On April 9th, 2019, a Japanese F-35 Lightning II went missing while flying over the Pacific. Not much is known so far other than the pilot signaled the need to abort the mission shortly before disappearing from radar. Debris found in the area has been confirmed to be from the mission plane. No word yet on the condition of the missing pilot.
This is not good.
Even for the troubled and tumultuous history surrounding the F-35, this is not good. For more reasons than those one might usually suspect.
There is of course, the damage this incident does to the JSF's already troubled safety reputation. A reputation that includes one previous crash, engine fires, and oxygen deprivation. One could argue that no aircraft is completely safe, but given both the F-35's newness and importance to allied airpower, any mishap worthy of concern.
Just as concerning is the security risk this incident brings up. The F-35's "killer app" is its stealth. The very nature of a stealth design dictates a high level of security surrounding the aircraft. To put it simply, the less a potential enemy knows about the aircraft, the better.
Building a stealth aircraft consists much more than the aircraft's shape. Every aspect of the plane's construction needs to be considered. Stealth design is dependent on the materials used in construction, the way heat is dissipated, excess electromagnetic radiation from the avionics, and other mundane items need to be tightly controlled to minimize radar and heat signature.
Losing a top secret stealth aircraft over international waters is a scenario right out of a Bond movie or Tom Clancy novel. It represents a substantial prize for foreign intelligence agencies. Even the smallest detail would give insight into how to better detect the JSF, not to mention how to improve upon competing stealth designs. A piece of its radar-absorbent material (RAM) coating alone would make the effort worth it. Something more substantial, like the flight-data recorder or other "mission systems" could reveal enough about the radar signature to give hostile weapon systems an advantage... Or perhaps a way for to hack into the JSF's infamous ALIS (Autonomic Logistics Information System). Even the smallest bit of debris could turn into a security risk. The capture of a downed pilot would catastrophic.
Thankfully, the remaining wreckage of the missing F-35 has been found, and a salvage operation will soon be underway. Even this brings up security concerns. Everyone involved in the process will require security clearance and scrutiny, lest they be compromised by some foreign interest.
Imagine, if you will... A similar incident happening in the future. However, instead of happening to a Japanese F-35 over the Pacific, it happens to a hypothetical RCAF over the arctic.
The year is 2029. Canada has selected the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II as its replacement for the CF-188 Hornet. Deliveries have been ongoing and crews are transitioning over to the new fighter.
Tragedy strikes when a CF-35 is lost while performing exercises out of one of the RCAF's Forward Operating Locations (FOL) at Iqaluit Airport in Nunavut. The aircraft disappeared from radar contact and its exact position is so far unknown.
Rescue and recovery operations are activated immediately. The Canadian Cost Guard and Search and rescue Squadrons from both 9 Wing Gander and 14 Wing Greenwood are pressed into action, to be assisted by a (now nearly 50-year-old) CP-140-Aurora surveillance plane. The USA has agreed to offer any and all assistance needed to recover the pilot and aircraft. Military Police and CSIS have been dispatched to Iqaluit to investigate any possible security concerns.
Matters are complicated, however, by Russia's recent military build up in the arctic. They have offered to "assist" in recovery efforts, but have been rebuked given the sensitive nature of the aircraft. Instead, they have increased their presence in the disputed area where the CF-35 was last seen. This includes a nuclear-powered Arktika-class icebreaker, capable of navigating in ice 3 meters thick. Neither Canada or the USA have anything approaching the Arktika-class's capability. Unfortunately, Canada has but a single Polar Class 2 Icebreaker, the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker capable of operating in ice up to 2.5 meters thick.
It is assumed Russia has dispatched nuclear submarines to the area as well, knowing full well that Canada lacks the capability to operate under arctic ice with its own subs. There is also talk of a possible "ice-breaker sub" that is rumored to exist in Russia's fleet.
Complicating matters even further is the recent appearance of China's newest icebreaker in the area. While not much is known about the vessel, it appears to be larger and more powerful than Russia's Arktika-class.
Increased presence in the area have caused diplomatic tension among all parties. Not only are there concerns about Chinese and Russian incursion into Canadian territory, but some have voiced concerns about increased American military presence on sovereign Canadian soil. In the meantime, the RCAF has been forced with the difficult decision as to whether it should ground its F-35 fleet and rely solely on ancient CF-18s during this time of increased tension.
Once again, both Canadian news agencies and political opposition parties are questioning the wisdom of Canada going "all in" with the F-35 program. Internationally, some question whether or not Canada has the ability to keep the aircraft's secrets given Canada's history of lackadaisical defense spending.
The previous hypothetical situation is exactly that... Hypothetical. It is not out of the realm of possibility, however. Operating a stealth aircraft requires many caveats. Day-to-day operations require increased security. An unplanned event like a crash could have repercussions far beyond the potential for loss of life.
For an aircraft like the F-35, additional security is mandatory. Security concerns have put a kibosh the Turkey's F-35 acquisition. This includes the additional resources required to contain any adverse event. A Canada committing to the JSF would also be required to commit additional resources around every aspect of that fighter. This include operations in less-than-ideal environments.
Is Canada willing to take that responsibility?