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U.S. Navy Works to Salvage Lost F-35 Before China Can Inspect It

f-35 fighter
An F-35C lands on the deck of the carrier USS Carl Vinson (USN file image)

Published Jan 27, 2022 9:09 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy is taking steps to recover the wreckage of an F-35C fighter than went off the deck of a carrier during a landing mishap on Monday, officials said. 

Seven people were injured when the advanced stealth fighter struck the flight deck of the carrier USS Carl Vinson during an exercise in the South China Sea. The Vinson was undamaged and normal operations have resumed, but the service wants to get custody of the high-tech components of the plane's wreckage before any near-peer competitors can get a look at the jet's technology.

China claims almost all of the South China Sea as its own, and it may attempt to make a salvage claim on the plane - or simply take what it needs from the wreckage, according to experts. 

"China will try to locate and survey it thoroughly using submarines and one of its deep diving submersibles," said Carl Schuster, former director of operations at Pacific Command's Joint Intelligence Center, speaking to CNN. 

It is the second time in three months that the U.S. Navy has rushed its salvage resources to the scene of an F-35 crash. In November, an F-35B STOVL variant crashed on takeoff from the deck of the Royal Navy carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, the victim of a suspected plastic raincover malfunction. The pilot safely ejected, and the Royal Navy requested U.S. assistance in recovering the aircraft from the bottom. 

Chinese cyber forces are believed to have obtained secret data on the F-35 through espionage in 2007, U.S. officials told media in 2014, resulting in improvements to China's J-20 stealth fighter program. Still, access to the actual aircraft could be of assistance, according to security experts. 

"I think they would want to see actual parts of the plane, to better understand how it is laid out and find its vulnerabilities," said Bryce Barros, an analyst with the Truman Project, speaking to the BBC.