.GIF credit Jiji Press

On Friday Japan became just the fourth nation to test-fly its own stealth jet, the homegrown X-2 prototype fighter. Decked out in the white and red colors of the country’s flag and built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, it’s hard to escape the X-2’s symbolism—or its importance to Japan’s defense future.

The Japan Times reports that although this maiden test had previously been put off due to technical issues, Friday’s flight went off without a hitch. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries has one more test flight and more ground testing before it delivers the demonstrator in May.

Photo credit Getty Images

Then, after more testing, the Japanese government will have to decide whether or not to build the thing, develop it with other nations, or just go with purchasing stealth jets from the U.S. like the F-35, which they are already doing. (That move is seen as a cheaper one by many experts.) But if Japan makes a production variant of the X-2, it could fly by the late 2020s.

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From the story:

According to the Defense Ministry, the Advanced Technology Demonstrator, called X2, took off from Nagoya airport in Aichi Prefecture at 8:47 a.m. Friday morning. The demonstrator, which will undergo a further two years of testing before a decision is made on whether to develop a homegrown next-generation stealth fighter, flew about 15 kilometers and touched down at the Air Self-Defense Force’s Gifu Air Field at 9:13 a.m.

“The maiden flight was significant to secure the necessary capability for a next-generation fighter jet,” Defense Minister Gen Nakatani told reporters in Tokyo after the flight. “We can expect technological innovation in the aerospace industry as well as application of that technology in different fields.”

The X-2 is notable for its elaborate thrust vectoring system, which uses a trio of three “paddles” on each engine exhaust to allow for independent high-angle deflection of each jet’s exhaust. In other words, the X-2 is designed to be as maneuverable as it is stealthy.

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Whether it gets produced or not, the X-2—and the very idea of a stealth fighter jet—is a huge deal for Japan. As Foxtrot Alpha previously reported, the jet bears more than a passing resemblance to the F-22 Raptor, a fighter Japan coveted but is not legal for export. In a way, this is Japan kind of trying to make their own.

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Friday’s test flight puts Japan alongside the U.S., Russia and geopolitical rival China as nations that have flown stealth planes. It’s an attempt by Japan’s defense industry to stay relevant and be taken seriously for international projects, all as China and South Korea are also developing fifth-generation fighters.

And with China’s continued claims to disputed islands being used as military bases in the South China Sea, Japan clearly wants to send a signal that it won’t take that lying down.

And as Popular Science notes, the X-2 flight comes at a time when Japan is building up its military again, following an amendment to its pacifist constitution that allows for the defense of allies. With that greater flexibility comes the “helicopter destroyer” Izumo as well.

The X-2 remains a prototype that could inspire future production jets, if the country goes that route at all. It will be fascinating to see what happens with it, but the white-and-red jet could be seen as the face of Japan’s rapidly changing approach to defense.