Lockheed Martin rolled out the first of 40 F-35A Joint Strike Fighters ordered for the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) in 2014 on 28 March. The aircraft had made its maiden flight on 19 March. The rollout was attended by more than 450 guests, including five members of the Republic of Korea National Assembly Defense Committee, as well as Suh, Choo-suk, vice minister of National Defense; and Lt. Gen. Lee, Seong-yong, vice chief of staff of the ROKAF
Minister of Defense Song Young-moo said that the F-35A would secure the sovereign airspace of the Republic of Korea, enhance combined operations by the RoKAF and US Air Force (USAF), and advance ROKAF’s support capabilities for ground operations.
Vice Admiral Mat Winter, F-35 Program Executive Officer said: “The F-35A is a game-changing capability that will enable the South Korean Forces to operate side-by-side with our US Forces in protecting your nation’s homeland. I extend my personal congratulations to the combined government and industry team in achieving this milestone.”
The first ROKAF F-35As will be delivered to Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, where Korean pilots and maintainers will begin training. F-35As will be delivered to their main operational base at Cheongju between 2019 and 2021.
The Korean newspaper Joongang Ilbo reported that the country’s defense acquisition agency had began the process of purchasing an additional 20 F-35As in December 2017. North Korea reacted to the rollout by labelling its neighbour’s procurement of the F-35A as a “perilous move against the rare atmosphere of reconciliation” according to the state news agency KCNA.
But rather than being aimed against North Korea, the ROKAF procurement actually represents part of a wider reaction to China’s development of its own ‘stealthy’ long range fighter in the shape of the Chengdu J-20, which entered service in limited numbers in September 2017.
The development of the J-20 also triggered Japan’s procurement of the F-35A. The first of 42 F-35As for the JASDF was delivered to Misawa air base in northern Honshu to begin the establishment of Japan’s first F-35A squadron in late January.
Other US allies in the Asia Pacific region, including Singapore, are also considering the purchase of F-35s, and on 26 March, two senior US Republican senators asked the Trump administration to allow the sale of F-35As to Taiwan to improve the island nation’s self-defence capabilities and to act as a “necessary deterrent to China’s aggressive military posture across the Asia-Pacific region.”
F-35s are already operating in the Asia-Pacific region. USAF F-35A Joint Strike Fighters have deployed to Okinawa, Japan, while US Marine Corps F-35Bs deployed to the region on board the the USS Wasp, a 40,000-ton amphibious assault ship.
by Jon Lake