Tokyo: Japan's first stealth fighter jet successfully took to the skies on Friday as the country joins a select group of world military powers wielding the radar-dodging technology.
Technological super power Japan, despite strict constitutional constraints on the use of military force imposed after World War II, has one of the world's most advanced defence forces and the development of the stealth fighter comes as it faces new security challenges in the form of China's expanding force posture.
The domestically developed X-2 jet took off from Nagoya airport in central Japan on its maiden test flight as dozens of aviation enthusiasts watching the event erupted in applause as it lifted off into the clear morning sky.
Television footage showed the red-and-white aircraft roaring into the air, escorted by two Japanese military fighters that were collecting flight data.
The single-pilot prototype safely landed at Gifu air base, north of Nagoya airport, after a 25-minute flight with "no particular problems," said an official at the defence ministry's acquisition agency.
It was an "extremely stable" flight, the pilot was quoted as saying by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the main contractor.
"The control of the aircraft went exactly as in our simulated training sessions," the pilot added.
The inaugural flight, which followed extensive ground tests, had been postponed due to bad weather and malfunctions of parts used in its escape system.
"The first flight has a very significant meaning that can secure technologies needed for future fighter development," Defence Minister Gen Nakatani told reporters.
"We also expect it can be applied to other fields and technological innovation in the entire aviation industry," Nakatani added.
The X-2, developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and 200 other firms, measures 14.2 metres long and 9.1 metres wide and was built as a successor to F-2 fighter jets developed jointly with the United States.
Its delivery to the defence ministry is expected as early as next month and the acquisition agency "will continue analysing data and check its stealth technology capability," the agency official told AFP.
Presently, only the United States, Russia and China have been internationally recognised as having successfully developed and flown manned stealth jets, the agency said.
Japan began the project in 2009 and has reportedly spent about 39.4 billion yen (USD 332 million) to develop the aircraft.
The country was barred from developing aircraft for a number of years after its defeat in World War II but eventually produced the YS-11, a propeller passenger plane that began flying in the early 1960s.
In another aviation milestone in November last year, Japan's first domestically produced passenger jet, also developed by Mitsubishi Heavy, made its maiden test flight.