TOKYO | Japan is looking to join the United States, China and Russia with a stealth fighter that senior Japanese air force officials say can be ready for a prototype test flight in just three years, significantly upping the ante in the intensifying battle for air superiority in the Pacific.
The prototype will likely be able to fly in 2014, Lt. Gen. Hideyuki Yoshioka, director of air systems development at Japan's Ministry of Defense, said in an interview with the Associated Press.
He said Japan has put $473 million into the project since 2009, after it became clear the United States was not likely to sell it the F-22 "Raptor" - America's most advanced fighter jet - because of a congressional export ban.
"We are two years into the project, and we are on schedule," Gen. Yoshioka said Monday.
Gen. Yoshioka stressed that a successful test flight of the prototype, dubbed "Shinshin," or "Spirit," does not mean Japan will immediately start producing stealth aircraft.
The prototype is designed to test advanced technologies, and if it is successful, the government will decide in 2016 how to proceed.
Japan is feeling the pressure of a regional dogfight over fighter superiority.
"If the countries surrounding Japan have stealth capabilities, Japan will need to develop those capabilities itself to ensure our own defense," said Col. Yoshikazu Takizawa of the Defense Ministry's Technical Research and Development Institute.
Japan relies to a large degree for its defense on its alliance with the United States, which has a significant number of fighters and other aircraft, along with some 50,000 troops, stationed around the Japanese archipelago.
But that alliance, and Japan's relatively deep pockets, did not prove convincing enough for Tokyo to get the coveted F-22.
Congress repeatedly squashed the idea due to fears that the F-22 contained too much secret technology to share with even Washington's closest friends.
China and Russia, meanwhile, have made great strides toward perfecting advanced stealth fighters that could rival the F-22, out-fly Japan's aircraft and - coupled with other rapid advances now under way, particularly by China's navy - tip the regional balance of power.