The $100m F35-C plane came down in the South China Sea after what the Navy describes as a “mishap” during take-off from the USS Carl Vinson.
Seven sailors were injured when the jet came down on Monday after it struck Vinson’s deck during a military exercise.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea and has increasingly taken steps to assert that claim in recent years, refusing to recognise a 2016 international tribunal ruling saying it had no legal basis.
“It’s vitally important the US gets this back,” she says. “The F-35 is basically like a flying computer. It’s designed to link up other assets – what the Air Force calls ‘linking sensors to shooters’.”
China doesn’t have that technology so getting their hands on it would give them a huge leap forward, she says.
Asked if there were echoes of the Cold War here, she says: “It’s all about who’s the biggest dog in the park! This is basically The Hunt For Red October meets The Abyss – it’s a brilliant three-act play.”
Ms Austen, a former adviser to the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and former senior Nato and EU diplomat, said she believes any attempt by China to try to claim salvage rights was them “stress testing” the US.
There is no doubt China wants this plane, although cyber espionage may mean they already have some knowledge of its interior, layout and workings, says Bryce Barros, a China affairs analyst and security fellow at the Truman Project.
The US Navy acknowledged in a statement that a recovery operation was under way following the “mishap” aboard USS Carl Vinson.
A team from the US Navy Supervisor of Salvage and Diving would attach bags to the jet’s fuselage which will then be slowly inflated to raise the wreckage.
The aircraft was likely to have been armed with at least a couple of missiles carried either on its wings or in the internal weapons bay which could also complicate recovery.