Roundup: Debris retrieved from crashed Japanese stealth fighter amid ongoing safety, procurement concerns

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TOKYO, May 7 (Xinhua) -- Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya said Tuesday that debris believed to be pieces of the cockpit and flight recorder has been recovered from a Japanese Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) F-35A stealth fighter jet that crashed off northern Japan last month.

Speaking at a press briefing on the matter, Iwaya said that the debris was retrieved from the seabed of the Pacific Ocean close to where the F-35A is believed to have crashed.

He said that a U.S. military-chartered vessel had retrieved the debris on May 3 or thereafter.

Iwaya said that while it appears that the F-35A's flight recorder had been retrieved, the data storage unit has yet to be recovered, meaning determining the exact cause of the jet's crash might be difficult.

The defense minister said that joint operations between Japan and the U.S. will continue to try and recover more debris from the jet.

A vessel from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, as well as a Japanese SDF ship, has also been involved in the search for the crashed fighter jet and its pilot, who still missing.

The plane, some wreckage of which has already been found, crashed into the Pacific Ocean off the northeast coast of Aomori Prefecture in Japan, in waters thought to be as deep as 1,500 meters, leaving the pilot unaccounted for.

Along with Japan's ever-increasing outlays for constitutionally questionable next-generation military hardware, military experts have also 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.

A former Japanese ASDF lieutenant said 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 crashed 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.

The ASDF began deploying the F-35A jets, the flying time alone of which costs the taxpayer 50,000 U.S. dollars per hour, 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 crash of the locally-assembled jet was the first for an F-35A anywhere in the world, sparking concerns over the Japanese government's plans to buy more than 100 of the 100-million-dollar fighters, as it seeks to overhaul its fleet of mainstay jets, as part of its controversial national defense guidelines.

The jets, the Pentagon's most sophisticated 5th generation multi-role stealth fighter and most expensive weapons system, are supposed to replace Japan's fleet of F-15 and aging F-4 fighter planes.

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 the plane's ejection system sends out an automatic alert when the ejection system is deployed.

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 and the F-35s' checkered developmental phase have presented a quandary for the Japanese government's future procurement and air defense plans, as laid out in its contentious guidelines. Enditem

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