But the U.S. must probe even further to catch up with China’s access to the ocean’s deepest reaches
Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Defense suddenly faced the catastrophic prospect of forfeiting crucial defense technology to a rival when a military aircraft-packed with highly classified systems-vanished in the South China Sea.
The disappearance of the single-engine stealth jet, an F-35C Joint Strike Fighter, triggered a major search-and-recovery effort by a little-known Navy organization that specializes in ocean retrieval.
With its movement now dictated by deep ocean currents that flow in layers, the jet likely zigged and zagged as it descended more than two miles to the pitch-black bottom, where it remained at a Titanic-like depth of 12,400 feet.
"If China somehow gained access to the crashed F-35C," Chung says, "This would represent a major technology coup and allow the Chinese military aviation industry to gain insights to support its indigenous FC-31 fifth-generation fighter aircraft program-that is heavily influenced by the F-35.".
The lost F-35C remained at the bottom of sea for about five tense weeks before the U.S. Navy managed to locate the aircraft and haul it up.
SUPSALV, a Navy organization formed in the wake of Japan's devastating 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, supports marine salvage operations, provides pollution abatement expertise and helps with underwater vessel repair.
Within SUPSALV, a specialized team of 10 Navy sailors and civilians oversees about half a dozen ocean-floor object recovery missions each year at depths between 330 and 20,000 feet.
After these two dives, the U.S. Navy determined that it, too, now needed the ability to search and salvage in such trenches.
In January 2021 a top admiral changed the salvage requirement to "Full ocean depth." The Navy provides few specific details about how it plans to achieve this goal, but spokesperson Alan Baribeau says SUPSALV will need to integrate several key technologies that will add an extra $700,000 per year to the $6-million budget of SUPSALV's Deep Ocean program.
Investing in faster and deeper underwater response technology could help prevent a future scenario where other nations manage to beat the Navy to valuable lost equipment.