Approval Of Mega F-35 Sale For Japan Is A Huge Step Towards Its Aircraft Carrier Ambitions

Japan would become the second-largest Lightning II operator in the world if it bought all 105 jets in the proposed deal.

Lockheed Martin

The U.S. State Department has approved the possible sale to Japan of a jaw-dropping 105 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, plus related equipment. The mega-deal is worth an estimated $23.11 billion. The move cements procurement plans that were first laid out by the Japanese government in late 2018 and heralds the second-largest U.S. Foreign Military Sales deal in history, after the record $29.4-billion sale of Boeing F-15SA Advanced Eagles to Saudi Arabia in 2010.

Importantly, the contract includes 42 F-35B Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) jets, the first examples of this variant for Japan. This opens the door for the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) to conduct fixed-wing operations from Japan’s two Izumo class helicopter carriers. If Japan ends up buying all of these aircraft, it would become the second-biggest operator of the F-35 after the U.S.

The official notification from the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) reads: 

“The Government of Japan has requested to buy sixty-three (63) F-35A Conventional Take­Off and Landing (CTOL) aircraft, forty-two (42) F-35B Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) aircraft, and one hundred ten (110) Pratt and Whitney F135 engines (includes 5 spares).  Also included are Electronic Warfare Systems; Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence/Communications, Navigation and Identification; Autonomic Logistics Global Support System, Autonomic Logistics Information System; Flight Mission Trainer; Weapons Employment Capability, and other Subsystems, Features, and Capabilities; F-35 unique infrared flares; reprogramming center access and F-35 Performance Based Logistics; software development/integration; flight test instrumentation; aircraft ferry and tanker support; spare and repair parts; support equipment, tools and test equipment; technical data and publications; personnel training and training equipment; U.S. Government and contractor engineering, technical, and logistics support services; and other related elements of logistics support.  The estimated total cost is $23.11 billion.”

The Japanese government first selected the F-35A as its next-generation fighter in December 2011, placing an initial order for 42 conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) A variants. On Dec. 17, 2018, it laid out plans to expand this to a total of 147 Lightning IIs through the procurement of an additional 105 jets. Chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga confirmed the approval of Japan’s Medium Term Defence Program, and that it covered 105 F-35As and 42 F-35Bs.

Japan MoD

A Japan Air Self Defense Force F-35A Joint Strike Fighter.

Last year, Japan formally expressed interest in becoming a full partner in the Joint Strike Fighter program. Japanese officials approached the Pentagon about moving from being a Foreign Military Sales (FMS) customer to being a full partner in the program. However, the Pentagon and the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) expressed concern that it would create potential division within the existing international production infrastructure, and lead to other customers demanding similarly expanded roles.

Japan had already secured an important stake in industrial participation in the F-35. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) operates a Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO) facility in Nagoya-Komaki, which assembles F-35As for the JASDF from parts that are manufactured internationally. The first four F-35s for the JASDF were built at the Lockheed Martin plant in Fort Worth, Texas. Subsequent examples are being built domestically, but Japan has repeatedly expressed frustration that its FACO has failed to present a sufficiently important role in overall F-35 industrial participation.

The Nagoya FACO proved to be more costly than expected and it prompted a decision from Japan to revert to having JASDF jets assembled in Fort Worth, Texas, starting with aircraft ordered in Fiscal Year 2019. However, Mitsubishi Heavy scrambled to reduce costs associated with the plant as the Japanese government threatened to close the FACO by 2022, in favor of taking completed jets straight from the U.S. as a cost-saving measure.

Instead, plans were drawn up to use the FACO for F-35 maintenance work. Lockheed Martin received a $25.2 million contract in September 2019 from the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to build a maintenance repair and upgrade facility for the F-35 in Nagoya, and according to local reports, as of July 1, the FACO was ready to accept maintenance of JASDF and foreign F-35s, with aircraft 79-8704 (AX-04) being the first aircraft into this new facility.

DOD

With improving performance from the FACO and gradually reducing assembly costs, Japan has decided to continue with the final assembly of its aircraft at Nagoya, and the remaining jets from the initial order of 42 will all be built here. It’s unclear where the additional F-35s under the new agreement will be assembled. Local reports say they will all be built in Japan, however the DSCA notification notably includes “aircraft ferry and tanker support” costs, which might suggest otherwise. When the plan for these extra jets was first drawn up, it was at a time when the FACO was facing the axe.

The JASDF’s 3rd Air Wing at Misawa Air Base, on the northern edge of the country's main island of Honshu, received its first F-35A, serial 89-8706 (AX-06), on January 26, 2018 to join 302 Hikotai (Squadron). On May 28, 2018, the five aircraft that had been used to train the initial pilot cadre at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, also arrived at Misawa, this included 79-8705 (AX-05), the first aircraft built at the Nagoya FACO, which subsequently crashed on April 9, 2019. 

The 302 Hikotai was declared operational on March 29, 2019, and it now operates 13 aircraft. The latest delivery to Misawa was aircraft AX-18, with a further six jets scheduled for delivery this year as the build-up of 301 Hikotai, the second squadron, continues.

The latest order will increase the overall JASDF complement of F-35As to 104, factoring in the loss of AX-05. The 42 F-35Bs are also expected to be operated by the JASDF, but they will provide Japan with the ability to conduct dispersed operations. Japan plans to operate the aircraft from at least one of its two Izumo class helicopter carriers. This is a critical element of Japan’s ability to maintain a strategic presence in the region amid building tensions in the South China Sea.

Kyodo via AP

Japan's two Izumo class helicopter carriers.

The War Zone was first to report that the Izumo class ships were built with the F-35B in mind, despite official rejections of such claims. The two ships’ hangar and elevators were built to dimensions that could accommodate the F-35B and the MV-22 Osprey. Even the flight deck can reportedly withstand the heat and pressure generated by the F-35B's exhaust.

Operating F-35Bs from the ships would mark the first time since 1945 that Japan has fielded an operational aircraft carrier capable of conducting fixed-wing operations. As stated by The War Zone in our earlier reporting of this monumental strategic shift, it would be among the most glaring diversions from Article Nine of the country's constitution that effectively prohibits it from having offensive warfare capabilities.

Converting the Izumo class ships to be F-35B-capable will be far less complicated than some have claimed. One likely addition is a ski-jump, which enables the F-35B to get airborne at higher all-up gross weights. The same design has been adopted by the United Kingdom for its two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers, both of which were designed with the F-35B specifically in mind.

The first-in-class JS Izumo, which was commissioned in March 2015, is scheduled for a refit and overhaul from this year. Its sister ship JS Kaga, commissioned in March 2017, could similarly start getting upgraded in 2022. 

The JASDF has approached the U.S. Marine Corps to help it establish fixed-wing STOVL carrier operations, likely following a similar model to the U.K. Lightning Force. The Royal Air Force and Royal Navy stood-up initial F-35 training operations in partnership with the Marines at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort in South Carolina. It then split off to establish an independent operation at RAF Marham, in the United Kingdom. The 42 F-35Bs requested by Japan closely matches the 48 examples of the STOVL variant required by the U.K.

In March 2019, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke with U.S. Marine Corps commandant General Robert Neller regarding support for Japan’s desire to move into F-35B carrier operations, according to Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun. It reported that USMC F-35Bs could support initial operations from the Izumo class ships. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121), the “Green Knights,” is based in Japan, as is the first-in-class amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6). This combination could present an ideal foundation for the Marines to play a major role in assisting the JASDF in its aims to commence STOVL F-35 operations.

USN

USS America with 13 Marine Corps F-35Bs visible on the deck.

Japan follows Italy in operating a mixed fleet of F-35As and Bs. The U.K. is similarly looking at a split buy of variants, with F-35As currently being evaluated to complement the 48 B-models that are on order. South Korea too could procure F-35Bs in order to establish a fixed-wing carrier capability. Australia’s Canberra class landing helicopter docks are also highly suited to taking F-35Bs, essentially being licensed-built versions of Spain’s Juan Carlos Class ships and built with ski-jumps from the outset. However, the Royal Australian Navy maintains that it has no plans for the F-35B, despite obvious conclusions being drawn about the potential to expand upon its current F-35A fleet.

Japan’s move to buy additional F-35s coincides with new details about its proposed timeline for developing and fielding its next-generation F-X fighter aircraft. The new stealthy jet will replace the JASDF’s fleet of Mitsubishi F-2 fighters, which will be retired by the mid-2030s. The Japanese Ministry of Defense unveiled a draft plan on July 7 that revealed an ambition to commence full-scale production in 2031. A prime contractor could be selected as early as this October.

Japan MoD

An artist's conception of Japan's future F-X stealth fighter.

The Japanese aerospace industry has already invested significant resources in research and development for a new indigenous fighter, including the building and flight-testing of MHI’s X-2 “Shinshin” technology demonstrator. The War Zone also reported how Lockheed Martin had reportedly pitched the idea of a hybrid of the F-22 and F-35 to Japan, and was willing to let companies in Japan handle a significant portion of the research and development and production of the aircraft.

However Japan's F-X program progresses now, the country's Ministry of Defense clearly remains heavily invested in the F-35 program. The F-35B, in particular, will be the aircraft that enables the country to return to the carrier aviation world.

Contact the author: Jamie@thedrive.com