More US missions in South China Sea a factor in F-35C fighter crash: Chinese researcher

February 2, 2022 GMT

More frequent military exercises carried out as part of the Biden administration’s efforts to counter China in the Indo-Pacific are partly to blame for the crash of a F-35C jet in the South China Sea, according to a Chinese observer.

Chen Xiangmiao, an assistant research fellow with the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said the United States had ramped up its military activities in the South China Sea in the past year to make “potential enemies clearly aware that the costs and risks of aggression are not commensurate with any conceivable benefits”.

“It is also the frequent military activities that have forced US frontline personnel to endure far more intense missions than ever before,” Chen said.

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His assessment, which was first published on the news portal Guancha.cn, comes as the US races to retrieve a F-35C Lightning II jet that crashed in the South China Sea and sank last week after a “landing mishap”.

Chen said the Pentagon had earlier said there were 871 software and hardware deficiencies on the F-35 jet ” the world’s most advanced plane ” but the US still deployed it to the region to “expand its combat advantage ... to reinforce strategic deep-strike capability reserves against China in the Indo-Pacific region”.

There has been speculation that the accident could be a serious setback for the US in its rivalry with China if Beijing finds the components first, allowing China ” now Washington’s major rival ” to gain access to some of the latest American aircraft technologies.

China has said it had “no interest” in the American plane, and the US Navy, without giving further details, said earlier that the Navy was “making recovery operations arrangements” to salvage the jet.

The aircraft fell off the deck of USS Carl Vinson on January 24, injuring seven people, including the pilot who ejected from the jet and was recovered from the water by helicopter.

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According to Chen, the US aircraft carrier strike groups carried out “at least 13” operations in the South China Sea last year and at least 11 nuclear attack submarines have operated in the region. Training on anti-submarine warfare, maritime interception, air strikes and amphibious landings were high on the agenda.

“With a complex mission that combines the dual objectives of ‘combat’ tactical exercises and ‘deterrent’ displays of force, the exhausted US Navy personnel have undertaken missions of a level of intensity beyond the norm,” Chen said.

The complicated weather and water conditions in the South China Sea also challenged the US Navy, which was now grappling with a fighter pilot shortage, he said.

During a virtual symposium in 2020, Robert Westendorff, chief of US Naval Air Training, acknowledged that the navy’s fleet was short by about 100 fighter pilots because of technical and safety problems, and that it took nearly four years to train a strike fighter pilot, according to NavyTimes.com.

With billions of dollars of investment, mostly funded by the US but also eight US allies, the F-35 fleet is the world’s most advanced, and also the most expensive, stealth fighter jet with the ability to go supersonic for a short period. It was hailed by General Charles Brown Jnr, the chief of staff of the US Air Force, as “the cornerstone of our future fighter force and air superiority”.

According to a report by the US Congressional Research Service last month, the Pentagon has ordered 2,456 of the F-35 Lightning II jets to be delivered by 2044 and deployed to the air force, the marine corps and the navy. The F-35C is to be the navy’s first aircraft designed for stealth.

The US Navy has kept a low profile in its F-35C recovery operations, but on Saturday, the Japan Coast Guard issued a navigational warning that salvage operations were being carried out in an area in the northern part of the South China Sea “until further notice”.

Amid intensifying strategic competition, China and the US have stepped up their military presence in the Indo-Pacific. The South China Sea, a busy shipping lane claimed by China as well as neighbours such as Vietnam and the Philippines, has emerged as a major arena.

The US has pledged to provide security backup to the claimants to counter Beijing’s assertiveness in the contested waters and has since sharply scaled up its “freedom of navigation” operations in international waters there. Beijing has accused US operations of destabilising the region.

Last month, US President Joe Bidensigned the National Defence Authorisation Act for financial year 2022, which includes US$7.1 billion for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, a US$2.1 billion increase in the Pentagon’s initial request, a move observers say may indicate the US will build more outposts and strengthen military logistics in the region as part of its efforts to deter China.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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