WASHINGTON — The Air Force’s F-35 is making its operational debut in the Asia-Pacific region, with 12 A-models set to arrive at Kadena Air Base, Japan, early this November for a six-month deployment.
More than 300 airmen from the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah — including pilots, maintainers and other personnel — will deploy to Kadena to support the aircraft, Pacific Air Forces announced.
“The F-35A gives the joint warfighter unprecedented global precision attack capability against current and emerging threats while complementing our air superiority fleet,” said Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, Pacific Air Forces commander. “The airframe is ideally suited to meet our command’s obligations, and we look forward to integrating it into our training and operations.”
Four sources with knowledge of the discussions said U.S. Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, the current commander of Pacific Air Forces, is the leading candidate for the spot. His confirmation would mark the first time in history the PACOM spot has not been filled by the Navy.
Although the large number of F-35s moving into the Asia-Pacific, and long duration of their rotation, is somewhat surprising, it had long been expected that the A-model would deploy to the region for the first time this year.
Expectations were heightened when two A-models showed up at the Seoul International Aerospace & Defense Exhibition last week. The aircraft did not perform a flight demonstration during the show and were instead featured as static displays, but defense watchers speculated that the F-35 could remain in the region after the show.
The Air Force’s top civilian hinted the service could deploy a number of F-35s to Europe as early as this summer.
Before leaving office in February, former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James hinted that the service would deploy two separate “theater security packages” of F-35s by the end of 2017 – first to Europe, then to the Asia-Pacific.
“Now that the F-35 has been declared combat capable, we will deploy our newest fighter to Europe in the not too distant future,” she said in December. “Matter of fact, if I were a betting woman, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the F-35 didn’t make an appearance, perhaps, next summer.”
Here's what's coming up on the F-35A's first international deployment.
The service made good on its promise in April, when it sent eight F-35As to RAF Lakenheath, England. During the three weeks spent in Europe, the aircraft made stops in Estonia and Bulgaria and trained with NATO partner aircraft from countries like the United Kingdom and the Netherlands.
Although the November deployment will mark the first time the A-model operates in the Asia-Pacific, the Marine Corps has had its F-35B short takeoff and landing variant permanently stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, since January.