Japan Makes First Overseas F-35 Deployment: Allied Stealth Fleets Increase Joint Pacific Operations

The Japanese Air Self Defence Force has made its first ever deployment of F-35 fighter jets abroad, with two of the aircraft and 55 personnel arriving in Tindal Airbase in Australia on August 27. The deployment comes as Japan and Western states have increasingly deployed their F-35s to one another’s territories for joint operations, and amid growing efforts to increase interoperability particularly in the Pacific theatre where Western Bloc and Japanese air superiority is increasingly challenged by major advances being made in Chinese combat aviation capabilities. This included the deployment of Italian Air Force F-35s to Japan in the first week of August, and previously an unprecedented deployment of German Eurofighters to the East China Sea. Multiple countries between them deployed over 100 military aircraft to Australia in August 2022 for Exercise Pitch Black which included F-35s from several operators – with Japan sending its older F-2 fourth generation fighters. Following Japan’s first F-35 deployment to Australia, six Australian F-35s are set to deploy to Japan in September under Exercise Bushido Guardian 2023. F-35 deployments are particularly significant as the fighter remains the only post fourth generation class in production in the Western world, and one of just two in production and fielded at squadron level strength in the world other than the Chinese J-20. Japan is notably not a member of F-35 program, but is still set to become by far the largest operator of the aircraft outside the United States with 17 in service and 130 more on order.

The head of the Australian Defence Department Greg Moriarty called the Japanese deployment “a significant milestone in the relationship between our two countries, and is the first activity to be held under the Reciprocal Access Agreement.” Head of the Royal Australian Air Force Air Marshal Rob Chipman further observed: “developing our mutual understanding, especially in how we each operate the F-35A, is essential to how Australia and Japan contribute to the collective security of the Indo-Pacific.” Regarding the significance of the deployment, defence expert at Australia’s most influential security think tank the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Malcolm Davis reported: “My take on this is that it reinforces the closer ties… with the opportunity for common capability [the F-35] as a means to strengthen the defence cooperation relationship… That’s the key message here — Tokyo and Canberra have common concerns — i.e. ‘China’ — and both are working together to train and collaborate on deterrence strategies.” He added that such operations would help the Japanese fleet “to train for expeditionary air deployments, and the RAAF to work with foreign allied air forces using common platforms, but also to experience how JASDF might support the F-35A in their own way.”

The F-35 had its first encounter with the Chinese J-20 confirmed in March 2022 over the East China Sea, with the Chinese aircraft being a much larger twin engine design with a superior flight performance in almost all parameters as well as a much larger radar, longer ranged infrared and radar guided missiles and a much greater internal missile carrying capacity among other advantages. The F-35 has the advantage of currently deploying a much wider range of weapons for roles other than air to air combat including B61 nuclear bombs, as well as being deployed by a wide range of clients where J-20s are deployed exclusively by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force. An increase of J-20 production to an expected approximately 100 per year in 2023, and around 120 in 2024, comes as the F-35 program has faced serious production issues and deep cuts to production for 2023 due to a range of issues. The result has been a slowing of deliveries to clients across the world.