Russian aircraft ‘buzzed’ Royal Navy aircraft carrier, says defence minister, as sea search continues for ditched stealth fighter

Russia is paying “close attention” to the UK’s flagship aircraft carrier, which lost an F-35 stealth jet after it crashed into the sea, the defence secretary has revealed.

Ben Wallace told Sky News that Russian aircraft have been tracking HMS Queen Elizabeth, its top secret warplanes and a flotilla of supporting ships as they returned from a seven-month, maiden tour to the Far East.

The carrier strike group suffered a significant blow on Wednesday when one of its eight British F-35 warplanes ditched into the Mediterranean shortly after take-off.

It is the first time Britain has crashed one of its £100 million jets – the most expensive, secret and complex aircraft in the UK arsenal.

The Fleet Air Arm pilot managed to eject and was rescued.

But the aircraft, fitted with radars, sensors and other classified technology, is still underwater, with a retrieval operation underway.

Mr Wallace would not be drawn on whether Russian submarines were also hunting for the wreckage – learning anything about the F-35 would be highly prized intelligence.

“I am not going to talk about what we do or don’t know but I think we are pretty much on top of the situation,” he said.

The senior government minister did reveal that Russia had showed a renewed interest in HMS Queen Elizabeth and its F-35 jets as they headed home through the Mediterranean.

Moscow had previously deployed multiple warplanes to buzz the carrier strike group when it headed out through the waterway back in June at the start of its deployment.

“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,” Mr Wallace said.

“Of course the Russians are playing close attention – it is what I’d expect,” he told Sky News in an interview while on a trip to Poland on Thursday.

“It is what we do to their ships,” he said. “We keep an eye on each other that’s also how we hopefully make sure we avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations.”

Asked about the mission to salvage the sunken aircraft, the defence secretary said: “There is an ongoing operation to recover the F-35 jet.

“I am pleased that our pilot is safe and well. We will investigate what happened.”

It has been reported that the UK has called on the United States to help retrieve the aircraft.

The US is the lead partner in the F-35 programme.

Ten American F-35B aircraft are also onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth, operated by the US Marine Corps.

The defence secretary said all British F-35 operational and training flying was continuing despite the crash.

The UK has a total of 24 F-35 warplanes, including the one that crashed. They are the B-variant, which can conduct a short take-off and a vertical landing from a warship at sea.

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