North Korea is never happy about US warplanes operating in its neighborhood. But an upcoming deployment of advanced fighter jets in Japan is going to make supreme leader Kim Jong-un particularly displeased.
The US will early next month deploy a dozen combat-ready F-35A stealth fighters to the Kadena Air Force Base, on Japan’s southern island of Okinawa. It will be the first overseas tour of F-35As.
The F-35 is the most expensive weapons program in history, with acquisition costs exceeding $400 billion. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter comes in three main flavors, based on how the plane takes off and lands. The idea is that all the branches of service, as well as allied forces, can use the same basic plane. The Air Force’s F-35A uses the conventional approach (think runways), the Marines’ F-35B is made for short take-offs and vertical landing, and the Navy’s F-35C is designed to work on aircraft carriers. Some F-35Bs have been in Japan since January—on their first overseas deployment, too—but the F35As carry a larger payload and have a longer range.
The price of the F-35 program last year drew the ire of Donald Trump, who pledged to drive down the “out of control” costs. Earlier this year a spokesman for Lockheed Martin, the main contractor, boasted that the per-unit cost of the F-35A was down to a mere $94.6 million, a 62% reduction in price since 2010.
The program has also come under intense fire for technical problems. For example, the F-35As will be deployed in Japan lacking a critical software upgrade needed to use certain missiles and otherwise meet their full potential. Esquire magazine recently derided the F-35 as a “nonfunctional, money-sucking nightmare.”
But the criticism and squabbling doesn’t matter to Pyongyang, of course. Its concern is over what the planes could accomplish in battle. The National Interest recently described the F-35A as “one of the best weapons for crushing North Korea,” noting it would be “a useful tool to strike at North Korea’s air defenses and command and control nodes during a war.” That would allow conventional bombers to enter North Korean airspace and deliver far larger payloads in relative safety.
One such bomber is the B-1B Lancer, which the US last month flew off the North Korean coast in a show of force, rattling nerves in Pyongyang. Now, highly advanced stealth fighters that can clear the way for it will also be in the neighborhood.
Making matters worse for Pyongyang, both Japan and South Korea have placed orders for F-35s for their own use, with their troublesome neighbor very much in mind.