WASHINGTON — Nearly six months after the Air Force began withdrawing its aging F-15C and D Eagles from Kadena Air Base in Japan, the service is still trying to figure out its long-term plan to maintain a deterrent fighter presence at the Pacific region base.
And permanently stationing a new force of fighters at Kadena is still being considered, Lt. Gen. Richard Moore, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, told Defense News.
In an interview at the Pentagon, Moore underscored the Air Force’s intent to keep a fighter force on Okinawa to reassure allies in the Pacific region and deter potential adversaries, particularly China — even if what that might look like is not yet settled.
“We are committed to maintaining a presence at Kadena,” Moore said. “We understand presence is important. We understand its value in deterrence. And so we’re going to continue to maintain that — although there is a price to be paid, that in our minds is well worth it.”
Until a long-term solution presents itself, Moore said the Air Force will continue its strategy of rotating newer fighters such as the F-35, F-22 Raptor, F-15E Strike Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon through Kadena as older F-15Cs and Ds return to the U.S. Some of Kadena’s F-15s will keep flying with the Air National Guard, and others are headed to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group in Arizona — also known as the Boneyard — for storage.
“We don’t want there to be any lapse in coverage,” Moore said. “So however long it takes to get to a permanent solution, whatever that may be, we will continue to maintain a presence at Kadena. And we’ll do that, as we are now, with rotational forces.”
The Air Force’s announcement last October that it would retire the 18th Wing’s two squadrons of more than 48 F-15s in phases over two years, and rotate newer fourth- and fifth-generation fighters to take their place, drew criticism. Four Republican lawmakers soon sent Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin a letter expressing concern that no longer having fighters permanently stationed on Okinawa sent the wrong message about the United States’ commitment to defending Japan.
Finding a way to station a new, permanent fighter force at Kadena remains an option, Moore said. But for that to become a reality, he said, it will require some careful balancing from the Air Force — and cooperation with Congress and the rest of the Defense Department. With older fighters rapidly approaching retirement across the Air Force fleet, Kadena isn’t the only base in need of new fighters.
“It comes down to the number of aircraft that are available, the number of aircraft that need to divest, and the number of locations that need to maintain a presence,” he said. “We’re working that balance, and as soon as we can, we’ll transition to a solution at Kadena.”
Moore said the Air Force made progress by requesting 72 new fighters in its fiscal 2024 budget proposal, which it says is the minimum procurement necessary to modernize its aging fighter fleet.
If Congress grants the Air Force’s request and funds the purchase of 48 new F-35As and 24 new F-15EX Eagle IIs, the service will then have to figure out how to distribute those new fighters, he said. Part of that will mean working out with Congress and combatant commanders to figure out where the new 72 fighters are most in need, as older fighters retire.
“Certainly, we don’t make that decision [on a long-term fighter solution for Kadena] ourselves,” Moore said. “That decision is overseen by the Department of Defense, and then we’ll propose that to the Congress as part of our budget proposals as soon as we have a more permanent solution [for Kadena] than we have now.”
The costs of rotational fighters
Cycling squadrons of fighters through Kadena on short-term deployments has certain benefits, like keeping aircrews trained and sharp, Moore said.
But it does come with other costs.
“In general, these deployments tend to be readiness depleting, rather than readiness gaining,” he said. “That capacity has to come from somewhere.”
There are only a handful of places where the Air Force can draw fighters to plug the gap at Kadena, Moore said, such as from other bases in the Pacific theater, Europe, stateside, or from deployments to the Middle East. The demand for fighters in the U.S. Central Command region is lower now than it was in previous years, he said. But the region still needs a U.S. fighter presence, and the military’s Joint Staff decides how to balance those needs.
“Of course, there’s a bill to be paid,” Moore said. But “we understand presence [at Kadena] is important. We understand its value in deterrence … that in our minds is well worth” the price in readiness elsewhere.
Moore also has sounded further alarms in recent public appearances about the rapidly decaying state of the overall F-15C fleet.
“Those aircraft are not going to be useful in [fiscal 2028], because they’re not going to still be flying,” Moore told the House Armed Services subcommittee on tactical air and land forces on March 29.
He told lawmakers in March that for every 10 F-15Cs that enter the depot for maintenance, only two come out.
Those other eight F-15Cs could be fixed up and brought out of the depot, Moore told Defense News — “but only with substantial investment.”
The Air Force reported having 149 F-15Cs and Ds in its fleet at the end of fiscal 2023, and expects to whittle that down to 92 by the end of this year.
Pacific Air Forces declined to say how many of the more than 48 F-15s originally at Kadena are left, citing operational security.
For four of those departing Kadena F-15s, the flight home will be their last — and another three won’t even be able to get in the air.
“It is imperative that the F-15Cs and Ds come back to the states,” Moore said. “There are seven airplanes at Kadena right now that either will never fly again, or will only fly once to get to the Boneyard. So they’re not particularly helpful in contributing to either presence or deterrence.”
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.