WASHINGTON and MELBOURNE, Australia — Japan is reportedly interested in buying another 100 F-35s, including a version of the aircraft that could allow it to operate from its Izumo-class destroyers.
If it does, aerospace experts expect that the massive deal will have reverberations beyond Japan, or even beyond China.
Japanese news outlet Nikkei, which first reported the potential deal, said the Japanese government would purchase a mix of the conventional F-35A as well as the F-35B, the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing version of the jet.
A Dec. 5 Mainichi Shimbun article said Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party had come to an agreement with one of its coalition partners in the National Diet to buy 99 F-35s to replace some of the country’s aging F-15s.
Japanese Defense Ministry officials have said they are studying whether the F-35B could operate from its Izumo-class helicopter destroyers, including what would be needed to convert the two existing ships to be able to accommodate the F-35 and how much it would cost. The Izumo class is comprised of two ships, the Izumo and Kaga, which are the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force’s largest ships.
Three experts — Doug Birkey of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, John Venable of the Heritage Foundation and Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group — agreed the buy would first and foremost send a message to China.
“The Japanese are living in a very, very challenging environment, and it’s one in which they don’t ever want to go to outright combat,” Birkey said. “The only way, then, to deal with that and still defend their principle interest is to deter the Chinese and have a robust force, and that’s where the elements of what fifth-gen [aircraft] bring to the table are essential."
Having "B" models that could operate from ships would “complicate a potential adversary’s targeting faculties” by creating a more diverse set of problems for China — such as fighters that aren’t dependent on terrestrial runways and added firepower around Japanese surface vessels, Venable said.
Aboulafia called the prospect “intriguing” and said the development would allow Japan to have a more muscular and assertive foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region.
But even beyond that, a larger Japanese buy could soften any industrial blowback that comes from forcing Turkey out of the F-35 program, Venable said. The U.S. government is considering removing Turkey from the program over its planned purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system, although a final decision has not been made.
As a partner on the F-35, Turkish industry is expected to rake in about $12 billion over the program’s life, according to Lockheed Martin. While those contracts would still need to be renegotiated with other companies, a Japanese buy of 100 planes would neutralize the loss of the 100 planes Turkey plans to buy.
“I know that would be not something that Lockheed would want to endure, but if we did have to cancel that, then it would offset that pretty much on a one-to-one basis,” Venable said.
A larger Japanese F-35 purchase would also be hugely advantageous to the United States, Birkey said. Not only does it give the Japanese military options for more cooperation with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, but the F-35’s sophisticated sensor suite and data-fusion capabilities means that more data can be collected around the Asia-Pacific and shared with other partners.
“The information piece on these aircraft is really important because it is a huge region. And so the ability to understand when and where you need to be to net the desired effect and understand the environment in real time, it’s huge,” he said. “So the ability to gather the data, to process it, to fuse it and share it with your teammates is really good.”
The domestic outlook for more Japanese F-35s
Japan has already committed to buying 42 F-35As and received its first Joint Strike Fighter in 2016. If it does come down in favor of purchasing the F-35B, it will be the third foreign nation to do so, following the United Kingdom and Italy.
Shigeyuki Uno, the principal deputy director of the defense planning and programming division of Japan’s Ministry of Defense, did not confirm whether 100 planes were on the bargaining table. But he did tell Defense News that any plan to acquire more F-35s — including F-35Bs — is about more than military capabilities and could be a “controversial issue” domestically.
More detail on the subject will be released later this year in the National Defense Program Guidelines, Uno said.
In order to have the budget to buy another 100 F-35s, Japan may have to give up on its hopes of producing a homemade replacement to its F-2 fighter jets. That could tank Lockheed Martin’s proposal to build a hybrid of the F-22 and F-35 in Japan, Aboulafia said.
“It doesn’t completely kill it, but it makes it extremely unlikely. I mean, let’s look a the requirement here,” he said. “You’ve got the present 42 F-35s [on order], then you’ve got the F-15 and F-2 replacement requirement. This 100 F-35s takes [sic] care of that F-2 replacement requirement. There is still a question of the F-15 replacement requirement, but that keeps getting pushed down the road.”
Lockheed Martin declined to discuss the specific discussions occurring behind the scenes among itself, Japan and the U.S. government on the prospect of further sales.
“While we have not been officially notified of an increased order, as always, we will support our U.S. and Japanese government customers to ensure they can meet their current and future defense needs,” it said.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.