“The renowned 617 Squadron RAF (‘The Dambusters’) will operate the jets to provide tangible and impactful support to counter-Daesh operations in Iraq and Syria,” according to a United Kingdom Ministry of Defense (MOD) press statement released earlier this week. The MOD added that the coming operation will mark not only the first time that “UK fighter aircraft are embarked on an operational aircraft carrier deployment since 2010,” but will also be “the largest number of F-35Bs ever to sail the seas.”
“March 2021 saw the second anniversary of Daesh’s final and total loss of territory in Syria,” the MOD’s statement continued. “However, there remain significant numbers of Daesh terrorists in Iraq and Syria. The UK remains committed to defeating Daesh and enhancing security in the region, alongside the Iraqi Security Forces and our NATO allies.” The upcoming action is part of Operation Shader, the codename for the UK’s ongoing contribution to the collective global effort to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
As the only “Level 1” partner in Lockheed Martin’s F-35 program, the United Kingdom announced in the mid 2000s that it will procure as many as 138 F-35 units—a commitment was reaffirmed in London’s 2015 “National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review'' document. This would give the UK the third largest F-35 fleet, behind only Japan and the United States. All of the UK’s F-35 fighters are of the F-35B variety—the F-35B is the short take off/vertical landing (STOVL) variant of Lockheed Martin’s fighter, meant to operate from smaller aircraft carriers.
As of May 2021, the United Kingdom has ordered only forty-eight units of the fifth-generation stealth fighter. A spending plan released in March of this year restated London’s intention to “grow the [F-35] Force, increasing the fleet size beyond the 48 aircraft that we have already ordered,” but the plan did not explicitly commit to the original fleet size target of 138 fighters. The British F-35 fleet is competing for funding and resources with the parallel UK effort to domestically produce its next-generation “Tempest” fighter. Some analysts have speculated that the United Kingdom’s growing commitments under the Tempest project, which is set to reach Initial Operating Capability (IOC) by 2035, will lead London to scale back its F-35 procurement target. “The level of ambition and emphasis being signaled on Tempest probably means that the highest plausible U.K. purchase is now somewhere in the region of 60-72 jets,” air warfare Justin Bronk told Defense News.
Still, the United Kingdom’s F-35 fleet will remain an integral part of that country’s air power capabilities into the coming decades. As previously noted by The National Interest, the British F-35 fighter jets are not only a crucial source of interoperability with North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies, but a core pillar of London’s carrier-enabled power projection doctrine.
Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for The National Interest. Image: Reuters.