The first F-35s to be based overseas began arriving at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, on Wednesday. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121, equipped with short takeoff/vertical landing F-35Bs, is moving from MCAS Yuma, Ariz., to Japan, and will replace F/A-18s that have been stationed there. The service said the F-35B “incorporates the mission capabilities of the … AV-8B Harrier, F/A-18 Hornet, and EA-6B Prowler within a single airframe,” bringing “all the access and lethality capabilities of a fifth-generation fighter, a modern bomber, and an adverse-weather, all-threat environment air support platform” to Japan. The unit has been practicing with the aircraft at Yuma in “numerous exercises and training events,” the Marine Corps said in a press statement. Eventually, 16 of the new jets will be stationed at Iwakuni.
The move is consistent with Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s statements that the US is basing its most sophisticated equipment in the Pacific, either in rotational deployments or permanent assignments. The US has deployed stealthy B-2 bombers and F-22s to the Pacific in response to threatening moves by North Korea in recent years; the stationing of F-35s at Iwakuni may signal a reduction in the need for those deployments. The Navy also announced that the first four F-35C carrier-capable aircraft will arrive for duty at Naval Air Station Lemoore, near Fresno, Calif., on Jan. 25, to populate VFA-125, which will be the Navy’s west coast Fleet Replacement Squadron for the F-35C. The F-35C variant is still in its early flight test program, but the Navy wants to begin familiarizing pilots and deck crews with routine shipboard operations.