The first US F-35 Lightning II aircraft to be based outside the US, arrived in Japan on 18 January. Jets belonging to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 touched down at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni near Hiroshima, beginning the squadron’s permanent basing here. Interestingly, the journey from the US took the F-35’s over a week to complete.
The aircraft involved are of the vertical short take off & landing variant and within the United States Marine Corps (USMC) replaces the AV-8B Harrier, F/A-18 Hornet and EA-6B Prowler. The USMC was the first to reach to reach Initial Operational Capability (IOC) on Lockheed Martin’s new fighter jet.
“The arrival of the F-35B embodies our commitment to the defense of Japan and the regional-security of the Pacific,” said Maj. Gen. Russell Sanborn, the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing Commanding General. “We are bringing the most advanced technology to the Pacific to respond to the wide range of missions we take part in and provide greater support to our regional allies.”
Prior to arriving in Iwakuni, VMFA-121 was stationed with the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at MCAS Yuma, Arizona. During the squadron’s time in Arizona, the aircraft successfully participated in numerous exercises and training events. “Our training in the U.S. has prepared us well for our mission here in Japan and we are very honored to have such a warm welcome,” said U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. J. T. Bardo, commanding officer of VMFA-121.
No comment was given on why the flight from the US to Japan took over a week to complete.
Breaking news today, as the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II started its first operational deployment outside the US ever. Departing Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, on 9 January, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 headed for Iwakuni airbase in Japan, bringing along their F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) jets.
From Yuma and in the company of KC-10 tanker aircraft, the F-35s first headed for Elmendorf airbase in Alaska, from where they should continue to their new base Japan. Iwakuni is a regular destination for United States Marine Corps (USMC) fighter jets, but this marks the first time the F-35B is send abroad operationally and in fact marks the first operational deployment for the F-35 ever. The step can be regarded as a huge one for the F-35 program, the biggest and most expensive weapon’s program ever in history.
Operations & tests
In July 2015, VMFA-121 was the very first squadron to reach Initial Operational Capability (IOC) on Lockheed Martin’s 5th generation fighter jet. In October 2016, a contingent of USMC F-35B’s, pilots and maintainers participated in Developmental Test III and the Lightning Carrier Proof of Concept Demonstration aboard the USS America (LHA-6). The final test period ensured the plane could operate in the most extreme at-sea conditions, with a range of weapons loadouts and with the newest software variant.
China & Trump
The deployment was announced for this year earlier, but the apparent eagerness for the deployment comes a surprise. This could very well be to deter China from further venturing out in international waters, but also to show president-elect Donald Trump that the F-35 is perfectly capable of operational deployment. Trump, who is just ten days away from being inaugurated as the next US president, showed no sympathy for the F-35 in late 2016, hinting the US would be better of with more F/A-18 Super Hornets.
The year 2017 is likely to also see a deployment of US Air Force F-35s to Europe. The USAF reached IOC on the new jet in 2016. That same year saw US F-35s heading out to Europe for the first time, albeit not for actual operational flying. The purpose of that visit was taking part in airshows in the UK.
Some news seems suprising at first, but isn’t at second sight. According to several news reports this week, the US Navy has eyes for a number of former Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) Sikorsky MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters. The US is looking to use the helicopters for spare parts for its own MH-53 fleet, which is used extensively in virtually every conflict with US involvement.
Japan bought eleven MH-53E – also known as Sikorsy S-80 – for mine sweeping duties, with the contract being awarded in 1987 and first deliveries taking place in 1989. Since 2006, the MH-53Es are being replaced MCH-101 Merlin. The huge Sikorsky helo is now nog longer used by the JMSDF, and has become object of US desire.
Negotations about the sale are said the be ongoing. The move is criticized as an example of problematic US defence spending, but in reality is a pragmatic approach to the problem that arizes following the heavy use of the helicopters by the US. The plan is reminiscent of the sale in 2011of 74 ex-Royal Air Force Harrier (RAF) jump jets to the US, with a fresh supply of spare parts for the US Marine Corps (USMC) AV-8B Harrier fleet being the main objective.
In Japan, the MH-53E were in use with 111 Kokutai (squadron), based at Iwakuni airbase near Hiroshima.