will begin next year.
As part of these plans, the Ministry of Defense plans to organize a contest, from which a successor to the Cobra will be selected.
To date, Airbus Helicopters, Boeing and Bell have expressed interest in bidding for the work.
Airbus plans to offer commercial-off-the-shelf solutions using its HForce common weapons system for the requirement, rather than its dedicated attack helicopter, the Tiger.
"Building on 50 years of presence and co-operation in Japan, Airbus Helicopters is keen to actively contribute to this program with its proven and wide range of products, supported by the multi-platform HForce modular weapon system," the company said in a statement announcing its participation in the program.
Airbus leads the Japanese civil and parapublic helicopter markets with more than 50 percent market share; however, the company has a significantly smaller presence in the Japanese combat helicopter market.
Bell will offer the AH-1Z Viper, the most modern version of Japan's legacy Cobras. Boeing will enter AH-64E Apache in the contest.
In the meantime, a majority of analysts both in the U.S. and Japan believe the AH-1Z Viper together with the Apache are the favorites to replace Cobras.
The AH-1Z was developed for the U.S. Marine Corps from the AH-1W Super Cobra, which itself was originated from the AH-1J Sea Cobra, an aircraft that was built specifically to operate from vessels out at sea. The Apache, however, was not designed as a maritime aircraft, but operators do fly them from ships.
Bell and Subaru Corporation in July announced a collaboration on a commercial enhancement of the Bell 412EPI. Japan will use the program as the base for its UH-X utility helicopter program aimed at replacing about 150 older UH-1J Hueys.
In 2015, the Japanese Ministry of Defence selected Bell-Subaru for a 150-unit utility helicopter acquisition under the UH-X program. Under the terms of the contract, the partners will build the 412EPI-based helicopters in-country, replacing the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces (JGSDF) fleet of 130 Bell UH-1Js.
The Japanese Ministry of Defence plans to buy 150 UH-Xs over 20 years. A civil version will also be available.
Shoichiro Tozuka, corporate EVP of Subaru, said deliveries will begin in 2022 and that future helicopters will be mostly deployed for island defense.
According to a joint statement of the partners, the 412EPX will have a more robust main rotor gearbox dry run capability, increased internal maximum gross weight to 12,200 lb and mast torque output increase of 11 percent at speeds below 60 kt.
Another possible option for the expansion of the fleet could involve resuming purchases of the Kawasaki OH-1 Ninja, which is the first reconnaissance helicopter used by the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces made predominantly in Japan.
The JGSDF initially planned to acquire 180 to 200 OH-1 Ninja helicopters, but the program was curtailed because of budget cuts. Currently about 34 OH-1s have entered service with the JGSDF.
Finally, Tokyo may consider procurement of additional Boeing AH-64Ds in the immediate future.
In 2002, Japan selected Fuji Heavy Industries (FHI) to license-build a local variant of the Boeing AH-64D attack helicopter. Tokyo’s initial plan was to buy up to 80 helicopters. Due to financial issues, the number was later reduced to 60 and in 2007 fell to only 13 units. As of 2017, the JGSDF operates one squadron of 10 AH-64DJPs, with the remaining three helicopters assigned to training units.
The Japanese Navy also plans to buy more helicopters in coming years. With the commissioning of new Hyuga and Izumo class destroyers, Japan needs more naval helicopters to perform anti-submarine warfare.
In August 2014, the Japanese Defense Ministry began replacement of its fleet of 46 SH-60J and 39 SH-60K Seahawk helicopters.
According to earlier statements from ministry spokesman Tsuyoshi Hirata, the purchases will lead to the deployment of about 80 new helicopters after 2022.
Particular attention will be paid to upgrading the SH-60K, produced by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) with advanced electronics systems. Senior officers in the Japanese Ministry of Defence have long insisted on the need to improve the SH-60 platform.
Finally, the expansion of the existing fleet will also take place through the design and production of unmanned helicopters. Currently Japan has its own production of such aircraft; however, to date, most of them have been used by the country’s agricultural industry.
Still, according to some leading Japanese economists and defense experts, implementation of Tokyo’s announced plans may face significant hurdles like a growing labor shortage in domestic helicopter manufacturing.
In recent years the industry has faced the worse shortage of labor since the mid-1970s, which is mainly due to a sharp decline in the number of able-bodied workers as the Japanese population ages.
According to predictions by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, the country will be able to overcome this demographic crisis no earlier than 2020.
Due to this, the domestic production of helicopters, according to some Japanese economists, this year is expected to decline by 10 to 15 percent.