The echoes of the Cold War in the search for a US fighter jet that crashed in international waters are so strong that one defense consultant describes it as "The Hunt for Red October meets The Abyss." Abi Austen tells the BBC that an American salvage vessel is believed to be around 10 days away from the crash site in the South China Sea, meaning China has a strong chance of getting there first with submarines. The $100 million jet ended up at the bottom of the sea after it crash-landed on the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier Monday. The pilot and six sailors were injured. "It's vitally important the US gets this back," Austen says. "The F35 is basically like a flying computer," with technology China doesn't have yet.
"If they can get into the 35's networking capabilities, it effectively undermines the whole carrier philosophy," says Austen, who notes that the battery in the jet's black box might die before the US vessel reaches the scene, making the F35C harder to locate. The Navy is understandably staying tight-lipped about the area where the jet sank, though China claims almost the entire sea—and the jet is "technically fair game" in international waters, per the BBC. "We’re certainly mindful of the value of an F35 in every respect of what value means," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said at a briefing Thursday. The salvage operation is expected to involve attaching large bags that will be inflated to raise the jet, though some military officers have noted that simply destroying it with a torpedo would be an easier option.
The recovery attempt will be made "obviously with safety foremost in mind, but clearly our own national security interests," Kirby said. "And I think I will just leave it at that." A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman claimed Thursday that the country isn't trying to find the plane, the Guardian reports. "This is not the first time that the US has an accident in the South China Sea," Zhao Lijian said. "We have no interest in their aircraft." After a damaged EP-3 surveillance aircraft made an emergency landing on Hainan Island in April 2001, China detained the 24 American crew members for 10 days. The disassembled aircraft was returned in July that year. (Read more South China Sea stories.)