Following confirmation in SDSR 2015 of an intention to accelerate growth of the UK’s fifth generation F-35B Joint Strike Fighter ‘Lightning’ Force and also that the Government will now acquire 138 of the aircraft through the production programme lifetime the pace of infrastructure development and other work required in order to allow the UK to receive its first F-35 aircraft is now a top priority for the MOD.
Confirmation by the MOD of further F-35 related infrastructure related orders over recent days and that by 2023 two F-35 Lightning squadrons will have been stood up have been universally welcomed. It is pleasing to see that all engaged on this massive and very important defence programme are now working for the self-same ends to ensure that timetables for infrastructure delivery and achievement of initial operating capability by late 2018 can be met. There are now just 30 months to go before the first Royal Air Force F-35 Lightning aircraft is due to be in operational service with 617 Squadron at RAF Marham and no one is underestimating the challenges that lie ahead in order to meet the various deadlines set.
F-35 Lightning is a game changer for combat air in defence and it will be operated by both the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. What separates it from other fast jet aircraft capability is its low observable properties, or stealth, and that it is an advanced 5th generation aircraft. This really is a step change in capability for UK defence. Lightning has advanced on-board sensors that are designed to understand the environment within the area it is operating. Playing an important role in ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Intelligence) the aircraft is programmed to evaluate the enemy systems it is fighting against and then to share that information with other Lightning aircraft in the same battle space in order to generate a fill picture of the environment they are operating within. Date gathered by ‘Lightning’ can also be fed into other areas of defence, using its low observable capability.
The low observable characteristics that the UK’s fleet of F-35 ‘Lightning’ aircraft will have enables the capability to access air space that a potential adversary may have previously denied us. Whilst technology moves at a pace, the aircraft is designed to ensure that enemy radar systems will not see the aircraft. This is an important point and while it is one that has been argued by some the real point is that that it affords strategic influence on a scale hitherto not possible as well as dramatically increasing aircraft survivability in non-permissive or hostile environments.
The decision to accelerate development of the Lightning Force and to have a second front line squadron working alongside 617 Squadron by 2023 makes excellent sense. The F-35 development programme may have had its issues and no one is denying that software and some other problems remain to be solved but pleasingly the latest HASC (House Armed Services Committee) hearing on the programme in March raised no new incremental issues and continues to retire earlier risks.
The UK ‘Lightning’ Force will also be deployed on board the UK’s two new aircraft carriers, HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales. On time and on budget the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carrier build programme is progressing extremely well and the first aircraft will leave Rosyth later this year to begin sea trials.
Work to prepare Her Majesty’s Naval Base, Portsmouth which will be the home base of both these massive ships is also proceeding well. Work under contracts worth £100 million placed by the MOD to contractors in Portsmouth has included requirement for significant harbour related dredging work that will both widen and deepen a large access area within the Portsmouth Harbour complex in order to accommodate what are the two largest ships ever built for the Royal Navy. This work is now well under way and 190 miles away from Portsmouth large scale infrastructure work at RAF Marham in order to ready that base for F-35B Lightning aircraft and that requires work to be conducted on 90% of airfield operating surfaces along with required construction of integrated training, logistics, maintenance and other requirements for F-35B Lightning basing requirements is just about to begin.
The planned second F-35B ‘Lightning’ squadron that will be stood up has now been named as 809 Naval Air Squadron. Combined, 617 Squadron and 809 Squadron are expected, by 2023, to be able to field 24 Lightning aircraft either deployed on HMS Queen Elizabeth or operating from the main operating base at RAF Marham.
In respect of F-35 Lightning’s ability to demonstrate presence and, alongside other Royal Air Force front-line fast military jet aircraft, the ability to provide the UK with additional strategic influence across the globe can in my view hardly be argued. F-35 has had many critics right through its development programme but as far as I am concerned in respect of fifth generation capability the aircraft will bring there is no other aircraft in production that can match it.
Between now and late 2018 when 617 Squadron is targeted to achieve IOC (Initial Operating Capability) with its fleet of F-35B Lightning STOVL (Short Take-Off Vertical Landing) aircraft it is obvious that an enormous amount of work requires to be done. As already mentioned, two weeks ago the Ministry of Defence announced contracts worth an estimated £167 million to upgrade and build new facilities at RAF Marham, the Norfolk base chosen to be F-35 ‘Lightning’ Force Headquarters. This will include maintenance and finishing hangars and separately, £118 million of contracts awarded to BAE Systems covering engineering and integrated training centre and logistics operations facilities required at the base in readiness for the arrival at RAF Marham of the first F-35 ‘Lightning’ aircraft in 2018. The construction elements of all the work required will be done by Balfour Beatty and work on the site is due to start within days. Balfour Beatty will employ over 300 staff on the site.
No one should underestimate the amount of work required in order to ready the UK for F-35 ‘Lightning’ at RAF Marham. As I witnessed for myself when I visited the base last September the scale of the work required is massive and all this must be done whilst the three remaining Tornado GR4 Squadrons, 1X, 12 and 31 Squadrons that continue to represent the front line air to ground bombing force of the Royal Air Force, will continue to operate from the base right up until the Tornado OSD (Out of Service Date) in March 2019.
The UK currently owns and operates four F-35B Joint Strike Fighter aircraft of which three of are currently committed to Operational Test Flying at Edwards Air Force base in California and the fourth is based at the United States Marine Corps Air Station at Beaufort in South Carolina. Next month will see the fifth aircraft (BK-5) delivered followed approximately eight weeks later, by a sixth aircraft. Following on from then my understanding is that UK F-35 Lightning aircraft will be delivered on the basis of one new aircraft every eight weeks over the following eighteen month.
Working in collaboration with their US counterparts 17 Squadron has for the past three years had responsibility for all test and evaluation work on the UK’s F-35B Lightning II aircraft. The squadron is responsible for bringing the UK’s first 5th generation combat air platform into both Royal Navy and Royal Air Force frontline service. And is based at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Part of their work is to test F-35B Lightning ll in a variety of operational scenarios in order to inform front line squadron units on important tactics and procedures needed to operate in hostile environments. Jointery is at the heart of the operation here with manning drawn by approximately 58% of personnel emanating from the Royal Air Force and 42% from the Royal Navy.
As previously mentioned, when fully operational UK F-35B Lightning’s will also operate from the two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers currently under final construction by the Carrier Alliance (Babcock International, BAE Systems, DE&S and Thales) at the Babcock International’s Rosyth facility in Scotland. The F-35B STOVL variant (Short Take-Off Vertical Landing) variant of the F-35 ‘Lightning’ that the UK is acquiring initially will also be able to operate from austere landing strips or other operating bases that have short operating strips.
The Royal Navy Queen Elizabeth Class Carriers will be a key enabler for planned strategic reach of the F-35 ‘Lighting’ aircraft and the first of the two ships, HMS Queen Elizabeth, is expected to begin class flying trials in 2018. Following this, the first front line F-35 Lightning squadron to be stood up, 617 Squadron, and that is expected to have achieved initial operating capability in 2018 will, in 2019, embark on the beginning of deck work ups over a two year period and that is intended to lead to Initial Maritime Operating Capability having been fully established by the end of 2020.
The first operational deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth is currently planned for the spring of 2021. To that end, having recently myself been a guest of the Royal Navy at Rosyth to look in detail at the final fitting out and in-dock test phase of HMS Queen Elizabeth before she begins sea trials later this year (see UK Defence 244 – HMS Queen Elizabeth) and to look over construction of HMS Prince of Wales, a programme that itself is running approximately eight months ahead of schedule, I am very satisfied that the planned timetable will be met.
Along with other UK F-35B aircraft elements that include large numbers of maintainers that are also in the US being trained 617 Squadron (the first UK Lightning ll squadron that be officially stood up in 2018) currently has 40 personnel operating alongside the US Marine Corps 501 Training Squadron at Beaufort. By the end of 2016 these numbers are expected to have more than doubled to over 100 before eventually topping out at 242 in 2018.
The relationship between the US Marine Corps and members of the Royal Air Force deployed at Beaufort and with members of the joint Royal Navy/Royal Air Force 7 Squadron at Edwards Air Force Base has been absolutely superb. Having also had the good fortune myself to spend time with Royal Air Force and Royal Navy personnel at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida in 2014, and that included the ability to talk to pilots and see UK personnel maintainer training I have nothing but praise for how the partnership between the US and UK on F-35 has worked. The ‘jointery’ between the UK and US personnel at all the US bases being used has been truly fantastic. The US Marine Corps Air Station at Beaufort will remain the primary source of training for 617 pilots and maintainers (engineers) until the summer of 2019 at which point they will all have moved back to RAF Marham.
The UK has invested very heavily in the F-35 programme and we must never lose sight as to why we have invested such large sums in fifth generation fast jet technology. As said earlier, 5th Generation will be an essential element of future UK Combat Air capability and I believe it is important to put a message across that this point is not lost in the Carrier Enabled Power projection narrative. There will be those that disagree and there are F-35 sceptics aplenty but I remains very confident that the Lightning capability will give us all that we want.
We are not the only country in Europe acquiring F-35 and amongst some of the others Italy, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands stand out. And here’s another important point. We are we are not procuring F-35 because we happen to have also decided to build and acquire two aircraft carriers but in my view, vice versa. The UK will operate F-35 Lightning capability from both land bases AND the aircraft carriers and this from a defence and from a projection point of view should be embraced as the most efficient and effective way to exploit the capability.
As I have observed many times in articles and private comment in recent years it is all too easy to try and compare F-35 STOVL capability with that of the now withdrawn fleet of Royal Navy and Royal Air Force Sea Harrier and Harrier GR9 VSTOL (Vertical Short Take-Off and Landing) capability. But I take the view that Lightning ll should never be viewed in comparison to legacy capability, superb though these aircraft certainly had been through their decades of service. Lightning ll capability is to my mind best exploited when utilised far forward in none permissive environments and engaged in ‘hard to access’ high-end targets that 4th generation aircraft cannot reach. This is not a replacement for the Sea Harrier and it was never intended to be that although it does of course have the capability to do what Harrier could and will if necessary still be used for that role if required. While Lightning ll will no doubt spend significant time at sea the point should not be lost that it will also spend a significant time engaged on high-end missions of a very different type.
So what are the remaining constraints? Yes, there remain software and safety issues to resolve but quite frankly I am in no doubt that these will all be achieved. This is still a relatively new aircraft development and it will be many years yet before it can be regarded as being mature. All military aircraft developments have issues that delay the programme and F-35 is no different in that respect. We must also remember that IOC remains some way off yet and that overall, despite the programme moving forward apace, we are still in the Systems Design and Development (SDD) part of the JSF programme. The SDD is not timetabled to complete until the final quarter of 2017. Nevertheless, Block 3i aircraft are now being delivered and it is with this software that USAF are expected to declare IOC in the late summer or early autumn this year. From that point all aircraft built by Lockheed Martin for the UK F-35 Lightning ll programme will be delivered under the Block 3i standard and which, all things being equal, will cater for the full spectrum of core mission requirement. By then the number of flying hours across the whole F-35 enterprise will likely have exceeded 100,000, a solid foundation from which the UK as a Tier One partner on the programme will continue to grow its force of Lightning ll aircraft to form two front line squadrons and an OCU.
For the UK perhaps the greatest unknown in regard to the Lightning ll programme is the through-life solution for sustainment – or what is called the Global Sustainment Solution (GSS). As a Tier One partner on the programme it is hardly surprising that the UK is planning to bid for the rights to be the avionics sustainment hub for Europe. Minister for Defence Procurement Philip Dunne said last week following a visit to the US that “we will be making a proposition to the F-35 Joint Programme Office for the avionics hub for Europe utilising a UK MOD facility working alongside industry adding that we will be putting forward, [what we think] will be a highly competitive proposition that we hope to get a conclusion to later this year”. Currently my understanding is that the global sustainment strategy has been split into three zones – North America, Europe and the Pacific. The first wave of sustainment awards appeared two years ago and have concentrated on heavy airframe and engine sustainment. Securing the avionics repair and maintenance would provide the UK with something that it is recognised as being very good at and it would sustain sovereign capability on the program and many new jobs.
The decision as to who and where the Global Sustainment Solution will be located for Europe is eagerly awaited not just by private sector industry but also by the UK Lightning Force not least from a planning and logistics perspective. The main competitor to the UK is probably Italy, another F-35 programme partner and one that currently not only builds parts for Lockheed Martin but is also constructing F-35 aircraft for the Italian Air Force and those that have been ordered by the Netherlands from parts supplied direct from Lockheed Martin and the Tier One partners.
With the UK having been a ‘Tier One’ partner on the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme from the outset BAE Systems involvement on the programme is extensive. Indeed, it is worth reminding that BAE Systems along with other UK based suppliers such as Rolls-Royce (manufacturer of the lifting system that is centered around a large fan located in the middle of the airframe) are responsible for 15% of the total F-35 build programme. BAE Systems has said that its involvement on F-35 will support 25,000 British based jobs over the next 25 years. The RAF Marham contract awards coincide with BAE Systems having just completed the tenth aft-fuselage from its highly invested plant at Samlesbury in Lancashire and that has been delivered to the Lockheed Martin plant at Fort Worth in Texas for fitting to F-35B Lightning ll aircraft for the UK.
This year at the Royal International Air Tattoo at Fairford in Gloucestershire the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will make its debut flight in the UK. Important members of the Government, military delegations, industry and the military itself will get to see this superb aircraft demonstrate some of its capabilities in the air for the first time. A number of F-35 aircraft will be involved and these will later go on to the Farnborough International Air Show.
CHW (London – 26th April 2016)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS