Five U.S. Navy sailors, including four chiefs and an ensign, are being charged for allegedly leaking government footage of the F-35C Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter crash aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) in the South China Sea last month.
Cmdr. Zach Harrell a spokesperson for Naval Air Forces told USNI News on Thursday that the four senior enlisted members and the junior officer were being charged with violating Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Harrell did not identify the five sailors charged.
Article 92 violations can describe a failure to obey lawful general orders and regulations, failure to obey other orders or dereliction of duty.
Rob “Butch” Bracknell, a Marine veteran and military lawyer, told USNI News that the sailors “are either being charged on a general orders violation theory or as a dereliction – as in they negligently failed to execute a duty not to record and leak onboard footage.”
“There are two reasons to charge this conduct,” Bracknell added. “Leaking footage of a mishap might reveal platform or performance vulnerabilities to an adversary – maybe not in this case – but they want to deter the conduct in other cases and they want to deter sailors recording onboard systems with personal cell phones and broadcasting them.”
The F-35 clipped the flight deck of the aircraft carrier as it was coming in for a landing on Jan. 24, while the ship was sailing through the South China Sea. The incident resulted in injuries to seven sailors and the loss of the aircraft after it fell into the ocean. Within days, footage leaked of the crash. The footage appeared to have been taken from a cell phone or other hand-held device facing a computer screen as it played the crash footage.
Videos taken showed the advanced fighter jet hit the deck before its landing gear broke and it skidded on its nose at high speed, trailing flames.
The Navy previously prosecuted a sailor for taking cell-phone video from inside a warship. Kristian Saucier was charged for taking photos inside classified engineering areas of USS Alexandria (SSN-757), a nuclear-powered Los Angeles-class attack submarine. Saucier was sentenced in 2016 to a year in prison for the photos.
Bracknell told USNI News, “Saucier’s photos were of classified spaces, but I can see the Navy resetting the scale on taking photos of the insides of Navy platforms generally.”
The Navy is continuing to investigate the cause of the Jan. 24 crash.
The Navy is also working to recover the wreckage of the advanced stealth-fighter. The loss of the fighter in the South China Sea raises the potential that China, which has already tried to exert broad territorial claims in the sea region, will try to get its hands on the wreckage before the U.S. can. If China recovered the aircraft, they could use it to find both physical and cybersecurity vulnerabilities to exploit.