An incident occurring Jan. 24 in the South China Sea will trigger all the intrigue of a novel mystery by the late sea explorer/author Clive Cusler. A similar incident almost half a century earlier generated such intrigue – in an underwater race the U.S. won – only because it had an asset that, unfortunately, is unavailable today.
On Jan. 24, 2022, an F-35C aircraft, the most advanced fighter jet in the U.S. inventory, suffered a pilot error mishap while attempting to land onboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, just off the coast of the Philippines. USS Vinson was operating with other ships in an exercise directed at challenging Beijing’s territorial water claims to most of the South China Sea. Falling overboard, the F-35C sank, although the pilot ejected and was safely recovered. The plane’s loss immediately becomes an opportunity for our enemies to score a big win if they can recover it before we do.
Granted, the U.S. has the benefit of knowing the exact point of impact where the aircraft went down, but water depth and varying current layers underwater impact where exactly on the ocean floor it came to rest.
For our enemies, the F-35C becomes a treasure chest lost at sea, which will now cause them to launch an all-out effort to locate and recover it. The U.S. must await arrival of search assets from halfway around the world, but, since the lost aircraft lies in China’s backyard, it can get on site sooner, while denying it is doing so.
Undoubtedly, the Russians are positioning themselves to search as well. Based on a recently formed friendship with China, more due to U.S. animosity than ideology, the two may well be coordinating efforts to maximize usage of their combined search assets. We can expect the deep waters of the South China Sea to experience rush hour traffic as numerous underwater vehicles of three nations attempt to locate the jet.
This situation is not dissimilar to one occurring in 1976. In that incident, the most advanced plane of that era was the F-14 fighter, lost over the side of the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy operating in the North Sea. It too triggered an international search effort. Of major concern to the U.S. was preventing recovery of the F-14’s highly secret Phoenix missile system. The F-14 was the only aircraft equipped with missiles capable of shooting down the Soviet MIG-25 at extremely high altitudes and was believed to be more sophisticated than the Soviet plane.
This competing search effort was with the Soviet Union. It was believed the Soviets knew fairly precisely where the plane went down. However, due to the 1,890-foot depth, the sinking aircraft’s drift downward still required a major search effort.
We eventually were able to locate the F-14 because of a special 130-foot long asset we had developed seven years earlier. Motivated by the 1963 unsuccessful search for the wreckage of the nuclear submarine USS Thresher, the father of the nuclear Navy, Adm. Hyman Rickover, saw the need for a minisub capable of spending much time underwater scouring the sea floor for whatever mission was given. Having obtained funding for this secret project, in 1968 Rickover quietly commissioned the world’s smallest nuclear submarine, NR1, which proved its worth searching for the F-14.
Only able to carry a 13-man crew, NR1 located the jet after initiating a circular search pattern. It also discovered the Americans had not made it there first. A broken cable, netting and sea floor tracks indicated an attempt had earlier been made by the Soviets to raise the plane from the depths, only to lose it while hauling it up.
U.S. news stories concerning our search effort continued reporting failure to find the plane, making mention of some ships involved in the operation but never mentioning NR1.
NR1 would go on to recover pieces of the Space Shuttle Challenger (1986), survey the wreckage of Titanic’s sister ship HMS Britannic (1995), discover three ancient Roman shipwrecks in the Mediterranean Sea (late 1990s), investigate the wreckage of the Civil War-era ironclad USS Monitor and participate in numerous oceanographic research missions. Unfortunately, it is of no use today as it was decommissioned in 2008, its steel hull recycled and its control room now sitting in the U.S. Naval Undersea Museum in Keyport, Washington.
There may be a bit of revenge for the Russians getting involved in the search. President Vladimir Putin, who has always bemoaned the collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest tragedy,” remembers well one of the greatest CIA accomplishments.
Following the sinking in 1968 of the Soviet nuclear submarine K-129 in the Pacific Ocean, 1,600 miles off the coast of Hawaii, the agency initiated Project Azorian to recover it. An industrious project, it necessitated secret construction of a special vessel – the Glomar Explorer. This delayed the recovery attempt for six years. It was one of the most complex, expensive ($4 billion in today’s money) and secretive operations of the Cold War.
As the Soviets did not know where the K-129 sank, the U.S. had plenty of time to plan its recovery. It knew approximately where the sub was as we were monitoring special underwater listening devices known as SOSUS in 1968 and had heard an acoustic event (an explosion onboard K-129), allowing us to pinpoint the submarine’s location to within five nautical miles. After locating it in 1974, the CIA ship began pulling it up, only to experience a mechanical claw malfunction, resulting in only recovering about one-third of the submarine.
As for the F-35C, a defense consultant emphasized the vital importance of its recovery, noting it “is basically like a flying computer. It’s designed to link up other assets – what the Air Force calls ‘linking sensors to shooters.’ … If they (the Chinese military) can get into the 35’s networking capabilities, it effectively undermines the whole carrier philosophy.”
Let us hope the race to find the F-35C jet has a similar fate as do Cusler’s novels where the good guys win.
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