An F-35 Lightning II suffered a landing mishap and tumbled off the deck of the USS Carl Vinson Monday, Jan. 24, in the South China Sea. The mishap injured seven sailors and will likely lead to a lengthy investigation into its cause. But in the days since, a string of media outlets have been quick to suggest — on very little evidence — that there must now be a “race” underway to recover one of America’s most advanced military aircraft from the bottom of the ocean, with the US on one side and a lurking Chinese navy on the other.
“This is basically The Hunt For Red October meets The Abyss,” gasped the BBC, quoting defense consultant Abi Austen; while CNN breathlessly speculated that “the goal is to retrieve the F-35C before China does.”
“The race is on,” ABC said.
Significantly, none of those reports noted any indication that the Chinese navy has shown any actual signs of looking for the plane.
[UPDATE: The Navy confirmed on Friday, Jan. 28, that the picture above is of the F-35 that fell from the deck of the Carl Vinson on Jan. 24.]
Lawrence B. Brennan, an adjunct professor of admiralty and international maritime law at Fordham Law School and retired US Navy captain, told Coffee or Die Magazine that the media’s reports of a race against the Chinese are “overly anxious.”
Brennan served as a Judge Advocate General Corps officer in the 1980s, where he had a front-row seat as the US hunted for several sunken aircraft, including a Korean airliner shot down by Russian fighters in 1983. That hunt, he said, was a race between the US and Russian navy, with the two sides forcing collisions and constant harassment.
But the hunt for the missing F-35, Brennan said, is unlikely to be similar. The threat of the Chinese, or any other foreign navy, reaching the lost F-35 first is both technologically improbable and something the US would be unlikely to allow.
“Would they want to? Could they get it? Theoretically, yes,” Brennan said. “But I don’t see how they could find it if the US didn’t, because we have the datum [of its location]. The US has a head start, we know where it is, we have the best technology in the world.”
Though some parts of the South China Sea are close to 16,000 feet deep, the Navy recovered an MH-60 helicopter from a depth of 19,000 feet in March 2021 after it crashed off a ship near Japan.
Additionally, the Carl Vinson, the flagship of Carrier Strike Group 1, was conducting joint maritime operations with the USS Abraham Lincoln and Carrier Strike Group 3 at the time of the mishap. Though those exercises have concluded, that still leaves the two aircraft carriers, seven guided-missile cruisers, and more than a dozen aircraft squadrons, staffed by more than 14,000 sailors and Marines, around the crash site. Navy Public Affairs Officer Cmdr. Hayley Sims told Coffee or Die the Navy was still conducting routine operations “for a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Brennan said the Pentagon would likely ensure an American presence remained at the scene of the mishap to protect the area. “We’re going to put something there like a destroyer or a cruiser or fly over them,” he said. “I don’t want to say we’re going to use force to shoo them away, but we’re going to enforce our right.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby would not discuss details of the operation but said recovering the plane was a US priority.
“It is US property, and the Navy is going to make an effort at recovery,” Kirby said Thursday. “We are certainly mindful of the value of an F-35 in every respect of what value means.”
When it comes to the actual salvage operations, things can quickly become complicated. Brennan related the lost aircraft to a man overboard. “You search 1 square mile, then 2 square miles — next thing you know, you’re covering the whole damn ocean,” he said. And the Navy won’t know what’s left of the aircraft until they locate it along the ocean floor.
“Even if it’s hanging together, as any object descends, the pressure of the sea is significant, and things will fracture.”