Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has presented a proposal at an internal national security panel that seeks to enhance the nation’s defenses in light of the growing tension in the region created by North Korea’s missile program and China’s expanding maritime presence. The purchase of F-35Bs, and a new multi-purpose aircraft carrier/hospital ship, are included. The plan is expected to be presented to parliament in late May.
The purchase of the F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing version of the Joint Strike Fighter is a key element in the plan. Its STOVL capabilities would allow it to operate from both the new carrier and, potentially, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Izumo-class “helicopter destroyer” multi-purpose ships, which are the largest vessels to be operated by the JMSDF in the post-war period. The F-35B would also be able to operate from many of Japan’s smaller islands.
Serving primarily as helicopter carriers for anti-submarine warfare, search and rescue, and for disaster relief, the two Izumo-class vessels resemble a traditional aircraft carrier and feature a large flight deck. Lead-ship Izumo was commissioned in March 2015, with Kaga following two years later. For some time there has been speculation that the vessels have incorporated design features that would allow them to be modified to operate fixed-wing aircraft. However, extensive alterations would be needed to adapt the vessels for F-35B operation, particularly with regard to the immense heat generated by the aircraft during vertical landings. Each vessel could accommodate around 10 F-35Bs.
Japan is already an operator of the F-35A conventional takeoff and landing Joint Strike Fighter, which was selected by the Japan Air Self-Defense Force in December 2011. The first four of a 42-aircraft buy have been assembled at Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth line, from where the first flight was made in August 2016. The remaining 38 are being assembled at a FACO (final assembly and check out) facility at Komaki by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, although there are no locally manufactured parts. The first was rolled out from the FACO in June 2017.
In late January 2018, the first F-35A to be deployed by the JASDF was delivered to Misawa air base in northern Honshu to begin the establishment of Japan’s first F-35A squadron. The unit is scheduled to have its full complement of 10 aircraft by the end of FY2018.
In the meantime, the first F-35A destined for Japan’s neighbor, South Korea, undertook its first flight on March 19. The flight was performed at Fort Worth by Lockheed Martin chief test pilot Alan Norman. The aircraft is one of 40 ordered by South Korea in 2014, all of which are due to have been delivered by 2021. In December 2017 Korean newspaper Joongang Ilbo reported that the country’s defense acquisition agency had began the process of purchasing an additional 20 F-35As.