This month an American flattop operated with Japanese aircraft in the Western Pacific as a show of force against Chinese aggression in the region. The exercise took place when the USS America (LHA-6) participated in advanced combined operations with F-35A Lightning II aircraft from the Japan Air Defense Command. The advanced training operations were designed to increase the tactical proficiency, lethality and interoperability of the amphibious forces of the America Expeditionary Strike Group and the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) in the Indo-Pacific Theater.
“The U.S.-Japan alliance has been the cornerstone of stability and security in the Indo-Pacific for more than sixty years,” said Capt. Luke Frost, USS America’s commanding officer. “We have no more capable partner in the world than the Japan Self Defense Force. Every opportunity we have to continue to train and exercise together improves our interoperability and strengthens our joint integrated capabilities.”
USS America, which is the flagship of the America Amphibious Ready Group and is forward-deployed in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility, and the JASDF operate routinely in the region to strengthen a shared commitment to regional stability for a free and open Indo-Pacific.
“These are the most advanced capabilities to ever sail or fly,” added Frost. “America is a fifth-generation amphibious assault platform, built from the keel up to optimize the most advanced capability of the fifth-generation F-35 platform. We are forward-deployed to integrate exactly these advanced capabilities with Japan, recognizing the importance of our alliance and working together to maintain regional peace and stability.”
No Carrier-Style Landings
While photos from the U.S. Navy’s press office showed the JASDF F-35A aircraft flying overhead of the first-in-class amphibious assault ship it isn’t likely the Japanese planes did much more however. The Japanese have only received the conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) variant of the aircraft, while the USS America is only capable of handling Vertical/Short Take-Off and Landing (V/STOL), Short Take-Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) and Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) title rotor and rotary wing aircraft operations.
However, Japan is lined up as a customer of the Lockheed Martin F-35B V/STOL variant, which will be used on the adapted Izumo-class warships. Originally intended as helicopter landing carrier, Japan’s cabinet approved a plan in December 2018 to modify the two Izumo-class vessels to embark F-35B. That would mark the first time since World War II that the Japanese would operate flat tops with fixed-wing aircraft.
There have also been discussions that the Izumo and sister ship Kaga—which have a length of about 800 feet—could also be equipped with an electromagnetic catapult and arresting gear, but it is unlikely Tokyo would be on board with the plan, which would make those true aircraft carriers in the traditional sense.
More F-35s Heading to Japan
Earlier this month, the Japanese Ministry of Defense announced that it is looking to deploy the F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike fighter to additional Air Self-Defense Bases across the home islands. This would be in addition to the current host, the Misawa base in Aomori Prefecture in the Tōhoku region at the north of Honshu, the largest island of Japan.
The ministry has expressed a desire to purchase four more F-35A conventional takeoff and landing variants, the same version used by the United States Air Force.
Additionally, the U.S. State Department approved the sale of some forty-two F-35Bs to Japan, which would make the Asian island nation the second-largest operator of the fifth-generation stealth aircraft after the United States. It is likely that in addition to being deployed on its domestically-built flat tops, the aircraft could operate with the U.S. Navy’s assault ships and work with the United States Marine Corps aviators who also happen to fly the F-35Bs.
“The training proved to be a very significant opportunity for us,” said Col. Shinichi Nomura, flight group commander, 3rd Wing, Japan Air Self-Defense Force.
“Training with assets of other services is essential to improve interoperability and joint operations capability,” added Nomura. “I am assured that our participation not only contributed to improving tactical skills but also confirming the robust Japan-U.S. alliance and commitment to the Indo-Pacific region. We will continue moving forward and further strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance and partnership.”
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.