The Australia–Japan relationship: leveraging the F-35 possibilities
17 Jun 2014|

Could the JSF lead to new areas of cooperation for Australia and Japan?The fifth Australia–Japan Foreign and Defence Ministerial (2+2) Consultations in Japan in early June 2014 led to another significant step forward in the growing strategic relationship between the two countries—the signing of the Defence Science, Technology and Materiel Agreement.

The agreement, announced during Prime Minister Abbott’s visit in April 2014, provides a formal basis further to develop defence technologies and broader defence cooperation between the two countries.

Cooperative technology development will initially focus on ‘marine hydrodynamics’. That’s an area of significant interest to Australia as it seeks to extend the life of its current Collins Class submarines and works to progress its Future Submarine Program (SEA 1000). In both cases the propulsion system of the Japanese Soryu submarine—the world’s largest and arguably most capable conventional submarine—is of significant interest as it might solve a difficult challenge Australia faces.

But opportunities for future cooperation extend well beyond Japanese assistance with submarines. Australia is well placed to assist Japan in another major capability area critical to both countries: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).

In 2002, Australia joined as partner in the F-35 JSF Program. Despite ongoing program delays, in April 2014 the Australian Government announced that it would acquire an additional 58 F-35A, bringing the total commitment to 72, with consideration of an additional squadron in the future. The F-35 decision has set the path for Australia’s future air-combat fleet.

In December 2011, the Japanese Government also committed to the F-35, announcing its decision to acquire 42 F-35A for the Japanese Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) as the first step in replacing its ageing F-4 fighters. With a total of around 360 fighter aircraft to be replaced, this initial commitment is relatively small but, with few other options for the future, Japan is expected to be a major operator of the F-35.

One of the challenges the JASDF will face operating its F-35s will be lack of access to large overland test and training areas. Extensive areas will be required to exploit fully the capabilities of the fifth generation F-35 with its relatively long range for a fighter aircraft, and its long-range weapons and sensors.

Of particular interest to the JASDF will be the potential to use the Woomera Test Range, the world’s largest overland flight-test and weapons range. Covering around 127,000 square kilometers, Woomera is one of the few ranges where long-range weapons can be tested to their full operational capabilities. Woomera also has the advantage of being electromagnetically quiet and away from observers that could otherwise limit the ability to use the full range of JSF capabilities. A key advantage of Japan and Australia both operating the F-35 is that support facilities can be readily shared.

Other possibilities also exist in the area of F-35 cooperation. The first is for combined training between JASDF and RAAF F-35 fleets. Combined operations in Australia, in a secure and unrestricted environment, would allow for proving interoperability and developing tactics for any potential contingency operations.

Those training activities could be further extended to included RAAF Super Hornets and Growler combat aircraft, supported by Wedgetail AEW&C aircraft and KC-30A multi-role tanker aircraft. If JASDF tanker aircraft are used to support F-35 transit to Australia, cross-tanking with Australian F-35s would further enhance JASDF/RAAF interoperability.

The next step would be to go beyond bilateral training activities and include third parties. Visiting US forces, perhaps including USMC F-35B aircraft, would be a prime candidate. Further into the future, if South Korea and Singapore acquire the F-35, they could also potentially train and test in Australia.

With future regional fleets numbering in the hundreds of F-35 aircraft plus their supporting assets, the combined—and fully interoperable—F-35 air-combat fleets would present a formidable regional air-combat capability.

John Harvey is a former chief of Capability Development Group and former program manager of New Air Combat Capability Group. Image courtesy of Flickr user US Department of Defense.