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UK re-forms 617 Sqn for F-35B era

The Royal Air Force's 617 Sqn – the UK's first frontline unit to field the Lockheed Martin F-35B – has been officially re-formed during a ceremony in Washington DC.

Staffed by a mix of RAF and Royal Navy pilots and support personnel, lead elements of 617 Sqn are currently involved in training at MCAS Beaufort in South Carolina, using the UK's current 15 short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) Lightning IIs.

The Ministry of Defence says the UK's first F-35Bs will arrive at the type's home base at RAF Marham in Norfolk "this summer", with the service having previously outlined plans to transfer nine jets from the USA with support from Airbus Defence & Space A330 Voyager tanker/transports.

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Initial operational capability for the F-35B is scheduled to be declared in December 2018 for land-based operations and the Lightning II is also to be progressively cleared for use from the RN's two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers by late 2020.

Pointing to the history of the "Dambusters" unit, defence secretary Gavin Williamson notes: "It is fitting that by flying the world's most advanced fighter jets, our new squadron will be ensuring that the legend of world-leading air power lives on."

Prior to its introduction of the F-35B, 617 Sqn was equipped with Panavia Tornado GR4s. The RAF is scheduled to retire its last examples of the variable-geometry strike aircraft by April 2019.

The MoD has so far committed to acquiring 48 of the STOVL type for delivery by 2024, while the UK maintains an overall requirement for up to 138 F-35s.

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