TOYOYAMA TOWN, Japan -- Japan's first domestically produced stealth fighter will make its maiden flight next month, according to Ministry of Defense officials who say it's more nimble than the latest U.S. model.
The X-2, developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries with the help of 220 subcontractors, features a radar-evading design, stealth coating and locally made engines equipped with afterburners. Japan Air Self-Defense Force personnel stood guard as journalists snapped photos Thursday of the gleaming red-and-white aircraft near Nagoya.
The X-2 -- a successor to the F-2 fighters Japan developed with the U.S. decades ago -- is 47 feet long with a wingspan of just under 30 feet. It has so far cost nearly 39.4 billion yen ($294 million) to develop with another 2.3 billion yen ($19.3 million) budgeted for tests in the next fiscal year, officials said.
The X-2 is Japan's effort to join the U.S., Russia and China as nations that have built and flown manned stealth fighters, said Takahiro Yoshida of the Defense Ministry's Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Agency.
Stealth technology is so sensitive that it is nearly impossible for other countries to share, he said, adding: "It's significant that we can acquire it on our own."
The U.S.'s newest stealth fighter, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lighting II, is not highly maneuverable whereas the X-2 "has high maneuverability yet with stealth capability," Yoshida said.
The jet can turn without decreasing its speed, said Col. Hideaki Miwa, also of the defense agency.
The demonstration aircraft will be used to verify the stealth technology and maneuverability needed for future fighters, Yoshida said. Its first test flight, scheduled for late-February, will take off from Nagoya Airport to a Japan Air Self-Defense Force base in Gifu Prefecture.
The X-2's development will set Japan up to produce its own fighters or make a significant contribution to planes developed with allies, he said.
Development of a home-grown jet fighter would "lead to strengthening the (U.S.-Japan) alliance," said Hirokazu Hokazono, the agency's chief defense scientist.
It's too early to estimate how much the X-2 will ultimately cost or determine whether other nations might be interested in buying it, he said.
Hundreds of experts were involved in the project, but only a few of them had worked on the F-2, said Mitsuru Hamada, a Mitsubishi engineer.
Mitsubishi hopes knowledge acquired building the new aircraft will help the company develop Japan's next generation of fighters and aid in strengthening the country's aerospace industry, Hamada said.
The Mitsubishi Regional Jet -- Japan's first locally-developed passenger jet -- made its first flight in November.
-- Stars and Stripes staffer Hana Kusumoto contributed to this report.