THE US Navy is racing to retrieve a $100million warplane that fell off its aircraft carrier before China can get their hands on it.
Six sailors and the pilot were hurt when the F-35C Lightning II crash landed on the USS Carl Vinson in the South China Sea on Monday.
The pilot ejected as the single-engine stealth jet hit the deck and plunged into the water.
He was recovered by a rescue chopper nearby.
But the Navy’s most advanced plane is now at the bottom of the sea, in disputed waters that China claims as its own.
The complex operation to recover it will be closely watched by Beijing, reports CNN.
“The US Navy is making recovery operations arrangements for the F-35C aircraft involved in the mishap aboard USS Carl Vinson,” said US 7th Fleet spokesman Lt Nicholas Lingo.
The Navy refused to give more details of how it will retrieve the high-tech jet – which only became operational in 2019 after years of setbacks.
But is is understood salvage vessels are 15 days’ sailing away, and the recovery could then take four months.
Crews will have to work in the most hotly contested waters in the world.
Beijing claims sovereignty over most of the 1.3million square miles of the South China Sea, sparking disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam.
And it has built a new “Great Wall of China” with fortresses, harbors and missile silos on dozens of uninhabited islands.
Chinese naval and coast guard vessels maintain a constant presence in the sea, and regularly block fishermen from using their historic fishing grounds.
Beijing has not commented on the crash.
But experts said its military analysts will want to get their hands on the US technology.
And they could even use a spy sub to get a close-up view right under the Americans’ noses.
“China will try to locate and survey it thoroughly using submarines and one of its deep diving submersibles,” said Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center in Hawaii.
He added China could make a claim for salvage rights based on its territorial claim over the region, although this is fraught with risk.
“Salvaging the plane with commercial and coast guard assets will enable Beijing to claim it is recovering a potential environmental hazard or foreign military equipment from its territorial waters,” Schuster told CNN.
Collin Koh, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said: “To overtly go about doing this may risk worsening tensions with the US.
“I don’t believe Beijing has stomach for that. However, we can expect the Chinese to shadow, hang around and keep tabs on any such American salvage and recovery operation.”
The jet crashed while returning from a routine flight, the Navy said.
The damage to the Vinson was “superficial” and normal flight drills resumed soon after.
Three of the injured servicemen were airlifted to a hospital in the Philippines for treatment. They are in a stable condition.
An investigation into the crash is ongoing.
It is reported to be the eighth time an F-35 series jet has malfunctioned.
In November an RAF F-35B jump jet crashed into the Mediterranean Sea while taking off from the Royal Navy’s new carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth.
The US Navy helped in the recovery operation, fearing the plane could fall into Russian hands.
USS Carl Vinson is conducting exercises alongside the USS Abraham Lincoln in the South China Sea.
More than 14,000 sailors and marines are taking part in the drills.
The US and its allies have stepped up their exercises in the South China Sea region as China ramps up its pressure on Taiwan.
A US Navy nuclear-armed submarine was spotted for the first time in decades amid rising tensions with Beijing.
The top-secret USS Nevada, which was pictured at Guam’s naval base, is known as a “boomer” and armed with 20 Trident nuclear missiles.
Earlier this month, President Xi urged countries to move away from a “Cold War mentality”.