By Tsuyoshi Kubota
With an eye on China’s ongoing military expansion and the North Korea situation, the Japanese government is now strengthening Japan’s alliance with the United States. The Self-Defense Forces, while being tasked with new missions and acquiring new defense equipment, are enhancing their cooperation with U.S. Forces Japan. This cooperation is now being felt in the Chugoku region. Around the peace city of Hiroshima in Hiroshima Prefecture as well, the SDF and USFJ are now beginning to step up their military cooperation. This series explores the “deepening” bilateral alliance.
In mid-May, a fighter plane landed on the runway of Misawa base in Aomori Prefecture. The aircraft, whose fuselage is rounded, was a U.S. Marine Corps F-35B jet deployed to the U.S. military’s Iwakuni base in the city of Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture. The F-35B was there to conduct its first joint training with an F-35A that was introduced for the Air Self-Defense Force in January for the first time. The Japanese and U.S. state-of-the-art stealth fighter jets, manufactured by Lockheed Martin, a U.S. aerospace and defense company, lined up at Misawa.
The F-35A is a fighter jet model developed with specs for the U.S. Air Force, and the F-35B is a model with short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) capability for the USMC. The two F-35 fighters, though their types differ, conducted joint training. The primary purpose of their joint training was to improve interoperability. “It was an effort to strengthen the deterrence and readiness of the bilateral alliance between Japan and the United States,” Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera stressed, as he announced a plan in April to conduct the joint training.
“The standard from now on”
A military expert calls the F-35 a “game changer” that will change dogfights.
That is not solely because of its stealth performance that makes it hard to detect on radar. The F-35 is equipped with most advanced radar and sensor systems that can keep locking on multiple targets to attack and that share intelligence with other aircraft and Aegis-equipped ships. “The important thing in the air combat today is how to strike first without being detected by the enemy,” says Yoshitomo Aoki, 63, an aviation commentator. “The F-35 will be the standard from now on,” he added.
However, the F-35’s cost is massive. Its price is over 14 billion yen. The ASDF will introduce 10 F-35As during the current fiscal year, with plans to purchase a total of 42 F-35As.
Even so, many pundits believe that it is important for the SDF to network with the U.S. military’s intelligence system. One of them is Bonji Obara, 55, a former Maritime Self-Defense Force captain and now a senior fellow at the Tokyo-based Sasakawa Peace Foundation. Obara emphasizes: “If the SDF links up with the U.S. military, the SDF can share data in real time. In that case, the SDF will be able to perceive the movements of neighboring countries in a wider area.”
Japan’s F-35 introduction is an icon of its bilateral alliance with the United States. We can say, however, that the F-35 fighter model—highly capable of striking enemy bases and interoperable with the U.S. military—could undermine Japan’s defense doctrine–that the Japanese armed forces are intended exclusively for the defense of Japan. And now the U.S. military’s base with the largest-scale deployment of F-35s in Japan is its Iwakuni base, about 30 kilometers distant from Hiroshima.
The U.S. military has plans to purchase more than 2,400 F-35 fighter jets for global operation. Outside the U.S. mainland, Iwakuni base is the first overseas base where the U.S. military deployed the F-35.
The F-35 deployment to Iwakuni base is part of the United States’ strategy of attaching importance to the Asia-Pacific region, and the USMC at the base completed its deployment of 16 F-35s by Nov. 2017. This January the USMC also revealed its plan to replace some of the Iwakuni-based fighter jets by 2031. The U.S. Navy also plans to replace a squadron of carrier-borne fighter planes transferred to Iwakuni with Navy-spec F-35Cs.
Containing North Korea
Iwakuni-based F-35 fighters are already on flight missions across Japan, demonstrating their presence. In March, F-35s from Iwakuni were based on a Wasp-class amphibious assault ship, homeporting at Sasebo base in Nagasaki Prefecture, for its first operation in the West Pacific. Last August, they participated in Japan-U.S. joint training exercises to contain North Korea.
Iwakuni base is now the largest-scale airbase in the Far East, currently deploying about 120 aircraft with the transfer of carrier-borne jets from Atsugi. From now on, even more “game changers” will be prepositioned to Iwakuni.
In 2005, after the carrier-borne aircraft transfer plan was brought to public notice, Chihiro Sakamoto, 65, and his supporters established an organization that was called at the time the “Association of Hiroshima Prefecture’s Western Area Residents against the Expansion of Iwakuni Base.” Sakamoto, co-representing the organization, raises a question: “Right near the peace city of Hiroshima, there is now a base that is one of the largest bases in Asia for launching attack operations. The base is strengthening its functions with the F-35 deployment. I wonder how seriously Hiroshima is discussing the risk that this poses.”