Naval aviators can now fly the world’s most advanced fighter on front-line missions after the F-35 Lightning was declared operational.
In front of a new hangar built specially to house the stealth fighters at their home on land – RAF Marham in Norfolk – Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced the fifth-generation jet was ready to take its place in the nation’s aerial order of battle.
Nine F-35s are on UK soil at present, flying with the legendary 617 ‘Dambusters’ Squadron – an RAF formation, but nearly half its personnel are Royal Navy pilots or engineers.
Mr Williamson said the advent of the Lightnings made the UK’s “commitment to a role on the world stage clear to both our allies and our enemies.”
The declaration of Initial Operating Capability means the Lightning Force can conduct combat missions from land bases if world events require the stealth fighter’s intervention.
“This is great news for the Royal Navy and the United Kingdom as it is a key milestone along the road to operating the F-35 Lightning at the heart of our carrier strike capability from 2021,” said Commander James Blackmore, who has been involved in the programme for the past decade and is now in charge of flying operations (known as Commander Air, or ‘Wings’) aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth.
“As a fifth-generation fighter, the F-35 is streets ahead of anything we have operated before. It’s proving itself to be highly capable in air-to-air and air-to-ground operations. Fuse that together with its stealth capability, it’s way beyond anything other land or sea-based fighters.”
There are now half a dozen nations who have operational F-35s, although on the US and UK are flying the stealth fighter from carriers.
The next key step for Britain is to declare the F-35 operational at sea – from the more challenging surroundings of HMS Queen Elizabeth, ready for the carrier’s maiden deployment in two years’ time.
So far the F-35, carrier and task group are bang on track to make that deadline.
Test variants of the F-35 conducted a myriad of trials aboard the Portsmouth-based warship off the Eastern Seaboard last autumn.
The data and experiences gathered are helping to ‘write the manual’ for safely operating F-35 squadrons when they embark – beginning this autumn with a return to the Eastern Seaboard of the USA.
This time the carrier will be joined by Marham-based front-line F-35s from 617 Sqn plus Lightnings from 17 Sqn, based at Edwards Air Force Base in California, where Fleet Air Arm and RAF pilots are developing the combat techniques for exploiting the fighter’s awesome capabilities in action.
The British-based pilots will prepare for that deployment both in UK skies and in four new full mission simulators opened by Mr Williamson on his visit to Marham; the new training complex also features classrooms and mock-ups of the F-35s for air and ground crew to practise on.
The Westlant 19 deployment will focused on operations, rather than the basics of flying the F-35 on and off the carrier’s expansive deck, and working as part of a carrier task group.
“HMS Queen Elizabeth was designed from the keel up to support the F-35 and it showed. The ‘marriage’ between the ship and the aircraft was superb. We learned that together, we have got something quite special,” Commander Blackmore added.
“It’s not just about the aircraft, however. The key now is to bring the aircraft together with a whole carrier task group to deliver a truly potent force – and we are on course to deliver that from 2021.”