The United States is racing to recover one of its most advanced fighter jet from the South China Sea, an extremely complex operation that will most likely be closely monitored by Beijing.
The F-35C, a single-engine stealth fighter and the newest jet in the US Navy fleet, crash-landed on the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson during routine operations on Monday, the Navy said.
The $100 million warplane impacted the flight deck of the 100,000-ton aircraft carrier and then fell into the sea as its pilot ejected, Navy officials said. The pilot and six sailors aboard the Vinson were injured.
While damage to the Vinson was only superficial, and it and the carrier’s air wing have resumed normal operations, the Navy faces the daunting task of attempting to pull the F-35 off the ocean floor in some of the most contested waters on the planet.
The Navy is giving scant details on its recovery plans for the F-35C, the first of which only became operational in 2019.
“The US Navy is making recovery operations arrangements for the F-35C aircraft involved in the mishap aboard USS Carl Vinson” is all a spokesman for the US 7th Fleet, Lt. Nicholas Lingo said.
Though the Navy has not revealed where in the South China Sea the crash occurred, Beijing claims almost all of the 1.3 million square mile waterway as its territory and has bolstered its claims by building up and militarizing reefs and islands there.
Chinese naval and coast guard vessels maintain a constant presence in South China Sea waters.
The US disputes those Chinese territorial claims and uses deployments like the one the Vinson was on to push its case for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”
China is meanwhile expected to use submarines and deep diving submersibles to locate and survey it thoroughly.
Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center in Hawaii, said it’s possible China could make a claim for the salvage rights based on its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“Salvaging the plane with commercial and coast guard assets will enable Beijing to claim it is recovering a potential environmental hazard or foreign military equipment from its territorial waters,” Schuster said.
Schuster said the US Navy will likely keep some presence in the area where the wreckage is believed to be in an operation that could take months, depending upon how deep under the South China Sea the F-35 is.
US salvage vessels are 10 to 15 days transit time to the site, Schuster said, and recovery once there could take up to 120 days.