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Japan

Japan eyes stealth fighters, vessel upgrades amid concerns over China’s growing clout

  • Tokyo’s planned purchase of 100 F-35 stealth fighters is widely seen as a response to Beijing’s military build-up in the Pacific
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2018, 5:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 November, 2018, 9:39pm

Japan is expected to announce the purchase of 100 F-35 stealth fighters and the conversion of existing ships into full aircraft carriers in a move widely seen as a response to China’s growing military clout.

The planned purchase of the state-of-the-art Lockheed Martin aircraft and upgrade of two Izumo-class warships would mark a significant advance of Japan’s military capabilities.

The moves, expected to be included in new defence guidelines due next month, come amid Beijing’s military build-up in the Pacific and concerns about it taking control of the Diaoyutai Islands – known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan – in the same way it has atolls in the South China Sea.

Japan has already placed an order for 42 F-35 aircraft to replace the last of its obsolescent F-4 Phantom fighters, with the additional 100 jets to be delivered by 2024. A single F-35 costs more than Y10 billion (US$87.8 million).

The first 42 aircraft will be the conventional landing and take-off variant, although the second batch will include a number of F-35B jets, which are capable of short take-offs and landings, making them ideal to deploy on aircraft carriers.

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Takeshi Iwaya, the defence minister, said on Tuesday that “a study is underway” to examine the operation of F-35B aircraft from the Maritime Self-Defence Force’s Izumo and her sister ship, the Kaga.

At 19,500 tons and 248 metres from bow to stern, the two ships are Japan’s largest naval vessels since the end of the second world war and capable of operating up to 14 helicopters.

“There has been an increasing number of air incursions by Chinese aircraft into what is known as the South-West Air Defence Division, which is the area around Okinawa and including the Senkaku Islands,” said Garren Mulloy, an associate professor of international relations at Daito Bunka University.

Mulloy said that while Tokyo’s security concerns were clear, more F-35s and expensive upgrades to existing warships might not be the most effective solution.

“They could have chosen land-based aircraft operating out of Ishigaki and the other islands there that already have military installations, including airfields,” he said in an interview. “That would have been a far cheaper and a far easier option than upgrading the Izumo-class ships and putting the F-35Bs on board.”

The short take-off version of the fighter is the least capable variant as it requires a second engine, which increases weight and limits the fuel load, range, maximum climb rate and weapons capability, Mulloy said.

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Due to space requirements for anti-submarine warfare and search-and-rescue helicopters, he said, the Izumo is also limited to a capacity of 10 aircraft.

Mulloy said, however, that Tokyo seems set on pushing ahead with the project, which is clearly intended to serve as a shot across Beijing’s bow.

“There is no other reason for Tokyo to take these steps except China,” he said. “There are no other threats of this sort in the region, not from Russia or North Korea, and it would be a stretch to suggest that this platform would be of use in anti-piracy operations.

“It is likely that the government will say that the ships will be useful in the event of a humanitarian relief operation or in the aftermath of a natural disaster, but that doesn’t explain away the F-35s.”