The $ 100 million warplane hit the cockpit of the 100,000-tonne aircraft carrier and then fell into the sea when its pilot shot out, Navy officials said. The pilot and six sailors aboard the Vinson were injured.
While the damage to Vinson was only superficial, and it and the airline’s air wing have resumed normal operations, the Navy faces the daunting task of trying to pull the F-35 off the seabed in some of the most controversial waters on the planet.
“The U.S. Navy is in the process of arranging rescue operations for the F-35C aircraft involved in the accident aboard the USS Carl Vinson,” a spokesman for the U.S. 7th Fleet, Lieutenant Nicholas Lingo, told CNN on Wednesday.
Although the Navy has not revealed where in the South China Sea the crash took place, Beijing claims almost the entire 1.3 million square kilometers (3.3 million square kilometers) waterway as its territory and has strengthened its demands by building and militarizing reefs and islands there. . .
Chinese naval and coastguard vessels maintain a constant presence in the waters of the South China Sea.
There has been no official Chinese comment on the crash, and state media reports that it only quotes “foreign media”.
But China will almost certainly want to get a look at the lost F-35, analysts said.
“China will try to locate and investigate it thoroughly using submarines and one of its submerged submarines,” said Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Commands Joint Intelligence Center in Hawaii.
Schuster, a former U.S. Navy captain, said it is possible that China could claim the salvage rights based on its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“Rescuing the aircraft with commercial and coastguard assets will enable Beijing to claim that it is recovering a potential environmental hazard or foreign military equipment from its territorial waters,” Schuster said.
But such an operation would pose political risks, said Collin Koh, a researcher at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“Doing this openly could risk exacerbating tensions with the United States. I do not think Beijing has the guts to do that,” he said.
“However, we can expect the Chinese to shadow, hang around and keep an eye on any such U.S. salvage and recovery operation,” Koh said.
Schuster said the U.S. Navy is likely to maintain some presence in the area where the wreck is believed to be in an operation that could take months, depending on how deep under the South China Sea the F-35 is.
U.S. salvage vessels are 10 to 15 days transit time to the site, Schuster said, and recovery once there can take up to 120 days.
Asked whether the United States could just destroy the wreck with a torpedo or an explosive charge, analysts said it was unlikely.
“My question is, are you really not leaving any of the potentially accompanying intelligence bonanza among the scattered splinters on the seabed – which any interested party with the capacity can still pick up after all?” said Koh.
This U.S. Navy recovery effort will mark the third time a country flying an F-35 has attempted to pull one from the deep.
But only small pieces of the Japanese plane were found by Japan as it is believed to have hit the water at full speed.
In the case of the Mediterranean crash and this week’s accident, the planes moved more slowly, so more of the wreck is expected to be found.