Japan’s cabinet has approved a major additional purchase of 105 F-35s to add to the 42 aircraft already on order. Significantly, the number includes 42 of the F-35B STOVL (short takeoff, vertical landing) version, which will operate from island bases along Japan’s western seaboard and two converted Izumo-class helicopter carriers. Japan also approved work to modify the vessels, Izumo and Kaga, to operate up to 10 F-35Bs each—including deck strengthening. The announcement confirms Japanese press reports that have been circulating since earlier in the year.
The extra F-35s are included in Japan’s Medium-term Defense Plan, published on December 18, which reviews and modifies the longer-term defense procurement policy. Eighteen of the 42 F-35Bs are to be acquired as part of the next five Fiscal Year defense budgets. Existing plans call for 38 of the 42 F-35As currently on order to be assembled at the Japanese FACO facility, but that is likely to be dropped in favor of procuring aircraft directly from the U.S. to reduce acquisition costs. The mid-term plan also includes four KC-46 tankers from Boeing and nine E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes from Northrop Grumman.
Japan’s original 42 F-35As were procured for the JASDF (Japan Air Self-Defense Force) as a replacement for the remaining F-4EJ Kai Phantoms, a process already well underway with the first operational unit (302 Hiko-tai) due to form at Misawa in early 2019. Now the JASDF's attention is being turned toward the F-15J/DJ Eagle fleet. The new F-35s will replace around 100 of the older non-MSIP F-15s.
Remaining F-15s that were built to MSIP (multi-stage improvement program) standards will now be further upgraded. The FY2019 defense budget includes funding to modernize the first two aircraft with many of the features of the latest Advanced Eagle variants, including improved electronic warfare equipment, greater air-to-air missile carriage (presumably up from the current eight to 18 of the latest Eagle incarnations) and the ability to carry the AGM-158 JASSM stand-off attack missile. The budget item does not mention radar, but it is very likely that the aircraft will gain an AESA radar.
Further ahead, the JASDF is looking at what will replace its current fleet of Mitsubishi F-2 fighters some time after 2030. The Medium-term Defense Plan has approved the start of development of an indigenous Future Fighter before 2023, effectively ruling out the procurement of a foreign type. Mitsubishi has already flown the X-2 Shinshin technology demonstrator.
Another nation has also emerged this month as a potential operator for the F-35B STOVL aircraft. Turkey’s President Erdogan announced during a rally that Turkey will receive 120 F-35s, an increase over the 100-aircraft requirement previously announced. The additional aircraft could be F-35Bs, in which Turkey has shown keen interest as part of its naval ambitions to operate two aircraft carriers.
To date, Turkey has taken delivery of two F-35As, in which Turkish pilots are training in the U.S., and will take delivery of two more in March, according to defense minister, Hulusi Akar. But the full implementation of the Turkish order has been halted due to U.S. CAATSA sanctions following Turkey’s order for the Russian S-400 SAM system. Turkish officials remain sanguine that the issue will be resolved and that F-35 deliveries will be reinstated.
Additionally, the Netherlands defense minister, Ank Bijleveld-Schouten, said on December 14 that the government is looking to buy more F-35As. The Netherlands has already signed for 37 to equip two squadrons and is seeking 15 more to establish a third unit.