The US Navy is in the midst of a race against the clock to retrieve one of its downed fighter jets before the Chinese do it first.
Following what the Navy characterises as a “mishap” during take-off from the USS Carl Vinson, an F35-C plane worth $100 million (£74 million) came crashing down in the South China Sea.
The jet is the Navy’s most recent acquisition, and it is loaded with classified equipment. Because it is in international waters, it is considered fair game in terms of legality.
Whoever is the first to arrive wins.
What is the prize? All of the secrets underlying this extremely expensive, cutting-edge fighting force are revealed here.
Seven sailors were injured after the plane crashed onto the deck of the USS Vinson on Monday, during a military exercise on the carrier.
It is presently resting on the ocean floor, but what will happen next is a mystery at this point. The Navy has refused to say where the plane went down or how long it will take to recover it.
China claims practically the entire South China Sea and has taken increasingly aggressive steps to press that claim in recent years, including refusing to recognise a 2016 international tribunal judgement, claiming it lacked legal foundation and stating that it lacked legal authority.
National security specialists believe the Chinese military would be “very eager” to get the plane, but a salvage vessel from the United States appears to be at least 10 days away from the accident location.
According to Abi Austen, a defence analyst, that is too late because the black box battery will have died by then, making it more difficult to find the aircraft.
“It’s critical that the United States regains control of this,” she argues. “The F-35 is essentially a flying computer, which is what it is. In order to connect other assets, it is used for what the Air Force refers to as “connecting sensors to shooters.””
China does not already possess that technology, so obtaining it would be a significant step forward, according to her.
“If they are able to gain access to the 35’s networking capabilities, it will effectively undercut the entire carrier paradigm,” says the author.
When asked if there are any echoes of the Cold War in this place, she responds: “It all comes down to who has the largest dog in the park! What you have here is effectively The Hunt For Red October meets The Abyss rolled into one fantastic three-act play.”
Mr Austen, a former assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the United States and a former top Nato and EU official, feels that any move by China to claim salvage rights was a way for them to “stress test” the United States.
She feels it comes at a particularly vulnerable and dangerous time, following what some have characterised as a disorganised and failed Afghanistan withdrawal.
According to Bryce Barros, a China affairs expert and security fellow at the Truman Project, there is no doubt that China wants this jet, despite the fact that cyber espionage may indicate that they already have some knowledge of its inside, layout, and workings.
“I believe they would want to examine genuine pieces of the plane in order to gain a better understanding of how it is laid out and to identify its weaknesses.”
According to a statement released by the US Navy, a recovery operation was underway as a result of the “mishap” aboard the USS Carl Vinson on Saturday.
So, how would the retrieval procedure be carried out in practise?
To raise the wreckage, a team from the US Navy’s Supervisor of Salvage and Diving would connect bags to the fuselage of the plane, which would then gradually inflate as time went on.
A significant portion of the airframe must be removed in order for this procedure to be completed successfully.
The aircraft was almost certainly armed with at least a few of missiles, which might have been carried either on its wings or in the aircraft’s interior weapons compartment, complicating the recovery effort.
For these military cat and mouse games in which the victor gets all, there is precedent.
A large mechanical claw was used to discreetly remove a Russian submarine from the sea floor off the coast of Hawaii in 1974, at the height of the Cold War. The submarine was dragged by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
The Chinese military had discreetly rescued the HMS Poseidon, a British submarine that had sunk off China’s east coast, two years before this incident.
Furthermore, it is commonly thought that China obtained possession of the wreckage of a classified US “stealth” helicopter that crashed during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s residence in 2011.
“We are confident that the Chinese military was given access to the onboard equipment and software at that time,” Mr Barros added.
The raising of the wreckage of a US Navy transport aircraft from the bottom of the Philippine Sea, which holds the Guinness World Record for the deepest successful recovery operation, took place in May 2019 and set a new world record.
It was 5,638 metres (18,500 feet) below the surface of the earth.
Another alternative, of course, is to destroy the plane in order to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Chinese government.
“The quickest and most straightforward solution would be to torpedo it!” exclaimed one military commander.
However, it is not believed that this is an option being considered.