Pentagon upgrades force presence in Japan with F-15EX, F-35 fighters 

U.S. Air Force photo

The US Department of Defense (DoD) announced changes in the deployment of fighter aircraft around its bases in Japan. 

According to the US DoD’s new plans presented on July 3, 2024, the US Air Force (USAF) will deploy 36 F-15EX fighters at Kadena Air Base to replace the fleet of 48 older F-15C/D aircraft currently based there. Rotations of fourth and fifth-generation fighter jets will continue while the F-15EX fleet is progressively deployed. 

The F-15, initially anticipated to be retired in the 2020s, was instead further developed into a new version called the F-15EX Eagle II, leading to an essential technological advancement for the aging aircraft. The Eagle II features an increased payload capacity, fly-by-wire controls, a digital cockpit, modernized sensors and radars, and electronic warfare capabilities 

The presence at Misawa Air Base in northern Honshu will also undergo a significant transformation: 36 F-16 fighters will be replaced by 48 F-35A aircraft, increasing both the base capacity and capability. 

Finally, the US Marine Corps will “modify the number of F-35B aircraft” at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, south of Honshu. 

“The modernization plan, which will be implemented over the next several years, reflects over $10 billion of capability investments to enhance the U.S.-Japan Alliance, bolster regional deterrence, and strengthen peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region,” the Pentagon explained in a statement

Reassuring Japan in response to China’s surging military activity 

F-22 Raptors at Kadena Air Base, Japan (U.S. Air Force photo)

On October 28, 2022, the 18th Wing of the USAF, housed in Kadena Air Base on Okinawa Island, announced that the two squadrons of aging F-15 fighters based in Japan since 1979 would be progressively phased out over two years, starting on November 1, 2022. The capacity was replaced by a stopgap rotation of a dozen F-22 Raptor fifth-generation fighters.   

The decision was met with interrogations among Republican lawmakers, who sent an open letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to voice their concerns.   

“While we agree with the need to modernize the Air Force’s fleet in order to counter the rising threat of [China’s] People’s Liberation Army, […] plans to replace permanently-based fighters with rotational forces will lead to a tangible reduction in American forward combat power in the Indo-Pacific, lowering the bar for aggression,” the letter read.  

The Japan Air Self-Defense Force reported having scrambled its fighter jets 669 times from April 1, 2023, through March 30, 2024, to identify unknown targets, with Chinese aircraft accounting for 479 of these interceptions. 

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