Three weeks after an F-35C Lightning II fighter bounced off the deck of a ship and sank into the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy decided to highlight its salvage and deep-sea recovery capabilities in a press event for reporters Wednesday while insisting the two weren't related.
On Jan. 24, an F-35C fighter crashed onto the USS Carl Vinson and slid off the flight deck, into the South China Sea. Images of the plane floating in the water, complete with missing ejection seat and surrounded by debris, were later leaked online. After the crash, the Navy announced that it was "making recovery operations arrangements" for the aircraft but gave no other details.
But at the start of Wednesday's event, Alan Baribeau, a spokesman for Naval Sea Systems, noted that they were "not going to answer anything that's tied to anything of an ongoing, current-day, real-world nature."
"No hypothetical questions, please," he added.
Capt. Jay Young, the Navy's supervisor of Diving & Salvage, explained that major deep-sea recovery operations are typically broken up into two parts -- the search and the salvage portions.
To locate anything the Navy wants brought up -- like an F-35C -- the team can use a very efficient and deep diving autonomous underwater vehicle called the "Hugin," which can go 20,000 feet below the ocean's surface.
"In a 20-hour period, with the Hugin, we can search an area about 25 square miles, and with our towed system, that same area would take about a month," Young explained.
Then, to bring up your underwater item of interest -- for instance, an aircraft that had fallen off the side of a ship -- the Navy has a remotely operated vehicle called the CURV 21, which is also able to dive to 20,000 feet. Young explained that the CURV and other remotely operated vehicles are used to the "go down … validate the object is what we're looking to recover. It will connect rigging to the object ... to support connecting to our salvage system to bring the object up to the surface."
Then, all that's left is to let the Flyaway Deep Ocean Salvage System -- "a portable motion-compensated lift system connected through the ship's crane boom," to hear Young describe it -- lift your sunken item, perhaps a stealthy multirole fighter, to the surface.
Last year, the Navy showed that these depth limits are far from aspirational by recovering an MH-60S helicopter from a depth of 19,075 feet off the coast of Okinawa, Japan, and setting a salvage depth record for the team along the way.
On Jan. 29, the Japanese Coast Guard posted a maritime navigational alert to stay clear of an area west of the Philippines and south of Hong Kong, the general area where the F-35C crash occurred, due to "salvage operations … until further notice," but it did not explicitly reference the Vinson mishap.
The deepest part of the South China Sea is about 18,000 feet and, according to Google Earth, the depth at the coordinates for the Japanese navigational alert is about 13,000 feet.
Bradley Martin, a Rand Corp. researcher and former Navy captain, told Military.com in an interview that trying to bring up lost aircraft like the F-35 "is a completely normal reaction to the mishap."
He added that "something similar would probably occur regardless of what aircraft might be."
Martin noted that the wreckage could help investigators get a better understanding of the crash but added that there are security considerations as well.
"It's sort of reminiscent of the Cold War … the race to recover the sunken fighter plane," Steven Wills, a naval historian and researcher for the think tank CNA, told Military.com. "It's not just a simple salvage; there could be a race out there."
Wills explained that there is a good precedent for adversaries or even allies of convenience to nab military gear -- especially planes.
"You can reverse engineer it. ... Historically, some of our friends have been really good about that," Wills said.
Specifically, Wills noted two incidents. In the closing months of World War II, the Soviets held on to an American B-29 bomber that was forced to make an emergency landing near Vladivostok. That plane would be meticulously copied to make the Soviet Tu-4 bomber.
The long-range bomber, a first for the Soviets, would go on to be a powerful tool in early days of the Cold War.
More recently, Wills noted the 2001 Hainan Island incident in which a Navy EP-3 signals intelligence plane collided with a Chinese jet and was forced to land on the Chinese island. The plane was eventually returned to the U.S. but in pieces, and by the Russians.
"All that comms stuff and how we encrypt communications ... that's probably higher priority than the airframe or any of the avionics or weapons or anything else," Wills explained. "Just getting ahold of that, I think, would be a real Intelligence coup for people who aren't friendly to us."
Luckily, Young says his team recovers all sorts of things fairly regularly from the ocean's depths. In 2021, they conducted five operations, six in 2020, and four in 2019 and 2018 each. So far, none seems to have been an F-35, however.
-- Konstantin Toropin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ktoropin.