TOKYO — The U.S. and Japan have deployed an unprecedented amount of resources to search for the wreckage of a Japanese fighter jet with advanced technology that could potentially tip the balance of air supremacy if Russian or Chinese forces find it first.
Ever since the Aichi Prefecture-made F-35A stealth fighter disappeared from radar off the Japanese coast Tuesday, the Japan Air Self-Defense Force and U.S. military have scrambled planes and ships in a frantic search in the Pacific Ocean for the wreckage and the jet’s pilot, Major Akinori Hosomi, who is still missing.
P-8A patrol planes, used to search for submarines, have been deployed in the search, as well as the USS Stethem, a destroyer equipped with powerful Aegis radar. It was learned that B-52 bombers were also dispatched from an air base in Guam.
The U.S. has placed a never-before-seen level of priority on this crash. That is likely because the F-35A is expected to play a crucial role in the future of modern warfare. Indeed, the crash of an F/A-18 fighter jet after it collided with a KC-130 Hercules refueling aircraft off Japan’s coast in December, killing six people onboard, did not prompt the same wide-scale search to find the F-35A.
The F-35, developed by Lockheed Martin, is the next generation of aircraft developed after Washington invested many years and billions of dollars on research. The jet is expected to handle missions for the U.S., Japan, the U.K, Australia and other allies over the next few decades. But it is the planes ability to be used in missile defense, thanks to a high-performance radar system, that has drawn the most attention.
The F-35 has the capability to be loaded with advanced interceptor missiles that will be developed later. The planes, flown by Japanese and American pilots, will stake standby positions ready to detect and shoot down ballistic missiles during their initial boost phase, when the missiles are at their slowest speeds.
The ability to destroy ballistic missiles in mid-air would not only serve as a defense against Chinese and North Korean missile launches, but would add an extra layer of protection against Russia. Military analysts believe that in the event of war, Russia would target onshore Aegis missile shield systems with small nuclear weapons to allow it to fire other missiles. F-35s would add an extra layer of defense with their ability to intercept ballistic attacks.
It is against this backdrop that U.S. has suspended delivery of F-35 equipment to NATO ally Turkey because of Ankara’s decision to purchase Russian-made missile systems with Washington citing an intelligence risk.
Any information on the technology in the F-35s is in high demand. China has reportedly already acquired parts of the F-35 blueprint through cybertheft. It has been advancing its own stealth fighter program, deploying its own J-20 jet to rival the F-35.
But whatever information it may have acquired, being able to touch and analyze the actual material or radar-absorbing stealth paint used for the F-35 will boost its understanding to a new level. After all, there is always the possibility that the information they have in their hands is inaccurate, for instance, through the U.S. intentionally placing bogus information in cyberspace as a counterintelligence measure.
Nothing beats getting one’s hands on the actual thing. It is not hard to imagine that the military and intelligence brass in Beijing and Moscow are salivating at the idea of an F-35A in the sea.
The fact that the U.S. military has taken the unusual step of sending a B-52 bomber to the crash area is a stern message that it will not allow anyone to touch to the plane.
The U.S. has first-hand experience with salvaging sensitive technology from a wreckage. Five decades ago, the it took advantage of a golden opportunity to gain a coveted enemy weapon from the sea.
In 1968, a Soviet submarine equipped with a nuclear missile exploded and sank in the waters near Hawaii. In an operation officially named “Project Azorian” — but perhaps better known by its nickname “Project Jennifer” — the U.S. military detected the sound of the explosion through SOSUS — its sound surveillance system based on a chain of underwater listening posts — and managed to locate the sunken Soviet K-129.
The CIA constructed a large salvage ship specifically for the operation and in 1974, six years after the sinking, under the guise of mining manganese nodules from the ocean floor, the U.S. succeeded in retrieving the K-129, which was full of military secrets.
The Soviets, naturally, were also aiming to salvage its own submarine, but due to the lack of sonar technology, and the fact that the location was off Hawaii, they failed in reaching the submarine before the Americans.
The F-35A that crashed into the Pacific this time is thought to be sunk on the seabed about 1,500 meters deep. While difficult, it is not impossible to salvage. The technology to detect sunken objects has significantly advanced from 45 years ago, and the fighter jet is far smaller and easier to bring up compared with the K-129.
The crash site is roughly 150 km off Japan’s Aomori Prefecture and within Japan’s exclusive economic zone. China and Russia cannot conduct search or salvage operations without Tokyo’s permission. But it is not entirely impossible that the China’s People’s Liberation Army or the Russian military will deploy submarines or underwater drones to attempt to reach the F-35A.
The fate of the sunken F-35A has the potential of altering the air power balance between the major powers. No doubt, other participants of the F-35A program, such as the U.K., Australia and Israel, will be watching carefully.