The US Department of Defense has announced a substantial replacement programme on 3 July 2024, for its ageing F-16s at US military installations peppered across the island nation of Japan.

Kadena Air Force Base (AFB) is located on the Japanese strategic island of Okinawa; it is often referred to as the ‘keystone to the Pacific’, just over 400 miles from Taiwan. The US Air Force plan to divest the 48 F-15C/D aircraft already there with 36 F-15EX – or Eagle II – aircraft.

At Misawa AFB, situated in the northern mainland, the Air Force will upgrade its presence from 36 F-16s to 48 F-35A aircraft, leading to greater tactical aircraft capacity and capability.

Meanwhile, the Marine Corps Air Station at Iwakuni, in the southern mainland, will modify the number of F-35B aircraft to support the service’s force design modernisation implementation. The Marine Corps will continue to maintain an enduring and rotational aircraft presence at Iwakuni.

In close coordination with the Japanese Government, the whole upgrade will cost up to $10bn over the next several years with an aim to “bolster regional deterrence, and strengthen peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Air share with Japan

Luckily, the US Armed Forces operate the same type of aircraft as Japan. This will ensure the smooth supply of spares and equipment needed to sustain the fleets in a timely manner. This is an important point given the geographic proximity of the continental US from the Indo-Pacific theatre, where grey-zone rivalry continues to escalate with China.

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Pictured is an F-15EX Eagle II based at Eglin AFB, Florida. Here it conducts aerial refuelling operations over northern California, 14 May 2021. Credit: US Air Force.

Japan currently operates 52 F-35A and 12 F-35B joint strike fighters besides nearly 200 F-15J/DJ jets, an indigenous variant modelled on the US manufactured McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle.

US must think logistically in the Far East

A few months ago Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Global Defence Technology that if a prospective conflict between China and the US were to emerge over Taiwan then it is essential their forces prioritise logistics.

A significant part of this is their access to their bases in allied territories with strategic partners such as Japan and others in the Indo-Pacific region.

There are approximately 54,000 military personnel dispersed across 85 facilities on Honshu, Kyushu, and Okinawa, making up as much as 77,000 acres of Japanese territory.

“Logistics are very important regarding Japan because it’s a close ally, it’s a much closer theatre than Guam. [Japan is] a wealthy country, [they have] a lot of good infrastructure. Logistically, very, very helpful.

“But the critical thing about Japan is the ability to use US bases. If we can’t use Kadena, if we can’t use other air bases then it’s going to be very hard to get any of our tech air into the fight. Those F-35s just don’t have the legs to operate over Taiwan, if you’re basing them in Guam or Australia.”