The Mitsubishi F-2 fighter was initially intended as a wholly indigenous Japanese multirole fighter design to replace the aging fleet of Mitsubishi F-1s. With design work already underway during the 1980s under the FS-X program designation, the United States government moved in with enough political and economic pressure to force Japan into abandoning its local fighter plans in favor of continued support for American-originated military equipment. The Japan indigenous initiative, therefore, ended in 1987 and the program focused on procurement of the Lockheed F-16C "Fighting Falcon" multirole platform (Block 40). The aircraft would be modified to suit Japanese military requirements headed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries with Lockheed remaining the primary US contributor. General Electric would provide the necessary turbofan engines. The program produced four modified F-16Cs in the early going and these served as prototypes. First flight was recorded on October 7th, 1995 while, in December, the aircraft was formally designated "F-2". Adopted in 2000, the F-2 continues to serve the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) in the air defense, ground attack and maritime strike roles. With ongoing disputes against China and general volatility in the region, the F-2 plays an increasingly important role in Japanese air operations for the island nation (January 2014).
Despite its obvious appearance to the America fighter, the Mitsubishi F-2 incorporates enough new features and local technology to consider it a highly modified Japanese variant of the F-16. The F-2, at its core, is a single-seat, single-engine mount powered by the successful General Electric GE F100-series turbofan with reheat (afterburner). The fuselage, though mimicking the American F-16C in general contour and shape, has evolved to become some 25% larger than the original with more advanced composites introduced to its construction. The fuselage has been lengthened and a three-piece framed cockpit selected over the large -area glass version on the F-16. The tail unit has been given an increase in surface area while the intake is of a larger dimension. Due to restrictions imposed by the American State Department on export of fly-by-wire control software, Japanese engineers have developed a local solution. The nose assembly, too, houses a Mitsubishi-brand Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar while the cockpit retains Head-Up Display (HUD), color Multi-Function Displays (MFDs) and Hands-on-Throttle-and-Stick (HOTAS) control arrangement.
The F-2 exhibits a length of 51 feet with a wingspan of 36.5 feet and height of 15.5 feet. Empty weight is listed at 21,000lb with a maximum take-off weight of 48,500lb. The GE F110-GE-129 engine produces 17,000lb of dry thrust and 29,500lb of thrust with afterburner engaged. Performance values include a maximum speed of Mach 2, a range of 520 miles and service ceiling of 59,000 feet. A drogue parachute assists in providing short airfield landings.
Standard armament of the F-2 includes an internal 20mm JM61A1 cannon for close-in combat. Optional armament is all externally held across five hardpoints (one underfuselage and four underwing) with ordnance totaling 17,830lbs. The armament suite includes a mix of air-to-air and air-to-surface weaponry. As in the American F-16C, the F-2's wingtips are reserved for AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missiles (or the local Mitsubishi AAM-3 missile). Other air-to-air options include the American AIM-7 Sparrow or local Mitsubishi AAM-4 missile. For ground attack and maritime strike, the F-2 is cleared to carry ASM-1 and ASM-2 anti-ship missiles, anti-radiation missiles, precision-guided munitions, and conventional drop ordnance. The fuselage and inboard underwing hardpoints are further plumbed for external fuel tanks which improve operational ranges of the fleet.
Originally, the Japanese government commissioned for 140 aircraft to emerge from the FS-X program. However, budgetary constraints soon limited this to less than 100 and this has since become 94 production-quality airframes along with the four early prototypes. The aircraft then saw extensive delays with tail assemblies manufactured by Lockheed Martin and developmental problems arising with the new composite wings. This led to the series not formally fielded until 2000 (1999 was the target year) by which time they were quick to replace the outgoing F-1s in the Japanese inventory. Production spanned from 1995 into 2011 and has since completed. Early-batch examples cost the Japanese Defence Agency $100 million per unit which proved problematic in Japanese politics of the period. Indeed, it would have been cheaper to purchase existing F-16 airframes instead.
In all, four distinct production marks have appeared. Two were XF-2A single-seat prototypes followed by a pair of XF-2B two-seat prototypes. The F-2A became the standard single-seat fighter which is supplemented by the F-2B two-seat trainer featuring twin cockpits and dual-control functionality.
F-2s current serve with Air Defense Command, Air Training Command and Air Development and Test Command. Eighteen F-2s were damaged during the 2011 tsunami.
The Mitsubishi F-2 is roughly comparable to the Chengdu J-10 "Vigorous Dragon" which would become its primary adversary in an all out confrontation with China.