Japan is considering procuring the short take-off and vertical-landing (STOVL) variant of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) to improve the defence capabilities of its remote islands, according to a 12 February report by The Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.
The Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) is mulling operating the F-35B from about fiscal year 2026 (FY 2026) from commercial airports located on these islands, said the media report, adding that the government in Tokyo is planning to indicate the number of aircraft to be procured in the next Medium Term Defense Programme, which is to be compiled at the end of 2018.
It is also mulling to include related expenses in the FY 2019 budget plan, with a view to starting the delivery of F-35Bs from around FY 2024, the paper quoted unnamed sources as saying.
“The F-35B is likely to be defined as a successor to the F-15: the JASDF’s main fighter jet. One plan is to introduce about 20 to 40 F-35Bs, which would correspond to one to two squadrons. Tokyo is also considering increasing the number of F-35As in the next mid-term defence programme,” according to the paper.
The Japan News had reported on 26 December 2017 that Tokyo could also procure the F-35B to operate from its two Izumo-class amphibious assault ships. According to newspaper, the proposal has reportedly been touted by the government as an option to improve interoperability with the United States, alongside another plan to allow US Marine Corps (USMC) F-35Bs to use the helicopter carriers as refuelling stations.
The latest development comes after the JASDF deployed its first conventional take-off and landing F-35A to Misawa Air Base in northern Japan. The aircraft, which was assembled and inspected at a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) plant in Aichi Prefecture before flying to Misawa on 26 January, is the first of 10 F-35As that will be deployed to the base during FY 2018. Defence officials told Jane’s on 29 January that about 40 such fighter aircraft will eventually be stationed at the base to form two squadrons.
The Ministry of Defense (MoD) in Tokyo plans to equip the F-35A with the precision-guided, stand-off Joint Strike Missile (JSM) developed by Norwegian company Kongsberg Defence Systems. The JSM missiles have a range of 500 km, according to officials at the MoD.
Japan is one of only two F-35 customers outside of the United States to have a Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO) production facility, with Italy being the other. The JASDF is to receive 42 F-35As, of which 38 will be built by MHI at its FACO facility. The other four aircraft are being built by Lockheed Martin at its Fort Worth facility in Texas.
Tokyo’s consideration of acquiring F-35Bs is yet another indication that it is determined to enhance country’s ability to defend remote islands in the East China Sea amid increased activity by Chinese ships and aircraft in the area.
As Jane’s reported in late December 2017, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s (JMSDF’s) two 24,000-tonne Izumo-class helicopter carriers could be modified to accept F-35B operations with the fitting of heat-resistant deck spots for vertical landings.
A ‘ski-jump’ could also be retrofitted to assist with aircraft launches, although this would not be essential as the 248 m flight deck is comparable to the 257 m decks of the Wasp-class ships and to the 273 m decks of the America-class ships operated by the USMC as F-35B carriers, neither which are fitted with a ‘ski-jump’.
That said, it seems that the main challenges facing Japan are of a political nature. Asked about the media reports regarding the potential procurement of F-35Bs for carrier operations, Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera denied having any such plans.
Speaking to reporters on 26 December Onodera said that while the MoD in Tokyo is constantly conducting studies concerning the country’s defence capabilities, “we are not now conducting a specific study on introducing the F-35B or the conversion of an Izumo-class destroyer”.
“Under the exclusively defence-oriented policy, we do not possess offensive weapons whose capabilities are intended to be used exclusively for the purpose of inflicting destructive damage on enemy countries’ territories, so we will make judgement based on that,” he added.