Japan’s 2020 ‘Defense of Japan’ White Paper cited the lack of appropriate runways as a driving reason for the country’s decision to acquire the F-35B jet and convert Izumo-class helicopter destroyers for fast-jet operations.

Out of 45 airbases and airfields available to the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF), only 20 are long enough to operate jets in the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) fleet. Of these 20, only one airbase in the Pacific Ocean at Iwo To (Iwo Jima) has a runway long enough to operate the F-35A, limiting operational infrastructure in the region.

Unlike the A variant, the F-35B can take off from a runway of around 100 metres, allowing Japan to operate the aircraft from all of its 45 airbases and airfields around the country, including the converted Izumo-class vessels.

Japan’s White Paper said that taking into account the ‘limited number of runways’ for a small country like itself, the self-defence forces took the decision to introduce the F-35B ‘in order to continuously secure air superiority’.

The F-35B is currently in service with the US Marine Corps, UK Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, as well as the Italian Navy and Air Force. The fighter has also been ordered by Singapore.

As part of Japan’s current Mid-Term Defense Programme – running from 2019 to 2023, the JASDF is set to acquire 18 F-35Bs.

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In its White Paper, the Japanese Ministry of Defence wrote: “The neighbouring countries of Japan are making remarkable progress in the modernization of the air forces, for example by deploying the so-called fifth-generation fighter aircraft and the latest models of the fourth-generation aircraft.

“In order to secure the defence of Japan in this situation, it is extremely important for the SDF to develop a system that enables flexible operations, including flying aircraft from more airfields, so that air superiority can be constantly secured through the use of high-performance fighter aircraft.”

One of Japan’s main defence projects at current is the conversion of the JS Izumo to a light aircraft carrier, which will be used to host F-35B operations. The conversion will see Japan added to the list of countries operating F-35Bs from aircraft carriers which include the US and UK.

Japan’s regional neighbour South Korea also recently announced its intention to develop a new light aircraft carrier designed around F-35B operations.

Commenting on the Izumo conversion, the White Paper added: “In addition, in order to deal with the new security environment and to ensure a full-fledged posture to defend Japan’s sea and airspace, which includes part of the vast Pacific Ocean, while securing the safety of personnel, the SDF will refurbish the Izumo-class destroyers, which are multi-function destroyers, so that the F-35B can be operated from them when necessary.”