“The Japanese have the lead there, and we’re working very collaboratively with them," acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said Friday. "And we’ve got a capability if what they have doesn’t prove to be sufficient.”
When asked whether he was concerned China could get to the crash site first, Shanahan said: “No, I’m not.”
The F-35, which belonged to the Japan Air Self-Defense Force, crashed in the Pacific Ocean off northern Japan on April 9. The pilot was flying with three other F-35s when he lost contact and disappeared from radar roughly 85 miles east of Misawa Air Base.
Not long after the F-35 went missing, there was speculation about whether Chinese or Russian assets were searching for the secretive aircraft and whether they could beat the U.S. and Japan to the crash site.
“We don’t have such possibility, absolutely no,” Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya said through an interpreter during a visit with his U.S. counterpart. “We are conducting surveillance and warning activities so we can identify and find the missing aircraft.”
The area in which the F-35A crashed is estimated to be about 5,000 feet deep. The Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force has deployed a rescue submarine, among other vessels, to search the area.
“This is a very important aircraft, so we would like to locate the aircraft as soon as we can and salvage it,” Iwaya said Friday. “Japan will lead the investigation, but we’re hoping and also it is indispensable to have the support of the U.S. So while we do that, we would like to find the root cause of the accident.”
China and Russia are each developing rival aircraft to the F-35. Unveiling secrets of the fifth-generation stealth fighter could potentially be a windfall for the U.S. military’s peer adversaries.
Appropriating the technology of lost military assets isn’t something out of the realm of possibility, as pointed out by Task & Purpose. In the early 1970s, the CIA spent hundreds of millions of dollars attempting to recover a sunken Soviet submarine that the Kremlin had failed to rescue in 1968, according to declassified CIA documents.
The sub broke apart during the recovery operation, which took place at a depth of 16,000 feet, but the U.S. still managed to recover two nuclear-tipped torpedoes and some submarine manuals without the Soviets noticing, NPR reported.
Pentagon spokesman Charles Summers Jr. said Thursday that the primary U.S. search effort has ended, “however, we will continue to coordinate with our Japanese partners on efforts to locate and recover the missing aircraft.”
The incident has not shaken the American and Japanese militaries’ faith in the F-35 program, he said.
“The U.S., and all F-35 partners, remain fully committed to protecting all F-35 capabilities and technology," Summers added. "Our thoughts continue to be with the family, friends and colleagues of the missing pilot.”
U.S. Navy destroyer Stethem and several P-8A Poseidon aircraft took part in the search alongside Japan Self-Defense Forces, according to Defense News.
Some wreckage from the F-35 was found at sea; however, the pilot was not recovered and the bulk of the aircraft is still missing beneath the waves.
The cause of the crash is unknown. It is the second crash of an F-35. The U.S. Marine Corps lost an F-35B in South Carolina near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. The pilot safely ejected during that incident.
“The department has full faith and confidence in the F-35 program," Summers said. “All 276 U.S. F-35s continue to fly, including U.S. Air Force F-35As in the U.S. [Central Command] area of responsibility.”
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq. Follow on Twitter @Kyle_Rempfer