F-35s Arrive at Kadena as F-15 Withdrawl Continues

F-35 Lightning II fighters arrived on Okinawa this month as the Air Force continues to swap out its permanently deployed F-15 Eagles at Kadena Air Base, Japan.

The 18th Wing at Kadena said the 355th Fighter Squadron from Eielson Air Base, Alaska began the deployment on March 28. It is unclear how many F-35s are now operating there. Air Force officials declined to provide the exact number of F-35s at Kadena or say when more F-15s would depart, citing operational security. However, officials said the F-35 deployment was temporary as part of the DOD’s plan to place more advanced fighters at Kadena on a rotational basis as the old F-15s head out.

“The next batch of F-15s will depart Kadena in phased movements over the coming months,” a spokesperson for Pacific Air Forces told Air & Space Forces Magazine. “Departures will occur once sufficient deployed forces are in place and operational to ensure no gap in steady-state fighter presence.”

Kadena is a strategic location for the Air Force, around 450 miles from Taiwan. The base bills itself as the “Keystone of the Pacific.”

After more than 40 years of Eagle operations, Kadena has had nearly every aircraft type in the Air Force’s fighter fleet cycle through the island in recent months: F-35s, F-22s, F-16s, and the original F-15s.

The Air Force promised to replace the old Eagles with newer and more capable aircraft, starting with F-22 Raptors from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska and F-16CMs from Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. The F-35s of the 355th FS mark the third squadron to head to Kadena as part of the F-15 replacement plan. The F-22s and F-16s remain deployed at Kadena.

F-15s leaving Kadena are destined for the Boneyard or Air National Guard service. Air National Guard director Lt. Gen. Michael A. Loh told reporters at the AFA Warfare Symposium March 8 the ANG had some F-15s from Kadena undergoing extensive depot tear-downs.

F-35s from the 355th Fighter Squadron deployed to Kadena as early as March 4, according to photo captions of F-35 operations in the Pacific released by the Air Force. It is unclear if the aircraft in those photos returned to Alaska or stayed at Kadena. The spokesperson for Pacific Air Forces said all of Kadena’s F-35s “scheduled to arrive have done so.” A spokesperson for the 354th Fighter Wing, the parent unit of the 355th, noted the arrival of the aircraft March 28 but added, “to protect operational security, exact details on flight and arrival times cannot be provided.”

U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning IIs taxi on the flightline after arriving at Kadena Air Base, Japan, March 28, 2023. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Tylir Meyer

Despite the island’s strategic importance and proximity to the possible flashpoint of Taiwan, the Air Force must remove the permanently deployed F-15s from Kadena because they are simply too old, service officials say.

“F-15Cs: last year when we were here, there were two aircraft at Kadena that were grounded and would never fly again, and two more that could only fly a one-time flight to the Boneyard,” Lt. Gen. Richard G. Moore, Jr., deputy chief of staff for plans and programs, told a House Armed Service subcommittee March 29. “Now it’s three that are grounded forever and four that can only that are only capable of one-time flight to the Boneyard. Of every 10 aircraft in the F-15C fleet that we put into depot, only two of them come out.”

The Air Force has used its newer fighter aircraft at Kadena to hop around the Pacific for various Agile Combat Employment exercises, including deployments of F-22s to Tinian and the Philippines—the first time fifth-generation fighters deployed to those locations. The Pentagon wants to invest $88 million in upgrades to Kadena as part of its fiscal 2024 budget request.

The F-35s look set to continue the trend of Kadena’s fifth-generation aircraft being used as a flexible force. The 18th Wing said in a news release that “the F-35 squadron plans to rotate personnel and equipment to multiple operating locations in order to support the Theater Joint Force Air Component Commander and the 18th Wing while maintaining readiness for the high-end fight.”