U.S. Expands F-35 Deployments at Leading Base Near Taiwan: Replacing Old F-15s to Face China’s Top Fighters

The U.S. Air Force on November 20 deployed new F-35A fifth generation fighters to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, with the aircraft drawn from the 4th Fighter Squadron based at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. The service already has F-35As deployed at the facility, namely those from the 356th Fighter Squadron which arrived from Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, in March. As the United States Military has increasingly focused on preparations for possible hostilities in Northeast Asia, and particularly a war with China in the Taiwan Strait, Kadena Air Base has emerged as one of the Air Force’s most strategically critical facilities worldwide due to its location adjacent to the strait. The facility previously permanently hosted F-15C/D fourth generation air superiority fighters for 44 years, which were the most capable fielded by any Western air force when first deployed, with the withdrawal of the ageing jets announced in October 2022 necessitating the deployment of newer assets. 

Compared to the F-15C/D the F-35 has a significantly shorter range and much lower availability rates, and due to approximately 800 unresolved performance bugs is still considered far from ready for high intensity combat. Shortcomings with the aircraft, most notably overruns with its operational costs and maintenance needs, have forced the Air Force to consider increasingly radical options for an alternative – most recently developing the new non-stealthy T-7 trainer aircraft into a fighter under the designation ‘F-7’ to provide a more affordable counterpart to the F-35. F-35s nevertheless introduce a range of new capabilities most notably stealth and much improved situational awareness using both their AESA radars and advanced network centric warfare capabilities. 4th Fighter Squadron commander Lieutenant Colonel Jondavid Hertzel stated regarding the significance of the latest deployment: “With this deployment, our squadron will continue Team Kadena’s work of strengthening our interoperability with our allies and bilateral partners… We look forward to exchanging experience, tactics, and techniques with the variety of flying units at Kadena, to strengthen our deterrence measures, and add more versatility to the Indo-Pacific theatre.” 

Alongside fighters, Kadena Air Base hosts aerial tankers, command and control aircraft, and various rescue helicopters, with other fighters deployed there including two squadrons each of F-15C/D Eagles and F-15E Strike Eagles. F-35s in East Asia have faced growing pressure from the fast expanding capabilities of China’s own fighter fleet including mass deployments of the J-20 fifth generation fighter – which while integrating similarly advanced avionics benefits from a far superior flight performance, over double the endurance, a much larger radar and much newer and longer ranged air to air missile classes. While the F-35 was developed primarily as a strike fighter for roles such as air defence suppression and nuclear delivery, the J-20 was designed specifically for high end air to air combat with fighters of its generation making it an optimal asset for targeting of F-35 units across the region. J-20 units do not require aerial refuelling for the vast majority of operations due to their much longer ranges, and benefit from support from KJ-500 tanks which are considerably newer and more capable than the ageing Cold War E-3 Sentries which F-35 units in the region rely on – with the KJ-500’s demonstrated superiority having been a primary factor pressing the U.S. Air Force to invest in a successor to the E-3 under the E-7 Wedgetail program. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force is currently acquiring J-20s at over twice the rate at which the U.S. Air Force is acquiring F-35s despite the J-20 being a much larger twin engine aircraft, reflecting the fact that China overtook the United States in 2020 in the scale of its annual spending on defence acquisitions.