Losses and Aviation Safety

Are Russians hunting to fish the wreckage of the UK F-35B that crashed last week like they did with that of a US Navy F-14 that fell off the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy in 1976?

Western allies have expressed confidence to recover the wreckage of the British F-35B Lightning II before Russia beats them to recover and gain critical technological know-how into the sophisticated fifth-generation fighter aircraft.

Western allies have expressed confidence to recover the wreckage of the British F-35B Lightning II stealth fighter jet that crashed in the Mediterranean while taking off from Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth on Nov. 17, 2021 before Russia beats them to recover and gain critical technological know-how into the sophisticated fifth-generation fighter aircraft.

Following months in the Indo-Pacific region as part of her global deployment, HMS Queen Elizabeth is currently in the Mediterranean heading west back to the UK.

According to various UK news outlets, the pilot of the F-35B was forced to eject after a rain cover not lifted was sucked into the stealth plane during takeoff from the aircraft carrier.

The following video was leaked online and appears to feature the crash of the UK F-35B.

As reported by The EurAsian Times, the plan is now to recover the wreckage of the F-35B before Russia finds it. Russia in fact may try to recover the sunken debris of the aircraft to gain critical insights into its cutting-edge technology according to US military officer Brigadier-General Simon Doran.

He said: “We’ll get it first, I promise you.” Doran was echoed by NATO’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Tim Radford, who told journalists on board the vessel sailing in the Mediterranean: “[w]e’re not concerned at all about recovering it.”

However, further details regarding the recovery efforts were not disclosed.

The loss of the aircraft, according to Commodore Steve Moorhouse, the UK carrier strike group led by HMS Queen Elizabeth, was “a hugely unfortunate incident” and “a setback”.

He also said that “[t]he reliability of the aircraft or confidence in it and the project is undiminished.”

To understand if the western apprehension about Russia laying its hand on this American-made platform is genuine, The EurAsian Times spoke to several military analysts.

Military author, columnist, and defense analyst Joseph P Chacko shared his view: ‘Rival countries are interested in each other’s military developments. The relevant special services are always engaged in the extraction of samples of foreign military equipment, including raised and sunken foreign weapons.

‘Russia has the means to lift sunken objects from the seabed as the country had retrieved its carrier-based aircraft from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.

‘The F-35 was equipped with top-secret radar and the most modern instruments and sensors that allowed it to fly at supersonic speeds and remain invisible. The British military is now recovering the debris.

‘The main thing, they believe, is that it does not fall into the hands of the enemy. First of all, the Russian Navy. The open-source information mentions that the F-35 crashed into the East Mediterranean Sea.’

By contrast Philippines-based airpower analyst, Miguel Miranda says that, ‘Nothing really [will be gleaned] as the Russians have the same tech. An F-35B was lost? The Russians certainly know what an F-35B can do.’

Moscow-based American political analyst Andrew Korybko shared his assessment, calling it “typical anti-Russian fearmongering meant to advance preplanned geopolitical hostility,”

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“There’s no credible indication that Russian subs are racing towards the F-35’s Mediterranean underwater grave, but NATO’s claims that it supposedly is could revive the past years’ hysteria about Russian submarines and the alleged threat they pose (particularly to undersea cables per Western Mainstream Media speculation),” Korybko said.

“The Mediterranean is basically a NATO lake for the most part. It’s unrealistic to imagine that Russia could covertly dispatch a submarine to the F-35’s underwater grave, somehow obtain usable information about it (if not retrieve parts of it), and escape without anyone knowing, chasing them down, provoking an international confrontation, or whatever else.

“The story, therefore, sounds like typical anti-Russian fearmongering meant to advance preplanned geopolitical hostility against the Eurasian Great Power. It’s not worthy to even speculate about what would happen if Russia reached the site first since it’s not credible to even claim that it’s trying to, let alone could do so and get away with it in this NATO lake.”

Some observers pointed out that anything ranging from the lift fan to the engine itself would benefit the Russians as US engines are believed to possess more technological sophistication.

They are of the opinion that if the plane or the wreckage is salvaged, Russia would have a lot to gain as its indigenous aerospace industry has been lagging behind. But there are others who do not subscribe to this view.

As we have previously reported, earlier in the deployment F-35 jets from HMS Queen Elizabeth intercepted Russian jets in the eastern Mediterranean more than 30 times as part of the Carrier Strike Group. Now that the vessels have returned to the region after sailing to the Pacific and back it appears Russian interest has been renewed.

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“It is not a secret the Russians have been very interested in the carrier group both on the way out from the United Kingdom – as she’s sailed and her group towards the Pacific – and now she is back in the Mediterranean,” Defence Secretary Ben Wallace explained to Sky News.

However, this would not be the first time that the Russians would try “to fish” a NATO fighter aircraft that fell off an aircraft carrier.

The Soviets in fact tried to go fishing for a VF-32 F-14 that fell off the USS John F. Kennedy on Sep. 14, 1976 – after the plane’s control systems went haywire and the pilot/RIO had to eject. At the time, the John F. Kennedy was off Scapa Flow (in Scotland’s northern islands) which wasn’t too far from the Soviet backyard, and this gave them plausible cover to attempt a recovery of the aircraft by posing as a fishing fleet conducting normal fishing operations.

Nevertheless, the Tomcat wreckage was finally recovered by the US Navy’s NR-1, a nuclear research submarine. The NR-1 crew observed that it had indeed been thoroughly harassed by Soviet efforts – with the fuselage roughed up quite a bit and entangled in fishing nets that had no business being there (the area of Scapa Flow doesn’t have any commercial fish stocks at the depth where Kennedy’s F-14 was sitting). At first, the NR-1 couldn’t account for an AIM-54 Phoenix, but the missile was eventually spotted after working a grid pattern going outwards from the F-14.

Photo credit: Gunnie Moberg, Crown Copyright

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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