The investigation into the unauthorized leak of an official video showing the crash of a F-35C fighter jet in the South China Sea last month has concluded with five navy personnel facing charges, the U.S. Navy said.
Cmdr. Zach Harrell, spokesperson for the commander of Naval Air Forces, confirmed to the RFA on Friday that “one U.S. navy ensign, one senior chief petty officer, and three chief petty officers have been charged under Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.”
A navy ensign is the lowest rank of junior officer while chief petty officer and senior chief petty officer are senior enlisted ranks.
The video of the so-called “ramp strike” by the fighter jet on the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier emerged earlier this month and was shared widely on social media.
The Pentagon afterwards confirmed that the shipboard video of the Jan. 24 crash was authentic. It shows footage, apparently originating from the pilot’s landing aid television (PLAT) and taken from two angles as the jet comes into land.
From the first one, the plane hits the deck then rotates and skids in flames. In the second, it crashes onto the deck before sliding off the flight deck and into the sea.
PLAT is installed on the carrier to assist pilots in making accurate landings.
In the video, yelling can be heard for the pilot to abort the landing attempt but within five seconds the F-35C drops into the South China Sea. The pilot safely ejected, the U.S. Navy said.
Another video clip and a photo circulating on social media shows the F-35C hitting the water. Nobody has been charged in connection with those as they are deemed personal recordings and not government property, according to an anonymous spokesman cited by USNI News.
Cmdr. Harrell did not disclose identities of the four senior enlisted sailors and the junior officer facing charges, adding that “there is an ongoing investigation into the crash.”‘Non-judicial punishment’
Carl Schuster, a retired U.S. Navy captain, predicted the five personnel will likely receive a “captain's mast,” also known as an Article 15.
A captain’s mast is a non-judicial disciplinary hearing into minor offenses of the crew.
“The senior chief and chief petty officers are looking at a reduction in rank and forfeiture of pay. The ensign would receive a letter of reprimand, which will prevent him from being promoted, ensuring he is out of the Navy in 18 months,” Schuster said.
“They are on sea duty so they can't refuse a captain's mast but they can request court martial. However, a special court martial can inflict very severe punishment,” he added.Meanwhile the spokesperson, Cmdr. Harrell, said the recovery from the crash took place swiftly and did not cause too much disruption to the carrier’s operations.
“We remain grateful to the highly trained sailors aboard USS Carl Vinson who immediately responded to ensure that the pilot was recovered from the water, all injured personnel were cared for, and flight deck was cleared and re-set for operations,” he told RFA.
“After a short pause in accordance with safety procedures, the rapid response from the crew enabled flight operations to resume with minimal impact to mission requirements.”
Still pending is the task of recovering the sunken jet from the depths of the South China Sea.
The U.S. Navy said in late January that it was “making recovery operations arrangements for the F-35C aircraft” but did not give further details. The Japanese coastguard also issued a navigation warning for mariners to beware of salvage operations in an area in the northern part of the South China Sea. The warning remains in effect.