Japan and the United States are racing to find the remains of a Tokyo-owned F-35 that disappeared on April 8, lest rivals like Russia and China get their hands on a precious piece of American technology.
The recovery efforts recall similar losses during the Cold War, when any unaccounted-for technology could lend Moscow a critical advantage.
The search for the pilot allegedly turned up some wreckage, and America and Japan are expressing confidence they will soon find the plane. The intrigue now is whether it really did and, if so, what exactly was salvaged. If sensitive components, such as radar parts and other sensors, have not been recovered, an international race among various nations is underway to recover them.
China and Russia will meet a U.S. government announcement claiming the search team recovered any wreckage with skepticism. As potential future U.S. adversaries, both would cherish retrieving F-35 wreckage to gain intelligence on its workings and how best to defeat it. They will undoubtedly scour satellite photography to verify the U.S. recovery assertion.
If such recovery of all critical F-35 parts has been affected, Moscow and Beijing will have missed an opportunity to pull off an intelligence coup. If not, the announcement is a counter-intelligence effort to make them think so, buying time for the U.S. and Japan jointly to mount a recovery effort. It, therefore, would still leave Russia and China with an intelligence coup opportunity.
Such gamesmanship has been ongoing for decades, mostly involving the U.S. and Soviet Union, whenever misfortune at sea struck one side. For the U.S., when opportunity knocked or disaster befell us, we sometimes had equipment readily available for the task at hand while other times we had to start from scratch constructing it.
The latter occurred in March 1968 after a Soviet submarine, the K-129, sank to a depth of almost 16,000 feet in the Pacific Ocean, with several nuclear missiles onboard. At a three-mile depth and following a two-month search, the Soviets could not locate the wreckage. Ending their search, they took comfort in believing the Americans lacked a capability to find it as well.
But the CIA, realizing the importance of the sub’s recovery, went to work devising a scheme to do so — one resulting in the most elaborate and expensive in its history: “Project Azorian.”
Unbeknownst to the Soviets, the U.S. had a good idea where K-129 had come to rest. We had two hi-tech acoustic listening systems in-place—one above water and one below, capturing various sounds before and during the sub’s loss, then able to triangulate its approximate location.
Although no U.S. submarine could dive deep enough to verify K-129’s exact location and condition, one dropped a sled with a camera attached to search the seabed. K-129 was located and found largely intact.
The problem then became how surreptitiously to bring up a 2000-ton Soviet sub. In a Hollywood-like plot challenging reality, the solution involved turning to an eccentric and reclusive billionaire, Howard Hughes. He agreed to a cover story explaining construction of a one-of-a-kind special operation vessel.
The vessel the CIA built was Glomar Explorer. Hughes was a man known to explore various means of generating wealth, so the ship was touted as a hi-tech vessel for locating and extracting valuable manganese nodules from the seabed.
It took six years and hundreds of millions of dollars but, in June 1974, Glomar Explorer lowered a huge mechanical claw over K-129 to retrieve it, hoping stealthily to pull it up into its belly, hidden from the view of Soviet intelligence vessels anchored nearby observing the operation. The Russians had no clue Glomar Explorer’s intended target was really their submarine and not manganese.
Successfully raising K-129 a third of the way up, disaster suddenly struck as the sub broke apart. About 260 feet of it fell back to the sea floor, leaving the CIA to settle for the remaining 40-foot section still within the claw’s grasp. After a two-month operation and only part of its prize recovered, Glomar Explorer headed for Pearl Harbor.
Although the hoped-for intelligence windfall was not forthcoming, two nuclear-tipped torpedoes and K-129 operating manuals were retrieved. Also recovered were remains of six crewmembers who were respectfully buried at sea.
Interestingly, a reverse situation occurred in 1976. With foreign dignitaries observing a U.S. naval exercise, embarrassingly, an F-14 fighter jet rolled off the deck of an aircraft carrier and into the depths of the Pacific. This time, Soviet intelligence ships monitoring the exercise had a very good idea where on the ocean floor the wreckage lay. The main concern, more so than the plane, was the Navy’s newest hi-tech missile attached to it. Aware of the CIA’s Project Azorian by now, the Soviets eagerly moved to affect their own intelligence coup.
This time, the U.S. had a secret platform readily available — a nuclear-powered mini-sub (NR-1) commissioned in 1969 — to search for the aircraft and its missile. Not only could it reach deeper depths than any other submarine, it could drive along the ocean floor, illuminating it with powerful floodlights. Its bottom-scanning radar was so effective, it was described as able to locate “an empty soda can buried in the sand a mile away.”
However, even with this advantage, the Soviets apparently got there first. When NR-1 arrived on site, it found the F-14’s impact point on the ocean floor but, to the disbelief of the crew, the plane was nowhere in sight. NR-1 went into a circular search mode and, fortunately, soon located the aircraft.
The jet’s relocation from its original impact point was believed due to the Soviets experiencing a similar lifting problem, during their attempted recovery, as Glomar Explorer encountered. While they somehow managed to snag the plane, it fell while being pulled up. Fortunately for us, it was still totally intact, falling not far from its original impact point. The U.S. Navy successfully retrieved both plane and missile.
Now retired, NR-1 is no longer available to recover any critical F-35 parts that may remain. While other technology has replaced the mini-sub, we can only hope it is superior to anything Russia and China will have in any efforts they may be undertaking to get there first.
Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields,” “Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty” and “Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking.” He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.