The F35-C Lightning II combat jet crashed on Monday while trying to land on the deck of an American aircraft carrier, leaving seven sailors injured.
The pilot was able to eject before the £74m aircraft slammed into the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson and then fell into the water. He was later recovered by a helicopter, Navy officials said.
There has been no confirmation on the jet’s location or how long it will take to retrieve, though it is feared that China – which maintains a constant military presence in the stretch of ocean – could be the first to reach the aircraft.
Beijing claims almost all of the 1.3 million square mile waterway as its territory – though this is disputed by the US.
Security analysts said the Chinese military would be keen to get their hands on the jet given the rare technology it contains.
Carl Shuster, a former director of operations at the US Pacific Command, told CNN: “China will try to locate and survey it thoroughly using submarines and one of its deep diving submersibles.
“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.”
Mr Shuster said it would take between five to ten days for US officials to salvage the jet. Recovery would then take around 120 days.
Two American carrier strike groups with more than 14,000 sailors and marines are currently conducting exercises in the South China Sea, which the military says is to demonstrate the “US Indo-Pacific Command Joint Force’s ability to deliver a powerful maritime force.”
The US and its allies have stepped up exercises in the region as China presses its territorial claims over the South China Sea, with Beijing also ramping up pressure on Taiwan.
Taiwan and China split during a civil war in 1949, but China claims the island as its own territory. Beijing has used diplomatic and military means to isolate and intimidate the self-ruled island, but the US has continued to support Taiwan by selling it advanced weapons and fighter planes.
Monday’s crash is the second involving an F-35.
An F-35 from Britain’s HMS Queen Elizabeth crashed into the Mediterranean Sea in November, though the pilot ejected and was safely returned to the ship. The Ministry of Defence said that aircraft was subsequently recovered.
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