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F-35B stealth fighters head to Japan for first overseas mission

By SETH ROBSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: January 11, 2017

A squadron of F-35B Lightning II fighters is headed for Japan to begin the jet’s first overseas mission in the Pacific.

The stealth aircraft from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121 departed Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., Monday bound for Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, a Marines Corps statement said Tuesday.

“The transition of VMFA-121 from MCAS Yuma to MCAS Iwakuni marks a significant milestone in the F-35B program as the Marine Corps continues to lead the way in the advancement of stealth fighter attack aircraft,” the statement said.

The jets had not arrived at Iwakuni as of Wednesday morning Japan time, said the base’s public affairs office, which did not provide information on when they would touch down.

Marines fly a “short take-off vertical landing” version of the plane, which is designed to replace F/A-18 Hornet, AV-8B Harrier and EA-6B Prowler jets.

In November 2012, VMFA-121, which had flown F/A-18 Hornets, became the Marines’ first operational F-35 squadron. Since then, it has taken part in numerous drills in the U.S. and was declared combat-ready in July 2015, the statement said.

The aircraft is controversial for cost over-runs but won’t spark the safety concerns that the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft aroused when it arrived in Japan in 2012, said Carl Baker, a defense expert at the Pacific Forum in Hawaii.

“The F-35 will attract a lot of cameras along the fence when it shows up, but it won’t cause safety concerns in the community [like the Osprey has],” he said.

Deploying the F-35B to Iwakuni is the first phase of a plan that will boost America’s military strength in the Western Pacific, Baker said.

The amphibious-assault ship USS Wasp — slated to replace the USS Bonhomme Richard at Sasebo, Japan, this year — “was recently modernized to accommodate the Marine Corps variant of the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35B), which is capable of Short Take-off Vertical Landing (STOVL), enabling it to operate out of a wide range of bases, both afloat and ashore,” a Navy statement said.

The first 10 F-35Bs that are headed to Japan will be joined by six more over the summer, Gen. Michael Rocco, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing commander, told USNI News last May. He said the Wasp would be ready to take on the jets.

In October, a contingent of Marine Corps F-35Bs, pilots and maintainers participated in drills from the USS America, the Navy’s newest and largest amphibious ship, this week’s Marine Corps statement said.

“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. Data and lessons learned laid the groundwork for developing the concepts of operations for F-35B deployments aboard U.S. Navy amphibious carriers, the first two of which will take place in 2018,” the statement said.

The addition of the Wasp and the F-35Bs will enhance America’s amphibious warfare capability in the region, although the warship carries fewer jets than a full-sized carrier, Baker said.

“It reassures Japan of the U.S. capability to help them defend their islands. It is geared toward the Senkakus,” he said, referring to a group of Japanese-controlled islands near Taiwan that China also claims.

robson.seth@stripes.com
Twitter: @SethRobson1

An F-35B lightning II with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 prepares to take off from Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., Jan. 9, 2017, en route to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan.
JAKE MCCLUNG/U.S. MARINE CORPS

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