Weather together with various military and logistical support elements permitting, if not actually today but sometime over the next few days, the first four UK owned F-35 B Lightning Joint Strike Fighter aircraft to be permanently based in the UK are expected to arrive at RAF Marham. As June 6th also marks the 74th anniversary of the D-Day landings their arrival today would be very fitting. Importantly, arrival of the first F-35B Lightning aircraft to RAF Marham will also mark the homecoming of 617 Squadron.
The process of getting to this stage has taken significant investment, hard work, training and effort on the part of the UK Ministry of Defence, the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy and importantly, massive support and assistance from the U.S. Marine Corps with whom at its Beaufort, South Carolina base some 160 UK military personnel, including pilots, maintainers and others have been stationed for the past five years and importantly, without whose dedication and support none of this would have been possible.
Let there be no doubting that the Lockheed Martin F-35 programme in which Britain has a significant 15% industry share is a perfect example of the Special Relationship that, despite issues of political disagreement that appear from time to time, we have with our US allies. The result of what has been achieved by the UK being the only ‘Tier One’ partner with the US on the F-35 programme is not just an example of shared security and prosperity for both nations but also in my view, that the F-35 programme has achieved something else that is crucial for future defence – global interoperability.
Whilst there can be no absolute guarantee that the first batch of F-35B Lightning aircraft will arrive at RAF Marham today I rather suspect that, given the planned five-day window of opportunity and with RAF Marham hosting a number of additional visitors on the base, June 6th would have been the ‘preferred’ day for the aircraft to arrive, there remains a strong possibility that they will. We can do nothing more than wait and see.
Flown by Royal Air Force pilots, if all has gone to plan, four F-35B aircraft planned to arrive in the UK have (or soon will) depart US Marine Corps Beaufort base last night and air-to-air refuelled at a number of points as necessary on route. A further five UK F-35B Lightning aircraft are planned to make the journey from the US to RAF Marham during the summer.
Arrival of first permanent F-35B Lightning aircraft at RAF Marham will in-turn allow numbers of UK military personnel who are currently deployed to Beaufort to reduce to around 120. It is worth noting at this point that approximately 511 deployed Royal Air Force and Royal Navy pilots, maintainers and support personnel have been training and operating with U.S. Marine Corps over the past five years. This has either been achieved from Beaufort or at Edwards Air Force Base in Florida, as part of the Joint Operational Test Team. For the record, 207 Squadron will stand up at RAF Marham as the OCU in July 2019 and 809 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) in 2023.
With F-35B Lightning aircraft basing together with all future support, maintenance and training facility requirement being part of a massive new infrastructure development at RAF Marham [the MOD awarded a £118 million contract to BAE Systems in 2016 and BAE Systems in turn awarded Balfour Beatty an £83 million contract to build training and engineering facilities] the newly returned 617 Squadron will very soon begin the task of establishing initial operating capability that is planned to occur by the end of this year.
Others are better placed than myself to describe technical specifications and virtues of what F-35B Lightning capability will ultimately provide for the UK. As yet, beyond the announcement of intention by the UK that 48 F-35 Lightning aircraft acquired will be of the ‘B’ STOVL (Short Take-Off & Vertical Landing) variant, we have not been told how the remaining 90 aircraft that the UK has committed to acquire will be split between the ‘A’ CTOL (Conventional Take-Off & Landing) variant.
My understanding of the position at the end of May is that of the 138 F-35 Lightning aircraft that the UK plans to acquire through the programme lifetime, only 14 aircraft are currently owned by the UK together with one further aircraft contracted. The UK has so far invested $3.9 billion in the F-35 programme – this figure being broken down as being $2bn initial investment together with a further $1.9 billion that covers purchase of 15 F-35 aircraft and the sustainment of these until 2048.
In what is anticipated will be a 30-year build programme, one expected to result in excess of 3,500 F-35 aircraft being built overall, the shared benefits of UK involvement in the programme are enormous. For instance, as the only ‘Tier One’ partner in the F-35 programme the UK was able to secure a 25% stake in the design specification – this in part allowing development requirements covering UK F-35 jets being able carry UK designed and built weapons. Importantly, the original investment secured and shielded the UK from SDD phase costs that had been estimated last year at $19 billion.
Important too is realisation that F-35 is already supporting close to 20,000 jobs in the UK through the envisaged 30 year production life period. For UK based companies including BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, GKN, Cobham, Meggitt and others who play a part in the 15% UK content manufacturing of each and every aircraft built F-35 work represents a very important part of their future.
From the economic benefit perspective, I believe that as we currently stand the UK has so far received in the order of £12.6 billion in relation to F-35 component production and spare parts contracts. Importantly, this figure represents almost £9 billion more in parts orders alone than the UK government has itself invested in the F- 35 program through purchasing of aircraft for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy.
Whilst I accept that we in the UK are going through the Modernising Defence Programme review process and that, along with defence credibility, affordability remains an issue, I have been concerned for some while that the UK appears to be dragging its feet in placing further F-35 orders.
With the first of class Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier already commissioned into Royal Navy service undergoing operational trials and with full carrier-strike capability due to have been reached in 2020 (note that fixed-wing flight trials of F-35B aircraft on the carrier are due to start later this year) it seems to me somewhat imprudent that as yet only 15 of the planned 48 F-35B aircraft have been ordered.
The formal view from the MOD in respect of future F-35 procurement remains that the last of the initial 48 F-35B Lightning variant are expected to have been delivered in January 2025, by which time it is anticipated that a schedule for the procurement of the remaining 90 aircraft (and decisions appertaining to the split between A and B variant purchases) will have been made.
Recent economic analysis has suggested that for every $1 the UK government invests in F-35 acquisition UK industry receives greater than $3.80 in parts orders. This represent a massive 300% return on investment. I know well that both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy fully understand what F-35 Lightning capability brings to them and to defence overall and I sincerely hope that the UK Government fully realises the importance and huge value that being a Tier One partner in F-35 has and will continue to bring to the UK. To that end, the UK has made specific commitments to the US in respect of planned F-35 aircraft procurement numbers. Clearly, change or deviance from already announced and agreed intentions would not be without serious consequence.
It is of course already a well-known fact that the F-35 program is supporting approximately 500 UK based companies and that at its peak, F-35 component production and through life sustainment involvement will likely support up to 24,000 jobs either directly or indirectly either through the envisage 30 year production period or sustainment phase that will likely 0continue beyond 2065.
For the record, of the estimated 3,500 Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft planned to be built over a thirty year production period my understanding is that approximately 525 aircraft (15%) have so far been built. By any standards of imagination this is a massive military aircraft programme and it is one that not only benefits UK defence but also one that plays very heavily into UK economic benefit and maintaining sovereign capability.
So, welcome 617 Squadron to your new home base at RAF Marham and also to the next generation of military aircraft capability that you bring with you from the US in the form of the F-35B Lightning Joint Strike Fighter. Our thanks as well to all those at BAE Systems and Balfour Beatty for the brilliant work that they have done in respect of the new build and infrastructure requirement to support what 617 Squadron will need in the future. Thanks to the Defence Infrastructure Organisation for the role that it has played too and for the superb work and effort put in by the various Lightning Force Commanders of which the present incumbent is Air Commodore David Bradshaw.
Having myself chosen not to be at RAF Marham today, a final word from me is to recognise that throughout the massive infrastructure investment process that has been required to accommodate the new F-35B Lightning capability and that has included substantial runway and taxiway work as well, the two remaining Tornado squadrons based at RAF Marham, 1X(B) Squadron and 31 Squadron, have been able to continue their training effort and to make the hugely valuable contribution that they do to UK defence.
CHW (London – 6th June 2018)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785