Asian airpower – striving for 5th Generation

Among the impressive military fighter aircraft on display at the 2018 Singapore Airshow in February, were two of the first operational Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to be based in the Asia-Pacific region. The two F-35Bs were short take off and vertical landing (STOVL) variants from the US Marine Corps which are now forward-deployed to Japan and they were on static display alongside two US Air Force Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptors, in a show of American 5th generation fighter capability.

The appearance of both the F-35B and the F-22A at the premier air show in Singapore is only the second time the F-35 has appeared at a public display in the region, the first being the brief visit of two RAAF F-35As to the Avalon Airshow last year. But while these aircraft arguably stole the show in Singapore – certainly in terms of hardware on static display at least – the exhibition halls at the Changi Exhibition featured a multitude of brochures, computer generated videos and models of a range of so-called 5th generation technology from across Asia.

China, India (partnering with Russia), Indonesia (partnering with South Korea), Japan and South Korea are all acquiring western 5th generation fighters, or have an indigenous programme to do so or, in the case of Japan and South Korea, both.

The rise of China as a global power, to a point where it will soon rival US influence in Asia-Pacific and regional instability – not least on the Korean peninsula – has generated an arms race in Asia which, in addition to the 5th generation programmes described, has resulted in a flurry of projects to acquire new and upgrade existing 4th generation fighter aircraft.

China’s 5th Generation aspirations

A squadron of US Marines’ F-35Bs is currently forward deployed to Iwakuni and they will embark aboard the amphibious vessel USS Wasp later this year for the first operational shipboard deployment of the Joint Strike Fighter.

More US aircraft will be based in the region in the coming year, and three other nations, Australia, Japan and South Korea, will all begin receiving their first operational F-35s during 2018.

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