Japan has dispatched its most advanced ocean research vessel to join the search for its missing F-35 stealth fighter as it scrambles to recover the ultra-sensitive technology before Russia or China get there first.
The Kaimei, a three-year-old survey ship that belongs to Japan’s science ministry, will join US and Japanese forces hunting for the fuselage of an aircraft that crashed into the ocean off northeastern Japan on April 9th.
Japan’s decision to add a civilian vessel to the search highlights the sensitivity of the technology on the fighter, as well as the urgent need to understand why a new aircraft suddenly disappeared from radar.
"At this time, following a request from the defence ministry and the maritime self-defence forces, the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology research vessel Kaimei has joined the search," said defence minister Takeshi Iwaya.
The Kaimei is equipped with echo-sounders, magnetometers and an unmanned submarine able to reach depths of 3,000m for seabed surveys. The crashed F-35 is thought to lie in deep water at 1,500m: well below the operating depth of a normal submarine.
The Pentagon and the Japanese military authorities insist there is no chance of Russia or China getting to the crash site before them, but are nonetheless devoting a flotilla to the search.
Asked if he was worried that the Chinese might get to the wreckage first, Patrick Shanahan, acting US defence secretary, told reporters last Friday: "No, I'm not, okay?"
Japan has five military vessels and three coast guard ships in the area, along with a number of patrol aircraft. The US navy has also assisted in the search, and Mr Iwaya said Washington had chartered the Van Gogh, a privately-owned vessel for deep diving with cranes able to work in 3,000m of water.
The F-35, made by Lockheed Martin, entered US service in 2015 after a protracted development. Designed to be hard to observe on radar, it is expected to become the mainstay fighter aircraft for the US and its allies in the first half of the century.
Details of the aircraft’s design, equipment and radar-absorbent coatings are classified, and it would be a blow if any part of an F-35 fell into the hands of a military rival.
There is a history of clandestine salvage operations to recover military technology and code books. In 1974, the US CIA secretly raised part of a Soviet submarine that had sunk to the northwest of Hawaii six years earlier.
Air forces operating the F-35 also have an urgent need to understand why it crashed, with the pilot unable to eject or report the problem, so they can make sure the costly aircraft is safe to fly.
The land-based F-35A, which was the first of its kind to be assembled in Japan by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, disappeared 28 minutes after taking off from Misawa air base in the north of Japan's main island of Honshu.
Debris has been found on the surface, but the aircraft’s pilot and fuselage have not been located. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019