PHOTOS: In Brunei, USAF F-35s Are First 5th-Gen Fighters to Land on Island Nation

U.S. Air Force F-35 fighters landed in Brunei on March 1, the first time U.S. stealth jets have landed on the small Pacific Island nation.

Two F-35s made the trek from Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, to Rimba Air Base, Brunei, a visit that coincided with a diplomatic visit by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Jedidiah Royal. Also making the trip was Maj. Gen. Mark Weber, Air National Guard assistant to the commander of PACAF. 

Members of the Royal Brunei Air Force, including commander Brig. Gen. Dato Sharif, viewed the aircraft, which was on static display, and asked questions of USAF Airmen. The aircraft departed March 2.

The F-35s’ visit came 40 years after the U.S. officially recognized Brunei, following its independence from the United Kingdom, which assumed control after World War II, when the nation was occupied by Japanese Imperial forces. The visit comes as the United States aims to bolster cooperation with a broad array of allies in the Indo-Pacific.

Brunei and the U.S. signed a defense cooperation memorandum of understanding in 1994 and have regularly exercised together since then. The two countries’ air forces worked together in September 2023 as part of the exercise Pacific Angel 23-3, focused on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. As part of that exercise, the U.S. Air Force deployed a HC130-J Combat King II, HH-60G Pave Hawk, and C-17 Globemaster III to Brunei. 

In December 2023, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command hosted Bruneian officials for bilateral talks that included the signing of a “Section 505 agreement,” a prerequisite to granting military training or equipment to a foreign nation. 

Though only 5,765 square kilometers—slightly smaller than the state of Delaware—Brunei lays claim to a slice of the South China Sea that is less than 1,000 miles from China. With China as its largest trading partner and foreign investor, according to the U.S. Insitute of Peace, Brunei has sought to “hedge” its dependence on China by building a stronger relationship with the U.S., researcher Sufrizul Husseini wrote. 

In the growing great power competition between the two, however, the U.S. wants to build ties with countries across the region and has used vists by Air Force fighters and bombers as one of the ways it demonstrates its commitment to allies. 

Just a year ago, for example, Air Force F-22s deployed to the Philippines, becoming the first fifth-generation fighters to that country. In April, a pair of B-1B Lancers participated in an exercise with the Indian Air Force for the first time. And in June, a B-52 landed in Indonesia, another first. And in October, a B-52 landed in South Korea, the first such landing in more than 30 years.

These strategic visits send a message about security cooperation and partnership intended to dissuade China from risking a wider conflict through expansion into neighboring territory.