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