Japanese F-35s in Australia: Stepping up Defense Cooperation

By Shingo Nagata

The development in August last year attracted little attention, but it represented a significant step forward in the strategic relationship between Japan and Australia. For the first time, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force deployed two F-35 fighters overseas—and it chose to send them to Australia.

The reason for the aircraft deploying to the Royal Australian Air Force’s Tindal base in the Northern Territory was not to exercise there. Rather, their flight to the base was itself an exercise, to pave the way for Japanese F-35s to go to Australia in future. Those later deployments will support joint training that will deepen the relationship between Japanese and Australian forces.

An ability to shift F-35s to Australia may be valuable in wartime, too.

The two countries have been working up to this level of cooperation for more than a decade. In 2007 they signed the Japan-Australia Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation. Since 2014 they have strengthened their relationship under the Special Strategic Partnership, under which they work together on economic and security affairs and on regional peace and stability. Then in 2022 the Japan-Australia Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation was updated to enhance their security connection.

Also in 2022, the two countries signed the Japan-Australia Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA), which aimed at facilitating visits by the forces of each of them to the other. The F-35 deployment to RAAF Tindal was the first application of that agreement. The aircraft, from Misawa Air Base’s 301st Squadron, flew 6400km to Tindal via the US Air Force’s Andersen base on Guam. JASDF tankers repeatedly refueled them in flight.

Future participation in exercises in Australia by Japanese F-35s and their crews will promote the ability of the two countries’ forces to operate together. That will extend to operating with other like-minded Indo-Pacific countries when Japanese F-35 units participate in multinational exercises in Australia. In 2022 JASDF F-2 fighters and their crews participated in the RAAF’s big multinational Exercise Pitch Black. F-35s, which will become the mainstay of the JASDF fighter squadrons, can now follow, their crews getting the particular opportunity to work with other operators of the type.

Another special opportunity for Japan is access to vast air space in northern Australia for training, including the Delamere Weapons Range of more than 2000 square kilometres.

An acquisition and cross-servicing agreement between Australia and Japan provides for logistical backing for the F-35s of both countries. And an F-35 maintenance centre at RAAF Williamtown in New South Wales will be able to support Japan’s aircraft of the type when they are deployed to Australia.

A further advantage of access to Australia by Japan is opportunity for dispersion. China can attack airfields within thousands of kilometres of its territory with cruise and ballistic missiles. Conceivably, Japanese air bases and even civil airports would be wrecked in wartime, forcing JASDF units to seek refuge elsewhere.

Guam is an unlikely destination for them, since it also would be a target for Chinese strike missiles. Australian bases, on the other hand, are at safer distances from China—though it must be acknowledged that they are much too far away for maintaining fighter operations in North Asia.

Japan-Australia security cooperation has progressed to the stage of quasi-alliance. For Japan’s forces, formerly accustomed to cooperating little with any country except the US, the relationship with Australia is opening new opportunities.

Shingo Nagata  is a visiting researcher at the Institute of Human and Social Sciences, Kanazawa University, Japan.

This article was published by ASPI on 6 March 2024.

Feature Image: Australian Department of Defence.