• Daily Caller's source pegged the number of ships at "one or more"
  •  He added that the U.S. doesn't think China can retrieve it
  • The U.S. Navy said it tracks all vessels in the Indo-Pacific area 

As U.S. Navy continues its mission to recover the wreckage of the F-35C Lightning II fighter that crashed into the South China Sea last week, a report suggested Chinese salvage ships were also heading toward the location of the sunken jet.

An exclusive report by Daily Caller, quoting two unnamed sources, suggested that the Chinese salvage ships left port Wednesday. The development comes barely a week after the Chinese foreign ministry claimed they had no interest in the aircraft.

The mission to retrieve the wreckage is very significant for the U.S. as it doesn't want its competitors, including Russia and China, to lay their hands on the sensitive components of the highly advanced jet.

"The Chinese are surging assets, including salvage vessels, to the general vicinity," the report quoted Pentagon who also pegged the number of ships at "one or more."

"We are tracking where they are going," the source told The Daily Caller, adding that "it will be difficult for the U.S. to get the aircraft out of the sea because of both its depth and how it sunk."

Though the Pentagon source said the Chinese "sniffing around" was "notable" and "irritating," he said the U.S. doesn't think China can retrieve the aircraft as the U.S. has a better "deep water tech" than China.

"Legally speaking, they can’t have it," he said. "It’s U.S. property and falls under well-established salvage law. It’s not finders-keepers-losers-weepers. Grabbing it would be theft and would be such a blatantly hostile act that it would force a major degradation in relations. There is no way, politically, [President Joe] Biden could let it go," he added.

The Pentagon source said the Chinese had little chance of laying their hands on the jet “ala ‘The Hunt for Red October',” a 1984 thriller about an underwater search of a Soviet submarine that ended up in U.S. custody. He, however, said that "their lack of respect by acting like they could get it and exploit it is a story."

“China openly operates outside international norms and uses their flouting of U.S. as a way to embarrass us internationally in ways that even the Soviet Union did not contemplate," the source told Daily Caller.

Responding to the Daily Caller report, the U.S. Navy did not get into specifics. "As part of our normal daily operations, we closely track all vessels in the Indo-Pacific area of operations through maritime patrol aircraft, surface ships, and joint capabilities," public affairs officer CDR Hayley Sims told the outlet.

Sims added that the U.S. has begun mobilizing units that will be used to verify the site and recover the jet.

The report also carries a statement from the Department of Defense. "Any question that we are in a competition to recover a United States asset because of location is highly speculative,” the DOD spokesperson said.

The F-35 crashed after a landing mishap on board USS Carl Vinson last Monday. The pilot was ejected safely. The aircraft plunged into the South China Sea after crashing on the deck of the aircraft carrier.

Meanwhile, the Japan Coast Guard also issued a NAVAREA Navigational Warning last Saturday for salvage operations in the South China Sea.

The F-35 is one of the most advanced jet fighters in the world
The F-35 is one of the most advanced jet fighters in the world AFP / JACK GUEZ