TOKYO - The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive and one of the most controversial weapons systems in US history, is on its way to Japan to be "the cornerstone" of US defense in the Pacific.
The first of 16 US Marine Corps F-35Bs left Arizona Monday on the initial overseas deployment for the stealth jets. The planes are heading for Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, not far from Hiroshima, on the Japanese main island of Honshu.
Sending the $104 million jets to Iwakuni shows Washington's "commitment to the defense of Japan with the most capable and modern equipment in the US inventory," 1st Lt. Karoline Foote of the III Marine Expeditionary Force in Japan told.
"It will be the cornerstone of a multi-mission joint force possessing improved mission flexibility and unprecedented effectiveness to engage and destroy both air and ground threats," Foote said.
The Marines are touting the F-35B's versatility, calling it "a true force multiplier."
"The unique combination of stealth, cutting-edge radar and sensor technology, and electronic warfare systems bring all of the access and lethality capabilities of a fifth-generation fighter, a modern bomber, and an adverse-weather, all-threat environment air support platform," a Marine statement said.
The Marines' F-35B differs from the other versions in that it is capable of vertical take-offs and landings so it can operate from amphibious assault ships, essentially small aircraft carriers. It replaces the AV-8B Harrier, which has been around since the late 1970s.
The Marines said the deployment to Japan is part of the Obama administration's pivot to Asia and not related to any current specific situation.
But analysts say the presence of the sophisticated jets in Japan still represents a statement to current and potential adversaries in the region.
"Operationally, the F-35B has great potential and moving it to Japan does send a signal to North Korea, which has been making a lot of threats lately and of course, China," Carl Schuster, a Hawaii Pacific University professor and former director of operations at the US Pacific Command's Joint Intelligence Center, said.