The US Navy races against time to rescue one of its fighter jets from the bottom of the ocean — before the Chinese.
The F35-C plane, valued at $100 million, crashed into the South China Sea after what the Navy described as an “accident” as it took off from the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier.
It’s the newest jet in the US Navy and it’s packed with secret equipment.
As it’s in international waters, it’s technically fair game. Whoever gets there first, wins.
The prize? All the secrets behind this very expensive and cutting-edge fighting force.
Seven sailors were injured when the jet crashed on Monday (24/1) and hit the deck of the aircraft carrier during a military exercise.
Now the aircraft is at the bottom of the ocean, but what will happen next is a mystery. The Navy will not confirm where it sank, nor how long it will take to recover.
China claims nearly all of the South China Sea and has taken increasing steps to enforce that claim in recent years, refusing to recognize a 2016 international court ruling that says there is no legal basis.
National security experts say the Chinese military would be “quite interested” in reaching the fighter, and a US rescue ship appears to be at least 10 days away from the crash site.
It’s too late, says defense consultant Abi Austen, because the black box’s battery will run out before then, making it difficult to locate the aircraft.
“It’s vitally important that the US gets (the fighter) back,” she says.
“The F-35 is basically like a computer that flies. It’s designed to connect other assets — what the Air Force calls ‘linking sensors to shooters’.”
According to her, China doesn’t have this technology, so getting your hands on it would be a big leap.
“If they can get into 35 network resources, it effectively compromises the entire philosophy of operation.”
Asked if there were echoes of the Cold War in all of this, she replies:
“It all comes down to who is the biggest dog in the park! It’s basically a mix of The Hunt for Red October with The Secret of the Abyss — is a brilliant three-act play.”
What’s so special about the F-35C?
– A network mission system that allows real-time sharing of information collected during flight;
– It is the first aircraft carrier-based aircraft of the US Navy with low radar visibility, which allows it to operate without being detected in enemy airspace;
– Larger wings and more robust landing gear make it suitable for “catapult launches” from aircraft carriers at sea;
– It has the most powerful fighter engine in the world and can reach speeds of up to 1,200 mph or Mach 1.6;
– It can carry up to two missiles in its wings and four in its interior.
Austen, a former adviser to the chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US Armed Forces and a former NATO and European Union diplomat, said she believed any attempt by China to claim rescue rights was a “stress test” in the US.
She believes this comes at a vulnerable and dangerous time, after what some have called a disorganized and disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan.
There is no doubt that China wants this plane, although cyber espionage could mean that the Asian country already has some knowledge of its interior, layout and workings, says Bryce Barros, China affairs analyst and security member at the Truman Project.
“I think they would like to see real parts of the plane, to better understand how it’s laid out and find its vulnerabilities.”
The US Navy acknowledged in a statement that a rescue operation was underway following the “accident” aboard the USS Carl Vinson.
How would this operation to recover the aircraft work?
A team from the US Navy Diving and Rescue Supervisor would attach bags to the jet’s fuselage, which would be slowly inflated to lift the wreckage.
This operation will be more difficult if the aircraft structure is not largely intact.
The fighter was likely armed with at least two missiles carried in its wings or in the interior compartment, which could also complicate rescue.
There are precedents for these military cat-and-mouse games where winner takes all.
In 1974, at the height of the Cold War, the CIA (American intelligence agency) secretly pulled a Russian submarine out of the seabed off the coast of Hawaii using a giant mechanical claw.
Two years earlier, Chinese military secretly rescued the British submarine HMS Poseidon, which had sunk off the east coast of China.
And it is widely believed that China got its hands on the wreckage of a US “stealth” helicopter that crashed in the attack on the Osama bin Laden compound in 2011.
“We’re sure the Chinese military saw the equipment and software on board at that moment,” says Barros.
The most successful rescue operation in the Guinness Book of Records was the lifting of the wreckage of a US Navy transport aircraft from the bottom of the Philippine Sea in May 2019.
It was about 5,638 m below the surface.
Another option, of course, is to destroy the fighter to prevent it from falling into Beijing’s hands.
“The easiest thing to do would be torpedo it!” said a military officer.
But it doesn’t seem to be a path that is being considered.
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