U.S. F-15s To Leave Okinawa Without Permanent Replacement: Report

The only overseas U.S. Air Force F-15C/D Eagle units, at Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa, are to be withdrawn next year, according to a report today in the Financial Times. The move would see the current permanent units under the 18th Wing replaced by rotational fighter detachments. Not surprisingly, the news has already attracted criticism as a retrograde measure at a time when Chinese military power and political ambitions are expanding in the region.

“The message to China is the U.S. is not serious about reversing the decline in its military forces,” David Deptula, former Vice Commander, Pacific Air Forces, and himself a retired F-15 pilot, told the FT. “This will encourage the Chinese to take more dramatic action.”

A U.S. Air Force F-15 Eagle crew chief from the 67th Aircraft Maintenance Unit watches pre-flight procedures and communicates with the aircraft’s pilot before takeoff on Kadena Air Base, Japan. U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Maeson L. Elleman/Released

According to the report, which cites “six people familiar with the situation,” the decision to remove the F-15C/Ds from Kadena seems to have been based on the age of these veteran jets and is considered part of a wider “modernization program.” It may well also be tied to plans to cut planned purchases of F-15EX Eagle II fighter jets down to 80 from the originally projected total of at least 144. The first U.S. Air Force ‘legacy’ Eagles arrived at Kadena in September 1979 and the type has been ever-present at the base since then.

A satellite image of Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa. GOOGLE EARTH

As we have discussed in the past, it was previously unclear what would happen to the two F-15C/D-equipped squadrons at Kadena — the 44th Fighter Squadron (FS) “Vampires” and the 67th FS “Fighting Cocks.”

However, Kadena had already been earmarked as a preferred F-15EX recipient, by the head of Pacific Air Forces, Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach. Wilsbach said he wanted to see the Eagle II replacing the two squadrons of F-15C/Ds currently operated from the base.

“What we intend to use it for there, if we’re so fortunate to get that replacement, is air superiority and some long-range weapons capabilities that you can conduct on the F-15EX,” Wilsbach explained at a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event in March this year.

U.S. Air Force Gen. Ken Wilsbach, left, Pacific Air Forces commander, poses for a photo with German Air Force Lt. Gen. Ingo Gerhartz, middle, Chief of Air Force, and Royal Australian Air Force Air Marshal Robert Chipman, right, Chief of Air Force, at RAAF Base Darwin, Australia, in September 2022. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Savannah L. Waters

With the Air Force’s original plan to purchase at least 144 F-15EXs, that would have provided for one-for-one replacement of the Eagles currently assigned to five Air National Guard squadrons, as well as one acting as the service-wide schoolhouse for the type, plus additional airframes for test and development purposes. Replacement of the Eagles at Kadena would likely have been possible, too, since one of those Guard units (Florida) is switching to the F-35A stealth jet.

But with F-15EX numbers now seemingly likely to be reduced to 80 jets, the hopes of bringing the jets to Kadena have diminished. As we have explored in the past, this reduction in numbers could have significant effects on other F-15C/D units, too, with some of them perhaps ultimately shifting to entirely non-flying roles.

The first F-15EX for the U.S. Air Force arrives at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, in March 2021. U.S. Air Force photo/1st Lt. Karissa Rodriguez

Rotational detachments of fighter squadrons are a familiar part of the Air Force’s operational posture in the Asia Pacific and European theaters, as well as in combat zones.

But the particular tensions that currently exist in the Asia Pacific region make the decision to remove two active fighter squadrons from Okinawa especially controversial.

According to the Financial Times, some officials in both the Japanese government and the Pentagon have voiced worry that the move “will send a dangerous signal to China about deterrence.”

For those concerned about removing a permanent U.S. fighter presence from Okinawa, there is one item of potential hope in the article. It states that “the Air Force does not intend to replace [the Kadena F-15C/Ds] with a permanent presence in the near term.” This would seem to leave open the possibility to permanently station other fighters there at a later date, perhaps after a follow-on buy of F-15EX aircraft, or even an entirely different aircraft type.

There is no indication that any other elements of Kadena’s 18th Wing are currently under threat, although a reduction in KC-135R aerial refueling capacity could well accompany the removal of the two Eagle squadrons. As well as a KC-135R squadron, Kadena is currently also home to squadrons of E-3 AWACS radar planes, RC-135 intelligence-gathering aircraft, MC-130J special operations transports, and HH-60G combat search and rescue helicopters.

Twelve U.S. Air Force KC-135R Stratotankers from the 909th Air Refueling Squadron taxi onto the runway during an exercise at Kadena Air Base. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Marcus Morris

There are other U.S. Air Force fighter jets based elsewhere in Japan, with two squadrons of F-16s at Misawa Air Base on the main island of Honshu. Nevertheless, removing the Eagles would roughly halve the service’s fighter strength in Japan, while the F-15 offers a high-end, long-range air superiority specialism that is not shared with the Viper. With Chinese military aircraft increasingly active in airspace around Taiwan, as well as venturing further afield over the South China Sea and East China Sea, this kind of capability is of particular importance. Another major factor in this context is the F-15’s particular relevance in cruise missile defense, which is a huge and growing issue in the region. The Misawa F-16s, and others without active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars, offer far less capability in this regard.

Four 13th Fighter Squadron F-16CMs from Misawa Air Base buzz the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt during a mission over the South China Sea in April 2021. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Carlos W. Hopper

With that in mind, it’s perhaps not surprising that the new plan for Kadena involves sending a sixth-month detachment of F-22 stealth fighters to the base, once the F-15s vacate it. The Raptors would come from Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, also under Pacific Air Forces.

As the Air Force’s leading air superiority fighter, the F-22 is the obvious choice to supersede the F-15C/D in Okinawa. However, it’s still not clear what will happen after this first six-month rotation. With their production run cut short, F-22s are in notoriously short supply across the Air Force and are in demand for regular deployments and contingencies around the globe.

Currently, Alaskan F-22s are temporarily deployed to Poland, amid tensions with Russia over Ukraine. The F-22s also have a relatively poor readiness rate; generally, around 50 percent are fully mission capable at any given time. This is exacerbated by the fact that there are only roughly 125 combat-coded F-22s in the force, with many of the roughly 55 other jets not fully combat-capable and used for training and test work. On top of all this, the Air Force wants to retire all of the non-upgraded F-22s while some in Congress want to upgrade them to front-line-capable at a relatively huge cost.

An F-22 assigned to the 90th Fighter Squadron, 3rd Wing, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska lands at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, in July 2022, for a stopover ahead of its rotation to Poland. U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Seleena Muhammad-Ali

Clearly, sustaining non-stop F-22 rotations to Kadena is questionable, but sending temporary detachments of fighters of any kind to Okinawa on a longer-term basis will put significant stress on the wider Air Force — as well as the aircraft and personnel involved in those particular assignments. While there is an argument that a rotational detachment might have some benefits in terms of efficiency, through increased cohesion, they also lack the advantage of local knowledge enjoyed by a permanent unit. A unit that’s in situ knows the area and the threats and is also likely to have trained extensively with local forces, building long-term relationships in the process.

Just as worrying are reports that the Air Force has so far “not worked out future rotations,” beyond the first Raptor deployment. We have reached out to the Air Force for further clarification of these plans.

Indeed, while it seems that the aspiration is to have ‘heel-to-toe’ rotations — with one fighter squadron arriving at Kadena as another departs — Deptula, talking to the FT, expressed his doubts about the viability of this.

“They won’t have a heel-to-toe replacement,” Deptula said. “That’s why they’re doing a rotation. You could supplement by rotating F-22s there to help plug that gap, but that [then] stresses that force.”

Lt. Gen. David Deptula, then the Air Force deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (right), and his son Capt. David Deptula, an F-15 pilot with the 67th Fighter Squadron, prepare for a flight at Kadena Air Base, in 2008. General Deptula himself flew with the 67th FS from 1979 to 1983. U.S. Air Force

Overall, though, the apparent changes in the pipeline for Kadena appear hard to square with the Pentagon’s wider focus on China as — in Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s words — the “pacing threat” for U.S. defense planning.

In the center of current concerns around China’s wider strategic ambitions is the status of Taiwan, around 370 miles to the west of Kadena. Tensions surrounding the island have been especially high since the summer, when a visit by U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi precipitated large-scale Chinese military drills, including firing missiles over Taiwan, five of which landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), according to the Japanese Ministry of Defense, leading to a diplomatic protest by Tokyo.

Meanwhile, record-breaking numbers of Chinese aircraft, plus warships, have entered the Taiwan Strait in recent months, all part of military posturing by Beijing that’s been described by its military officials as “a stern deterrent to the United States and Taiwan continuing to play political tricks and undermining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

A Su-30 Flanker fighter jet of the Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese PLA conducts operations around Taiwan, on August 4, 2022. Photo by Hua Junxiao/Xinhua via Getty Images

Against this backdrop, as well as wider Chinese military activities in the region, removing standing forces — in the form of fighter jets — from Okinawa seems puzzling. One other possible factor, however, is the relative vulnerability of jets at Kadena, especially to long-range missile strikes by the People’s Liberation Army. The threat posed by Chinese missiles, especially to established airbases, is something that has already driven changes in the way U.S. air arms are preparing for possible conflicts in the Asia Pacific region, with an increasing emphasis on distributed operations, including flying from austere airfields.

However, introducing a new ‘heel-to-toe’ rotational plan for fighters based around distributed operations would add significant new demands in terms of training and logistics, at least compared to deploying to a base like Kadena with established infrastructure and support assets. More broadly, the issues inherent in the plan reflect the growing problems the Air Force faces as its fighter fleet becomes ever smaller.

There is also the question of how Japan will react to the reported move, which may signal that the United States is less serious not only about providing air defense to Okinawa, Kyushu, and their environs but could also raise questions about its commitment to the Asia Pacific region as a whole. This is an especially pressing concern at a time when Japanese fighter jets are being hard-pressed to deal with increasing numbers of intercepts to respond to aircraft from China, Russia, and elsewhere.

A Japanese Air Self-Defense Force F-15J flies alongside a U.S. Air Force KC-135 while waiting to be refueled over Okinawa. U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Brooke P. Beers

In recent years, Japan’s military has undergone a ‘southwest shift,’ to refocus on Chinese threats in the East China Sea, including a marked uptick in the number of scrambles launched in response to Chinese military aircraft. This change in posture has included increasing the number of F-15J fighter jets at Naha Air Base, also on Okinawa. With U.S. Eagles set to depart the island, Japan may decide to further bolster its air assets there. On the other hand, with the Japan Air Self-Defense Force sharing facilities with a commercial airport, space is already at a premium here.

In the meantime, we will have to wait and see just how robust a rotational plan the Air Force can prepare to ensure that the air defense of Okinawa and the surrounding area is not adversely affected by the withdrawal of Kadena’s Eagles.

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com

Thomas Newdick Avatar

Thomas Newdick

Staff Writer

Thomas is a defense writer and editor with over 20 years of experience covering military aerospace topics and conflicts. He’s written a number of books, edited many more, and has contributed to many of the world’s leading aviation publications. Before joining The War Zone in 2020, he was the editor of AirForces Monthly.