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.
The F-35 program celebrated the delivery of the 200th operational jet this week. The aircraft, the second destined for the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF), departed Lockheed Martin’s Fort Worth production facility for Luke Air Force Base, where it will be used to train Japanese pilots. Meanwhile, an official Pentagon progress report mentions continued delays in the F-35’s development and testing schedule.
Along with the delivery of the 200th jet, Lockheed Martin reports that the entire program has now logged 75,000 flight hours while training more than 380 pilots and 3,700 maintainers. Also, the year 2017 kicked off favourably for the F-35, with the first deployment of operational jets to Japan.
However – apart from Donald Trump’s fierce remarks on the F-35 – the program’s Director Operational Test & Evaluation (DOT&E) mentions delay after delay in development and testing in a fresh report released this week by the Pentagon. The delays among other issues concern development of the ‘full warfighting capability’ block 3i software, plus problems related to weapons delivery and the aircaft’s gun system, which is now being tested. Also, the report mentions the issues US Navy pilots experience during catapult launches.
Structural deficiencies are reported in the aircraft’s tail section. Furthermore, a new version of the F-35’s Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) was supposed to be released in 2016, but this failed to materialize. During operational tests, maintainance crews struggled with the huge amounts of data ALIS generates.
As a result, Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) will likely not start as scheduled in August 2017, but perhaps as late as in 2019.
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.
The Royal Air Force on Thursday 29 September started one if its largest operations in recent history, deploying Eurofighter Typhoons to the Far East. Meanwhile, the Red Arrows embark on a world tour that takes the team and its twelve Hawk trainer jets to 15 different countries.
The operation is named Eastern Venture and marks the first time Typhoons deploy to countries such as Japan and South Korea. There, the jets take part in military exercises alongside the Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) and Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF).
Four Typhoons will fly to Japan with the support of Voyager tanker aircraft and a C-17 cargo aircraft. In Japan, the jets will operate from Misawa airbase in exercise Guardian North 16, that also sees Japanese F-2 and F-15 fighter aircraft participating.
Next, the Typhoons will head to South Korea, undoubtedly as a show of force to neighbouring North Korea. Osan Air Base will host the aircraft, as well as ROKAF F-15s and F-16s. US Air Force F-16s and A-10s are permanently based at Osan.
Meanwhile, the Red Arrows will visit India, China, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates amongst other countries, taking part in airshows and flying the UK flag.
The first pictures leaked out several weeks ago and the aircraft already took to the skies since, but Friday 23 September saw the official roll out ceremony for the very first Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II for the Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF).
The unveiled aircraft is one of four to be built by Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas. The remaining 38 JASDF Lightnings will be build in a brand new Final Assembly and Check-Out (FACO) in Nagoya, Japan. Assembly of the first aircraft at this location is very much underway.
Irronically, the jet rolled out on Friday is amongst those suffering from a recently found problem, causing insulation to disolve in the aircraft’s fuel tanks. Dozens of F-35s have been grounded over this.
The introduction of the stealthy jet will mean the beginning of the end for the F-4 Phantom in Japanese service. The remaining F-4 fighters and RF-4 recconaissance jets are now centred at Hyakuri airbase, close to Tokyo. The F-35 will operate in the JASDF alongside Boeing F-15 Eagles and Mitsubishi F-2 jets, all produced locally.
The Japanese are known to paint jets in spectacular colors every now and then, but not so with this new F-35. Even the traditional red Japanese markings have been subdued to grey. Earlier this year, the Israelis – while not afraid to adorn their F-15s and F-16s with nice paint jobs – also refrained so from doing this with the F-35.
It begs the question: which air force will be the first to do some nice color blocking on an F-35?