Details remain extremely limited at this time, but there are reports from Japanese media outlets stating that one of the Japan Air Self Defense Force's F-35As has gone missing during an evening training mission off Northern Japan. A search effort is supposedly now underway.
Reports state that the F-35 went missing at around 7:30pm local time on the 9th of April, 2019. The aircraft had taken off from Misawa Air Base and was around 85 miles east of that location, over the Pacific Ocean, when it disappeared from Japan's tracking systems.
That's what we have as of now and keep in mind that these are media reports, not official statements. So, these details could change dramatically in the coming hours.
Let's hope they do.
Japan just stood up its first operational F-35A squadron days ago at Misawa Air Base and is currently the largest foreign customer for the aircraft with an inventory of 147 of the jets planned. As it sits now, Japan's orders will include 42 F-35Bs for its Izumo class carriers. The rest will be F-35As. For a number of reasons, the F-35A represents a huge capability boost for the JASDF.
There has only been one in-flight loss of an F-35, that aircraft was an F-35B that crashed near MCAS Beaufort in South Carolina in September of last year.
We will update this piece as more details come available.
Update: 5:45am PDT—
Japan Times has confirmed that the jet went missing with the Defense Ministry, stating:
"The Defense Ministry said Tuesday that an Air Self-Defense Force F-35A fighter disappeared from radar over the Pacific Ocean.
The fighter jet vanished from radar east of Aomori Prefecture at 7:27 p.m., the ministry said, adding that it is still confirming the details."
Update: 6:30am PDT—
The F-35 was part of a four-ship flight that departed Misawa around the same time and were training in the area together. There is still no word as to the status of the pilot.
There are some vessels in the area that could be assisting in the search and rescue efforts:
Update: 8:00am PDT—
Nothing new to report aside from the fact that Japan has halted all F-35 flights for the time being, but here are some thoughts I just posted on Twitter that I think should be shared here as well:
"If one of Japan’s F-35s is sitting at the bottom of the Pacific, we are probably about to see one of the biggest underwater espionage and counter-espionage ops since the Cold War. If it was operating without its radar reflectors pinpointing where it went in may be an issue.
If it was data linked via MADL [the F-35's proprietary low-probability of intercept data-linl] with other F-35s, their data could help a lot in finding it. I have no clue how the black box works on this jet, anyone have info on if it pings? If it’s really deep that could be a vulnerability. Expect ASW [anti-submarine warfare] umbrella in crash area."
Also, some have asked about the possibility of defection. We have zero info that would point to such a thing happening and it would be less plausible if the F-35 was wearing its radar deflectors. So, at this point, it is possible albeit highly improbable. Such an event would have huge geopolitical ramifications, as well, which may far outweigh the strategic benefit of being able to invasively examine an F-35.
Also, so much of the program's intellectual property was stolen by the Chinese that acquiring the real thing may not be as extensively valued as some would think. It would still be a huge intelligence and technological coup, but would it offset the negative repercussions that would come from it? The F-35's F135 engine would most likely be the most valuable component for Beijing. Russia would probably be a different case as they lag behind China in stealth technology and we have not heard that they pilfered the program's secrets via cyber espionage operations like China did. Also, the geopolitical situation between the U.S. and Russia is a bit different than the one between the U.S. and China.
Update: 11:25am PDT—
There is still nothing major to report, but Lockheed has acknowledged the incident:
Update: 6:40pm PDT—
Search and rescue vessels have found the wreckage of the F-35 in the water. There is still no word on the pilot.
"A section of the missing fighter’s tail was found and retrieved from the sea late Tuesday night about 135 km off the coast of the Air Self-Defense Force’s Misawa Air Base in Aomori, a ministry official said.
That discovery led the ministry to conclude that the state-of-the-art fighter — which cost more than ¥10 billion each — had plunged into the sea.
The cause of the crash remains unknown."
Update: 7:45pm PDT—
Here is the official statement from USFJ, which includes talk of P-8 Poseidons being assigned to the SAR effort. The P-8 is probably the most powerful tool on earth for this mission set:
Our friend @Aircraftspots also noted that B-52Hs flying from Guam were put into a search role:
Update: 9:00pm PDT—
The U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet has released the following statement:
MISAWA, Japan – U.S. Navy P-8A maritime patrol aircraft and a guided-missile destroyer are assisting Japanese-led search and rescue efforts for the pilot of a Japan Air Self Defense Force F-35A missing since Apr. 9.
The F-35A lost radar contact approximately 85 miles east of Misawa Air Base.
A P-8A joined JASDF aircraft and Japan Maritime Self Defense Force ships searching the area overnight.
Additional flights are continuing today.
Guided-missile destroyer USS Stethem (DDG 63) is sailing to the search area now.
U.S. 7th Fleet provides security alongside allies and partners throughout a free and open Indo-Pacific. As the U.S. Navy’s largest forward-deployed fleet, 7th Fleet operates roughly 50-70 ships and submarines and 140 aircraft with approximately 20,000 Sailors.
The P-8A aircraft are assigned to Patrol Squadron (VP) 8 and Patrol Squadron (VP) 5. Both squadrons are homeported in Jacksonville, Fla. and are on rotational deployments to 7th Fleet out of Misawa, Japan.
Stethem is forward-deployed to Yokosuka, Japan.
The wreckage likely sits at a depth of around 5,000 feet, which will make recovering it challenging. Keep in mind that it isn't in one piece as we already know that part of the tail was floating in the area. Even stray F-35 wreckage can be the source of a major loss of technological secrets.
The jet had been airborne for around half an hour when it went down. Supposedly, there was no warning at all from the pilot that something had gone wrong. A call was made to stop training by another pilot sometime around when the aircraft went down. The pilot was in his 40s was highly experienced, but was still somewhat new to the F-35.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com