U.S. Navy Joins Search for Downed Japanese Pilot

Japan Air Self Defense Force F-35A (USAF photo)

By The Maritime Executive 04-10-2019 05:35:42

The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Stethem and a P-8A Poseidon patrol aircraft have joined the search effort to find the pilot of a downed Japanese F-35A fighter. 

The Japan Air Self-Defence Force F-35A disappeared from radar about 85 miles east of Japan's Misawa Air Base at 1930 hours Tuesday. The pilot signaled that he was aborting the mission shortly before the aircraft lost contact. 

On early Wednesday, parts of the aircraft's tailfins were found, according to Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya. SAR efforts to locate the pilot continue.

The search team's success in finding the wreckage quickly may come as a relief to American defense planners: military analysts suggest that components from a wrecked F-35 could be an intelligence windfall for China or Russia. In particular, the Russian military operates specialized deep-dive submarines with external manipulators, giving it the capability to exploit opportunities on the seafloor.

Crash investigation begins

Japan is assembling its own F-35A aircraft to the American design, and the fighter that went down Tuesday was the first off the Japanese assembly line. It was part of Japan's first F-35 squadron, which was declared operational less than two weeks ago. 

Japan's air force has grounded its remaining 12 F-35s while an investigation into the cause of the crash continues. 

At an estimated $1.5 trillion total cost over a 55-year service life, the F-35 is the most expensive weapons program ever implemented. The first prototype flew in 2000, but the F-35's development process was plagued with cost overruns and delays, and it was placed on probation with the possibility of cancelation in 2012. The program recovered, and the carrier-borne variant is now entering front-line service with the U.S. Navy.

The system's three designs still face questions about maintainability. According to the Pentagon's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), the U.S. fleet-wide average availability for all three F-35 variants is below 60 percent, and well below the 80 percent target for its Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) phase.

More than 300 F-35s are now in service with American and allied forces around the world, and the United States plans to procure over 2,600 units in the coming decades. With 147 planes delivered or ordered, Japan is the second-biggest buyer.