The trainee, the novice and the highly experienced: the UK’s strike aircraft

Seven months after the irst four UK Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightnings were delivered to RAF Marham, Norfolk, on June 6, 2018, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that UK F-35Bs had achieved initial operational capability (IOC) during an event at Marham on January 10, 2019.

The announcement was made from inside a brand-new hangar that Williamson formally opened, along with a new F-35 state-ofthe- art training centre facility that is part of over £550 million being invested in the Norfolk base.

The MoD conirmed that UK F-35 pilots and ground crew based at Marham can now take advantage of four state-of-the-art full mission simulators, classrooms and fullscale aircraft trainers. The Lightning Operational Conversion Unit, 207 Squadron, is scheduled to stand up at Marham on July 1, 2019.

Williamson’s announcement that the UK’s F-35B Lightnings were ‘ready for operations’ followed the formal declaration of IOC-L (Initial Operational Capability Land) in mid-December.

Contrary to some reports, this does not mean the aircraft is fully operational and nor does it open the way to deploying the aircraft to RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, to participate in Operation Shader, lying missions against ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Williamson said: “I won’t go into speciics on where they’re going to be deployed, but this is a ighting aircraft that is there to be used and to keep Britain safe.”

However, he also said: “It is important to make sure that you are using the right airframes for the right types of conlict …Sometimes using the F-35 is not going to be the most appropriate or the most cost-eicient type of ighter to be using in certain conlict zones where there is going to be no real peer-peer threat, and we need to match the type of strike capability we use with the type of threat.”

Though Williamson did not say as much, this may also relect the limited nature of UK F-35B’s capabilities at this early point in its career, which have apparently led to some disappointment.

Th0ed by the Typhoon FGR4.

While 617 Squadron is a historically important RAF unit, now manned by Royal Navy and Royal Air Force personnel and comprising some of the UK’s inest aviators, a question mark must hang over its declared preparedness. The nine F-35Bs based at Marham don’t seem to have lown much since the irst four aircraft arrived there in June (fewer than 200 sorties in total), while the simulators apparently still aren’t up and running. Some have questioned how current (let alone combat ready) pilots can be with so little lying time. Though No.17 Test and Evaluation Squadron have completed numerous weapons releases lying from its home station, Edwards Air Force Base, California, Marhambased Lightnings have reportedly only dropped a single bomb at Aberporth, and without simulators, will not have been able to practise this crucial skill.

Previous IOC declarations for other UK types have been deined in terms of having a squadron (or more) capable of carrying out a deined role at least as well as the precursor aircraft type. On the face of it, the F-35 IOC deinition (nine aircraft, plus pilots, weapons and logistics support such that they can deploy for land-based operations) seems less challenging, and more like a stock-taking exercise.

Some of the engineers and support personnel have expressed doubt that the aircraft would be going anywhere imminently, as there simply aren’t the support staf to support meaningful deployments; and in light of the US Marine Corps’ experience during its irst F-35B deployment, there are real doubts as to how deployable the Autonomic Logistics Information System might be.

Other questions surrounding the F-35B concern the heavy manpower requirement for its low-observable coatings, and the deployability of the UK’s lowobservable repair capability.

Support costs in general remain a concern across the entire F-35 programme, and it is acknowledged that there is no chance of achieving the kind of incentivised, availabilitybased support contracting that has driven down Tornado and Typhoon operating costs. Suggestions are that a great deal of what would once have been regarded as irst-line or forward engineering activity will now be considered depth maintenance, meaning that it would have to be carried out at the Italian Ministry of Defence Final Assembly and Check Out facility at Cameri Air Base.

The contractual obligation to send aircraft to Cameri for depth maintenance will also have an efect on both cost and availability, and it remains unclear what will happen if an aircraft is snagged for something that requires rectiication in Italy, a snag that precludes it from lying.

There are also reportedly concerns about arrangements for incorporating national mission data, which is of crucial importance for operational capability.

It has been suggested by individuals close to the programme that the rapid pace of activity on the UK’s Future Combat Air System Technology Initiative programme, dubbed Tempest, relects a recognised need for a combat aircraft over which Britain will have fuller and more complete sovereign control. Some even suggest that the UK’s F-35 may turn out to be an interim aircraft, though it’s diicult to imagine that scenario, given the dependency on the F-35B for the UK’s carrier strike capability led by two very expensive boats: HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince Charles.

However, it is important to realise that the UK’s F-35B IOC declaration is the start of a process, rather than the end, and many of these problems will doubtless be solved.

Williamson enjoyed a bountiful day at Marham. In addition to his F-35 duties, the boss of defence also announced that a bill for £425 million spent over three years under Project Centurion has integrated and cleared three missile systems on the Typhoon FGR4. All designed and produced by MBDA, the three new sticks in questions are the whooping great big Storm Shadow conventionally armed stand-of missile, the ground-skimming Brimstone precision striker and the unfeasibly high-g Meteor air-to-air shooter.

No doubt Williamson was delighted with this news, since the three missiles will inally enable the Typhoon FGR4 to assume most of the weapon efects currently provided by the greatest aircraft operated by the RAF since the days of Hurricanes, Spitires and Lancasters: the Tornado GR4. After nearly 36 years of front-line service and nearly 29 years of continuous combat deployment throughout the Middle East, the Tornado GR4 is due to be withdrawn from service at the end March 2019. Typhoon and Lightning are highly capable jets, but the mighty Tonka’s records will be tough ones to beat.