Send Air Force F-35s to Japan

·4 min read

The U.S. Air Force has operated fifth-generation aircraft for nearly two decades, but has yet to station any of its most advanced aircraft in the Indo-Pacific, the Department of Defense’s priority theater. Adm. John Aquilino, the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, wants to see that change, calling fifth-generation capabilities “critically important to the ability to deliver deterrence.”

It’s time for the U.S. Air Force to send fifth-generation aircraft forward to bolster deterrence in the Indo-Pacific, expand opportunities for allied cooperation, enhance the combat credibility of U.S. forces, and accelerate implementation of the Agile Combat Employment, or ACE, scheme of maneuver.

Today, the Air Force stations exclusively fourth-generation fighters (F-16s, F-15s, and A-10s) at six bases west of the international date line — three in Japan, two in South Korea, and one in Guam. The closest fifth-generation aircraft are stationed in Alaska and Hawaii, east of the international date line and thousands of miles away from key terrain in the first island chain.

By contrast, the Air Force selected RAF Lakenheath in the United Kingdom as the first F-35A base in Europe back in 2015. Evidently, the Indo-Pacific doesn’t just trail Europe as a posture priority. In addition to the active component, the Air Force has stationed F-35As at no less than three Air National Guard bases and one Air Force Reserve base in the continental United States. A fourth Guard base will begin receiving F-35As in 2024 with several others under consideration to receive the aircraft.

The Air Force holding back its most capable platforms from the Indo-Pacific stands in contrast to other military services. For example, despite having far fewer F-35s than the Air Force, the Marine Corps’ first forward operational F-35B squadron arrived in Japan in 2017. A second became operational earlier this year.

To be clear, the Air Force deploys fifth-generation aircraft to the Indo-Pacific for deterrence missions and exercises. But that is not a substitute for persistent forward presence — not for deterrence in peacetime or combat effectiveness in wartime.

A natural location for fifth-generation aircraft would be Guam, a vital power projection node which must be defended against full-spectrum air and missile threats. But for maximum impact, the Air Force should move as quickly as possible to station F-35As at Misawa Air Base in Japan.

Misawa Airbase, Misawa, Japan, as viewed from a P-8A during a mobility flight. (MCSN William C. Andrews/Navy)
Misawa Airbase, Misawa, Japan, as viewed from a P-8A during a mobility flight. (MCSN William C. Andrews/Navy)

With war raging in Ukraine, stationing F-35As in the Indo-Pacific would send a clear signal to Beijing and regional capitals that America’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific endures. Defenders of recent U.S. troop deployments to Europe say America can walk and chew gum at the same time. Sending F-35s forward to the Indo-Pacific now would be a powerful demonstration of that.

Stationing F-35As at Misawa would boost military cooperation with U.S. allies. Misawa is the only combined base in the western Pacific, hosting aircraft from the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and the Japanese Air-Self Defense Force, which began stationing F-35As at the base in 2018. Adding U.S. F-35As at the base would increase the frequency of combined fifth-generation operations not only with Japan, but also with F-35 operators South Korea and Australia. It would deepen integration of fifth-generation capabilities into theater exercises such as Keen Sword. And collocating U.S. and Japanese F-35As at Misawa could yield infrastructure and maintenance efficiencies.

Forward-stationed F-35As would enhance the combat credibility of U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific. The aircraft’s advanced sensors and weapons would provide a capability upgrade over Block 50 F-16s currently stationed at Misawa. Persistent presence in Japan would accelerate fifth-generation crisis response and reduce reliance on scarce tanking resources to gain theater access.

The principal objection to stationing F-35As forward is the vulnerability of regional airbases to China’s missile arsenal. But as the Air Force has already recognized, the answer to this threat is not to hide fifth-generation aircraft across an ocean. Instead, the ACE scheme of maneuver calls on the Air Force to operate forward from “a network of smaller, dispersed locations that can complicate adversary planning and provide more options for joint force commanders.”

In this sense, Misawa represents a “position of advantage” for the Air Force — a robust main operating base in allied territory (roughly the same distance from Taiwan as Guam) that can support dispersion to smaller contingency locations available across Japan while maintaining mission generation, command and control, and base operating support functions. That’s why stationing F-35As at Misawa should be accompanied by accelerated investments in ACE enablers in the Indo-Pacific, such as near-term fielding of Regional Base Cluster Pre-Positioning kits across Japan. It should also catalyze investments in expeditionary capabilities required to sustain F-35A operations beyond a main operating base, a challenge highlighted during recent deployments to Europe.

The Air Force continues to preach the value of the F-35 and that of forward presence. It can demonstrate both by stationing at F-35As at Misawa as soon as possible.

Dustin Walker is a non-resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He is a former professional staff member on the Senate Armed Services Committee and adviser to Senator John McCain.

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