The F-35 takes center stage in the Asia-Pacific arena

With three powerful air weapons well advanced in their plans to field the Lockheed Martin F-35 in the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region, and with the United States itself prioritizing the theater for its deployment, the low-powered fighter Observability quickly becomes the dominant asset among Western aligned forces. Singapore is set to join the F-35 club, and possibly Thailand too, further underscoring the aircraft’s importance in countering major threats from China, Russia and North Korea.


Australia joined the F-35 program as a Tier 3 industrial partner in 2002, placing its first order for 14 in 2009, although it rolled over 12. The first flew in 2014, and a subsequent order brought the total to 72. It acquired the F-35A to replace the F/A-18A/B Hornet in Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) service, a process that began at Williamtown in New South Wales in December 2018, where the training unit – 2 Operational Conversion Unit – and two front line squadrons (Nos 3 and 77) began their transition to the new type. 3 Squadron declared Initial Operating Capability (IOC) in December 2020.

By the end of 2021, the RAAF had received 44 of its 72 F-35As, and in December the last front-line unit, No. 75 Squadron at Tindal, Northern Territory – received its first aircraft. The RAAF aims to have all of its aircraft operational by the end of 2023, and Australia is considering an additional F-35A purchase.

Republic of Korea

South Korea ordered 40 F-35As in 2014, with deliveries beginning in 2018. It has approved a follow-up batch of another 20 and possibly a similar number of F-35B short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft. ) that could work from an assault. carriers.

The Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) 17th Fighter Wing in Cheongju declared IOC with 13 aircraft in December 2019. The wing established three squadrons (151, 152 and 156) to operate the F-35A and took delivery of the original order of 40 aircraft.

F-35A Korea

The Republic of Korea Air Force has now received its entire initial order of F-35As, which powers the 17th Fighter Wing in Cheongju. (Photo: US Air Force)


Prohibited from joining the industrial program by national law, Japan opted for a standard approach to acquiring the F-35, which it initially selected in December 2011 to replace Japan Air Self-Defense’s last F-4EJ Kai Phantoms. . Strength (JASDF). Of an initial total of 42 F-35As planned to accomplish this process, all but the first four were assembled at Mitsubishi’s Komaki Final Assembly and Verification (FACO) plant, although no parts were found. was made in Japan.

In December 2018, the JASDF received its first aircraft at Misawa in northern Honshu, where it formed two squadrons. The 301 and 302 Hikotai previously operated Phantoms from Hyakuri. At the end of 2021, the JASDF had 23 operational aircraft, having lost one in an air combat training accident in April 2019.

Faced with Chinese expansion in the region, the Japanese government approved in December 2018 a plan to acquire 105 additional aircraft. Of these, 63 will be F-35As and 42 will be F-35B STOVLs. Japan intends for the latter to operate from bases scattered across the country’s western islands and, more importantly, from the navy’s two Izumo-class helicopter carriers. Work on refitting the first of the ships to equip it for F-35B operations began in June 2020. Assuming Japan’s F-35 plan comes to fruition, it will make the country the country’s largest export customer. for this guy.


Japan’s plans to purchase the STOVL version and strong interest from South Korea underscore the value of the F-35B in the APAC region, particularly for air arms seeking to operate aircraft from small carriers/ assault ships and/or from an austere island and a temporary highway. basics. Singapore falls into this category and has begun the procurement process for a possible batch of 12 F-35Bs. The republic joined the system, design and development phase as a participant in security cooperation as early as 2003, but its interest in the F-35 was seen as a long-term investment. With the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) Lockheed Martin F-16s undergoing a major upgrade, the need to replace them would not arise until the late 2020s at the earliest.

In January 2019, the Singapore Ministry of Defense (Mindef) said the F-35 was the most suitable replacement for the F-16, but at the time did not disclose the specific variant. Rather than proceed with a full acquisition, it decided to take a more conservative approach and order four aircraft for continued evaluation with an option to purchase eight more at a later date. US State Department approval of Singapore’s application in January 2020 revealed that the aircraft would be the F-35B STOVL version.

Due for delivery in 2026, Singapore’s F-35Bs will initially remain in the United States for training at Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The RSAF F-16 training detachment – ​​currently at Luke AFB, Arizona – will also move to Fort Smith from 2023. Plans call for the replacement of RSAF F-16s from 2030.

Regional sales

Although U.S. political and security concerns limited the potential for further F-35 sales in the region, another potential customer emerged in late December in the form of Thailand. The government has earmarked funds for new aircraft to modernize the Royal Thai Air Force’s fighter force, which includes aging Northrop F-5s and F-16s. RTAF Commander Air Chief Marshal Napadej Dhupatemiya told the Bangkok Post that the Air Force plans to acquire F-35s. “We don’t need a full fleet of F-35 jets,” he said. “We can only use eight to twelve and use drones to fly alongside the manned aircraft.”

World powers

In addition to those operated by the regional air arms, US forces F-35s now operate in theatre. The US Air Force deployed its first F-35As outside the “lower 48 states” to the 354th Fighter Wing at Eielson AFB in Alaska. The base is considered a strategically important location from which air power can be rapidly deployed to Japan, South Korea and beyond.

For the Marine Corps, the distribution of F-35Bs to frontline units leaned heavily toward the Pacific theater, with three units (VMFA-122, 211, and 235) based ashore at MCAS Yuma in Arizona. At the Corps’ forward deployed base at Iwakuni in Japan, the F-35B completely replaced the AV-8B Harrier II, serving with two squadrons (VMFA-121 and 242).

Similarly, the US Navy and Marine Corps have prioritized the Pacific Fleet for deployment of the F-35C compatible version. The Navy established the first major land base for the F-35C at NAS Lemoore in California, home of the service’s first frontline F-35C squadron (VFA-147). Also in California, the Miramar Marine Base is home to the first USMC squadron to be equipped with this type (VMFA-314).

VFA-147’s ‘Argonauts’ and VMFA-314’s ‘Black Knights’ are now at sea in the Pacific Rim, part of the air wings aboard USS Carl Vinson and USS Abraham Lincoln, respectively. . The F-35C received unwanted attention in late January when a VFA-147 suffered a crash landing and went overboard during operations in the South China Sea, triggering a major rescue operation.

Another F-35 operator with a growing presence in APAC, the United Kingdom, recently adopted a new focus on operations in the Far East. In 2021, the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth embarked on its maiden operational deployment and spent some time in the region. In October, the ship visited Singapore and F-35Bs from its joint USMC/RAF air wing undertook exercises with RSAF fighters.

F-35C United States Marine Corps

An F-35C from Marine Squadron VMFA-314 launches from Abraham Lincoln. The squadron began the carrier version’s first seagoing deployment to the Pacific last month. (Photo: United States Marine Corps)

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