The Royal Air Force’s (RAF) numbers of Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II aircraft has been increased by three. On the social media service Twitter last week the Air Officer Commanding No 1 Group, Royal Air Force, Allan Marshall (@AlMarshallRAF) announced that the aircraft had departed the Lockheed Martin factory and were being flown to the United Kingdom by pilots from the 617th and 207th Squadrons.
Marshall added that with this addition, the UK fleet of the fifth generation stealth aircraft has increased to twenty aircraft. “Looking forward to their arrival in the UK over the coming days,” Marshall noted.
The three aircraft are the F-35B version, the short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant. The multirole Lightning II is capable of conducting air-to-surface, electronic warfare, intelligence gathering and air-to-air missions simultaneously, Defence Blog reported.
According to Lockheed Martin, the Royal Air Force (RAF) plan to operate 138 of the F-35Bs. Training of the pilots is taking place at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Beaufort, South Carolina. British pilots and maintainers will be embedded with the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) and its fleet of F-35Bs.
RAF and the F-35B
The United Kingdom has played a crucial and integral role in the Joint Strike Fighter program, with British engineers and test pilots involved in the aircraft’s development. The UK took delivery of its first F-35 in 2012, and two years later a British pilot completed the first UK vertical landing.
The F-35B aircraft was chosen by the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) for its STOVL capability, which allows it to operate from the new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier as well as on other short airstrips. RAF pilots have been training alongside USMC pilots in carrier operations aboard the Royal Navy’s flagship HMS Queen Elizabeth in preparation of the warship’s maiden voyage next year.
However, it hasn’t been all smooth air for the program.
It was announced in August that the UK was considering buying only half its initial target of the 138 of the stealth aircraft on order. The British military would still acquire the forty-eight multirole fighters by the end of 2025 in a deal for £9.1 billion, with those aircraft deployed on the carriers, but it could scale back on the rest of the order.
In total the UK may only acquire around seventy of the stealth aircraft, which would still enable it to have sixty in service and keep an additional ten as back-ups in case of damage or malfunction. One factor is to focus beyond the F-35.
The money saved from this scaled back acquisition of the F-35Bs could be directed towards the UK-led Tempest Jet. That sixth-generation fighter aircraft, which is expected to enter production in the mid-2030s could be “optionally manned” and operate without a human pilot and moreover could be capable to control a swarm of unmanned drones that have been dubbed “loyal wingmen.”
Whether the UK continues past seventy F-35Bs isn’t known, but for now three more on the way to the RAF bases.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.