A Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-35A flies over Misawa Air Base, Japan, Nov. 2, 2017.

A Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-35A flies over Misawa Air Base, Japan, Nov. 2, 2017. (Brittany Chase/U.S. Air Force)

Japan’s Ministry of Defense has denied reports that it is scrambling fewer fighter jets against Chinese military aircraft infringing on Japanese airspace due to an increased reliance on the F-35 stealth fighter.

Japan reportedly has a “new restrictive policy” that only authorizes the scrambling of fighters against Chinese aircraft that threaten to violate the country’s airspace, Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported Wednesday, citing unnamed Japanese government sources.

Under the new policy, the Japan Self-Defense Force, using radar and early warning systems, reportedly now monitors only the nationality and route of aircraft flying in the zone that abuts Japanese airspace.

Japan’s defensive network remains on watch around the clock, according to Kyodo.

Tokyo hopes the shift from reactively mobilizing to proactive surveillance frees up resources to concentrate on training with the F-35, the report said. It also reduces the burden on pilots. The F-35 is apparently “not appropriate” for scrambling.

On Thursday, Japan’s Ministry of Defense pushed back, denying the report in a telephone interview with Stars and Stripes.

“Nothing has changed,” a ministry spokesman said. “We are on watch 24 hours, 365 days.”

The ministry spokesman declined to comment further. It’s customary in Japan for government spokespeople to speak to the media on condition of anonymity.

The Japan Air Self-Defense Force sortied 947 times in fiscal year 2019, down from a peak of 1,168 in 2016, Japan’s Joint Staff reported on its website. As of Dec. 31, Japanese fighters had sortied 544 times so far this fiscal year, which ends March 31.

There were 192 fewer sorties in the first nine months of fiscal year 2020 due to Chinese aircraft than during the same period the previous year, the Joint Staff reported. Kyodo reported that the reduction was due to the new policy.

Japan is upgrading its fleet to the F-35. The country had 201 F-15 fighters, as of March 31, 2020, the Air Self-Defense Force said in its most recent reporting. It also had 17 F-35A stealth fighters.

The F-35 is the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons program at approximately $100 million each and a lifecycle cost of $1.7 trillion, Bloomberg reported in September.

Forbes magazine declared the platform a failure last month after the Air Force chief of staff, Gen. Charles Brown Jr., launched a study to look for a new, affordable, lightweight platform to replace the service’s fleet of decade-old F-16s, which is what the F-35 was originally designed to do.

Brown told reporters on Feb. 17 that the F-35 was having engine wear issues, Air Force Magazine reported. Brown suggested pilots might have to fly the costly and bulky airframe less than expected. Twitter: @MatthewMBurke1 Twitter: @HanaKusumoto

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Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Grafenwoehr, Germany, for Stars and Stripes since 2024. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Okinawa, Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the news organization. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.
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Hana Kusumoto is a reporter/translator who has been covering local authorities in Japan since 2002. She was born in Nagoya, Japan, and lived in Australia and Illinois growing up. She holds a journalism degree from Boston University and previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor’s Tokyo bureau.

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