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Cause of 1st ever F-35A crash off Japan in focus as search ongoing for 'top secret' debris

An F-35A stealth fighter is seen in this photo provided by the Air Self-Defense Force.

TOKYO -- As the search continues for the missing pilot of an F-35A stealth fighter and its remaining debris after the Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) aircraft crashed off the northern prefecture of Aomori last month, the cause of the accident has yet to be uncovered.

The cutting-age fighter belonging to the ASDF's Misawa Air Base in the prefecture is one of the three types of F-35 jets, and the crash marked the first of its kind for an F-35A. Efforts to unravel the cause of the incident are capturing global attention as over 10 countries including the United States, Britain and Australia are procuring the aircraft, while the ASDF plans to add more F-35As to its force as next mainstay fighters.

The crash occurred on April 9, just two weeks after the ASDF had launched the 302nd Tactical Fighter Squadron, its first ever air unit comprising F-35As alone.

At around 7 p.m. that day, four F-35As took off from Misawa Air Base, with Maj. Akinori Hosomi piloting the lead craft. Hosomi was a veteran with roughly 3,200 hours of flight experience, but he had spent just around 60 hours on F-35As.

After the four aircraft arrived at a training airspace above the Pacific Ocean, they began combat drills in two units, with two fighters on the offensive and the other two on the defensive.

At 7:27 p.m., Hosomi's aircraft, which was on the offensive side, abruptly vanished from the radar at a location about 135 kilometers east of the Misawa base.

Developed by Lockheed Martin and other entities, F-35As each measure 15.7 meters in length and 10.7 meters in width and can reach a maximum speed of Mach 1.6. The one-man aircraft costs approximately 14 billion yen per unit. Its fuselage is coated with material that can absorb radio waves to make it evasive on radar. The aircraft is equipped with diverse sensors that can detect surrounding circumstances and it excels in situational awareness through analysis of large volumes of information it collects.

The state-of-the-art jet is thus called the fifth-generation fighter for its advanced technology compared to the ASDF's current mainstay F-15 planes.

In modern-day military operations, it is essential to maintain air superiority. F-35As can approach enemy territory stealthily and share a variety of information with ally aircraft and vessels. As China and Russia are also developing fifth-generation stealth fighters, a senior Self-Defense Force (SDF) official noted, "F-35As are imperative in securing air superiority."

Shortly after the April 9 crash, SDF vessels and aircraft as well as Japan Coast Guard patrol boats began to search for the F-35A and its missing pilot. Before long, the U.S. Navy dispatched the Aegis destroyer USS Stethem and a P-8 surveillance aircraft to the area to join the search. It is very unusual for U.S. forces to send a vessel or aircraft to search for an SDF aircraft, except for when they happen to be near the scene of an accident.

"It is because the F-35A holds a chunk of military secrets," commented a senior ASDF official.

As the F-35A crashed on the high seas, where other countries' vessels have the right of passage, it was feared that China and Russia could collect part of the aircraft's debris for analysis of its stealth capabilities and develop counterbalancing weaponry, ultimately undermining the air superiority of the United States and Japan.

The SDF therefore remained on the watch for any approach by other countries' forces in the area while continuing search and rescue operations. The U.S. military also dispatched a B-52 strategic bomber to the area, in an apparent attempt to highlight its military presence.

(Japanese original by Noritake Machida, City News Department)

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