Side by side several thousand feet above eastern England three warbirds fly in close formation as UK F-35s take part in their first combat exercise in home skies: playing out a mock 21st-Century Battle of Britain.
Two Lightnings – one flown by an RAF pilot, the second with a Fleet Air Arm aviator in the cockpit – joined 40 British, American and French jets over East Anglia and the North Sea for Exercise Point Blank.
For the past three years, the US and RAF have been staging regular air defence exercises, testing their abilities to jointly prevent hostile aircraft penetrating Britain’s airspace.
In around 20 incarnations since 2016, Point Blank has collectively put more than 400 aircraft to the test.
But never an F-35 (which arrived in the UK during the summer) and never French Rafale interceptors until Pointblank 18-3.
They jostled for position with the famous Strike Eagles, Hawk trainers, Typhoons, plus tankers and Voyager intelligence-gathering aircraft.
With a resurgent Russian threat, Air Commodore Jez Attridge, RAF Joint Force Air Component Commander, said exercises like Point Blank was vital for keeping everyone involved with the aerial defence of the UK at the top of their game.
“The first point of an air force is to be able to defend the country so you have to recognise the threats out there,” he added.
“We can see the environment is changing, we can see the challenge that Russia is giving to the international rules-based order so we are the insurance policy. It really is a case of us staying ready so that we can be used if we’re needed.”
For the pilots of the F-35s the exercise gave them an opportunity to continue to develop tactics and procedures for operating side-by-side with less-advanced interceptors (Rafales, Hawks, F15s and even Typhoons are classed as fourth-generation fighters, the Lightning is fifth).
As well as air-to-air combat, participants practised their ground-attack skills and also evading the RAF’s ground defences.
Wing Commander John “Butch” Butcher, the officer commanding 617 squadron, said: “This particular exercise is different from any that we’ve done previously because of the threats that are out there,” explained Wing Commander John ‘Butch’ Butcher.
“It’s the first time we’ve done a ‘peer’ exercise, working alongside French and US partners.
Nine Lightnings from the RAF’s legendary 617 Squadron – flown and maintained jointly by RAF and RN personnel – are now based at Marham in Norfolk with the stealth fighters due to be declared ‘operational’ by the end of 2018, making them deployable from airbases on land.