Following the highly publicized loss of a British F-35B stealth fighter from the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in the eastern Mediterranean yesterday, the United Kingdom has approached the United States to help in the aircraft recovery effort. Retrieving the Lightning from the seafloor will be a high priority, to ensure that neither the jet nor any of its sophisticated components end up in the hands of Russia, or potentially other powers. You can read our initial report on the accident here.
According to a report from Larisa Brown, Defense Editor of The Times, the U.K. Ministry of Defence has approached the United States for assistance since it has salvage equipment located in Spain, closest to the scene of the incident.
Unnamed Royal Navy sources told The Times that the precise location of the F-35B had not yet been determined, but the jet apparently crashed soon after takeoff from the carrier. Due to the characteristics of the jet, it could have moved a significant distance from where it actually entered the water.
The hope is that Towed Pinger Locator 25, or TPL-25, provided by the United States should be able to trace the F-35B’s emergency beacon and pinpoint its position. This equipment is apparently on its way to the area.
According to the U.S. Navy, the 60-pound TPL-25 can locate downed military and commercial aircraft down to a maximum depth of 20,000 feet. It is towed behind a vessel at slow speeds, of up to 5 knots depending on the depth, picking up the acoustic signal from the aircraft’s pinger, transmitting it via a cable, and presenting it audibly to the operator.
The same sources added that the jet will then be brought to the surface using a combination of remote-controlled undersea vehicles and inflatable bags that will be attached to it, providing buoyancy. At that point, it’s likely the F-35B would be loaded onboard a salvage vessel and brought to the shore, perhaps to Cyprus, home to a major RAF airbase.
In the meantime, the U.K. military is reportedly keeping a close eye on the general area to ensure that no foreign nations attempt to locate or interfere with the jet. HMS Queen Elizabeth and another warship were noted earlier today apparently circling a location in the Mediterranean off the Greek island of Crete, although it’s possible they were conducting routine operations not connected to the recovery effort.
An anonymous RAF source told The Times: “I’m sure the Russians would love to get their hands on an F-35. In terms of the practicalities of doing it, the logistics of it would be the same as it is for us.”
However, The Times, again citing the Royal Navy, reports that the Russian Navy does not have “equipment capable of retrieving the wreckage […] in the nearby vicinity.” In addition, any such recovery effort, or underwater espionage, would clearly result in a major diplomatic incident if it were detected by the United Kingdom.
Bringing a fighter jet up from the bottom of the ocean has been done before, on several notable occasions, but is far from easy, especially when it’s at a significant depth — reportedly, the F-35B is more than a mile below the surface. On the other hand, reports indicate the jet went down soon after takeoff, suggesting it was likely at a low energy state, meaning it is more likely to be intact.
The British Lightning is not the first example of the Joint Strike Fighter to have crashed into the sea. While the British pilot of the F-35B — either a Royal Air Force or Royal Navy service member — ejected safely, the pilot of a Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) F-35A was killed when the jet crashed off the northeast coast of Japan in April 2019.
The wreckage of the Japanese jet was eventually found, but it took two months to find and recover the pilot’s remains. The jet’s flight data recorder was recovered but found to be damaged beyond use, and most of the jet remains submerged, at a secret location. However, some debris from the jet was noted floating near where the crash site. One of the aircraft’s tails was retrieved from the water by Japanese searchers not long after the crash. Even a small item of the jet could have provided a foreign power with a major intelligence coup, and the same goes for the British F-35B.
In addition to the TPL-25, the search for the JASDF F-35A also made use of the Cable-controlled Undersea Recovery Vehicle 21, or CURV-21, a remotely operated vehicle used to survey the seabed. This can also operate down to 20,000 feet and carry a sonar and cameras to help locate objects of interest. It can be fitted with grabbing arms and other tools to manipulate or recover objects it finds. The U.S. Navy also deployed the CURV-21 in 2017 to help search for the submarine ARA San Juan
With the Japanese experience in mind, and especially the close proximity of a major Russian Navy presence at the Syrian port of Tartus, it seems every effort will be made not only to locate the British F-35B, but also raise it entirely. After all, the F-35B remains a potential security risk, packed with classified materials and sensitive manufacturing science that could yield valuable industrial intelligence.
The Russian Navy, in particular, has an extensive fleet of special projects submarines capable of deep-sea work, including the possible ability to deploy its own manned and unmanned deeper-diving submersibles. In recent weeks, suspicion has fallen on one or more of these vessels having interfered with cables related to an undersea sensors network off the coast of northern Norway, an incident you can read more about here. Russia also operates the Yantar, a so-called oceanographic research vessel specially equipped to locate and recover wrecks — aircraft among them.
In the meantime, of course, the U.K. Ministry of Defence is continuing its investigation into the accident to find out exactly why one of the country’s small fleet of fifth-generation fighters was lost in the final weeks of what had previously been a highly successful debut operational cruise for HMS Queen Elizabeth.
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