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Video Above: What Role Would 5th Generation Stealthy Fighter Jets Play in a War with China?

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

Japan’s massive, multi-billion dollar F-35 buy has made headlines for months, as it represents a clear and decisive move on Japan’s part to rival if not fully outmatch China’s fleet of 5th-generation aircraft such as the J-20 and J-31. 

The acquisition is clearly a move with great consequence for Japan, which has been forced to respond to Chinese fighter jet incursions near their borders and airspace for many years now. 

F-35Bs

Also, the F-35 now exists in large numbers and is at an advanced stage of maturity and operational maturity, placing it potentially well above its Chinese rivals when it comes for forming air-squadrons or large numbers of networked 5th-generation attack formations.

Meanwhile, as this purchase rapidly advances, the Japanese are not waiting for new F-35s to advance 5th-generation air-war tactics and air-sea-land multidomain war preparations and amphibious attack exercises. 

For instance, Japan has broken new ground by now launching its vertical-take-off and landing F-35B variant from its JS “Izumo” destroyer, marking a breakthrough development in the realm of 5th-generation amphibious attack. 

While the US has of course been operating F-35Bs from amphibious assault ships for many years now, the ability for Japan to support, supplement and network with US Marine Corps and Navy amphibious forces by adding 5th-gen air support to multi-domain operations massively multiplies capability.

A Marine F-35B Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter from The “Bats” of Marine Fighter Squadron (VMFA) 242 takes off from JS Izumo on Oct. 3, 2021. 

A Marine F-35B Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter from The “Bats” of Marine Fighter Squadron (VMFA) 242 takes off from JS Izumo on Oct. 3, 2021. 

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The F-35B launch from the Japanese destroyer was cited in Japan’s recently released Defense Report 2022 outlining a wide range of new initiatives aimed at strengthening their military and allied cooperation.

“Japan and the United States are conducting Japan-U.S. bilateral activities, such as defense equipment and technology cooperation, expansion of joint/shared use of U.S. and Japanese facilities and areas, and during this fiscal year, verification of F-35B take-off and landing to the MSDF’s destroyer JS “Izumo,” the Japanese report states.

Japanese destroyers and US amphibs, for example, could use the well known, common F-35-specific Multifunction Advanced Datalink (MADL) to share targeting and location information across a multi-national formation in real time … and in large numbers.

J-31s and J-20s

Apart from the potential extent to which the emerging, carrier-launched J-31 Chinese 5th-generation stealth aircraft can rival the F-35B, and there are no clear indications that it could, the Chinese simply suffer a numbers deficit when it comes to sea-launched 5th-gen stealth aircraft. 

Mass still matters, to quote the famous Sun Tzu, particularly when it comes to dispersed, yet networked 5th-generation air attack formations, and the PLA simply does not have enough J-31s at the moment to conduct air-surface maritime warfare operations in any way comparable to the US Marines. 

This Chinese deficit would only be reinforced by a Japanese ability to launch 5th-generation aircraft from its destroyers, something even the US does not do. A US amphibious assault ship, however, can carry and operate as many as 13 or more F-35Bs, and given that the Chinese J-31 is carrier launched and runway reliant, the PLA has no equivalent to an F-35B. This impacts their ability to project power, particularly when it comes to maritime air support. 

Essentially, China only has a few aircraft carriers and not many J-31s, so an ability to launch 5th-generation air attacks from the sea is quite limited, meaning China would need to use 5th-generation air support from maritime areas only within range of a land-launched J-20 stealth fighter. 

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven - the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President - Center for Military Modernization