Tokyo is mulling plans to position its new F-35B fifth-generation stealth fighters on the island of Kyushu to the country’s southwest. Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters in April that the Nyutabaru Air Base in Miyazaki Prefecture “is certainly a leading candidate” for such a deployment. Tokyo seeks to reach a final deployment decision as early as this fiscal year.
Japan plans to procure 147 F-35 fighters to replace around half of its aging F-15J fleet, signing a recent deal for 105 such aircraft. That contract, which is tentatively valued at around $23 billion, also includes 110 Pratt & Whitney F135 engines, spare parts, training gear, and a slew of associated equipment.
Forty-two of Japan’s F-35 jets will be of the F-35B variety—a short take off/vertical landing (STOVL) variant. The F-35B fighter does not need to be deployed from as long a runway as its conventional F-35A counterpart, allowing Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) a greater degree of operational flexibility that is particularly valuable in the country’s remote southwest island territories. The functionality of conventional take-off aircraft like the F-35A fighter would be severely depleted if, over the course of a major conventional conflict with a powerful adversary like China, Japan were to lose its major air bases. F-35B jets provide Japan’s military with tactical redundancy, in that they can potentially continue operating despite that kind of contingency.
Japan’s F-35B fighters can likewise be deployed from its Izumo-class helicopter destroyers Izumo and Kaga, following Tokyo’s 2018 decision to modify these vessels to possess aircraft carrier functionality. At a displacement of 27,000 tons, the Izumo vessels are substantially smaller than today’s purpose-built aircraft carriers—still, they pose a major milestone for Japan’s regional power projection capabilities. With the Izumo conversion, Japan’s armed forces will operate a de-facto aircraft carrier for the first time since World War II. The ability of F-35B squadrons to deploy from Izumo carriers will not only be a boon to Japan’s rapid deployment capabilities against a wide array of local threats, but will also enhance the Japanese military’s interoperability with allied U.S. carrier strike groups (CSG’s) and other assets operating in the pacific.
Japan’s sizable F-35B procurement is, in no small part, informed by Tokyo’s perception of the military threat emanating from Beijing. Stationing their F-35B fighters in Nyutabaru puts them within striking distance of the Senkaku islands, which are claimed by China and Taiwan but currently administered by Japan. But China isn’t the only threat that has prompted Japan’s major recent strides in military modernization. North Korea’s steady stream of ballistic missile tests—including ones that have reached the Sea of Japan—and belligerent rhetoric have been a chronic source of alarm for Tokyo.
Japan’s first F-35 squadron, consisting of thirteen conventional take-off F-35A units, was delivered in 2019 to Misawa Air Base in the country’s northeast. The Self-Defense Forces are scheduled to begin accepting their first F-35B fighters as early as 2024.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for The National Interest.