A bizarre race against time is under way for the United States Navy to reach one of its downed fighter jets – before the Chinese get there first.
The $100m F35-C plane came down in the South China Sea after what the Navy describes as a “mishap” during take-off from the USS Carl Vinson.
The jet is the Navy’s newest, and crammed with classified equipment – and, as it is in international waters, is technically fair game.
Whoever gets there first, wins
The prize? All the secrets behind this very expensive, leading-edge fighting force.
Seven sailors were injured when the jet came down on Monday after it struck Vinson’s deck during a military exercise.
It is now lying on the ocean bed, but what happens next is a mystery. The Navy will not confirm either where it came down or how long it will take to retrieve it.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea and has increasingly taken steps to assert that claim in recent years, refusing to recognise a 2016 international tribunal ruling saying it had no legal basis.
National security experts say Chinese military would be “very keen” to get to the jet but a US salvage vessel looks to be at least ten days away from the crash site.
That’s too late, says defence consultant Abi Austen, because the black box battery will die before then, making it harder to locate the aircraft.
“It’s vitally important the US gets this back,” she says. “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’.”
China doesn’t have that technology so getting their hands on it would give them a huge leap forward, she says.
“If they can get into the 35’s networking capabilities, it effectively undermines the whole carrier philosophy.”
Asked if there were echoes of the Cold War here, she says: “It’s all about who’s the biggest dog in the park! This is basically The Hunt For Red October meets The Abyss – it’s a brilliant three-act play.”