TOKYO — Japan has graduated its first locally trained class of five F-35 pilots and is on track to make its first unit operational, according to a senior official with Japan’s F-35 program.

Joel Malone told Defense News at the Japan International Aerospace Exhibition in Tokyo that the Japan Air Self-Defense Force is continuing to train more pilots, maintainers and other support personnel on the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter.

F-35 jets with the JASDF are assigned to the Rinji F-35 Hkoutai, a temporary JASDF unit. Following the training of five more pilots and the delivery of more F-35s, the aircraft will be transferred to the JASDF’s 302 Hikoutai, which will retire its McDonnell Douglas/Mistubishi F-4EJ Kai Phantom IIs and move from Hyakuri, north of Tokyo, to Misawa in March 2019.

Japan initially trained a cadre of F-35 pilots and personnel with the 944th Operations Group and four of the JASDF’s aircraft at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. The Japanese F-35s spent 18 months training at Luke AFB before returning earlier this year to Misawa, located at the northern part of Japan’s main island of Honshu.

Japan’s current program of record is for 42 F-35As. Malone declined to comment on reports that Japan is seeking up to 100 more F-35s, telling Defense News that it was “more appropriate for the Ministry of Defense and the JASDF air staff to comment on that.”

The media reports, quoting unnamed Japanese defense officials, said these included the F-35B short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing variant similar to those operated by the U.S. Marines in Japan.

Speaking during his regular news conference Tuesday, Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya confirmed that the ministry is evaluating the F-35B, although he stressed that a decision on its acquisition had not been made.

His comments come after Japan previously studied the possibility of converting its two Izumo-class helicopter destroyers to enable them to operate the F-35B, with a report released by the Defense Ministry in April 2018 concluding that was possible.

Iwaya added that both topics will be addressed in more detail in Japan’s National Defense Program Guidelines, expected to be released by the end of the year.