Japan’s multi-billion dollar F-35 stealth fighter purchase represents a clear and decisive move to rival China’s fleet of fifth-generation stealth aircraft such as the J-20 and J-31. The acquisition is clearly a move of great consequence for Japan, which has been forced to respond to Chinese fighter jet incursions near its airspace for years. Today, the F-35 is at an advanced stage of operational maturity, placing it well above its Chinese rivals when it comes to forming air squadrons or large numbers of networked fifth-generation attack formations.
Meanwhile, Japan is not waiting for new F-35s to improve its air-war tactics, air-sea-land multidomain preparations, and amphibious attack exercises. For instance, Japan has broken new ground by now launching its vertical-take-off and landing F-35B variant from its JS Izumo destroyer, marking a breakthrough development in the realm of fifth-generation amphibious attack. While the United States has been operating F-35Bs from amphibious assault ships for many years, Japan’s ability to support, supplement, and network with U.S. amphibious forces by adding fifth-generation air support to multi-domain operations massively multiply its capabilities.
The F-35B launch from the Japanese destroyer was cited in Japan’s recently released Defense of Japan 2022 report, which outlined a wide range of initiatives aimed at strengthening their military and allied cooperation.
The report noted that “Japan and the United States are conducting Japan-U.S. bilateral activities, such as defense equipment and technology cooperation, expansion of joint/shared use of U.S. and Japanese facilities and areas, and during this fiscal year, verification of F-35B take-off and landing to the MSDF’s destroyer JS “Izumo”.”
Japanese destroyers and U.S. amphibious vehicles, for example, could use the F-35-specific Multifunction Advanced Datalink (MADL) to share targeting and location information across a large multi-national formation in real-time.
Apart from whether the carrier-launched J-31 can rival the F-35B, the Chinese have far fewer sea-launched fifth-generation stealth aircraft. The Chinese navy does not have enough J-31s to conduct air-surface maritime warfare operations comparable to their U.S. counterparts. This deficit would only be increased by Japan’s ability to launch fifth-generation aircraft from its destroyers, something even the United States does not do. A U.S. amphibious assault ship, however, can carry thirteen F-35Bs. This impacts China’s ability to project power, particularly when it comes to maritime air support. China only has a few aircraft carriers and not many J-31s, so its ability to launch fifth-generation air attacks at sea is quite limited. Consequently, China would need to use fifth-generation air support from maritime areas only within the range of a land-launched J-20 stealth fighter.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
Image: Flickr/U.S. Navy.