The Japanese Ministry of Defense announced formally its decision to select the U.S. F-35B stealth fighter as the country’s short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft. The decision was virtually assured given that the United States and Lockheed Martin, the aircraft’s manufacturer, were the only bidders for the Japanese contract.
The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force will procure 42 F-35B fighters at a reported unit cost of $130 million each. The F-35B was built to the specifics of the U.S. Marine Corps and is designed to operate under different conditions from the F-35A.
The two aircraft differ in several ways. The F-35B, owing to its STOVL capability, exhibits a lower range and has a different fuselage contour. It also differs in the kinds of armaments it can carry. The aircraft‘s manufacturer describes the F-35B as having been designed “designed to operate from austere, short-field bases and a range of air-capable ships operating near front-line combat zones.”
The official Japanese decision was made on Friday and represents the progression of plans to refit the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force’s Izumo-class multipurpose destroyers to operate as de facto light carriers with the F-35B on board.
As The Diplomat reported last December, the Japanese cabinet gave its assent to plans to convert the Izumo-class vessels JS Izumo and JS Kaga to STOVL-capable carriers. The decision followed a study by the Japanese Ministry of Defense.
Japan’s National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) calls for the deployment of STOVL-capable carriers over the next five year. The conversion of JS Izumo and JS Kaga, the two largest ships in the MSDF’s fleet, will take place through the mid-2020s.
The Izumo-class won’t be formally designated as aircraft carriers, instead sticking with the classes’ recent redesignation as multipurpose escort destroyers from helicopter destroyers. The class was originally conceived with antisubmarine warfare operations in mind.
Japanese officials public justified the decision to make the Izumo-class STOVL-capable by pointing to an increase in versatility instead of an overt offensive capability, which Japan is constitutionally barred from possessing.
“The planned modification to the Izumo-class carriers is to increase their applications,” Japan’s Minister of Defense, Takeshi Iwaya had said in December 2018.
During a visit to Japan in May 2019, U.S. President Donald J. Trump boarded JS Kaga, becoming the first U.S. president to board any Japanese warship.
Trump hailed Japan’s plans to purchase the F-35B, treating the decision as finalized.
“Soon this very ship will be upgraded to carry this cutting-edge aircraft,” Trump had said at the time. “With this extraordinary new equipment, the Kaga will help our nations defend against a range of complex threats in the region and far beyond.”
The Trump administration has encouraged Japan to purchase U.S. military equipment.