Ian Harding visited RAF Marham to watch UK F-35Bs take offon the type’s first overseas deployment
JUST AFTER 11:00hrs on May 21, 2019, the first three of six UK F-35B Lightning aircraft depart RAF Marham in Norfolk destined for RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus for a six week deployment.
Supported by two Voyager tanker aircraft, the six F-35Bs refuelled three times during the five-hour, non-stop flight to Cyprus. Alongside a significant portion of the squadron personnel who deployed were security experts and information specialists able to support the Lightning network.
Following the arrival of the first four aircraft at Marham in June 2018, the UK’s Lightning Force has been slowly building its experience operating, maintaining and supporting the aircraft.
From a force perspective, it’s important the Cyprus deployment runs according to plan in a bid to prove the aircraft’s capability to operate away from home station.
Reflecting on this historic event as the first wave of three aircraft departed, RAF Marham’s Station Commander Group Captain Ian Townsend said: “This exercise is about the sustainability of the platform and learning lessons of operating the aircraft on deployment.”
Predominantly a training exercise, Exercise Lightning Dawn will provide Lightning Force personnel with the opportunity to gain vital experience in operating and sustaining the aircraft from a new location, including maintenance, logistics, sustainment of equipment and security.
Group Captain Townsend posed a few questions: “How do we maintain the aircraft away from Marham? How do we support operational logistics and get the information networks right? These are the aspects which make the F-35 so different to other aircraft. We have to prove to ourselves we can do these things.”
Townsend described the current period for F-35 as “deepening IOC” and explained what he meant by this: “When we brought the aircraft to the United Kingdom from the United Sates in June 2018, we had a number of pilots and maintainers who had gained experience on the F-35B with a lot of help from the United States Marine Corps. Now we have to do it ourselves. During the last 11 months, we have taken enormous steps in our understanding of how we operate the F-35 and manage its systems information and mission data, but we’ve done that from RAF Marham, a location tailor-made to operate F-35 with the infrastructure and data networks in place. Current work helps us to de-risk future deployments including the first aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth this autumn. This exercise helps deepen and build our capability slowly, but surely.”
Group Captain Townsend would not be drawn on the precise infrastructure to be used by the Lightning Force whilst temporarily stationed at Akrotiri.
Expeditionary forces such as Typhoon FGR4s currently deployed to Akrotiri in support of Operation Shader (the UK’s contribution to military intervention against the Islamic State of Iraq) have in the main operated from relocatable Rubb hangars and it seems likely they will be used on this occasion. Group Captain Townsend did, however, confirm that additional security had been deployed and that there were no plans for 617 Squadrons F-35Bs to participate in Operation Shader or to drop live weapons during the detachment.
Following WESTLANT 18 involving HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) deploying to the western Atlantic to conduct the first series of developmental trials with F-35B aircraft Gp Capt Townsend confirmed that 617 Squadron F-35Bs will be involved in WESTLANT 19. Unlike the previous deployment, this year’s event will focus on operational testing, and working as part of a carrier task group.
Gp Capt Townsend confirmed a further six F-35 aircraft are due to arrive at Marham during the summer and will be operated by 207(R) Squadron, the UK’s F-35 Operational Conversion Unit, which stood up in July 2017. His expectation is that new F-35B pilots will start flying their first sorties at Marham in September 2019.
Thus far, 16 F-35Bs have been delivered to the UK, nine of which are based at Marham. In November 2018, the UK committed to buy 17 more aircraft with deliveries set to take place between 2020 and 2022.