The Buzz

Get Ready, China: The F-35 Just Arrived in Japan

The first overseas-based Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighters have arrived at their new home station in Japan. Aircraft belonging to VMFA-121 started arriving at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni on Jan. 18 according to the U.S. Marine Corps.

"The arrival of the F-35B embodies our commitment to the defense of Japan and the regional-security of the Pacific,” said Maj. Gen. Russell Sanborn, the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing Commanding General. “We are bringing the most advanced technology to the Pacific to respond to the wide range of missions we take part in and provide greater support to our regional allies.”

According to the squadron’s commander, the unit—which was previously stationed with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at MCAS Yuma, Arizona—has received a warm welcome from their Japanese hosts. "Our training in the U.S. has prepared us well for our mission here in Japan and we are very honored to have such a warm welcome," said U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. J. T. Bardo, commanding officer of VMFA-121. "Our Marines and family members take great pride in being able to serve here and be part of the amazing community in Iwakuni, both on and around the air station.”

Permanently basing the F-35 in Asia for its first overseas posting not only highlights the United States commitment to Asia and to the security alliance with Japan, but it also serves as a deterrent against China’s growing power. In the coming years, as Chinese air defenses become increasingly potent, stealth aircraft such as the F-35 are going to be the only means of penetrating Beijing’s airspace in the event of a war. Moreover, the Marine F-35Bs will afford Japan—which is also buying the conventional takeoff version of the aircraft—an opportunity to operate alongside American forces before its own jets enter operational service.

The Marine Corps initiated plans to move VMFA-121 to Japan in 2012 when the service designated the unit to become the Pentagon’s first operational F-35 unit. In the inventing years, the unit transitioned from the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet to the short takeoff/vertical landing STOVL) F-35B with initial operational capability being declared on July 31, 2015, with an interim configuration called Block 2B.

The Block 2B configuration offers marginal combat capability, with the ability to carry two AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles and either a pair of GBU-12 500lbs laser-guided bombs or a pair of GBU-32 1000lbs Joint Direct Attack Munitions. It also offers a limited flight envelope and limited software and sensor capability, but flying the interim configuration affords the Marines a chance to learn how to operate the jets in combat. Moreover, it allows the Marines—who skipped a generation of combat aircraft—to recapitalize a rapidly aging tactical aviation fleet.

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin is continuing development work on the final Block 3F configuration of the F-35 and the Pentagon is drawing up plans for the next upgrade, Block 4.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.