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US Navy deploys support in search for downed Japanese F-35A pilot

12 April 2019 Ridzwan Rahmat

The US Navy (USN) has deployed an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, USS Stethem (63) and a P-8A maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) to assist in the Japanese-led search for a missing Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) pilot.

The pilot was in the stricken F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter aircraft that went missing on 9 April while on a training mission over the Pacific Ocean.

The aircraft had taken off from Misawa Air Base in Japan at 1900h local time on a training mission with three other F-35As, but disappeared from radar screens about 30 minutes later. Japanese officials confirmed with the media on 10 April that wreckage from the aircraft have been found.

A USN P-8A has joined aircraft and vessels from the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) in the search mission, while Stethem is sailing towards the area, read a statement from the US 7th Fleet Public Affairs on 9 April.

Stethem is currently forward-deployed to Yokosuka, Japan, and the vessel has been involved in several notable USN operations across the Asia-Pacific region. In July 2017, Stethem sailed close to Triton Island in the Paracel Islands chain in a manoeuvre referred to by the US as a freedom-of-navigation operation. The move prompted deployments of military assets from China, which lays claims to the territories.

Meanwhile, USN P-8A aircraft are assigned with the service's Patrol Squadron (VP) 8 and Patrol Squadron (VP) 5. The squadrons are homeported in Jacksonville, Florida, but are on rotational deployments to 7th Fleet out of Misawa.

In December 2011, the Japanese government officially selected the conventional take-off and landing LF-35A as its next-generation mainstay fighter to replace the country's ageing F-4EJ Phantoms. The JASDF will receive 42 F-35As under the plan, and stood up its first operational F-35A unit in March 2019.

Local media reports citing unnamed defence ministry officials in 2018 claim that the Japanese government is also studying the possibility of acquiring the short take-off and vertical-landing variant of the aircraft, the F-35B, to improve the JASDF's control, and presence over its remote islands. The variant will be operated from the JMSDF's Izumo-class helicopter carriers, with the ships undergoing modifications specifically to deploy at least eight F-35Bs each, these reports claimed.

The JMSDF has not given confirmation on whether there are plans to modify its Izumo-class ships as claimed, but senior service officials who spoke to Jane's during a tour of the type's first-of-class at Yokosuka in February 2018 confirmed that the helicopter carrier and its elevators have been built with weight and strength considerations for F-35B operations.

Posted 12 April 2019 by Ridzwan Rahmat, Principal Analyst, Jane's Fighting Ships and Jane's Navy International, Jane's by IHS Markit

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