A single American F-35 downed in territory claimed by China stands to cause an international incident as both nations have a vested interest in reaching the advanced stealth jet first.
For China, surveying the aircraft will give the communist regime priceless information on the F-35’s radar-deflecting design, hyper-advanced equipment and any other goodies waiting to be reverse-engineered and used to hone Beijing’s own deadly aircraft.
For the U.S., this must be prevented by any means necessary. There’s one major problem, however.
The F-35, which crashed Monday off the deck of the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, now sits at the bottom of the South China Sea.
The problem becomes immediately clear — the Chinese Communist Party has laid claim to much of the area, militarizing manmade atolls and usurping the claims of nearby countries.
While most nations reject Beijing’s claims to the massive sea, China’s overwhelming military assets in the region virtually guarantee the waters sit securely in communist hands for now.
According to Carl Schuster, former director of operations at the U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center, the U.S. Navy will likely maintain a small fleet around the area of the downed jet while waiting on a recovery ship. This specialized vessel is expected to take as long as two weeks to arrive.
Once the ship begins its work, it may be months before the sunken F-35 is raised and the seafloor completely scrubbed of parts.
All the while, Beijing will be silently acting.
“China will try to locate and survey it thoroughly using submarines and one of its deep-diving submersibles,” Schuster said, according to CNN.
The Asian superpower’s constant activity in the region gives it an edge thanks to a working knowledge of local underwater terrain, which could lead to a swift capture of the aircraft.
To this end, China could claim salvage rights to the F-35 by citing safety concerns or, to strike a chord with President Joe Biden and his Democratic allies, a brewing ecological disaster at the site of the wreck.
“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 said.
A move that bold could force some sort of confrontation with the U.S., even with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s “old friend” in the White House.
If China is able to learn more about an American combat jet that has become a keystone of many military operations, the implications are clear. The U.S. faces a tough challenge in the South China Sea, but facing an adversary with intimate knowledge of our most advanced aircraft will make things much more difficult.
As it stands now for these two rivals, it’s a race against time to reach this sunken jet.
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