US Surveillance Ship Spotted in Region of Downed Fighter-Jet

Special to BenarNews
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US Surveillance Ship Spotted in Region of Downed Fighter-Jet The USNS Effective ocean surveillance ship, seen in this undated photo, is in the South China Sea, according to ship tracking data.
Military Sealift Command

Tracking data seen by Radio Free Asia show a U.S. Navy ocean surveillance ship in the South China Sea region believed to be the salvage site for the crashed F-35C fighter-jet, an indication that recovery operations may be under way.

The USNS Effective (T-AGOS-21) was located Wednesday in the northern part of the South China Sea about 200 nautical miles west of Luzon Island in the Philippines, according to the ship-tracking website MarineTraffic.

The ship’s location is within the area earmarked in the NAVAREA Navigational Warning issued on Jan. 29 by the Japanese Coast Guard for “salvage operations in the South China Sea.”

A navigation warning is a public advisory notice to mariners about changes to navigational aids and current marine activities or hazards including fishing zones and military exercises.

The F-35C Lightning II – the U.S. Navy’s most advanced stealth fighter-jet – plunged into the sea after a “landing mishap” on the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier during routine operations on Jan. 24.

The Pentagon said that “appropriate planning actions” are being taken and that the salvage operation would be done “in a timely manner as we’ve done in the past.” It has not provided additional details on the salvage operation.

The USNS Effective is a Victorious-class ocean surveillance ship, assigned to the U.S. Navy’s Special Mission Program together with three other similar vessels.

The unarmed ocean surveillance ships “directly support our Navy by using both passive and active low frequency sonar arrays to detect and track undersea threats,” according to the Navy’s Military Sealift Command.


Analysts said the USNS Effective’s jobs would include establishing the U.S. presence and interest at the site; surveying the area; monitoring and evaluating the environment; and determining the aircraft’s location.

It would also be used to detect and warn of any air or maritime activity that may pose a security concern to the salvage efforts.


“She’s an ocean surveillance ship so she is the perfect candidate to monitor air, surface and subsurface activities in the area,” said Carl Schuster, former director of operations at the U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center in Hawaii.

“Her presence also establishes America’s interests without appearing to be threatening,” he said, adding there is a chance the U.S. Navy installed salvage or salvage survey equipment on the ship.

Chinese military observers have been monitoring the accident– not least because it took place in the South China Sea which China regards as its own domain and which has become a focus of strategic rivalry with the U.S and its allies.

U.S. oceanographic research ships are not unfamiliar to the Chinese as “this class of vessel was in the past embroiled in close encounters with the Chinese Coast Guard,” said Collin Koh, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

In March 2009, the Pentagon accused China of harassing its surveillance ship USNS Impeccable in the South China Sea because fishing boats dropped pieces of wood into the water directly in front of Impeccable’s path and snagged its acoustic equipment.

“I don’t think the Chinese would actively try to disrupt or interfere with the operation this time as the postulated site of the crash is much farther away from Chinese coasts and closer to the Philippines,” Koh said.

“But they would likely send assets to the area to watch the Americans and that could include maritime militia, PLA Navy, civilian research ships or coast guards,” he said. “The Chinese outposts on artificial islands [in the South China Sea] would give Beijing a vantage position to dispatch assets to monitor the salvage and recovery operations in the area.”

Given the significance and the scale of the recovery operation, Koh said it would “plausibly involve more American assets including escorts in the area.”

Some Chinese analysts, meanwhile, said the presence of U.S. naval assets would raise a legal question.

“That question is whether the plane was lost in China’s territorial waters,” said Andy Mok, senior research fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing.

China insists on holding “historical rights” to most of the South China Sea and draws baselines around disputed archipelagos to claim additional territorial seas, although those claims are not supported under international law.

The U.S. would also have to seek consent from the Philippines if the aircraft wreckage is found in this country’s exclusive economic zone, which extends 200 nautical miles from its coast. It has yet to be seen if Manila, a U.S. ally, would raise the matter.

f-35 in water 2-3-2022.jpeg
A photo widely circulated on social media shows the F-35C jet in the sea after its crash while attempting to land on the USS Carl Vinson on Jan. 24, 2022. [OedoSoldier Tweet]

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