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, adding that six sailors and the pilot, who ejected from the plane before it fell into the sea, were injured.
The most advanced US fighter, a stealth plane costing over US$100 million, is packed with highly classified technology and, if found, would be 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 that 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,” US Department of Defense spokesman John Kirby said. “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.”
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian (趙立堅) said that Beijing 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,” Zhao 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 US EP-3 surveillance plane made an emergency landing in China’s Hainan Province after a collision with a pursuing Chinese fighter plane.
The fighter crashed and its pilot was killed.
The 24 crew of the EP-3 were detained and interrogated by Chinese authorities before their release 10 days later.
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.
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