The U.S. Navy is in a race against China to recover an F-35C Lightning II fighter jet that crashed in the South China Sea on Monday.
The $100 million fifth-generation stealth fighter jet reportedly impacted against the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) and then fell over the side of the ship. The pilot and six additional sailors were injured in the incident.
While China has yet to comment on the F-35 crash, the location of the accident poses a challenge for the U.S. to recover the wreckage before China can.
“U.S. and Chinese military forces will be racing to salvage the F-35 fighter jet off the bottom of the ocean,” Josh Lospinoso, the CEO of the cybersecurity firm Shift5 told American Military News. “Both parties realize the potential intelligence value of recovering even components of the downed aircraft. Since the F-35 is the world’s most advanced stealth fighter, China has deep interest in obtaining example aircraft to steal technology and learn how to defeat it.”
The South China Sea is international waters, but China has exerted extensive territorial claims over the waterway and has bolstered its claims by building up and militarizing reefs and artificial islands throughout the sea and maintaining a heavy naval presence.
“China will try to locate and survey it thoroughly using submarines and one of its deep diving submersibles,” Carl Schuster, a former director of operations at the U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center in Hawaii, told CNN.
Schuster said China might try to claim salvage rights, based on its territorial claims over the South China Sea, in order to get their hands on the F-35 wreckage.
The Navy has provided only scant details about the recovery efforts it is undertaking. In response to a CNN request for comment U.S. 7th Fleet, Lt. Nicholas Lingo would only say, “The U.S. Navy is making recovery operations arrangements for the F-35C aircraft involved in the mishap aboard USS Carl Vinson.”
China’s strong presence in the South China Sea raises the risk it could recover the aircraft before the U.S. can. If China were to recover the F-35, the wreckage could allow Chinese defense researchers to study both the physical and cybersecurity features of the aircraft and find vulnerabilities.
“The F-35’s prowess isn’t limited to stealth technology,” Lospinoso said. “It’s also a flying supercomputer capable of conducting electronic warfare and intelligence missions. The entire aircraft is crammed with digital components, and obtaining these highly classified components – even partially functioning ones – could give China a huge advantage in developing cyberattacks against the aircraft.”
Lospinoso raised similar concerns about adversaries finding cybersecurity vulnerabilities in the billions of dollars of U.S. equipment left behind in Afghanistan in August.
Lospinoso, who previously served in the U.S. Army’s Cyber Command, specialized in conducting “penetration tests” of U.S. military equipment during his military career. Throughout his time trying to find vulnerabilities in U.S. military equipment, Lospinoso said “one of the most important things was getting a physical representation of that asset, even if it was just a part of it.”
Lospinoso said once adversaries like China can “pierce that veil of secrecy” it accelerates their timeline for developing the cyber capabilities needed to attack the U.S.
“It’s unclear how deep this F-35’s wreckage lies under the ocean or how damaged the aircraft’s electronics will be when it’s ultimately salvaged, but even obtaining schematic and compositional data would be tremendously valuable to China,” Lospinoso said.