Here’s Everything We Know About The Ongoing Search For Japan’s Crashed F-35 (Updated)
The search and rescue effort continues for the F-35 and its pilot with a U-2 spy plane and submarine rescue vessel joining the effort.
It has been four days since the crash of a Japan Air Self Defense Force F-35A. Here's what we have to report, but before you start reading the update, make sure you read our original post linked here to get caught up.
Details regarding the crash remain scarce. Keep in mind that data surrounding tracking F-35s and the information its data-links send and receive are sensitive in nature, especially the data captured by its proprietary low-probability of intercept (LPI) Multi-functional Advanced Data Link (MADL) system whichconnects F-35s together within line-of-sight. The jet also has satellite and Link 16 connectivity, but they are not stealthy like MADL.
In addition, it's worth keeping in mind that these aircraft do not carry Aircraft Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation (ACMI) pods for training, so internal networked systems provide this function. All this info, as well as possible radar data, could potentially be used, as well as accounts from the three other pilots on the training flight, to recreate exactly what happened and where it happened of that unfortunate evening. All this data takes time to process and correlate, so it isn't surprising we haven't heard more just yet.
What we do know is that the missing pilot, 41-year-old JASDF Major Akinori Hosomi, was highly experienced with over 3,200 hours of flight time, but he only had 60 hours in the F-35. During the doomed flight, the last thing anyone heard from Hosomi was a radio call to stop training. The aircraft was not operating at low altitude when it crashed at 7:29pm local time roughly 84 miles off of Northeastern Honshu Island, Japan.
The F-35A that crashed was the first aircraft Mitsubishi assembled locally. It had two known inflight emergencies during its short career—one early on during testing having to do with a cooling system issue and another due to some sort of faulty 'position indicator.' Both problems were remediated by swapping out parts and neither event seems particularly strange and inflight emergencies are far from rare when it comes to complex fighter aircraft.
Even the status of the search operation is not exactly clear. The hunt for Major Hosomi certainly continues, but it isn't known if the F-35's location on the seafloor—roughly 5,000 down—has been pinpointed. Early on, an armada of ships blitzed into the area, including the American destroyer USS Stethem (DDG 63) and numerous Japanese government vessels, although that crowd has thinned substantially since then, according to vessel trackers.
Japanese media outlet NHK reported the following about new naval assets being brought to bear in the hunt for the F-35:
"Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya told reporters on Friday that aircraft and ships from the Self-Defense Forces, the Coast Guard and the US military are continuing their search.
He also said a submarine rescue ship of the Maritime Self-Defense Force began an undersea search on Friday morning."
Air assets have also been highly present overhead the general area where the aircraft disappeared, with U.S. Navy P-8 Poseidons flying search grids along with JASDF aircraft. A U-2 Dragon Lady has also joined the search and is currently working the area. The aircraft's powerful sensors have a robust secondary maritime surveillance capability. So far, just some pieces of the aircraft have been found, which still represents a huge technological and intellectual property risk in itself. In fact, floating debris may be the biggest security risk at this time.
As for the chances that a foreign power, such as Russia or China, could scour the area for floating wreckage or even send their own submersibles down to try to manipulate and remove parts of the F-35 wreckage, this clearly is a concern. But Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya noted that Japanese forces are closely monitoring the area around the clock and that there has not been any unusual activity detected, at least so far.
Recovering the jet 5,000 feet down will be no easy task and that can't occur until the F-35 carcass has been found. It is unclear exactly how the aircraft's black box works—it is unlikely to ping by default. But it is possible that the F-35 has already been located and the Ministry Of Defense has not disclosed this information for security purposes.
"The military may have to hire marine salvage firms with submersible craft able to recover wreckage from deep water. The candidates include Japan's two biggest marine salvage firms.
Fukuda Salvage and Marine Works got its start a century ago recovering damaged warships during the Russo-Japanese war, while Nippon Salvage shares its corporate roots with Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, the company that assembled the lost F-35.
"The time needed to complete salvage operations depends on a lot of factors and ... it's impossible to say how long it would take to recover the F-35," a Fukuda Salvage official said, adding it would take more than a few days.
The condition of the single-engine fighter, part of a 12 plane squadron that just became operational, will probably be the biggest factor in planning a salvage operation, an engineer at Nippon Salvage told Reuters.
"Intact it could be pulled up by a crane, but if it's broken up then submersibles would have to collect the fragments," he said. "The question is whether you want to collect all the pieces."
Before that can start, however, Japan's defense force has to find the wreckage of the highly-classified piece of U.S. military equipment."
It's also worth noting that the depth of the ocean where the F-35 supposedly crashed precludes the possibility that a traditional combat submarine could reach and manipulate the wreckage, but it doesn't mean that specialized ones outfitted with deeper-diving remotely operated vehicles couldn't. Uniquely adapted nuclear submarines exist for these types of espionage missions in both the Russian and U.S. Navy fleets. In particular, the highly capable USS Jimmy Carter may be called upon to assist in the search and recovery efforts.
Japan has grounded its small F-35 fleet until further notice, but the country has remained committed to its plan to buy 147 of the stealth jets, which includes a mix of standard takeoff A models and short-takeoff and vertical landing B models.
This is the second flying loss of an F-35, with the first being an F-35B that crashed near MCAS Beaufort in September of 2018. It could end up being the first mishap with an F-35 that resulted in a fatality.
We will continue to update you as more information comes available.
UPDATE: 3:20pm PDT—
Japan's submarine rescue vessel Chiyoda (ASR-404) was just commissioned a year ago and it totes a brand new deep-sea rescue vehicle built by Kawasaki Heavy Industries.
It remains unclear what the exact depth performance of the new rescue vehicle is, but other foreign types have maximum depth ratings up to roughly 5,000 feet—far beyond the crush depths of most combat submarines and about the same depth as where the F-35 is supposedly resting. Still, these ships usually can deploy various unmanned submersibles that dive far deeper and would be crucial for identifying, inspecting, and salvaging the lost F-35A.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com