Top U.S. and Japanese defense officials are downplaying the possibility that the Chinese military could recover the wreckage of a Japanese F-35A that crashed on April 9 in the Pacific Ocean.
The Joint Strike Fighter disappeared from radar about 85 miles east of Honshu, Japan's main island. Although ships and aircraft have spotted some debris in the area where the plane is believed to have crashed, both the wreckage and pilot remain missing.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and his Japanese counterpart both said they are not concerned the Chinese could get to the F-35A first.
"We're supporting the investigation there, the incident," Shanahan said on Friday shortly before meeting with Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya at the Pentagon. "The Japanese have the lead there and we're working very collaboratively with them. We've got a capability if what they have doesn't prove to be sufficient."
Iwaya was even more emphatic, saying the Japanese government is not entertaining the possibility that the F-35A wreckage could be recovered by the Chinese.
"We are conducting surveillance and warning activities so we can identify and find the missing aircraft," Iwaya told reporters at the beginning of his meeting with Shanahan.
Despite its main glitches, the F-35 is the most advanced aircraft flying today. It is designed to defeat the most sophisticated Russian and Chinese air defenses, making it a tempting target for both countries' intelligence services.
The idea that Russia or China could recover the crashed Japanese F-35 is not entirely implausible. In 1974, the CIA tried to raise a sunken Soviet submarine as part of a covert operation. The cover story was that the ship built for the operation belonged to billionaire Howard Hughes, who supposedly wanted to mine the sea floor.
The Hughes Glomar Explorer used a giant claw to retrieve the submarine, but the Soviet boat broke up on the way to the surface, and the CIA only recovered a small portion of it.
In 1992, then-CIA Director Robert Gates informed Russian President Boris Yeltsin about the operation, during which the bodies of Soviet sailors found in the submarine's wreckage were buried at sea with full honors.