Without in any way wanting to tempt fate, the UK's long-anticipated introduction of the stealthy Lockheed Martin F-35B appears to be running smoothly, with its first four squadron examples having touched down at their Norfolk home on 6 June some two months ahead of schedule.
To restore a short take-off and vertical landing capability that has lapsed since the removal from service of the UK's last BAE Systems Harrier GR9/9As in December 2010, the new type is now supporting training at the Royal Air Force's Marham base with its historic 617 Sqn: the Dambusters. The unit's lead examples made the nonstop flight accompanied by Airbus Defence & Space Voyager tanker/transports.
With a maximum take-off weight of more than 27,200kg (59,900lb) and with its 40,000lb-thrust (178kN) Pratt & Whitney F135 engine enabling supersonic performance of up to Mach 1.6 at 50,000ft, the F-35B has a typical combat radius of 450nm (830km) using internal fuel only.
Hailing the new type as "the most advanced and dynamic fighter jet in our history", chief of the air staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier notes: "If you can't see us coming, you won't be able to stop us, so with its stealth and other world-beating technologies, the F-35 Lightning takes the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy to a whole new level of capability.”
Infrastructure work worth around £550 million ($720 million) has been performed at RAF Marham to prepare for the fifth-generation type's arrival, including the construction of new squadron buildings, a training centre and mission support facility, the resurfacing of one of its runways and the refurbishment of existing hangars. Meanwhile, three special pads will enable pilots to perform the type's signature vertical-landing manoeuvre.
In UK service the F-35 is named Lightning, rather than following the US military's preference for Lightning II. This, the RAF says, is because it will be the third of its aircraft to use the name – following Lockheed's P-38 and the 1950s-era product from English Electric.
Staffed by RAF and Royal Navy personnel, with a 58% to 42% split, 617 Sqn is on track to reach initial operational capability in December 2018 for land-based operations. Other future milestones will include the arrival at RAF Marham in mid-2019 of the 207 Sqn operational conversion unit, and a second frontline squadron – 809 NAS – during 2023. Meanwhile, the UK will regain its carrier strike credentials in 2020, pairing its F-35B with the RN's new Queen Elizabeth-class vessels.
Established plans call for the UK to eventually acquire a total of 138 F-35s, with funds already committed to take the first 48 by 2024. All of these aircraft will be B-model examples, with 15 handed over so far. In addition to the lead aircraft now at RAF Marham, the other jets are supporting training at the US Marine Corps' MCAS Beaufort site in South Carolina, and test activities at Edwards AFB, California.
Further clarity on the likely final scale of the Ministry of Defence's F-35 purchase could emerge once a new combat air strategy document is published – defence secretary Gavin Williamson in February pledged to do so "in the summer". It may also indicate whether the RAF will look to acquire future examples in the conventional take-off and landing configuration. This would bring operational benefits, since the F-35A has a greater payload capacity, increased range and improved handling performance than the B-model variant.
Thanks to its status as the only Level One partner on the F-35 programme, the UK has gained unique insight into the type's capabilities, and secured significant workshare for its defence industry equating to 15% of every aircraft produced.
As one of Lockheed's two production partners, along with Northrop Grumman, BAE has a vital part to play in ensuring that the US military's largest-ever programme hits its targets.
The UK company's responsibilities include manufacturing the aft fuselage, vertical and horizontal tails for every F-35 produced, with this work performed at its Samlesbury plant in Lancashire, and – for A-model vertical tail sections only – Australia. With 1,800 of its UK employees working on the programme, it also is the lead design authority for the combat aircraft's fuel, crew escape and life-support systems.
"When it reaches peak production, the programme will be worth some £1 billion to UK industry alone, with an estimated 25,000 UK jobs sustained across more than 500 companies in the supply chain," BAE says.
Used in combination with the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Lightning will be at the forefront of the UK's combat operations for decades to come, with current plans calling for it to be flown until at least 2048. The early signs look promising.