January 14, 2019:
Japan is ordering another 99 F-35 fighters. This will cost about $15 billion. Most of these will be the F-35A model but as many as 40 will be F-35Bs, the vertical takeoff version that can operate from carriers. Japan already has 42 F-35As on order to replace 73 elderly F-4E interceptors. The new F-35As on order are to replace a hundred older F-15J fighter-bombers. Another hundred more recently built F-15Js have been upgraded with digital communications and fire control gear that can cooperate with F-35s.
There may be more Japanese F-35 orders because its locally designed F-2 maritime attack aircraft has been canceled because of high cost and uncertain performance. Japan also sought to design and build a stealthy replacement for the 1990s era F-2s but concluded it would be too expensive for just a hundred aircraft and such an “X-2” aircraft could not compete against the American F-35 in export markets (assuming Japan changed its constitution to allow weapons exports.) So now Japan is planning to eventually replace the F-2 with F-35s. Japan imports a lot of foreign warplanes but usually assembles them locally under license, which it will do with the F-35s.
Ordering some F-35Bs makes it clear that Japan is going to experiment with some of these aircraft aboard the existing Japanese “helicopter carriers”. Since 2017 Japan has had operational two 27,000 ton “destroyers” (DDH type ships) that look exactly like an aircraft carrier. These Izumo class ships can carry up to 28 helicopters or up to ten vertical takeoff aircraft. The carriers are armed only with two 20mm Phalanx anti-missile cannon and launcher with sixteen ESSM missiles for anti-missile defense. The DDH have powerful engines capable of destroyer-like speeds of over fifty-four kilometers an hour. There are also more medical facilities than one would expect for a ship of this size. Izumo does have considerable cargo capacity, which is intended for moving disaster relief supplies quickly to where they are needed. Apparently, some of these cargo spaces can be converted to berthing spaces for troops, disaster relief personnel, or people rescued from disasters, as well as additional weapons and equipment needed to support F-35B fighter-bombers. Izumo could carry and operate at least ten of the vertical take-off F-35B stealth fighters once modifications were made to the flight deck handle the extremely high temperatures the F-35B generates when taking off or landing vertically (like a helicopter). When the first DDH entered service in 2015 Japan made no mention of buying F-35Bs or modifying the LPH flight decks to handle the very high temperatures generated by the F-35B. The Izumos already have an elevator (to the hanger deck under the flight deck) powerful enough to carry an F-35B fighter.
These new Japanese F-35 plans make it clear that Japan agrees with pilots who have flown the F-35 that the software and the degree of automation built in is spectacular, easy to use and very effective. The F-35 has a large number of sensors (receivers for electronic signals, six cameras and a very capable radar) and the fusion of all that data and presentation to the pilot based on the current situation is impressive and makes the F-35 much easier to fly, despite all the additional capabilities it has. This sort of thing is not a new idea. By the 1990s it was recognized that this new technology (called data fusion) would be a key capability for combat aircraft (as well as ships and ground forces). Put simply, it's all about taking real-time vidcam, radar and other sensor data (sensor fusion) and other information about the battlefield situation (all sorts of databases and reports), and combining it to provide commanders with a better understanding of current operations, preferably in real time if you are a fighter pilot. Pilots agree that the heart of the F-35 superior capabilities is its software and digital communications with other aircraft and troops on the ground.
The F-35 is apparently the best working example of this so far and what is learned from the F-35 software has become the basis for updated software for older aircraft. But beyond the data fusion (and automatic sharing with other aircraft or systems on the surface) the pilots were impressed about how effective the “pilot assistant” software was. This is another concept that has been around for decades and more frequently installed in new aircraft. These minor advances get reported but never make headlines. But given the F-35s stealth, maneuverability and sensor/data fusion, most pilots quickly become enthusiastic proponents of the aircraft.
The F-35 software is more complex and omnipresent throughout the aircraft than in any previous warplane. It’s a major effort to carry out and test any changes. So some major upgrades are needed in how F-35 software changes are made and how quickly. In wartime this would be essential otherwise vulnerable aircraft would be grounded when needed most.
By late 2018 330 F-35s had been delivered, mostly to the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps. Over 4,000 F-35s are expected to be delivered by the mid-2030s with more than 70 percent going to the United States. The 31 ton F-35 is armed with an internal 25mm cannon and, before the SDB (GPS guided Small Diameter Bomb) arrived, four internal air-to-air missiles (or two missiles and two smart bombs) plus four external smart bombs and two missiles. A new bomb rack allows the F-35 to carry eight SDBs internally. All sensors are carried internally and max weapon load is 6.8 tons. The aircraft is very stealthy when just carrying internal weapons.
Currently, there are orders for about 2,400 F-35s. Most of these (1,700) are F-35As for the U.S. Air Force and 500 to foreign customers. Most of the 540 vertical takeoff F-35Bs on order are for the U.S. Marine Corps and all of the 340 F-35Cs (aircraft carrier version) are for the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. The F-35B costs about $135 million each and the F-35C about $120 million. This is more than the F-35A partly because many more F-35As are being built and the carrier versions have to be “ruggedized” to handle the harsh treatment received when it makes a carrier landing. The air force would call such an event a “hard landing” and pull the aircraft out of service for a thorough checkup for damage. The F-35C is built to regularly survive those hard landings, as well as constant exposure to corrosive salt water. The F-35B makes gentler landings and can take off like a helicopter thanks to the special engine exhaust system that puts the propulsive jet exhaust under the aircraft.
In 2001 the U.S. believed 5,100 F-35s would be sold but the rising costs and increasing delays drove that down to 3,100 by 2013 and 2,500 by 2018. Now that some F-35s are actually in service (F-35As and 35Bs) and getting good reviews from users it is hoped sales will increase. Maybe not, because there is a lot still to be discovered about how well the F-35 will do in comparison to the many F-16s, F-15s, F-18s and AV-8s it will replace. The F-35C was supposed to enter service in 2018 but now it looks like 2019 is more likely and that will not have an impact on foreign sales because few, if any, were ever expected.