More Than Fighter Jet: Lockheed Martin F-35 Is A Diplomatic Tool In Asia-Pacific Region

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures while delivering a speech for U.S. and Japanese military personnel on the Kaga, a Japanese helicopter carrier that will soon be upgraded to an aircraft carrier, on Tuesday in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture. His wife, Melania, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, Akie, also attended the ceremony. | KYODO

The Japanese Ministry of Defense announced formally its decision to select the U.S. F-35B stealth fighter as the country’s short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft. The decision was virtually assured given that the United States and Lockheed Martin, the aircraft’s manufacturer, were the only bidders for the Japanese contract.

The Kaga, an Izumo-class helicopter carrier, is one of two in the class operated as Japan’s largest warships, and they are planned to be remodeled into aircraft carriers. With the refurbishment, the vessel will be capable of carrying F-35B stealth fighter jets developed by U.S. firm Lockheed Martin.

Subsequently, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force procured 42 F-35B fighters at a reported unit cost of $130 million each. The F-35B was built to the specifics of the U.S. Marine Corps and is designed to operate under different conditions from the F-35A.

The two aircraft differ in several ways. The F-35B, owing to its STOVL capability, exhibits a lower range and has a different fuselage contour. It also differs in the kinds of armaments it can carry. The aircraft‘s manufacturer describes the F-35B as having been designed “designed to operate from austere, short-field bases and a range of air-capable ships operating near front-line combat zones.”

F-35 Diplomacy

The official Japanese decision was made on Friday and represents the progression of plans to refit the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Izumo-class multipurpose destroyers to operate as de facto light carriers with the F-35B on board.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Hideki Mizuta, captain of the helicopter carrier Kaga, as he leaves the navy ship in Yokosuka on Tuesday. | AP

As reported last December, Japan has converted the Izumo-class vessels JS Izumo and JS Kaga to STOVL-capable carriers. The decision followed a study by the Japanese Ministry of Defense.

Japan’s National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) calls for the deployment of STOVL-capable carriers over the next five year. The conversion of JS Izumo and JS Kaga, the two largest ships in the MSDF’s fleet, will take place through the mid-2020s.

The Izumo-class won’t be formally designated as aircraft carriers, instead of sticking with the classes’ recent redesignation as multipurpose escort destroyers from helicopter destroyers. The class was originally conceived with antisubmarine warfare operations in mind.

JS-Izumo-DDH-183

Japanese officials public justified the decision to make the Izumo-class STOVL-capable by pointing to an increase in versatility instead of an overt offensive capability, which Japan is constitutionally barred from possessing.

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During a visit to Japan in May 2019, U.S. President Donald J. Trump boarded JS Kaga, becoming the first U.S. president to board any Japanese warship.

Trump hailed Japan’s plans to purchase the F-35B, treating the decision as finalized.

According to Japan’s Defense Ministry, Trump is the first U.S. president to board an MSDF vessel. Tuesday’s boarding by the pair underlines Abe’s long-standing efforts to further strengthen the bilateral military alliance, and show it off to the world in hopes of keeping China and North Korea in check.

“Soon this very ship will be upgraded to carry this cutting-edge aircraft,” Trump had said at the time. “With this extraordinary new equipment, the Kaga will help our nations defend against a range of complex threats in the region and far beyond.”

The Trump administration has encouraged Japan to purchase U.S. military equipment.

F-35 In APAC

Last December, the Japanese government announced its plan to purchase 105 F-35A fighter jets from the U.S. for the Air-Self-Defense Force, a development that both leaders noted during Trump’s visit, as well as during the address aboard the Kaga. Japan also purchased 42 F-35B jet fighters to be deployed on the two Izumo-class aircraft carriers.

While Australia has committed to 72 F-35A aircraft for three operational squadrons at RAAF Base Williamtown and RAAF Base Tindal, and a training squadron at RAAF Base Williamtown in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) is currently inducting the F-35A, the aircraft’s conventional takeoff and landing variant. Overall, the service will receive 40 F-35As by through 2021 under the U.S. Department of Defense’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. South Korean military authorities plan to acquire an additional 40 F-35 Lightning II fighter jets and 20 F-35B will be acquired by the Republic of Korea Navy (ROK Navy).

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