Air Force AMU Branch Cyber & AI Editor's Pick Military Original

The Race to Find Japan's Missing F-35 before Russia and China

By Wes O’Donnell
Veteran, U.S. Army and Air Force. Managing Editor, In Military and InCyberDefense.

This article appeared originally on

In a search reminiscent of the Clancy-esque techno-thrillers of the 1980s, Japan and the United States are frantically searching for an F-35 Lightning and pilot that went missing from radar Tuesday night. The advanced fighter jet is thought to have gone down approximately 85 miles off the coast of Japan.

F-35 Needs to Be Found Quickly Before Russia and China Can See It

The search is taking on a fresh sense of urgency as Russia and China would love to get even a glimpse at some of the F-35’s advanced systems. Both adversaries have a significant presence in the area.

“There is no price too high in this world for China and Russia to pay to get Japan’s missing F-35, if they can. Big deal,” Tom Moore, a former senior professional staff member with the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tweeted Tuesday.

“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,” Tyler Rogoway, editor of respected defense publication The War Zone, tweeted.

The F-35, developed by Lockheed Martin, is the most expensive weapon system in U.S. history.

Japan and US Have Launched Search Efforts for Missing F-35 and Its Pilot

Japan has dispatched U-125A search and rescue aircraft, UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters and P-3C maritime surveillance aircraft as well as several Coast Guard ships to search for the wreckage and pilot.

In addition, the United States Navy has deployed a P-8A Poseidon aircraft and the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Stethem.

As of Wednesday morning, Japan claimed to have found some light wreckage. However, the pilot is still missing.

Russia and China Particularly Adept at Reverse Engineering Weapons Systems

The only other F-35 crash happened over U.S. soil. But Russia is extremely adept at deploying stealth submarines similar to the ones they use to loiter around undersea communications cables.

It would be an unprecedented intelligence coup if Russia or China got their hands on any surviving pieces from stealth skin to the radar system or even software. Both countries are adept at reverse engineering weapon systems.

Adversaries Are Unlikely to Duplicate F-35’s Networking Ability

Still, the true power of the F-35 is its ability to network with other air and sea assets. It should be some consolation that this is an ability that any adversaries will be unable to duplicate from the recovery of a few wrecked pieces of aircraft that have been sitting in salt water.

Regardless, the race is on.

Wes O'Donnell

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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