Japan on Friday said that undersea search operations are underway for an F-35A stealth fighter that crashed Tuesday triggering concerns about the jets’ safety and presenting a conundrum for the government about its future air defense program.
Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya told a press briefing on the matter that Self-Defense Force (SDF) and Coast Guard vessels and aircraft are continuing their search, along with the U.S. military.
He also said a submarine rescue vessel was deployed by the Maritime SDF on Friday morning to assist with the search for the plane.
The plane, some wreckage of which has already been found, crashed into the Pacific Ocean off the northeast coast of Japan in waters thought to be as deep as 1,500 meters, leaving the pilot unaccounted for.
On Wednesday, Japan’s defense ministry officially confirmed that the crash of the locally-assembled jet was the first for an F-35A anywhere in the world.
The crash has also sparked concerns over the Japanese government’s plans to buy 105 more of the 100-million-dollar fighters as it seeks to overhaul its aged fleet of mainstay jets, as part of its controversial national defense guidelines.
Military experts have questioned Japanese pilots’ ability to fly the 5th generation multi-role stealth fighter, intimating that the cutting-edge aircraft requires a significant amount of knowledge and expertise to fly.
General Toshimichi Nagaiwa, a former Air Self-Defense Force Lieutenant, told Japan’s public broadcaster NHK that the crash poses a significant problem to the deployment of the jets in Japan and for them to become Japan’s mainstay fighters.
The Air Self-Defense Force began deploying F-35A jets at its Misawa base in Aomori Prefecture, northern Japan, in January last year.
A new F-35 squadron has been formed at the base with 80 personnel and the Japanese government plans to bolster its fleet of F-35s with the acquisition of a total of 105 F-35As and 42 of the short take-off variant F-35B stealth fighters.
The jets, the Pentagon’s most sophisticated 5th generation multi-role stealth fighters and most expensive weapons system, are supposed to replace Japan’s fleet of F-15 and aging F-4 fighter planes.
But Nagaiwa asserted that Japanese pilots need greater skills and more knowledge to be able to fly the ultra-advanced jets and that it had yet to be determined whether the crashed jet, which had made two emergency landings in the last two years, was itself faulty, or if human error was the cause of the crash.
The jet, the first to be assembled in Japan at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd.’s plant in Aichi Prefecture, was forced to abort a test flight after a cooling system malfunction, Japan's Defense Ministry has said.
It also said that a position indicator malfunction also occurred in the jet when it was flying in bad weather.
Underscoring rising concerns about the jets’ safety, a Japanese ASDF team looking into the cause of the accident said it suspects the pilot, a major in his 40s who had logged 3,200 hours of flying time including around 60 hours specifically flying F-35As, may have noticed some kind of "abnormality" before the plane crashed.
The Defense Ministry has since said that the plane likely crashed before the pilot had time to eject, as its ejection system sends out an alert when a pilot ejects, although he had radioed three other F-35A pilots also taking part in the combat drill saying he was aborting the mission.
The other pilots could not see the major’s plane as it was dark, Defense Ministry officials said, and the planes were not flying close to each other during the combat drill.
The jet was flying off the coast of Aomori Prefecture about 135 km east of the Misawa base when radar contact was lost less than 30 minutes after takeoff, the ministry said.
Following the crash, a world first for an F-35A, the remaining 12 F-35As currently deployed at the Misawa base in Japan have been grounded.
The 5th generation jets are co-developed by nine countries including the United States, Britain and Italy and are produced by U.S. defense company Lockheed Martin Corp.
The crash of the jet, which has a price tag of between 80 and more than 100 million U.S. dollars and costs around 50,000 U.S. dollars per hour to fly, has presented a conundrum for the Japanese government’s future defense plans, as laid out in its contentious guidelines.
The quandary lies not just in the F-35s’ potential safety issues amid a heavily checkered global developmental phase, but also owing to increasingly blurred lines between Japan’s constitutionally regulated defense allowance and its constant push to acquire military assets designed primarily for their offensive capabilities.