Send Air Force F-35s to Japan
The US Air Force has operated fifth-generation aircraft for nearly two decades, but has yet to station any of its most advanced aircraft in the Indo-Pacific, the Department of Defense’s priority theater. Admiral John Aquilino, commander of US Indo-Pacific Command, wants to see this change, calling fifth-generation capabilities “essentially important for deterrence capability.”
It’s time for the US Air Force to send fifth-generation aircraft to bolster deterrence in the Indo-Pacific, expand opportunities for allied cooperation, enhance the combat credibility of US forces, and accelerate the implementation of the Agile Combat Employment, or ACE, program. of maneuver.
Today, the Air Force exclusively stations fourth-generation fighters (F-16, F-15 and A-10) at six bases west of the International Date Line – three in Japan, two in South Korea and one in Guam. The closest fifth-generation aircraft are stationed in Alaska and Hawaii, east of the International Date Line and thousands of miles from key terrain in the First Island Chain.
By contrast, the Air Force selected RAF Lakenheath in the UK as its first F-35A base in Europe in 2015. Clearly, the Indo-Pacific is not just following Europe as than posture priority. In addition to the active component, the Air Force has stationed F-35As at no less than three Air National Guard bases and one Air Force Reserve base in the United States mainland. United States. A fourth Guards base will begin receiving F-35As in 2024 and several more are being considered to receive the aircraft.
The Air Force retaining its most capable Indo-Pacific platforms contrasts with other military services. For example, although there are far fewer F-35s than the Air Force, the Marine Corps’ first squadron of advanced operational F-35Bs arrived in Japan in 2017. A second became operational earlier this year. .
To be clear, the Air Force is deploying fifth-generation aircraft to the Indo-Pacific for deterrent missions and exercises. But this is no substitute for a persistent forward presence – not for peacetime deterrence or wartime combat effectiveness.
A natural location for fifth-generation aircraft would be Guam, a vital power-projection node that must be defended against full-spectrum air and missile threats. But for maximum impact, the Air Force should move as quickly as possible to station F-35As at Misawa Air Base in Japan.
As war rages in Ukraine, stationing F-35As in the Indo-Pacific would send a clear signal to Beijing and regional capitals that the US commitment to the Indo-Pacific endures. Defenders of recent US troop deployments in Europe say America can walk and chew gum at the same time. Sending F-35s to the Indo-Pacific now would be a powerful demonstration of that.
Stationing F-35As at Misawa would enhance military cooperation with US allies. Misawa is the only combined base in the Western Pacific, hosting aircraft from the US Air Force, US Navy and Japan’s Air-Self Defense Force, which began stationing F-35As at the base in 2018. Adding US F-35As to the base would increase the frequency of fifth-generation combined operations not only with Japan, but also with F-35 operators in South Korea and Australia. This would enhance the integration of fifth generation capabilities into theater exercises such as Keen Sword. And collocating US and Japanese F-35As at Misawa could improve infrastructure and maintenance efficiency.
Forward-stationed F-35As would bolster the combat credibility of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific. The aircraft’s advanced sensors and weapons would provide a capability upgrade over the Block 50 F-16s currently stationed at Misawa. A continued presence in Japan would expedite the response to the Fifth Generation Crisis and reduce reliance on scarce resupply resources to access the theater.
The main objection to stationing the F-35As forward is the vulnerability of regional airbases to China’s missile arsenal. But as the Air Force has already recognized, the answer to this threat is not to hide fifth-generation planes across an ocean. Instead, the ACE maneuver scheme instructs the Air Force to operate forward from a “network of smaller, dispersed locations that can complicate the adversary’s planning and offer more options to joint force commanders”.
In this sense, Misawa represents an “advantageous position” for the Air Force – a robust main operating base in Allied territory (about the same distance from Taiwan as Guam) that can support the dispersal to available smaller contingency locations across Japan while maintaining mission generation. , command and control, and base operations support functions. This is why the stationing of the F-35As at Misawa should be accompanied by accelerated investments in ACE catalysts in the Indo-Pacific, such as the short-term fielding of core group pre-positioning kits. regional across Japan. It should also catalyze investments in the expeditionary capabilities needed to support F-35A operations beyond a main operating base, a challenge highlighted during recent deployments to Europe.
The Air Force continues to preach the value of the F-35 and the value of forward presence. He can demonstrate both by parking F-35As at Misawa as soon as possible.
Dustin Walker is a Nonresident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is a former professional staff member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and adviser to Senator John McCain.
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