With the U.S. military having deployed its fifth generation F-35 stealth fighters to the East Asia in ever greater numbers, the new platform is set to be relied on heavily in any future regional conflict. The F-35 represents the largest and most expensive weapons program in world military history, under which the U.S. has sought to develop three light fighter aircraft for three branches of its armed forces - replacing the Air Force’s F-16, the Navy’s F-18 and the Marine Corps’ Harrier. The fighters were developed as a cheaper and lighter complement to the F-22 air superiority platform, similar to the complementary role the F-16 played alongside the heavy F-15 in the fourth generation.
Since their respective inductions into service in 2016 and 2015 respectively the Air Force’s F-35A and Marines Corps’ F-35B have both been stationed at U.S. military facilities in Japan in large numbers, with deployments continuing to grow as more fighters are produced. The F-35A has also been deployed to the Korean Peninsula in limited numbers alongside the heavier F-22 Raptor air superiority fighter, while carrier borne F-35B fighters are also set to be deployed to Korea onboard U.S. assault ships for military exercises. With the F-35C set to enter service by the end of 2018, the U.S. Navy has recently revealed its plans to also prioritise deployments of the fighter to the Asia-Pacific - specifically near the Korean Peninsula. Naval Forces Japan spokesman Reann Mommsen stated regarding these plans in early April 2018: "The U.S. Navy places its most advanced and combat capable units in the forward deployed naval force. This future upgrade will enhance the capabilities of the air wing and its mission to defend Japan and contribute to regional security.”
While the F-35A is restricted to operating from conventional land based runways, and the F-35B was designed with advanced short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) capabilities to allow it to operate from the decks of assault ships, the F-35 has been developed to deploy from the U.S. military’s iconic Nimitz and Gerald Ford Class supercarriers using catapult assisted takeoff systems. The fighter is distinguishable by its folding wings and a wider wingspan, and retains a far superior range and manoeuvrability to the F-35B. The F-35C's larger wing and tail control surfaces improve its low speed control, while its larger wing area allow it to better decrease its landing speed while increasing its range and payload compared to other variants. Stronger landing gear allows the plane to better endure carrier landings, though the platform still has higher maintenance requirements than the ground based F-35A variant.
The F-35C was originally intended to operate alongside carrier variants of the F-22 Raptor as a complementary lighter platform, but the cancellation of the ‘Sea Raptor’ program due to mounting costs, budget cuts and the end of the Cold War mean that the U.S. Navy today lacks a next generation heavy fighter to complement to the F-35C. The carrier based fifth generation light fighter has completed over 100 trial flights on the USS Abraham Lincoln supercarrier, but a number of factors including delays with developing Block 3F software, a vital missions system for the fighters, means the F-35C is unlikely to enter service until 2019 - possibly even later.