How Weapons Secrets Often Fall Into Enemy Hands

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When a Japanese F-35 fighter jet crashed into the Pacific Ocean on April 9, much of the American technology behind the world’s first $1 trillion weapon sunk to the seafloor, where anyone with the right tools could locate it and take it for their own.

The United States Navy’s Seventh Fleet assisted with the search-and-rescue efforts until early May, whereupon the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force continued on its own. On June 7, The Japan Times reported that they had finally located and recovered the remains of the pilot, Maj. Akinori Hosomi, as well as part of the F-35’s flight-data recorder.

The wreck site appears to be under Japanese control now, but the possibility of a foreign adversary in the Pacific locating and salvaging the aircraft up until that point was real, and would have constituted a major intelligence victory for the salvor nation.

Reading about the hunt for the wreck reminded me of how modern history is rife with examples of one country’s acquiring its adversaries’ weapons, reverse-engineering them and then using them against their creators. I recently came across the unpublished memoir of the Nazi weapons engineer Herbert Ruehlemann, who described how this dynamic played out in the late 1930s: “As soon as you introduce a new weapon in war, the enemy always gets ahold of it.”

In this instance, he was referring to electric bomb fuzes that he had personally designed and that were dropped by German pilots during the Spanish Civil War, between 1936 and 1939. When the Nazis invaded Paris, German intelligence officers found reports indicating that French engineers had acquired these fuzes in Spain and tried to reproduce their own copies.

Ruehlemann himself came to America in 1948 as part of Operation Paperclip, a secret program to locate and recruit German scientists and engineers to work in the United States following World War II. He was sent to the Naval Ordnance Laboratory in White Oak, Md., to continue his work on bomb fuzes for Uncle Sam.

At the same time, the end of World War II gave the Pentagon and American intelligence agencies opportunities to steal its adversaries’ secrets whenever and wherever possible — including off the seafloor. When a Soviet submarine sank 1,560 miles northeast of Hawaii in 1968, the Navy found out about it, and observed that Soviet search-and-rescue efforts failed to locate the wreck.

In 1974, the C.I.A. raised part of that sunken submarine without the Soviet Union’s knowledge, using a ship called the Hughes Glomar Explorer. The vessel hovered over the wreck site and lowered a clawlike apparatus to the bottom of the ocean, grabbing onto a section of the submarine’s hull that was then raised into the Hughes Glomar Explorer’s belly.

Sometimes, though, it is the United States that inadvertently gives up its own secrets.

In April 2001, a Navy EP-3 electronic surveillance plane landed on China’s Hainan Island following a midair collision with a Chinese fighter jet. The American ambassador to China said at the time that he assumed that Chinese government officials examined the plane after its 24 crew members had been removed from the airfield. Upon landing, the crew had only been able to destroy some, but not all, of the sensitive eavesdropping equipment it contained.

A decade later, when SEAL Team 6 raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, on May 2, 2011, the operation succeeded in killing the Al Qaeda leader and capturing many pounds of documents, but the SEALs also left behind an intelligence bonanza of their own: one of the two stealthy helicopters they flew in on crashed, and parts of it were recovered by Pakistani forces.

In the weeks following the raid, Pakistani intelligence officers most likely allowed Chinese military engineers to photograph parts of the helicopters that remained intact.

Later that same year, an American RQ-170 Sentinel stealth drone crashed in Iran, and unlike the helicopter parts in Pakistan, it has yet to be returned to the United States.

So while the United States may have managed to keep parts and pieces of the F-35 away from adversaries for the moment, there is no guarantee that will hold in the future when other American weapons are lost at sea or on land.

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