Two new F-15EX Eagle fighter jets, EX3 and EX4, arrive at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., on Dec. 20, 2023.

Two new F-15EX Eagle fighter jets, EX3 and EX4, arrive at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., on Dec. 20, 2023. (Blake Wiles/U.S. Air Force)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — The Air Force will permanently deploy 36 F-15EX Eagles to Okinawa as part of a broader plan to station more advanced U.S. fighter aircraft across Japan over the next several years, the Defense Department announced Wednesday.

The F-15EX fighters are “part of a planned divestment and modernization” and the permanent replacements for 48 F-15C/Ds previously stationed at Kadena Air Base, according to a DOD news release. The Air Force will continue to rotate squadrons of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters through Kadena until the transition is complete, according to the Pentagon.

As part of the broader effort, the Air Force will also deploy 48 F-35A Lightning II fighters to Misawa Air Base to replace 36 F-16 Fighting Falcons. The Marine Corps will “modify the number of F-35B aircraft” at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni as part of its ongoing force design modernization.

The 18th Wing at Kadena and Pacific Air Forces referred further questions to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which referred to the news release. The Okinawa Times first reported the deployment Tuesday, citing multiple, unnamed U.S. officials.

The modernization plan, coordinated with the Japanese government, “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 release states.

Tensions throughout the region in recent years have steadily increased between the U.S. and China, which the Pentagon identified as a global “pacing challenge” and an aggressive presence in the East and South China seas in the 2022 National Defense Strategy.

“The Department’s plan to station the Joint Force’s most advanced tactical aircraft in Japan demonstrates the ironclad U.S. commitment to the defense of Japan and both countries’ shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” the statement said.

In December, the Air Force informed lawmakers on Capitol Hill that it planned to permanently deploy the F-15EX fighters to Kadena to replace two squadrons of aging F-15C/D fighters previously stationed there, Nikkei Asia reported at the time.

The multi-role F-15EX, derived from the F-15E Strike Eagle, could be bolstered by unmanned drones. The F-15EX, while not stealthy, does carry some next-generation avionics and networking capability, is faster and carries more payload with longer range than other fighters, according to its maker, Boeing.

The Air Force has rotated fighter squadrons of more advanced warplanes through Kadena to guarantee coverage at a base it calls the “keystone of the Pacific,” situated northeast of Taiwan on the eastern edge of the East China Sea.

Since December 2022, when Kadena officially bid farewell to its F-15s, squadrons of F-35As from Alaska and Utah, F-16CM Fighting Falcons from Germany, F-15Cs from California and Louisiana and F-15E Strike Eagles from North Carolina and Idaho have served at the base. Most recently, six F-22 Raptors from the 27th Fighter Squadron at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., arrived in April, joining the 199th and 19th Fighter Squadrons that arrived in March.

Kadena is home to approximately 8,000 airmen from the 18th Wing and combat-ready aircraft that provide air superiority, aerial refueling and combat search and rescue, according to the wing website. More than 100 aircraft are positioned at Kadena, either deployed or permanently stationed, all performing a wide range of functions.

Brian McElhiney is a reporter for Stars and Stripes based in Okinawa, Japan. He has worked as a music reporter and editor for publications in New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and Oregon. One of his earliest journalistic inspirations came from reading Stars and Stripes as a kid growing up in Okinawa.

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