MELBOURNE, Australia — In its latest whitepaper, Japan has discussed its impending acquisition of F-35B fighter jets and highlighted efforts by regional militaries to expand their influence and activities despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The full document, released July 14 in Japanese, contains a section on the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing variant of the Lockheed Martin aircraft, noting that with regional countries making “remarkable progress” in air power modernization, the country needed to respond in kind..

The whitepaper highlighted the operational flexibility of the F-35B, noting the jet’s ability to operate without the need for long runways, which would enable the Japan Air Self-Defense Force to significantly expand the number of locations from whence the service can conduct air superiority operations.

The whitepaper noted there are currently 20 airports and air bases throughout Japan that have runways sufficiently long enough to support JASDF air superiority operations. Operating the F-35B would theoretically allow the JASDF to expand that number to 45, which would include some of the runways on Japan’s far-flung southern islands.

Japan has plans to eventually acquire 42 F-35Bs to operate alongside its planned fleet of 105 conventional-takeoff-and-landing F-35As, making it the top customer of the F-35 outside the United States.

The 42 F-35Bs include 18 to be contracted over the next five years, with Japan setting aside approximately $795 million in its current defense budget to acquire six. It is also converting the helicopter destroyer Izumo, which has a 245-meter flight deck and was originally designed to carry helicopters primarily for anti-submarine warfare, to operate the F-35B.

The air defense challenge facing the JASDF was also highlighted in April this year, when the Ministry of Defense said the service scrambled its fighters a total of 947 times over the past year to intercept and monitor foreign military aircraft operating in the country’s air defense identification zone. Chinese aircraft accounted for 675 intercepts, and Russian aircraft Russian made up 268. (The remaining four were not identified.)

The whitepaper also noted a continuing pattern of operations conducted by military vessels and aircraft primarily from China and, to a lesser degree, Russia in the waters and airspace surrounding Japan. The government pledged to continue to closely monitor such activities.

It also noted that such activities have continued despite the COVID-19 pandemic, warning that a prolonged global pandemic “may exert various impacts on countries’ military capability.”

The government added that another potential effect of the pandemic was the likelihood that it may “expose and intensify strategic competition among countries intending to create international and regional orders more preferable to themselves and to expand their influence.” The whitepaper also accused China of spreading disinformation “amid growing social uncertainties and confusion due to the spread of infection.”

Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.

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