Japan, US struggle to find crashed F-35A stealth fighter jet to protect its high-tech 'secrets'

F-35A fighter aircraft from the Japan Air Self-Defence Force taking part in a military review at the Ground Self-Defence Force's Asaka training ground in Asaka on Oct 14, 2018.
F-35A fighter aircraft from the Japan Air Self-Defence Force taking part in a military review at the Ground Self-Defence Force's Asaka training ground in Asaka on Oct 14, 2018.PHOTO: AFP

TOKYO (AFP, REUTERS) - One week after an F-35A stealth fighter jet crashed off the north-eastern coast of Japan, US and Japanese military vessels are struggling to find the wreckage and protect its valuable "secrets".

The Japanese jet vanished from the radar on April 9 over the Pacific as it was conducting a training mission with three other aircraft about 135km east of Misawa, north-eastern Japan.

A Defence Ministry spokesman told AFP that the remains of the jet's tail had been found but they were still hunting in vain for the rest of the fuselage, as well as the pilot.

"On average, two aircraft, including a helicopter, and two patrol vessels are constantly deployed in the round-the-clock search operations," said the official, who asked to remain anonymous.

Japan's Maritime Self-Defence Force has also dispatched an unmanned submersible vessel.

Separately, the US military has dispatched one military aircraft and one vessel to join the mission, said the official, adding that the search has not yet been scaled back.

Defence Minister Takeshi Iwaya said the crash would be discussed at a meeting with his US counterpart in Washington on Friday (April 19), which will also involve the two allies' foreign ministers.

 

"The F-35A is an airplane that contains a significant amount of secrets that need to be protected," Minister Iwaya told reporters.

"With the help of the United States, we will continue to take the leading role in investigating the cause of the accident," he said.

Dr Akira Kato, a professor of international politics and regional security at Tokyo's J.F. Oberlin University, said rivals China and Russia would have "a strong interest in collecting even a single screw of the state-of-the-art plane".

And Dr Hideshi Takesada, a defence expert and professor at Takushoku University in Tokyo, said it would not be a surprise if Moscow and Beijing were engaged in undercover activities to find some of the debris.

"Even if Japan and the US find it, they may not disclose details, including its exact location, due to concerns that China and Russia might try to collect it," Dr Takesada told AFP.

Japan's Defence Ministry confirmed it had not spotted any suspicious vessels or aircraft from a third country near the site.

Japan's air force announced a commission last week to study the cause of the accident but it remains unclear exactly what happened to the plane.

US defence contractor Lockheed Martin touts the high-tech fighter as "virtually undetectable" and says it allows the US and its allies to dominate the skies with its "unmatched capability and unprecedented situational awareness".

The Nikkei Asian Review reported on Sunday that the F-35 has the capability to be loaded with advanced interceptor missiles that could be deployed to detect and shoot down incoming ballistic missiles in mid-air during an attack.

This capability is important to Japan as it would defend the country against Chinese and North Korean missile launches, as well as serve as an additional layer of protection against Russia, according to the Nikkei.

Earlier this month, US Vice-President Mike Pence warned Turkey against buying a Russian S-400 anti-missile system, saying that the air defence system from Russia would compromise the security of its F-35 jets.

Japan is deploying F-35As, each of which costs more than 10 billion yen (S$121 million), to replace its ageing F-4 fighters.

The jet was one of 13 F-35As deployed at the Misawa Air Base, according to the Defence Ministry.

The remaining 12 fighters have been grounded for the time being, the ministry said.

The F-35A jets are a key part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's efforts to upgrade the nation's military capacity to meet changing power dynamics in East Asia, with China rapidly modernising its military.

Over the next decade, Japan plans to purchase as many as 105 F-35As and 42 units of other high-capacity jets, most likely the F-35B variant.