Japan mulls F-35B, deploys F-35A and seeks partner for F-3


IN FEBRUARY, the Japanese government seemingly moved closer to the purchase of the short take-off and vertical landing Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II, with reports that studies on the conversion of the Izumo class helicopter carriers to accept the fifth-generation fighter were instigated by the country’s Defence Minister, Itsunori Onodera.

Also in February the Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) deployed the first operational F-35A Lightning II to Misawa Air Base in the north of the country. In early March, Japanese media were reporting that the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is planning to scrap attempts to develop indigenously the F-3 fighter and is seeking an international partner.

F-35B a step closer

Despite denials by the Japanese Defense Ministry in late February that it was considering converting the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force’s (JMSDF’s) two 27,000-tonne Izumo class helicopter destroyers to accommodate embarked F-35Bs, on March 2 Defense Minister Itsunori Onedera confirmed that he had indeed commissioned such studies.

The Defense Ministry had previously conceded that the ship had been originally designed with future conversion in mind, albeit contending that the ship was a helicopter carrier, not an aircraft carrier.

The Asahi Shimbun, one of Japan’s leading national newspapers, quoted a JMSDF official as saying: “It is only reasonable to design the Izumo with the prospect of possible changes of the circumstances in the decades ahead.”

However, the official said that such a decision should be decided by the government. It has previously been the government’s view that aircraft carriers, as an offensive weapon capable of carrying out large-scale strikes, were prohibited by the Japanese constitution.

Subsequent Japanese media reports have said that Minister Onodera had revealed that he had authorised recent studies into the conversion, telling media: “No decision has yet been made about whether the F-35B will actually be attached to the Izumo.”

Speaking in an Upper House Budget Committee session, Onodera said: “Regarding the Izumo, research has been conducted on which among the latest aircraft could possibly take off and land on it. The most representative aircraft is the F-35B. The research is intended to accumulate fundamental information, regardless of the conclusion reached in the future.”

The move towards a carrier-based fixed-wing strike capability is widely seen as a manifestation of the Abe government’s desire to counter China’s ongoing maritime expansion, particularly in the East China Sea. Airpower coverage in this region is currently the responsibility of the JASDF, based at Naha on Okinawa, but carrier-borne strike aircraft would provide Tokyo with a measure of redundancy in any future conflict.

The JASDF is acquiring 42 conventional take-off and landing F-35A Lightning IIs and the future purchase of a number of F-35Bs is seen by some in the Ministry of Defense as being a natural choice.

First operational F-35A arrives at Misawa

Meanwhile, the first operational JASDF F-35A Lightning II fighter arrived at Misawa Air Base in northern Honshu on February 24, marking the commencement of deliveries to operational units. Misawa has been selected as the first operational base for Japan’s F-35A fighter, due to its strategic location in the north of the country.

The air base is also home to the US Air Force’s 35th Fighter Wing, currently operating the F-16C variant of the Fighting Falcon.

As noted, Japan currently has a programme of record for 42 F-35As and the aircraft delivered to Misawa, AX-6, is the second aircraft to be assembled locally by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) in Nagoya. The first Japanese-assembled aircraft, AX-5, is currently at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in the United States undergoing electromagnetic environmental effects certification, before it joins four US-built F-35As at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, being used in support of training JASDF pilots and maintenance personnel.

Both images Lockheed Martin

Gary North, Lockheed Martin’s Vice President for Customer Requirements, said: “The F-35 represents a transformational leap in capability for the Japan Air Self Defense Force and the first aircraft’s arrival in Misawa will significantly enhance Japan’s defence and strengthen the US-Japan security alliance. We congratulate the JASDF and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries on this critical milestone and we look forward to continuing our strong partnership with the Japanese government and industry as they strengthen their defence forces with the F-35.”

Partner sought for development of F-3 fighter

In early March, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported that the Abe government is backing away from plans to develop an indigenous fifth-generation fighter, citing the prohibitive costs and associated risks with such a programme.

The F-3 programme will seek to develop a fifth-generation fighter to replace the current fleet of MHI F-2 fighters around the end of the next decade.

As a step towards this goal, the Japanese government has developed the MHI X-2 ShinShin technology demonstrator, which first flew in April 2016 (see X-2 ShinShin, Japan’s fighter demonstrator, December 2017, p60-63).

The X-2 is intended to test a range of indigenous technologies, including a new active electronically scanned array radar, with the aim of informing the future F-3 programme.

At the end of X-2 evaluation by the JASDF, which was planned to continue through 2017, the Japanese government has three options: it could develop the F-3 in-country, using home-grown technology; it could buy an off-the-shelf western fighter, such as it did with the Lockheed Martin F-35As it has purchased to replace the MHI F-4EJ Phantom; or it could partner a western fighter manufacturer to develop a new aircraft jointly.

A decision had been expected in the 2018 Japanese financial year, which runs from April 1, 2018, to March 31, 2019. If recent local media reports are accurate, an early decision to seek an international partner has been made.

According to the Asahi Shimbun on March 5: “Japan has decided that it will seek foreign help in creating a successor for its F-2 fighter fleet and a request for information will be sent out to US aerospace companies this week.”