The U.S. Navy says it is working to recover the F-35C Lightning II fighter jet that crashed in the South China Sea – a tough mission likely to play out under the watchful eyes of China.
While attempting to land Monday on the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier, the fighter skidded over the side and tumbled into the sea.
The pilot safely ejected and was recovered by a U.S. military helicopter.
Seven servicemen were injured in the accident that happened during a joint operation conducted by the USS Carl Vinson and USS Abraham Lincoln strike groups in the South China Sea. All the injured are in stable condition.
Lt. Nicholas Lingo, spokesperson for the U.S. 7th Fleet, told media late Tuesday that “the U.S. Navy is making recovery operations arrangements for the F-35C aircraft.”
Lingo said he could confirm “the aircraft impacted the flight deck during landing and subsequently fell to the water” but did not specify the location of the crash site or the search area.
The South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCPI), a Beijing-based think-tank, alleged that based on satellite imagery the crash occurred within the U.S. exercise area some 100 nautical miles from Luzon Island of the Philippines, and 50 to 70 nautical miles northeast of Scarborough Shoal inside the Philippine exclusive economic zone.
The SCPI also said that on Wednesday morning, the U.S. sent at least six intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance aircraft including one MQ-4C, a high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle, to the area, presumably to assist the crashed fighter’s search.
The wreckage could contain many technological secrets, and analysts say the U.S. would not want them to fall into China’s hands.
“I think it’s obvious that the Chinese would be looking for the wreckage as well,” said Richard Bitzinger, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
He said pieces of wreckage can provide valuable information about the F-35, such as its skin, stealth sensors, and data processing.
“That said, I’m sure that the U.S. Navy is surrounding the area where the plane went down and trying to cordon it off until salvage ships arrive. So I don’t know if the Chinese could pull it off overtly and covertly. I don’t know if the Chinese have the means,” Bitzinger added.
The 7th Fleet’s spokesman, Lt. Lingo, when asked, said: “We cannot speculate on what the PRC’s (China’s) intentions are on this matter.”
Multi-million dollar fighter jet
Chinese military observers nevertheless have been monitoring the accident closely.
Zhang Junshe, a senior research fellow at the Naval Research Academy of the People’s Liberation Army, was quoted in the state-run Global Times newspaper as saying that the U.S. military’s operations aimed at containing China exhaust American military personnel “physically and mentally.”
“Accidents would be unavoidable under this situation,” Zhang was quoted as saying.
Ten F-35Cs, including the one that crashed, are aboard the USS Carl Vinson.
The $100-million F-35, developed by the American aerospace giant Lockheed Martin Corp., is a state-of-the-art aircraft with superior stealth performance that is difficult to catch on radar.
Jane’s Defence magazine reported this month that the Thai military is considering buying new fighter aircraft to replace its air force’s ageing fleet. One option is the F-35 Lightning II strike fighter.
Lockheed Martin said the F-35C variant is “the first and world’s only stealth strike fighter designed and built explicitly for Navy carrier operations.” The first F-35C was put into operation only in 2019.
Recovery of the fighter jet from the sea presents a formidable challenge. The U.S. military has not provided detailed information about where the plane might be, but the area of the dual-aircraft drills where it went down is near the so-called South China Basin, where the maximum sea depth exceeds 5,000 meters.
This is the fourth crash of F-35 aircraft of all kinds.
An F-35 from Britain’s HMS Queen Elizabeth crashed into the Mediterranean Sea in November, though the pilot also safely ejected.
In April 2019, a Japanese F-35 crashed in the Pacific Ocean close to northern Japan, killing the pilot. The F-35 was recovered from the sea.
Just earlier this month, a South Korean F-35A fighter had to make an emergency landing during training due to malfunction.
Monday’s crash was the second major accident involving the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea in recent months. Last October, the nuclear submarine USS Connecticut hit an uncharted seamount and suffered significant damage.