Race on to retrieve sunken US Navy stealth fighter

Finding the crashed US$100-million F-35C has become a priority for Washington

They are calling it, The Hunt For Red October, after the movie of the same name.

But it’s not a submarine they are looking for, it’s a state-of-the-art US$100-million F-35C fighter jet, that just happened to crash during a routine landing attempt on the USS Carl Vinson, and make a splash in the South China Sea.

A big, big splash — that has resounded all the way to Beijing, who would absolutely love to get their hands on this wreckage.

Let it first be said, the pilot ejected and suffered injuries. Also, seven sailors on the deck of the Vinson suffered injuries, and all were airlifted to hospital.

That said, the race is on for the US Navy to reach the downed fighter, before the Chinese get there first, BBC News reported.

Because the plane came down in international waters, it’s technically fair game. And whoever gets there first, wins.

The prize? All the secrets behind this very expensive, leading-edge fighting force:

  • A network-enabled mission system that allows real-time sharing of information it collects while in flight;
  • US Navy’s first “low observable” carrier-based aircraft which enables it to operate undetected in enemy airspace;
  • Larger wings and more robust landing gear make it suitable for “catapult launches” from carriers at sea;
  • Has the most powerful fighter engine in the world and it can hit speeds of up to 1,200 mph, or Mach 1.6;
  • Can carry up to two missiles on its wings and four inside.

Meanwhile, the Navy will not confirm either where it came down or how long it will take to retrieve it.

Assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 147 (VFA-147), the “Argonauts,” the F-35C had been taking part in the second day of naval maneuvers involving two Nimitz class aircraft carriers, the Carl Vinson and USS Abraham Lincoln, in the disputed South China Sea, The Drive reported.

On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian denied Beijing was after the stricken F-35C. “We have no interest in their aircraft,” he said at a briefing.

Right. Of course not.

Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson transits the Pacific Ocean. Photo: US Navy

It just so happens, it will take at least 10 days for a US salvage vessel to reach the scene, and then, they have to look for it, BBC reported.

That’s too late, says defense consultant Abi Austen, because the black box battery will die before then, making it harder to locate the aircraft.

That will give China time, to do some F-35C hunting.

“It’s vitally important the US gets this back,” she says. “The F-35 is basically like a flying computer. It’s designed to link up other assets — what the Air Force calls ‘linking sensors to shooters’.”

China doesn’t have that technology so getting their hands on it would give them a huge leap forward, she told the BBC.

“If they can get into the 35’s networking capabilities, it effectively undermines the whole carrier philosophy.”

Cold War

Asked if there were echoes of the Cold War here, she said: “It’s all about who’s the biggest dog in the park! This is basically The Hunt For Red October meets The Abyss — it’s a brilliant three-act play.”

If you remember the James Bond film, Thunderball, whereby the evil organization Spectre steals a British Vulcan bomber laden with nuclear weapons, the aircraft crash lands in the Bahamas, gently falling down to the bottom, perfectly intact.

When I saw it, I thought it was a bunch of Hollywood hooey — the plane would surely break apart, right?

Not necessarily, as we found out in 2009 when Capt. Sully landed a stricken Airbus A320 on the Hudson River, completely intact. It actually can be done with the right pilot, at the stick.

And if you look at the photo of the crashed F-35C, it probably sank straight down, shortly after the photo was taken.

The Seventh Fleet confirmed an F-35C hit “the flight deck of the Carl Vinson.” Photo: US Navy

So how would a retrieval actually work?

A team from the US Navy Supervisor of Salvage and Diving would attach bags to the jet’s fuselage which will then be slowly inflated to raise the wreckage, the BBC reported.

This operation will be more difficult if the airframe is not largely in one piece.

The aircraft was likely to have been armed with at least a couple of missiles carried either on its wings or in the internal weapons bay which could also complicate things.

In 1974, at the height of the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency secretly pulled a Russian submarine from the seafloor off the coast of Hawaii using a giant mechanical claw.

Project Azorian sought to recover the sunken Soviet submarine K-129 from the Pacific Ocean floor, using the purpose-built ship Hughes Glomar Explorer, NPR reported.

The 1968 sinking of K-129 occurred approximately 1,600 miles northwest of Hawaii.

So how do you raise a 2,000-ton Soviet sub without anyone noticing?

That’s where the mysterious Howard Hughes came in.

An artist’s rendition of the Hughes Glomar Explorer Photo: Washingtonian Magazine

Hughes, an eccentric, reclusive billionaire, agreed to be the CIA’s cover story. He played along with the plan concocted by the agency, announcing that he would build a huge ship to mine valuable manganese nodules from the seafloor, NPR reported.

The Hughes Glomar Explorer needed some two weeks to deploy its submersible vehicle 3 miles and clamp the giant claw onto the Soviet sub.

It was a remarkable feat of maritime engineering that had never been tried before.

While the sub broke apart — most of it headed back to the bottom — the CIA would have to settle for about 40 feet of a sub more than 300 feet long, NPR reported.

What did they find?

Two nuclear-tipped torpedoes and some submarine manuals. Interesting stuff, though not the intelligence windfall that was hoped for.

The operation began leaking out just six months later, with a series of US media reports in early 1975.

Rolling Stone magazine filed a Freedom of Information Act seeking more details. The CIA still didn’t want to confirm the operation, but, well, it could no longer deny it.

CIA document

Hence the phrase, “We can neither confirm nor deny.”

The Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, demanded an answer from US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

The CIA documents, citing Soviet officials, say Kissinger “essentially admitted partial success.”

After the Cold War, in 1992, the US gave Russia a video showing the Americans on the ship respectfully burying at sea the remains of six Soviet sailors found in the sub, NPR reported.

The Navy announced that the damage to the aircraft carrier was superficial and it resumed its normal operations.

Although the US Navy had not given details on how it plans to recover the aircraft, it recovered an MH-60S Seahawk helicopter from a depth of 19,075 feet (5.8 kilometers) off the coast of Okinawa, Japan back in 2020, Interesting Engineering reported. 

One other option, of course, is to destroy the jet to stop it getting into the hands of Beijing.

A few well-placed mines would do the job, for sure.

But nobody seems in a hurry to do that.