Britain is racing to find the wreckage of a Royal Navy F-35B stealth jet that crashed in the Mediterranean amid fears that Turkey and Russia will seek to salvage highly classified fragments of the aircraft.
On November 17, a British F-35B, which is the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the jet, crashed in the Mediterranean. The aircraft took off from the UK aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth and came down shortly afterwards.
The country’s Ministry of Defence reportedly approached the United States for support recovering the aircraft. Retrieving the stealth fighter from the seafloor remains an urgent priority to prevent it or any components from being acquired by potential adversaries – namely Russia which retains a strong underwater presence and maintains a sizeable fleet in the region.
British and Nato warships are assembling to protect the Eastern Mediterranean crash site after the advanced fighter went down as it took off from the flagship aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth on Wednesday.
The latest naval tracking data shows a considerable amount of warship activity south of Crete, with a British Type-45 destroyer on station alongside a specialist tug.
Warships from Spain and Germany are also in the area, and a Norwegian construction support vessel is heading into the waters that could potentially be used to lift the 15-tonne aircraft.
Defence sources have indicated that Turkey is “extremely keen” to find parts, particularly after the US denied sales of the fighter jet to Ankara. Any technology recovered could be used by Turkey’s burgeoning defence industry to develop its own advanced aircraft.
“Turkey has been excluded from the F-35 programme, so I’m sure they’d love to have some debris for their own domestic aerospace industry,” said Gareth Jennings, aviation editor for Janes Defence Weekly. “I’m also sure they would love to find out some of the technical secrets of the F-35. Both the British government and the Americans will be very keen that this aircraft is recovered.”
The UK MoD is understood to be worried about the Russians, who have a naval base in Tartus, Syria, more than a day’s sail away. There is also a possibility that civilian ships could recover debris and sell it on to foreign powers, including China.
The recovery effort is likely to take weeks and could be hampered by poor weather.
With the F-35 being part of a $1.6 billion weapons program, and over 3000 of the aircraft planned to be built, access to the wreckage of an F-35B would be a valuable prize for any potential U.S. adversary.