The US Air Force (USAF) has announced a major upgrade of the combat aircraft to be stationed at strategic air bases in Japan.

Kadena air base, located on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa, will see 36 Boeing F-15EX fighters replace 48 F-15C/Ds, says the Department of Defense (DoD).

F-15EX c Boeing

Source: Boeing

The F-15EX’s range, payload, and sensor suite make it well suited to Asia-Pacific operations

Fourth- and fifth-generation fighters will continue to rotate through the base during the transition phase, the DoD adds.

At Misawa air base, located north of Tokyo on Japan’s main island of Honshu, 48 Lockheed Martin F-35As will replace 36 Lockheed F-16s.

“The modernization plan, which will be implemented over the next several years, reflects over $10 billion of capability investments to enhance the US-Japan Alliance, bolster regional deterrence, and strengthen peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region,” says the DoD.

In addition, the US Marine Corps (USMC) will “modify” the number of F-35Bs stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakumi, located in the southern part of Honshu. The DoD does not state whether the number will decline or increase but says the move is consistent with the USMC’s force design modernisation effort, which is recasting the marines to participate in a great power conflict in littoral regions.

“The department’s plan to station the joint force’s most advanced tactical aircraft in Japan demonstrates the ironclad US commitment to the defence of Japan and both countries’ shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” says the DoD.

The move follows the USAF’s receipt of its first F-15EX, which represents a major upgrade of the iconic fighter type.

The Japan announcements come as China aggressively presses territorial claims against neighbouring countries such as Japan, the Philippines, and Taiwan.

In the South China Sea Chinese coast guard units have harassed Filipino coast guard and civilian vessels, while Beijing operates daily flights of combat aircraft near Taiwan.

Recent US military exercises have had a strong focus on the Pacific. On 1 July, a USAF Boeing KC-46A tanker completed a 45h non-stop flight around the world, during which it received fuel and refuelled other aircraft. The exercise demonstrated the global reach of US airpower, and was especially pertinent for the Asia-Pacific, which is characterised by vast distances.

Another exercise saw a USMC Bell AH-1Z attack helicopter use a Lockheed AGM-179 Joint Air-to-Ground Missile to destroy a moving target vessel in the South China Sea.

“The missile can be used to defend key maritime terrain against a wide-range of targets from armoured vehicles to maritime patrol craft during conflict,” says the USMC.