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Arrest over smuggled blueprints a setback for Joint Strike Fighter project

The troubled Joint Strike Fighter stealth aircraft project has been dealt another blow, after a US court revealed how an American man tried to ship thousands of pages of plans to Iran.

Mozaffar Khazaee is accused of stealing design plans for the Joint Strike Fighter - the F-35A Lightning II, which is billed as the next generation in stealth air warfare - and attempting to ship them along with a vacuum and cooking pots in a box marked ''House Hold Goods''.

Thousands of pages of schematics, technical manuals, diagrams and other items had been secreted away in 44 boxes of documents.

An engineer and dual US-Iranian citizen, Mr Khazaee, 59, was made redundant in August from a defence contractor that was working on the project.

He was arrested last week when US authorities stopped him boarding a flight to Germany, bound for his native Iran, following a two-month clandestine investigation.

An Australian Defence Department spokeswoman confirmed it was aware of the case but declined to comment further because the investigation was ongoing.

It is understood US officials, chastened by Edward Snowden's surveillance leaks, have become especially forthcoming and briefed allies about the alleged breach.

Lockheed Martin, the company promising to deliver the first Australian aircraft this year, said it was co-operating with investigators but declined to comment further.

Australia is committed to buying 14 of the US-built jets at a cost of $3.2 billion - another 58 are under consideration - although the development has been plagued by delays, cost overruns and design faults.

China has also been accused of hacking computers containing sensitive features of the plane.

Had the blueprints fallen into Iranian hands, they almost certainly would have found their way to Russia and China. This would have been a potentially dangerous breach because those countries manufacture the only aircraft the F-35A is likely to face in battle.

Mr Khazaee's job on the Joint Strike Fighter project was to test the strength and durability for the turbine engine, along with that of another highly secretive fighter, the F-22 Raptor.

A sealed affidavit by US Homeland Security officials has been released by court order, although it claims not to outline all the facts, only enough to lay charges.

According to the affidavit, in November Mr Khazaee sent the boxes by truck from Connecticut on the US east coast to California.

His mistake appears to have been marking the shipment as destined for Iran, rather than a transit country, and its sensitive cargo was found by customs inspectors.

It is unclear how the documents were smuggled out of the secure location where he was working.

Investigators found Mr Khazaee's name written in red ink on at least one document, and estimated the value of one technical report to be more than $350,000.

He faces at least 10 years in prison if convicted.

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