Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa Vol. I

Nakajima K-43 Hayabusa, code-named Oscar by the Allies, was the Imperial Japanese Army’s equivalent of the Zero fighter in service with the Imperial Navy.

In combat units the machine replaced the aging Ki-27. Manufactured in large numbers, the fighter remained in frontline service until the end of the war. By the time its final version entered production, the development of its successor – the Ki-84 – had already started. The Ki-43 was a very maneuverable machine, but in many areas it was inferior to its adversaries. Despite its fragile design, poor armament and almost no armored protection, the Ki-43 was well-liked by the Japanese pilots and it became a symbol of the Imperial Japanese Army Air Service. Hayabusa was the pinnacle of the Japanese fighter design development until the lessons learned in the Pacific laid the ground for new approaches to the construction of tactical aircraft.

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Before the Ki-43 was designed

During the interwar period there was no independent air arm in Japan. Instead, both the Army and the Navy had their own air services, subordinated directly to their respective high commands. This state of affairs lasted in an unchanged form from the very inception of Japanese military aviation until the Empire’s capitulation in 1945. While similar arrangements in other countries typically produced a dose of healthy inter-service competition, in Japan it resulted in the total lack of cooperation between the Army and the Navy, no holds barred competition for limited resources and wasteful, often duplicate, armament development programs. It wasn’t uncommon to find two different designs in service with the Navy and the Army, which were virtually identical in terms of their performance characteristics and combat capabilities.
In the second half of the 1930s Japanese aircraft designers worked diligently on the development of light, extremely maneuverable fighter types. In order to achieve that goal the aircraft had to be as light as possible, with its structural strength reduced to a bare minimum. By the same token the emerging designs were very lightly armored and featured lightweight armament. Until the mid-1930s Japanese fighters were typically armed with a pair of 7.7 mm machine guns, which were fine against light fighters, but very ineffective in confrontations with sturdy, modern bombers.

 

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This approach to the fighter design was perhaps the reflection of the deep appreciation of the mastery of one’s craft, so highly regarded in the Japanese culture. If an air-to-air engagement was to be decided in a close-in dogfight, then the pilot who emerged victorious, thanks to his superior skills, would be worthy of utmost respect. At the same time the European air combat doctrine had already moved on, focusing on speed and firepower as the key ingredients of success, rather than maneuverability. Lessons learned in the Spanish Civil War seemed to prove those ideas right. There were quite a few enthusiastic supporters of the European approach to air combat in Japan, but they were outnumbered by the conservatives, who eventually had a final say on the development of the Japanese air arm. It wasn’t until the Japanese began to suffer huge losses over the Pacific that the key decision makers within the Air Force saw a need for a different approach, but by that time it was too late to start development of new designs and to press them into service.
Within the Imperial Japanese Army, fighter aviation was supposed to provide support for bomber formations operating close to the frontlines and to ensure local air superiority. Fighters were never intended to provide close air support to ground troops as the role was assigned to a wide range of light bomber types. It is then no wonder that the Army’s specifications for fighter aircraft had remained unchanged for years, always stressing excellent tactical characteristics and maneuverability as the key features of the design. This approach seemed to work just fine in China, where the Japanese easily dominated their adversaries in the air. A hero of those battles was the Ki-10 biplane, followed by the Nakajima Ki-27, which became the basic Army fighter type when it went into service in 1937.