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US Deploys More Than 300 F-35 Stealth Fighters to Indo-Pacific as Pentagon Boosts ‘Coalition Capability’ to Combat PLAAF



Despite losing nearly a billion dollars on a secret program to produce missiles and fire control systems, Lockheed Martin, perhaps the world’s largest defense contractor, seems optimistic that it will have a booming business in the Indo-Pacific region, where many countries that are afraid of China are increasing their air force.

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Jay Malave, Lockheed’s chief financial officer, revealed last week (April 23) that the company could incur more than $1 billion in potential losses on the secretive program, although CEO Jim Taiclet characterized the program as “a long-term franchise that has strong returns.” on investment after a period of teething problems.”

However, there appear to be other areas that Lockheed is looking at positively. The F-35 fighters are in high demand in the Indo-Pacific, where more and more countries are said to be realizing the growing importance of ‘air superiority’, a key lesson learned from the conflict in Ukraine.

Singapore is acquiring its next-generation fighter fleet as it prepares to retire its current fleet of F-16s from the mid-2030s.

The US State Department’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency had reportedly approved an estimated US$2.75 billion sale of up to 12 Lockheed Martin-built F-35B short-take-off, vertical-landing fighters to Singapore in 2020. be delivered by 2026.

If you assume an official release of the Lockheed in 2035, “More than 300 F-35s will call the Indo-Pacific region their home”. This includes F-35s from the US, Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea and Singapore.

Second, the company recognizes that sustainability is critical to ensuring readiness. It pledges to continue focusing on strengthening repair capacity and supply chain maturity across its various programs.

“Japan is home to one of the three Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO) facilities at Komaki South in Nagoya. In addition, the stand-up of the North Asia Regional Maintenance, Repair, Overhaul, and Upgrade (MROU), also in Nagoya, was completed in 2020. This facility will be used by JASDF and USAF jets,” it said, adding that “our platforms continue to support the allied mission to maintain stability and security in the Indo-Pacific region.”

Third, the F-35 facilitates interoperability with the United States and other allies and partners around the world.

According to Steve Over, Lockheed Martin’s director of F-35 International Business Development: “When you think about these conflicts, virtually no one faces conflict alone, and so it’s about (building) coalition capacity. The great thing about the F-35 is that you have an aircraft that is operated not only by the United States, but also by other countries in the Indo-Pacific, such as Japan, Australia and South Korea, as well as several European countries. ”

The point is that the F-35, as Over says, has the potential to be the “perfect integrator in a joint, cross-domain environment. There is definitely a future world where all the pilot of an F-35 will do is contribute a very, very precise set of targeting coordinates that another land or sea effector will then actually target.

In a multi-nation coalition force, “anyone’s F-35 can be plugged into the network” to provide that targeting data.

About arguing. “It doesn’t have to be an American plane; it doesn’t have to be a Singaporean plane. And that level of interoperability is one of the things that is becoming a hallmark of the F-35 for all customers who use it. It really is an incredible force multiplier.”

In other words, the F-35 is said to strengthen “allied partnerships in the Indo-Pacific.” In this regard, it is noted how the fighter aircraft has participated in regional military exercises such as Exercise Vigilant Defense (in October 2023, American F-35s and F-16s trained with South Korean F-35s and Royal Australian Air Force aircraft), joint training over the East China Sea (in the fall of 2023, US Air Force F-35s trained with Japanese aircraft over the East China Sea) and exercise Elang Ausindo (in September 2023, a bilateral air combat exercise brought together six Australian F-35As and six Indonesian F-16s to generate tactics and techniques for air operations).

It also indicates how Australian F-35s were deployed in Japan for the first time in September 2023. “Developing a mutual understanding in how we each operate the F-35A is essential to how Australia and Japan contribute to the collective security of the Indo-Pacific,” said Air Marshal Rob Chipman, head of the Australian air force. “Our pilots will develop their skills by operating abroad, 5,800 kilometers from home, and developing professional relationships with their Japanese counterparts.”

Other American manufacturers also play a role in this partnership in addition to the F-35 or, for that matter, the Lockheed. For example, Singapore’s Boeing-made F-15SGs, which have been in service since 2009, remain an important part of the country’s fighter fleet.

Boeing’s latest F-15 variant, the F-15EX, completed its maiden flight in February 2021 and the company began delivering the aircraft to the US Air Force a month later. It is now said to be on Singapore’s radar for further acquisition.

F-15EX

Meanwhile, Indonesia signed a memorandum of understanding with Boeing in August 2023 to purchase up to 24 F-15EX air superiority fighters, pending US government approval.

Above all, the United States is coming under increasing pressure from its military to expand its own air power in the Indo-Pacific given the Chinese factor. Andrew Hunter, assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics at the U.S. Air Force, said Washington is monitoring developments in the region to determine its own acquisition priorities.

“The Air Force is really stepping up and strengthening the relationship with the operational community to inform our acquisition programs so that we actually deliver capabilities that make a difference in the near term and in the long term against the operational challenges that they see,” Hunter said during a briefing at the Singapore air show in February.

The US is talking about “strengthening, nurturing and expanding and deepening all of our relationships with the partners in the region,” and in this regard they have, as Hunter says, “a huge focus within the Air Force” on the Indo-Pacific and Southeast Asia.

It may be noted that China has added many advanced fighter aircraft to its inventory in recent years, leading to speculation that China may soon have the world’s largest air force.

F-35
U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning IIs arrive at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, April 1, 2024.

Experts believe that China produces the J-20 at more than about 100 airframes per year, compared to 135 airframes per year of the F-35. And while most of the J-20s are for China’s own use, 60 to 70 U.S.-produced F-35s are exported here to its allies and partners.

China is also reported to be accelerating production of the J-16, J-10 and its naval variants. The J-16, a multi-role fighter, produces more than 100 airframes annually, while the J-10 produces fewer than 40 airframes per year.

Daniel Rice, a China expert at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation and Future Warfare at Marine Corps University, said if China maintains its current production rate, it could overtake the US in producing the latest fighter jets.

However, it is said that there is a discrepancy between quality and quantity between the American and Chinese fighters. The J-20 is broadly considered a 4.5 generation aircraft, unlike the American F-22 and F-35. In fact, the US Air Force is simultaneously developing its own sixth-generation fighter aircraft, called Next Generation Air Dominance.

Likewise, the J-10C is not quite the USAF’s F-15EX, but rather “the low-end or high-low mix of that version,” says Rice.

However, despite this assessment of quality versus quantity, the US admits in its 2023 report on military and security developments involving the People’s Republic of China (CMPR) that the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and PLAN (PLA Navy) are shaping aviation together the largest aviation power in the Indo-Pacific region.

The report says China is rapidly catching up to Western air forces in the region, which is a huge challenge that America, along with its allies and partners, must address. It is said that maintaining air superiority in the Indo-Pacific is key, and Lockheed and Boeing have a great opportunity to contribute to this.

  • Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is chairman of the editorial board of EurAsian Times and has been commenting on politics, foreign policy and strategic affairs for almost thirty years. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
  • CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at) hotmail.com
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