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Ruling bloc working team OKs replacing 99 old F-15 fighters with F-35s

This file photo dated Oct. 14, 2018 shows an F-35A stealth fighter taking part in a Self-Defense Force troop review at the Asaka training ground north of Tokyo. (Mainichi/Masaaki Hashimoto)

TOKYO -- A working team of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its junior coalition partner Komeito discussing the content of the upcoming national defense program guidelines approved a government plan on Dec. 5 to replace 99 older F-15 mainstay fighter aircraft with F-35 jets.

The panel, meanwhile, decided to continue discussions on a plan to upgrade the Maritime Self-Defense Force's Izumo-class helicopter carriers into full-fledged aircraft carriers, because government officials' explanations of the plan differed from their past Diet testimonies.

The Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) operates 201 F-15s, but 99 of them are too old to be upgraded with the latest capabilities and their replacements were under consideration. The government decided to pick the F-35A stealth jet because some of the aircraft entered ASDF service this year and expanding its wing groups would be beneficial in terms of pilot training and maintenance. Some of the F-15 replacements will be F-35B models with short takeoff and vertical landing capabilities.

Regarding the Izumo-class upgrade, government officials had explained at the Diet that turning them into full-spec aircraft carriers is needed to strengthen Japan's Pacific coast defense posture because the land area on that side of the country is smaller compared to the facing waters within Japanese territory.

During the Dec. 5 panel session, Komeito lawmakers questioned whether the explanation ran counter to an earlier government statement in the Diet that possessing "attack aircraft carriers" is forbidden under Japan's policy of keeping its defense capabilities to the minimum necessary. As a result, panel members decided to leave a decision on the matter to future meetings.

As for the replacement of the ASDF's F-2 fighters, which will reach the end of their designated service life in the 2030s, government officials told the panel that they will "consider" candidates during a five-year period starting fiscal 2019. That coincides with the launch of a new midterm defense buildup program to be determined by the end of this year along with the national defense program guidelines.

Komeito election strategy chief Shigeki Sato, also acting chairman of the defense panel, told reporters that he will seek sufficient explanations about the Izumo-class upgrade from the government. "We must explain to the public why the upgrade is necessary," Sato said.

(Japanese original by Noriaki Kinoshita, Political News Department)

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