The U.S. Air Force is preparing to deploy its first combat-ready squadron of F-35A stealth fighters on its inaugural overseas tour. The radar-evading jets—America’s newest, but also glitch-prone—will join a growing stealth strike force slowly assembling around North Korea.
There are hard limits on what that strike force can accomplish as the regime of North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un continues to pursue long-range atomic weaponry.
Twelve F-35s and around 200 airmen from the 34th Fighter Squadron—whose home station is Hill Air Force Base, near Ogden, Utah—will join 100 or so personnel from the Air Force Reserve Command’s co-located 419th Fighter Wing and travel to Kadena Air Force Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa starting in early November, the Air Force stated.
“We’re headed to Japan,” the 419th Wing announced. The deployment is scheduled to last six months.
The F-35s are deploying under the auspices of U.S. Pacific Command’s so-called Theater Security Program, which sends U.S.-based units to the Asia-Pacific region to bolster permanently based units and help deter Russia, China, North Korea, and other regional U.S. rivals.
“This long-planned deployment is designed to demonstrate the continuing U.S. commitment to stability and security in the region,” the Air Force stated regarding the F-35 deployment.
“We expect the F-35A to fly a variety of missions while on this deployment to include ensuring access to global commons, global situational awareness, active defense and power projection to name a few,” Lt. Col. Lori Hodge, a Pacific Command spokesperson, told The Daily Beast. “These deployments are routine and should not be viewed as aggressive in nature or in response to any specific situation in the region.”
The F-35A’s overseas mission—the first major operational tasking for the Air Force’s variant of the long-planned stealth warplane—comes at a time of heightened tensions in the Pacific region, and mounting controversy over the flying branch’s long-term plans for the F-35.
North Korea has dramatically ramped-up its nuclear-weapons development in 2017. The reclusive regime has test-launched no fewer than 16 medium- and long-range ballistic missiles this year. Rockets that launched on Aug. 29 and Sept. 15 briefly overflew Japan. On Sept. 3, Pyongyang apparently triggered a nuclear warhead in an underground trial.
In response, U.S. President Donald Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea. And the U.S. military stepped up its aerial shows of force in the air space surrounding the communist country. Stealthy F-22 fighters and B-2 bombers are regular visitors to U.S. bases in the Western Pacific, including Kadena and the bomber mega-base on the U.S. island territory of Guam.
On Sept. 17, two Air Force B-1 heavy bombers launched from Guam and, over the course of an hours-long mission, flew across the Korean Peninsula south of the North Korean border—but clearly in view of Pyongyang’s forces. The B-1s had company—Japanese F-2 fighters, South Korean F-15s, and U.S. Marine Corps F-35Bs normally based at Iwakuni in Japan.
The F-35Bs were actually the first F-35s to deploy overseas. Ten of the stealthy jets from Marine Fighter-Attack Squadron 121, previously based in Arizona, arrived in Japan in January. The Marine jets have taken part in several war games and shows of forces, but they’re older models with rudimentary Block 2B software and “need to avoid threat engagement,” according to the Pentagon’s own testing agency.
The F-35As coming to Japan from Utah, by contrast, boast the newer Block 3I software that makes the fighters more maneuverable and compatible with a wider array of missiles and bombs. The Block 3F software still in development further expands the F-35’s capabilities.
The stealth fighter’s software has been controversial. Navy Vice Adm. Matt Winter, the head of the F-35 program, recently floated the idea of skipping upgrades for as many as 108 of its own older F-35s with the Block 2B code—a move that would save money but could prevent the planes from flying front-line combat missions. Joe DellaVedova, a spokesman for the program, told The Daily Beast that “the best path forward is to modify fielded jets to the 3F configuration.”
But even the most sophisticated stealth fighter is no panacea for the escalating nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. “Despite recent statements by top Trump administration officials, there are no neat or efficient military solutions to the mounting threat posed by the regime of Kim Jong Un,” wrote Bruce Bennett, an analyst with the RAND Corporation, a think tank with close ties to the Air Force.
“Nearly all of the North Korean bases are at least partly underground and have multiple entrances,” Bennett pointed out. “Fully neutralizing their weaponry could take weeks of missile and air attacks by the U.S. and South Korea. Some of the facilities may be so deeply submerged that only nuclear force would destroy them.”
Needless to say, if the United States and North Korea start nuking each other, the finer points of radar-evading technology will cease to matter.