This story has been updated with the most current information. Last update: 10:00 A.M. EST - April 10, 2019
MELBOURNE, Australia — The Japan Air Self-Defense Force confirmed Wednesday morning local time that a missing F-35A fighter jet has crashed, pointing to debris sighted and recovered Tuesday night by ships and helicopters searching for the aircraft.
The pilot remains missing. U.S. military assets have also joined the search, including a U.S. Navy Boeing P-8A Poseidon multimission aircraft on temporary duty in Japan.
The crashed aircraft, which the JASDF identified as serial number 79-8705, was the first of 13 Japanese F-35As assembled so far by Mitsubishi’s final assembly and check out facility in Nagoya. In addition to the 12 JASDF F-35As affected by a temporary Japanese grounding order, the 14th aircraft assembled, which is still at Nagoya and undergoing pre-delivery flight tests, has also been grounded.
Local media reported Tuesday that contact with the Lockheed Martin-made stealth fighter was lost just before 7:30 p.m. local time, with the aircraft’s last reported location identified over the Pacific Ocean about miles 85 miles east of Misawa city in Aomori prefecture, in the northern part of Japan’s main island of Honshu.
Japan’s national public broadcaster, NHK, quoting Japan Air Self-Defense Force officials, reported that the missing F-35A was one of four JASDF F-35As that had taken off from nearby Misawa Air Base for a training mission at 7:00 p.m. local time.
Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force aircraft and vessels quickly kicked off a search mission, with Japan’s Coast Guard sending two vessels soon after. Other JASDF aircraft, most likely search-and-rescue U-125A jets and UH-60J Black Hawk helicopters that are deployed throughout Japanese air bases, also reportedly joined the search efforts.
U.S. Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Dave Eastburn told Defense News that the agency “is aware and monitoring the situation in Japan. Eastburn also knocked down a rumor that American B-52 aircraft are supporting Japan’s efforts to find the aircraft, saying "definitively, the U.S. does not have any B-52 aircraft supporting recovery efforts in Japan in the search for the missing JSDF F-35.”
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said he was unaware of any consideration to shutting down the American fleet of F-35s as the Japanese did with their jets.
However, Shanahan did say that if Japan has “information about safety or reliability, we would factor that in to what we’re doing. that’s just the general nature of having worked with our allies and partners. So we’re standing by to take that information.”
Japan had only stood up its first F-35A squadron at the end of last month, with the 302nd Hikotai established in Misawa with 13 F-35As following its transfer from Hyakuri, north of Japan’s capital Tokyo, where it had been operating the Mitsubishi F-4EJ Phantom II.
Valerie Insinna in Colorado Springs, Colo. and Aaron Mehta in Washington contributed to this report.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.