There is a lot of speculation in the Western media about the China-US competitive conflict plunging to the depths of the South China Sea. At stake is the wreckage of the $100 million F-35C aircraft of the US Navy, which crashed into the sea while landing on aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson, on 24 January and the secrets it holds. The F-35C is one the most advanced aircraft of the US and its computers are connected to a host of other high-technology systems. Media reports say, both China and US are ‘racing’ to find the wreckage.
In the last three decades, China has made great advances in high-end military technology, but it still lags behind the US and Russia. It would certainly like to lay its hands on the wreckage to decipher the secrets of the F-35C to neutralise the edge the US enjoys and also to exploit it for its own weapon systems by reverse engineering.
I analyse the unfolding situation and the probability of China’s success.
F-35 is an American family of fifth-generation, all-weather stealth multirole combat aircraft capable of both air superiority and strike missions. Its naval versions F-35B (short take-off and vertical landing) and F-35C (catapult-assisted take off with arrested recovery) were inducted into the US Navy in February 2019. F-35C became operational on USS Carl Vinson on 2 August 2021.
On 24 January, an F-35C crashed into an unspecified area of the South China Sea approximately 400 kilometres west of the Philippines after hitting the deck while landing. The pilot ejected before the aircraft went down and was injured along with six sailors on the deck.
All efforts are being made to salvage the aircraft to safeguard its technology. The salvage ships/mini-submarines that were reported to be 10-days travelling time away would by now have reached the area. The Pentagon spokesperson made it very clear, “We’re certainly mindful of the value of an F-35 in every respect of what value means. And as we continue to attempt recovery of the aircraft we’re going to do it obviously with safety foremost in mind, but clearly our own national security interests.”
The US is the world leader in military technology and its adversaries endeavour to acquire the same through various intelligence means. A defection with documents or the weapons platform itself is the most effective method as it happened when Viktor Belenko, a Russian aerospace engineer and former pilot, landed a Mig 25 Foxbat, the most advanced reconnaissance aircraft of its time, at Hakodate Japan in 1976. Japan and its allies got hold of the latest Russian technology.
The crash in the South China Sea is the third crash of the F-35 over international waters. On 9 April 2019, an F-35A of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force crashed into the Pacific. The aircraft is said to have broken into debris. It is assumed that most of the debris were recovered by the US and Japan. On 17 November 2021, a British Royal Air Force F-35B crashed during routine operations in the Mediterranean. The wreckage, including all security sensitive equipment, was recovered in a joint operation by the US, Italy and Britain.
There should be no doubt that the US will spare no effort to recover the wreckage or render it ineffective for intelligence exploitation as Art from the advanced technology of the aircraft, its computers are also linked to the entire operational systems of the US Navy.
Probability of China stealing the wreckage
Given its advanced technology and computer linkages to the entire command and control and targeting systems of the US Navy, its wreckage would be a technological gold mine for China if it is able to salvage the same. With US salvage ships 10 days away, there was speculation galore about likely Chinese efforts. More so, when China claims the South China Sea as its territorial waters. In fact, USS Carl Vinson was on patrol to challenge this claim and to assert freedom of navigation in international waters. Even in international waters, by convention, wreckage/salvage belongs to the party that first discovers and commences recovery operations. Chinese Navy constantly ‘tails’ the US Navy in the South China Sea.
On 1 April 2001, a heavily damaged American EP-3 surveillance plane made an emergency landing on China’s Hainan island after a mid-air collision with a pursuing Chinese fighter plane, which crashed resulting in the death of the pilot. The pilot of EP-3 was also killed in the crash landing. The crew of 24, including 3, women miraculously survived the crash and were detained and interrogated by the Chinese before their release 10 days later after a virtual apology by the US. The EP-3 was stripped and its highly classified equipment and intelligence materials were examined in detail by the Chinese and eventually returned in parts three months later.
In my view, given the circumstance of the crash of the F-35C, the fear of China stealing the wreckage/technology was sensational media speculation and no more. The aircraft fell in the vicinity of the aircraft carrier and the location would have been identified and well-guarded by one of the most powerful Carrier Strike Groups consisting of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson with its large air element, one cruiser, two destroyers and two logistic ships apart from shore-based aircraft from nearby bases.
At the time of the crash, it was exercising with a much bigger Carrier Strike Group based on aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln with one cruiser and four destroyers. Carrier Strike Group based on aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan is stationed at Yokosuka, Japan. Two other Naval Task Forces — American Expeditionary Strike Group and Essex Amphibious Strike Group — are also operating in the area. A number of submarines are also likely to be operational in the South China Sea and Western Pacific. As per latest US Navy reports, all the ships are still in the area.
The probability of China challenging this powerful armada to attempt to salvage or even claim the wreckage is zero.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)