Air Warfare

Japan to have world’s second-largest F-35 fleet

10th July 2020 - 10:33 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Christchurch

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The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) in the US gave a green light on 9 July to a Japanese request to purchase 105 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters.

The price tag is not for a squeamish chancellor of the exchequer, however – the FMS deal comes to an eye-watering total of $23.11 billion, which includes all manner of accessories and even ferry and tanker support for delivery from the US.

This equates to a unit price of $220 million for each aircraft, though of course the cost includes more than just the airframe.

The potential sale is broken down into 63 F-35A conventional fighters, plus 42 STOVL F-35B variants. A total of 110 Pratt & Whitney F135 engines means that Japan would have five spares available.

Tokyo had approved the purchase of these 42 F-35Bs in mid-August 2019. That move was inevitable after Japan announced intentions to modify its two 27,000t Izumo-class helicopter carriers for STOVL operations.

Indeed, JS Izumo is currently undergoing refurbishment in Yokohama by Japan Marine United, including deck strengthening and heat resistance, stowage and elevator modifications, to fit it for use with the F-35B. It is still unclear whether a ski jump will be added to the flight deck. Japan’s 2020 defence budget authorised JPY3.1 billion ($28 million) for this work.

All the new F-35s will be operated by the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF). The DSCA commented: ‘It is vital to US national interest to assist Japan in developing and maintaining a strong and effective self-defence capability.’

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Mitsubishi Heavy Industries opened a final assembly and checkout facility in Japan in 2013 for its original order of 42 F-35A fighters, but this latest sale will see all production work done in the US. Personnel from the aircraft and engine OEMs will be stationed in Japan for contractor engineering technical services, logistics and global support for after-aircraft delivery.

Japan is retiring its F-4 Phantom fleet, so it needs new fighters to take up the slack against security challenges such as encroachments by Chinese and Russian military aircraft.

The F-35 is the only fifth-generation fighter to achieve export sales. So far it has attracted three Asia-Pacific customers, the others being Australia and South Korea. Japan will be the largest F-35 operator outside the US.

Japan’s plans for naval use of the F-35B could be readily followed by other nations possessing a large flat-top ship but no aircraft carriers. Seoul has already delineated such a plan for a ‘pocket carrier’, and Australia could potentially do the same in the future, despite there being no publicised plans to do so at this point.

On 9 January, the US approved the sale of up to 12 F-35B STOVL fighters to Singapore. Four are initially required by the island state, with an option for eight others. The F-35B makes sense for this small urbanised country with no strategic depth. Furthermore, with the flat-top Joint Multi-Mission Ship on the cards for the navy, one can speculate whether it could be designed from the outset to accommodate F-35Bs.

Japan continues to move ahead with its indigenous F-X fighter programme as well.

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