This picture shows the first F-35A stealth fighter assembled in Japan, unveiled at a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries factory in Toyoyama, Aichi Prefecture. Photo: AFP
This picture shows the first F-35A stealth fighter assembled in Japan, unveiled at a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries factory in Toyoyama, Aichi Prefecture. Photo: AFP

In the final week of February, US and Japanese military and civilian VIPs gathered at Misawa Air Base for a celebration held by the 3rd Air Wing of the Japan Air Self Defense Force to welcome its first F-35A fighter aircraft.

This was the second F-35A to roll off the new assembly line at a Mitsubishi Heavy Industries’ facility in Nagoya. Japan’s Air Self Defense Force now operates six F-35As, with four assigned to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, where training for JASDF pilots and maintenance crews is underway.

Japan has agreed to purchase 42 F-35As, and is now considering an additional 20, for a total of 62 aircraft. Japan is also considering the possible acquisition of the vertical/short takeoff version, or F-35B, for deployment aboard ships or on islands with airports that have short runways, along with the standard F-35A.

The JASDF is one of three Asian air forces flying F-35As, together with Australia and South Korea; Singapore is still exploring the option.

The F35 is the most expensive weapons program ever undertaken by the US, but it is quality over quantity: there are a mere 260 F-35s now in operation worldwide, with 180 in production. Lockheed Martin is the lead contractor.

Each F-35 aircraft costs over US$100 million. On March 2, Japanese defense minister Itsunori Onodera informed the country’s Diet that the F-35B is being studied for possible deployment aboard the Maritime Self-Defense Force carrier Izumo. Unmanned aircraft are also under consideration.

The end for the F-3?

Japan’s decision to proceed with the purchase of 20 additional F-35A warplanes greatly impacts the future of the F-3 fighter, which Japan has been developing for several years as a compliment to, if not a replacement for, its F-2 fighter aircraft.

The F-3 is a Japanese-built, experimental fifth-generation fighter technology demonstrator program variously named the X-2, the Shinshin and the ATD-X. The decision by the US to not sell Lockheed-Martin F-22 Raptor advanced stealth aircraft to Japan triggered this effort led by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. A prototype X-2 flew in April 2016.

According to Garren Mulloy, Associate Professor of International Relations at Daito Bunka University in Saitama, the F-35 purchase was always planned to replace the ASDF’s aging F-4 Phantom fighter aircraft – the newest F-4 is almost 40 years old.

“They are running several risks, on technical and geo-political issues. Is the US a reliable partner as in previous generations?”

“The F-2 was developed (as an alternative to) buying more F-15s to replace the F-1 (which Japan developed and built on its own),” said Mulloy via email. He predicts that for the time being, there will be no additional pre-production development of the F-3. “The 2011 F-35 announcement was surprising in only one way: the Ministry of Defense felt the need to be so explicit about the reasons for its decision… based partly on the relatively poor fit of the F-35 to stated JASDF needs / desires – which include preferences for twin-engine, long-range, open black box on code share and domestic development,” said Mulloy.

Mulloy issues a cautionary message to any country considering an F-35 purchase. “They are running several risks, on technical and geo-political issues. Is the US a reliable partner as in previous generations?” Mulloy asked. “Japan has looked at many options, including the US F-18 Super Hornet, Rafale, Typhoon, and even Gripen were in the competition, but not F-3 as it did not exist, nor any (Russian) Sukhoi, which could have given any Western aircraft some stiff competition, particularly with Japanese avionics.”

He describes Japan as still interested in cooperating with the UK and Germany on the F-3 stage 2 as a possible Eurofighter stage 2 development. “Japan is also looking very closely at air-air missile cooperation,” he added.

If Japan proceeds to buy the F-35B – which is problematic from a cost standpoint alone – further questions are raised over the overall tactical capabilities of its Izumo-class helicopter carriers.

A credible naval air arm?

“If converted, Hyuga and Izumo would only be able to operate a small number of aircraft: each Izumo would be able to realistically operate 10 F-35Bs at the most, greatly limiting the ability to operate a credible anti-submarine warfare (ASW) helicopter force (which was) the stated reason for the ships’ development,” said Mulloy. “What, apart from ASW, is the purpose of Izumo? This is not clear. Hyuga is a large destroyer, with the ability to operate a large number of support helicopters. Izumo can operate more aircraft, but has extremely limited weaponry of its own. It looks like an in-between design: not destroyer, not carrier.”

With constant tensions over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, questions about these ships and their onboard aircraft are central to Japan’s ability to maintain its territorial integrity. “The Senkakus are a long way from ASDF bases, and, Chinese air force and Chinese civilian infringements of Japanese airspace in the area are a great concern. F-15s scrambled from Naha struggle to respond, so having a more local response capability makes sense, as would a naval aviation support capability for the new Ground Self Defense Force amphibious brigade,” said Mulloy. “There is no close air support plan for the brigade other than GSDF choppers at the moment, other than relying upon USMC and USN aircraft.”

“Russian incidents are easily managed, but Chinese (intrusions) over the East China Sea are very taxing”

In January, 350 soldiers from the Japanese Ground Self Defense Force’s first Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade started training with US Marines in California. The objective is to have the new brigade up and running by April 1.

“This MSDF F-35B option would be very expensive, difficult to sustain – keeping one carrier on station would require a minimum of three such ships along with 30 aircraft – and comes at a time when the MSDF struggles to keep its present fleet in full operation due to limited manpower,” added Mulloy. As for the possible – and untested – use of drones as force multipliers and combinations of manned and unmanned aircraft flying together, it is no secret that Japan is working with Israel, Germany and the UK to identify and develop options.

However, drones do not remedy a major problem facing the ASDF which, according to Mulloy, is the overall “air defense scramble rate,” and the distances involved. “Russian incidents are easily managed, but Chinese (intrusions) over the East China Sea are very taxing,” said Mulloy. Other important questions involve what aircraft will replace the ASDF’s F-15Js and whether or not F-22s might become available to Japan and other US allies in the future.

Purchase costs, sustainability costs, broader issues

However, for now, Japan’s biggest concern will be finding the funds necessary to sustain its 62 F-35As. Cary Russell, director of military operations and warfighter support issues at the US Government Accountability Office, reports that “a number of significant issues remain with respect to sustainment costs and challenges.”

The US has established a “Cost War Room” on cost-reduction initiatives with the goal of reducing the F-35 program office’s sustainment cost by an estimated 30% by 2022, for example. “The projected operating and support costs (for the F-35) increased by about 24% from fiscal year 2012 to 2016,” Russell said via email.

In 2014, GAO recommended affordability constraints for the F-35 program linked to service budgets, he added. Related issues include limited repair capacity at depots and parts shortages. “It is taking an average of 172 days to repair F-35 parts at US military depots. Also, from January-August 7, 2017, F-35 aircraft were unable to fly about 22% of the time due to parts shortages,” said Russell.

Japan’s military planners are aware of these and other problems surrounding the F-35, but each technological step that Japan takes to enhance its military generates more diplomatic tension among its neighbors. The F35 situation thus presents Japan with a multi-faceted challenge: fiscal, technological, tactical and diplomatic.

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