Japan eyes F-35B fighter jets to help defend remote isles

TOKYO • Japan is considering operating F-35B fighter jets from around 2026, in an effort to utilise airports on remote islands and thereby improve the nation's capability to defend the isles.

Considered the most advanced stealth fighters, F-35Bs are currently operated by the US military based in Japan.

The Japanese government is also eyeing the operation of the fighters on Izumo, the Maritime Self-Defence Force's largest-class destroyer, which Tokyo is considering remodelling into an aircraft carrier, according to government sources. It aims to begin operation of the aircraft carrier in the early 2020s.

Tokyo is planning to indicate the number of F-35Bs to be procured in the next Medium Term Defence Programme, which is to be compiled at the end of this year. It is also mulling over including related expenses in the fiscal 2019 Budget plan, with a view to starting the delivery of F-35Bs from around fiscal 2024, the government sources said.

The F-35Bs are likely to be defined as a successor to the F-15, the Air Self-Defence Force's (ASDF) main fighter jet. One plan is to introduce about 20 to 40 F-35Bs, which would correspond to one to two squadrons.

The introduction of F-35Bs would facilitate the use of commercial airports on remote islands.

The minimum runway length required for the advanced fighter to take off is relatively short, making it more likely to be able to actually take off even when the airstrip at its home base is under attack.

Tokyo has refrained from acquiring the F-35B in deference to the nation's exclusively defensive security policy, as the fighter jet would enable it to operate in regions far away from its own territory.

However, the situation has changed, with China pursuing rapid military expansion. In recent years, H-6 strategic bombers of the Chinese military have flown over an area near Okinawa prefecture in the East China Sea, the Tsushima Strait and in skies off the Kii peninsula, and its fighter jets have become more sophisticated.

A situation could also arise in which North Korea might target the runways of the ASDF and the US forces stationed in Japan in the event of a contingency on the Korean peninsula.

The ASDF's Nyutabaru Air Base in Shintomi in southern Japan's Miyazaki prefecture is named as a possible base for the F-35B to be deployed.

YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK, WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 14, 2018, with the headline 'Japan eyes F-35B fighter jets to help defend remote isles'. Print Edition | Subscribe