The US navy is racing to salvage an F-35C fighter jet from the bottom of the South China Sea after it crashed on an aircraft carrier and plunged overboard – taking with it highly classified technology that would be a coup if China retrieved it first.
The F-35C crashed-landed on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson during routine operations on Monday, the navy said, injuring six sailors and the pilot, who ejected from the plane before it fell into the sea.
The most advanced US fighter, a stealth plane costing over $100m, is packed with highly classified technology and if found would represent an intelligence boon for China, which claims almost all of the South China Sea as its own territory. The Vinson was on a patrol intended to challenge that territorial claim and defend international freedom of navigation.
The F-35C is a version of the plane specially designed to operate from aircraft carriers. Maritime experts have said it could take a US salvage ship more than 10 days to reach the site of the crash, potentially giving Chinese submarines the opportunity to find it first.
“We’re certainly mindful of the value of an F-35 in every respect of what value means,” said John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman. “And as we continue to attempt recovery of the aircraft we’re going to do it obviously with safety foremost in mind, but clearly our own national security interests. And I think I will just leave it at that.”
In Beijing the foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said the Chinese government had no ambitions to find the crashed plane. “I noted relevant reports. This is not the first time that the US has an accident in the South China Sea,” he said.
“We have no interest in their aircraft. We urge the country concerned to do things that are conducive to regional peace and stability, rather than flex muscles in the region.”
In 2001, a heavily damaged American EP-3 surveillance plane made a daredevil emergency landing on China’s Hainan island after a collision with a pursuing Chinese fighter plane. The fighter crashed and its pilot was killed.
The 24 crew of the EP-3, who had been lucky to survive the collision, were detained and interrogated by Chinese authorities before their release 10 days later. Meanwhile, the Chinese military stripped and examined the EP-3’s highly classified equipment and intelligence materials over several months – eventually giving back the plane in pieces.
It is the third time an F-35 has crashed into the sea and had to be salvaged. In November a British F-35B, the short takeoff and vertical landing version, crashed as it lost power taking off from the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in the Mediterranean. The pilot ejected and the plane was recovered from the seabed a few weeks later.
In April 2019 a Japanese F-35A, the conventional takeoff and landing version, crashed at over 1,000km/h into the Pacific, leaving the pilot dead and only debris to be recovered.