About 300 airmen from Hill Air Force Base will deploy to Japan in early November to train alongside forces in the region for the operational debut of their version of the F-35, a fifth generation stealth fighter aircraft.
Pilots, maintainers and support personnel from the active duty 388th and Reserve 419th Fighter Wings and 12 F-35A Lightning II jets will travel to Kadena Air Base for six months as part of the U.S.’s ongoing security presence in the area, known as a theater security package.
The deployed reserve airmen in the 419th Fighter Wing will swap with their stateside counterparts halfway through the mission, group commander Col. David Smith said.
The mission pairs the newly deployed airmen with U.S. and international forces already at the base for the F-35A’s first long-term, security package mission in the area, Hill Air Force Base spokesman Micah Garbarino said.
The Marine Corps F-35 variant, the F-35B, has been in the region since January 2017.
The Air Force jets have deployed for other training exercises, like a three-week mission in England in the spring, but this is their first security theater mission in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, Garbarino said.
Though the deployment comes amid increasing tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, it is not a response to that, said Col. Lee Kloos, 388th Fighter Wing Commander.
He described the long-planned deployment as the wing’s “normal battle rhythm.”
There has been a theater security package in the region since 2004.
Kloos, who has been working with the F-35 program since its development, said he is excited for this milestone, calling it the “next logical step” for the jets.
This deployment requires more people and aircrafts than previous deployments — and it is farther away, he said, making the mission logistically more challenging.
“But the unique opportunity to be in the region, provide a presence and really to showcase what the F-35 can do in the hands of these airman, it’s going to be exciting,” Kloos said.