Yes, despite their having already been substantial, press,, media and social media publicity surrounding the first official landing and take-off of F-35 Lightning aircraft from HMS Queen Elizabeth last Tuesday, having been a close professional observer of the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier program and that of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter ever since Lockheed Martin won the development award back in October 2001, I am not about to avoid making a few comments.
First though, as if we did not already know that such was the level of pressure exerted against the idea of premature withdrawal of the Royal Navy’s two assault ships, HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion, it is good to hear that Secretary of State for Defence, Gavin Williamson has confirmed that both ships will remain. No further detail has been given. However, we may assume that the decision to retain both ships could, as I indicated two weeks ago, lead to premature decommissioning of older Type 23 vessels before Type 26 replacements arrive. We will see. In the meantime, with Birmingham being my place of birth and home for the first half of my life, it was good to hear that one of the Type 26 is to be named HMS Birmingham.
To those that have followed the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program development over the past decade and those who at the same time have watched the UK plan to rebuild ‘Carrier Strike’ capability since the original plan was signed off in SDSR 1997 – this following agreement by the then First Sea Lord and Chief of the Air Staff in 1998 that development would be based on two aircraft carriers of around 40,000 tonne displacement and the subsequent authorisation to build two aircraft carriers which by then had seen displacement increased to 65,000 tonnes signed off in May 2008 by then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, I suspect that formal confirmation from the MOD on Friday evening that last Tuesday Royal Navy Commander Nathan Gray and Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Andy Edgell had made the very first landings of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter ‘B’ STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) Lightning ll jets on the flight deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth not only gave enormous pleasure but also produced a big sigh of relief. Well done to all involved.
Choosing to join the F-35 Joint Strike Programme as a Tier (Level) One partner through a $2 billion investment program announced by Tony Blair in 2001 and by agreeing to purchase a large number of F-35 aircraft, the UK has enjoyed a primary and extremely valuable role in the program. The first flight of an ‘A’ variant of the aircraft took place in 2006 and in June 2008, the maiden flight of the first ‘B’ STOVL variant, the type that the UK would eventually make its initial purchase flew for the first time.
From the outset F-35 was designed to be an international collaboration and to that end Italy as a Level 2 partner has also been producing larger components for the program although on a far lower scale than that of the UK. Italy and its fellow Level 2 partner the Netherlands chose to assemble their own aircraft in-country (the Italians are actually doing the final assembly work on the Netherlands aircraft as well) although the UK has in effect bought off the shelf. Nevertheless, UK companies are providing 15% of each and every F-35 plane built. Australia, Canada, Denmark, Turkey and Norway are Level 3 partners in the F-35 program. Japan and South Korea have also acquired the F-35 along with Singapore and Israel.
While the UK has agreed to acquire 138 F-35 Lightning aircraft of which the commitment to the ‘B’ STOVL variant is currently 48, it has so far only ordered 16 aircraft of the ‘B’ STOVL variant type of which all have now been delivered, nine of which are now based at RAF Marham.
Some of the UK purchased F-35 aircraft will be retained in the US assisting in the training of pilots and maintainers. The RAF has already stood up 617 Squadron based at RAF Marham to be the first front line squadron and 207 Squadron will stand up at RAF Marham as the OCU in July 2019. 809 Naval Air Squadron has been resurrected to be the Royal navy’s primary F-35 squadron.
The arrival of the first three F-35 Lightning aircraft in the UK in June of this year was a remarkable occasion and one that the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Philip Jones marked by saying “Ever since aircraft first operated to and from ships, the Royal Navy has been at the forefront of maritime aviation and the arrival of our first F35Bs in the UK today, flown by both RAF and Fleet Air Arm pilots, is another important milestone on the way to restoring our place as leaders in the field of aircraft carrier operations” adding that “Once combined with our new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and her sister ship HMS Prince of Wales, these extraordinary jets will sit at the heart of our country’s globally deployable expeditionary forces and provide the potent conventional deterrent we need to ensure our national security.”
Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Sir Stephen Hiller said at the time in June “In the RAF’s centenary year, it’s great to see the most advanced and dynamic fighter jet in our history arrive today at RAF Marham – and with the modern Dambusters in the cockpit, this homecoming truly feels like an historic moment in British airpower. 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 F35 Lightning takes the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy to a whole a new level of capability”.
Taking place off the east coast of the USA, the first deck landings on HMS Queen Elizabeth were followed by the first take off using the ship’s ski ramp. We are told that the flying operations now taking place mark the start of what are intended to be over 500 take-offs and landings from the ship over the next 11 weeks.
To emphasise the sense of occasion and its importance in the build-up toward ‘Carrier Strike’ capability formation I will include quoted remarks made by Commander Gray that “No words can explain how it felt to turn the corner at 500mph and see HMS Queen Elizabeth awaiting the arrival of her first F-35 jets. I feel incredibly privileged. For a naval aviator it is always a special moment when you spot the carrier in the distance, hidden within a grey expanse of ocean. HMS Queen Elizabeth is a floating city, home to hundreds of fellow sailors and Royal Marines, and it’s been a particularly poignant day.” Squadron Leader Edgell added to this saying: “It has taken an indescribable level of dogged determination and perseverance to achieve this incredible moment”.
I have had the great pleasure of going on board HMS Queen Elizabeth on several occasions through the build programme and I was fortunate to be present at the commissioning ceremony in December last year. And, having been engaged in various aspects of the F-35 Lightning programme professionally ever since programme inception, having visited the Lockheed Martin final assembly plant in Fort Worth on three separate occasions together with the BAE Systems factory at Samlesbury where, under the Tier One partner agreement, the company produces the aft fuselage together with a number of other crucial components, the Electric Warfare system and who, with Northrop Grumman and the Defence Electronics Components Agency was in 2016 awarded the global maintenance, repair, overhaul and upgrade (MRO&U) services contract for F-35 Lightning Air Vehicle Depot-Level Repairable Components by the F-35 Joint Program Office, it has been a delight watching the progress of this amazing capability.
BAE Systems isn’t the only UK based contributor to supply major components for the F-35 and the list of over 100 UK based suppliers includes Cobham, Rolls-Royce, Leonardo, GKN Aerospace, Martin Baker, GE Aviation, Ultra Electronics, MOOG, Honeywell, Ultra Electronics and many indirect suppliers. QinetiQ, Thales and others including Babcock International are engaged in not only supporting various F-35 related programs and training but are also engaged on the Queen Elizabeth Carrier programme itself.
It has been all too easy for cynics to criticise the strategy and affordability of rebuilding Carrier Strike capability and while I myself have oft criticised delays caused by political decision making processes I have always supported the overall strategy. The delivery process of the F-35 build has also worked remarkably well and Lockheed Martin and its partners can be proud of what has been achieved.
For the UK the benefit of our being a Level One partner is not only that we have provided input on the deign but also that companies based here are and will continue to provide 15% of each F-35 aircraft built. To that end the F-35 program will not only generate export revenue for the UK and make a major contribution UK GDP but also sustain 24,000 jobs through a 30 year planned 3,000 aircraft build program. The F-35 program has already generated an estimated $13 billion worth of orders and at the peak of production (around 3,000 F-35 aircraft are likely to be built over the next thirty years of which at the end of September I would estimate that around 323 have so far been built) in two or three years’ time.
Having myself first seen the F-35 ‘B’ variant fly from the US Air Force base at Eglin in March 2014 whilst at the same time meeting the first Royal Navy and Royal Air Force F-35 pilots visiting the a few years ago to see F-35 aircraft flying, the training academy and the embedded Royal Navy and Royal Air Force pilots and maintainers embedded with the US Force and, just a few weeks ago, having visited RAF Marham for an update and to see for myself completed and ongoing building infrastructure work required to accommodate F-35 aircraft in the UK all that I can say is that I commend the work of everyone involved. This has been a spectacular program for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy and whilst it would be wrong to suggest that it has gone without a hitch it is equally true to say that it has gone very well.
It has also been my pleasure and honour to meet with Captain Jerry Kyd, Commanding officer of HMS Queen Elizabeth who has over the past two years overseen the main sea trials and entry into service, her commissioning and the present round of trials involving the F-35 deck landings and take off. Following the deck landings last week he said “I am quite emotional to be here in HMS Queen Elizabeth seeing the return of fixed-wing aviation, having been the captain of the aircraft carrier which launched the last Harrier at sea nearly eight years ago.
“The regeneration of big deck carriers able to operate globally, as we are proving here on this deployment, is a major step forward for the United Kingdom’s defence and our ability to match the increasing pace of our adversaries. The first touch-downs of these impressive stealth jets shows how the United Kingdom will continue to be world leaders at sea for generations to come.”
Ahead of last weeks confirmed events HMS Queen Elizabeth had left her home port of Portsmouth in August, crossing the Atlantic to conduct the flying trials as well as training with the US Navy. The deployment provided an opportunity for the UK’s Carrier Strike Group headquarters team to sharpen skills within a task group and the ship was joined on the deployment by Type 23 frigate, HMS Monmouth, and a US Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, USS Lassen. More than 1,400 sailors, flight crew and Royal Marines have been working on board the carrier during her deployment.
Although initial Naval and battlefield operating capability of HMS Queen Elizabeth is set for the end of this year and initial operating capability of Carrier Strike for late 2020 followed by first operational deployment in 2021 (full operational capability of Carrier Strike is set for spring 2023 and full operational capability of Carrier Enabled Power Projection in 2026, of the ship While UK owned F-35 Lightning aircraft will be permanently deployed on either one of the two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers at any one time we can be reasonably certain that US Marine Corps F-35 ‘B’ capability will also be deployed within Carrier Strike capability.
The program has its cynics of course and I have expressed concern previously in relation to F-35 aircraft numbers and the slowness in ordering by the MOD. Even so, the Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, will project British military power across the globe for the next half a century and that is very pleasing. Final assembly work, well ahead of the original timetable set, continues apace on the second in-build carrier, HMS Prince of Wales at Babcock International’s Rosyth yard.
The two ships, one will be in service at any one time, will also be used to provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, strengthen defence relationships with our nation’s allies, and support British and allied armed forces deployed around the world. As mentioned, HMS Queen Elizabeth is on track to deploy on global operations from 2021 and the UK has now taken delivery of 16 out of a planned total of 138 F-35 jets. Whether this is the number that will be purchased through the program lifetime remains to be seen.
CHW (London – October 1st 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd
M: +44 7710 779785