The Royal Air Force’s Lockheed Martin F-35 force commander has emphasised the importance of allied partner testing to ensure that operators make the most of the fifth-generation aircraft.

Air Cdre Harvey Smyth's comments come as the RAF has deployed one of its Airbus A330 Voyager tankers to NAS Patuxent River in Maryland to carry out air-to-air refuelling trials with the Lightning II. The Voyager deployed to the US for two months on 15 April, the RAF announced on 18 May. From a total of 20 planned wet and dry contact flights, five have been carried out to date.

Smyth told an F-35 conference in London on 19 May that the first frontline F-35B unit for the UK – 617 Sqn – is in the process of forming ahead of standing up in January 2018. This is driving a need for more training to exploit the capability of the aircraft.

“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,” he says.

All planned F-35 acquisitions will be based at RAF Marham in Norfolk, which will eventually host four frontline squadrons, one operational conversion unit (OCU) and the sustainment fleet. It is planned for the OCU to be established in the coming months, he adds.

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. This will require two established frontline squadrons, plus the OCU.

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.

He says that while land-based operations are the near-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.

F-35B UK - Crown Copyright

Crown Copyright

Smyth says there are several teaming opportunities that the UK could make use of, including in Canada, at the Woomera test range in Australia, plus the Pitch Black and Red Flag exercises, which the UK already participates in. He 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.”

Additionally, the deployment of a significant number of RAF aircraft to the Middle East to support coalition efforts in Iraq and Syria means that there is currently a shortage of frontline assets to train with in the UK.

“I wouldn’t have a [Boeing RC-135] AirSeeker available to plug into even if I wanted to,” Smyth 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.