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

US F-35B stealth jet fighters dropping bombs at a shooting range in Korea on Sept 18, 2017.
US F-35B stealth jet fighters dropping bombs at a shooting range in Korea on Sept 18, 2017. PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (YOMIURI SHIMBUN/ASIA NEWS NETWORK, WASHINGTON POST) - Japan is considering operating F-35B fighter jets from around fiscal 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 and 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 (2018). It is also mulling 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 possessing 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, 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.

With these in mind, Tokyo has decided to shift gears towards the introduction of the F-35B.

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

Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera suggested at a meeting of the House of Representatives Budget Committee last Thursday (Feb 8) that the government is considering operating the F-35B. The study on Izumo is being carried out "with the recently developed aircraft in mind", the minister said.

The converted Izumo is planned to be utilised for such purposes as a supply base to defend remote islands.

For the time being, the government wants the US military to operate the F-35B, but it also plans to eventually operate the advanced fighter on its own by learning operational know-how from the US side regarding the takeoff and landing of fighter jets, according to the sources.

There are 201 F-15 fighter jets - which were first introduced in fiscal 1980 - currently being deployed. Of them, 102 will continue to be enhanced and used in the future by installing them with such equipment as new types of electronic devices. The remaining 99, without being enhanced, are expected to be replaced with F-35Bs as well as a successor fighter to the F-2, the sources said.