China and US in race to salvage ‘flying computer’ fighter jet

·3-min read
The F-35C warplane was trying to land on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson  (US Navy via AP)
The F-35C warplane was trying to land on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (US Navy via AP)

The US army is racing to retrieve its sunken F-35C fighter jet that crashed in the disputed waters of the South China Sea during a “landing mishap” earlier this week.

Experts say the US will face a major setback in the race between the world’s two superpowers if China finds the jet first.

It was flying over the international waters, which Beijing claims as its own territory, when it crashed while attempting to land on the USS Carl Vinson on Monday.

The US navy said in a statement on Tuesday that it occurred during “routine operations”, injuring seven sailors, including the pilot, who ejected from the plane before it fell into the sea.

The presence of the fighter jet in the South China Sea is in itself being perceived as a challenge to China’s territorial claims.

The multimillion-dollar aircraft wreckage, however, raises more problems for the US.

The F-35C Lightning II combat jet, which costs over $100m (£74.6m), has cutting-edge technology and classified equipment that the US would not want China to get its hands on.

While the US army is already making efforts to reach the spot of the sunken jet, China has a geographical advantage.

“The US Navy is making recovery operations arrangements for the F-35C aircraft involved in the mishap aboard USS Carl Vinson in the South China Sea,” the country’s 7th Fleet said in a statement on Tuesday.

“We’re certainly mindful of the value of an F-35 in every respect of what value means,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told a briefing on Thursday.

“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.”

Beijing has claimed it has “no interest” in the US fighter jet.

China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, said in a statement: “I noted relevant reports. This is not the first time that the US has had an accident in the South China Sea.

“The US side has yet to give a clear explanation about the reason of its nuclear submarine’s collision not long ago, and now comes the carrier-based aircraft’s crashing into the South China Sea.”

“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,” he added.

Despite Beijing’s stance, military experts have raised concerns that the technology could be highly useful to China.

“It’s vitally important the US gets this back,” Abi Austen, a defence consultant, was quoted by the BBC as saying. “The F-35 is basically like a flying computer. It’s designed to link up other assets – what the air force calls ‘linking sensors to shooters’.”

She pointed out that, as time passes, it will be increasingly difficult for the US to locate the plane, with the risk that the black box’s battery could die.

For China, the F-35C technology could be a boon, said Ms Austen.

“If they can get into the 35’s networking capabilities, it effectively undermines the whole carrier philosophy,” she added.

Past precedence has shown how the Chinese military has stripped and examined a US plane.

In 2001, a similar incident resulted in a long-standing dispute between the two countries when an American EP-3 surveillance plane collided with a People’s Liberation Army plane, forcing the American aircraft to make an emergency landing on Hainan island.

The survivors were interrogated for hours by Beijing, with 24 members detained for 10 days until the US issued a letter of apology.

The Chinese army had also partially destroyed the classified material of the plane.

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