The Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter’s promised appearance at Farnborough is one of the most anticipated highlights of the show. Two years ago the type’s planned UK debut was cancelled after an engine fire grounded the fleet on the eve of the 2014 event. That Pratt & Whitney F135 fire destroyed one aircraft and although there remained a glimmer of hope that the US government would authorise another example’s transit to the UK, caution prevailed over air show glitz.
Now, two years on, UK air show visitors can expect to see US Marine Corps F-35Bs – the model the UK is acquiring – in displays at both the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) in Fairford and the Farnborough air show a week later. A US Air Force F-35A will display at RIAT, but it is unclear if it will also make a Farnborough appearance.
The type is going through the processes to allow it to transit to the UK, and when it does, a formation arrival flight with the Royal Air Force’s Red Arrows’ BAE Systems T1 Hawk aerobatics display team is expected to take place on 11 July.
“The plan for F-35 aircraft to take part in air shows here in the UK this summer is a significant milestone – for our RAF and Royal Navy personnel training hard to fly the F-35; for British industry who are contributing an impressive 15% of every aircraft; and for the British public who will have their first opportunity to see this remarkable aircraft in action,” defence secretary Michael Fallon said of the F-35’s debut appearance in the UK.
UK F-35 commander Air Cdre Harvey Smyth told a conference in London in May that 617 Sqn – the first frontline F-35B unit for the UK – is in the process of forming ahead of standing up in January 2018. The UK’s second frontline squadron – 809 NAS – will stand up in April 2023, and full operational capability will then be declared for the UK’s F-35 fleet, which will require two established frontline squadrons, plus the operational conversion unit (OCU).
The Royal Air Force and Royal Navy have an initial requirement for 48 F-35Bs of an eventual 138 aircraft; all are B models, to enable carrier- or land-based operations, but those first 48 will all be based at RAF Marham in Norfolk. Marham will eventually host four frontline squadrons, one OCU and the sustainment fleet. It is planned for the OCU to be established in the coming months, Smyth adds.
The criteria for initial operational capability (IOC) is undisclosed, but it is planned for land-based IOC to be achieved at the end of 2018; carrier strike IOC will be declared in 2020.
As the UK’s first Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier nears completion, Smyth says that sea trials on board the vessel are expected to take place off the US East Coast at the end of 2018. While land-based operations are the short-term goal, the UK is “doing lots of work on the carrier power projection piece” to re-establish its lost capability in this area. “It will have to be a step-up in our training to get that right,” Smyth adds.
The UK is testing its future fighter at Edwards AFB in California, where the dedicated test and evaluation squadron – 17 Sqn – is carrying out independent assessment of the type. Both RAF and Royal Navy personnel make up the squadron, which works to ensure that the aircraft is interoperable with the UK’s regulations and its other assets, including the aircraft carriers.
Weapons to be integrated onto UK aircraft include Raytheon Paveway IV laser-guided bombs and AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles, plus the MBDA advanced short-range air-to-air missile (ASRAAM). The first examples of the latter were shipped to the US in January for flight testing.
BAE Systems is leading the weapons integration on the UK’s F-35s, and flight trials and air-launch tests of the first British-built missile on the type are expected throughout 2016. Carried out at NAS Patuxent River in Maryland and Edwards AFB in California – the latter is where 17 Sqn is based – the trials will include environmental data gathering, safe separation from the aircraft, weapons integration testing, firing trials and target engagement.
The short-range, infrared-guided missile, capable of flying at Mach 3, is also carried by the RAF’s Eurofighter Typhoons and Panavia Tornado GR4s. A future armament integration for the UK F-35s is the developmental Spear 3 missile.
In May, MBDA was awarded a £411 million ($282 million) contract by the UK Ministry of Defence for further development of the missile, which is derived from the company’s Brimstone precision-guided air-to-surface munition used on board the Tornado and will also be on the Typhoon as of 2018.
The four-year contract covers critical design and development work to integrate the missile into the internal weapons bay of the JSF, and the type will benefit from replacing the missile’s rocket motor with a turbojet engine, ensuring a range of some 60 miles, MBDA says. It is expected to enter service on the F-35 in the mid-2020s.
Flightglobal’s Fleets Analyzer database shows that of the UK’s 138-aircraft F-35 requirement, four have been delivered and are undergoing test and evaluation work in the US, with 10 more on order and four more planned orders pending.
The test and evaluation work has seen an RAF Airbus Defence & Space A330 Voyager tanker deployed to Patuxent River to carry out air-to-air refuelling trials, which were expected to be completed in mid-June.
Voyager became the fourth non-US tanker to be certificated to refuel the JSF, and during the trials was expected to carry out some 20 contacts to transfer fuel, helping move the UK closer to its land-based IOC date of 2018. Voyager joins the Royal Australian Air Force’s A330-derived KC-30A, Italian air force Boeing KC-767A, and Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) Boeing KDC-10 in being qualified to refuel the fighter.
European operators of the ubiquitous fighter are also passing operational milestones in their acquisition of the type, the most recent significant one being the first Eastern transatlantic transfer of the F-35 to the RNLAF at Leeuwarden air base in the Netherlands on 23 May. Two examples were ferried across to the Netherlands, carrying out a 4,780nm (8,850km) flight from California via Patuxent River. Supported by the KDC-10 and a NATO Boeing C-17 Globemaster III transport, the journey to Europe was only a short-lived one, and they were transferred back to Edwards AFB some three weeks later.
A key reason for the visit was to test the difference in noise levels between the F-35 and the Lockheed F-16 that it is replacing in the Netherlands. The defence ministry on 27 May said that the testing yielded “only minor differences” in noise between the two types when assessed by participating members of the public. Afternoon and evening flights were carried out at Leeuwarden and Volkel air bases, the defence ministry says, which included an afterburner take-off. The F-35 flew alongside an F-16, as would normally be the case, and flew 28 sorties in order to give local residents the opportunity to assess noise levels. The Netherlands Aerospace Centre conducted the noise level test during these flights, with results presented to members of the Commission for Consultation and Awareness for Environmental Health.
The RNLAF has a requirement for up to 37 F-35As, with only the two delivered examples being on order so far, Fleets Analyzer shows.
The Dutch flight was not the first transatlantic crossing of the F-35, however, as this was carried out by the Italian air force in February when an Italian pilot flew an F-35A from Cameri air base in Italy to Patuxent River via Portugal and Canada. Supported by the KC-767A, aircraft AL-1 of Italy’s 32nd Wing was set to remain in Maryland for two to three months of electromagnetic environmental effects testing before continuing on to Luke AFB in Arizona to join the multinational training team. Five Italian F-35s are expected to fly to Arizona to add to the training programme, and the sixth example will become the first operational aircraft of the 32nd Wing.
Leonardo assembles Italian and Dutch aircraft from the final assembly and check-out facility at Cameri. Rome has received three F-35As that are being tested in the US and has five more on order. It also has a requirement for a number of F-35Bs, although none have been delivered to date.
Most recently, Denmark decided to opt for the type, as parliament authorised the acquisition of 27 A-model examples.
They will be operated from Skrydstrup air base and will be delivered between 2021 and 2026, the ministry of defence says, replacing F-16s, the last of which will be retired in late 2024.
Despite being led by a US prime and a heavy amount of deliveries headed for its domestic customer, the JSF programme has been touted as a multinational effort, which Smyth says is providing numerous opportunities for training: “We’re very much in a transition here. We’re going through various iterations of CONOPS [concept of operations] development. We need to ensure that the training remains fit for purpose.”
The deployment of a large number of RAF aircraft to the Middle East to support coalition efforts in Iraq and Syria also means that there is currently a shortage of frontline assets to train with in the UK, Smyth notes. “I wouldn’t have a [Boeing RC-135] AirSeeker available to plug into even if I wanted to,” he says. “We need to do the live training in a representative environment somewhere.”
The basing of US jets at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk is “too good an opportunity to miss”, he adds, suggesting that the nations should make their aircraft available for joint training. “We can’t just sit in two stovepipes 30 miles apart. That would be a travesty,” he says.
Several teaming opportunities are available to the UK, including in Canada, at the Woomera test range in Australia, plus the Pitch Black and Red Flag exercises, which the UK already participates in. Smyth says there is more room to network with partner nations, both on the interaction side and the physical networking, although “we’re not quite there yet” with linking training.
“We are procuring this [the F-35] because of the proliferation of some very high threats, so we have to train to that,” he adds.
The other driver for overseas training is the lack of airspace available in the UK. “From a fighter perspective, there is more intense scrutiny for closing down the airspace,” he says. “Airspace is more and more of a challenge for us. The UK just simply isn’t big enough, hence the need for synthetic and overseas training.”
Source: Flight International