US Navy plans to recover stealth jet that crashed into South China Sea

Chinese military observers have been monitoring the accident closely.
US Navy plans to recover stealth jet that crashed into South China Sea An F-35C Lightning II and an F/A-18E Super Hornet fly over the Philippine Sea, Jan. 22, 2022.
U.S. Marines

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.


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Michael Pikula
Feb 07, 2022 03:59 PM

If these are International waters then i don’t see how the United States can legally deny or stop the Chinese government from having equal access to the ocean in looking forth crashed plane.However due to fact that the plane is the property of the United States then even if China found the plane first…they must surrender the plane immediately to the United Stares. Due to the depth of the basin beneath the ocean I believe China is the only country in the world that can retrieve that plane. Therefore perhaps the United States should move away from the location of the wreckage and try to assist the Chinese government in anyway they can to help finding the stealth unit. Furthermore perhaps the United States might want to consider Compensating the Chinese government for their development and use of their submarine which is the finest submarine in the world because it’s capable of traveling deeper into the ocean than any other submarine.

如果这些是国际水域,那么我不明白美国如何能够合法地否认或阻止中国政府在寻找坠毁飞机时平等进入海洋。但是由于飞机是美国的财产那么即使中国先找到了飞机……他们也必须立即将飞机交给United Stares。由于海底盆地的深度,我相信中国是世界上唯一可以取回那架飞机的国家。因此,美国或许应该离开残骸所在的位置,尽其所能帮助中国政府帮助寻找隐形部队。此外,也许美国可能会考虑补偿中国政府开发和使用他们的潜艇,这是世界上最好的潜艇,因为它比任何其他潜艇都能够深入海洋。