With 8 major construction sites on the base involving no fewer than eighteen different organisations, it is pleasing to be able to report that during the fifteen months since I had last visited RAF Marham very substantial progress has been made in readying the Norfolk base for the arrival 617 Squadron and the F-35 Lightning ll jet in mid-2018.
Project Anvil is the name given to all infrastructure development and construction work required at RAF Marham to ready the base for F-35 Lightning 11 Joint Strike Fighter basing and operation. Split into two distinct and separate phases, the first covering sustainment facilities, 617 Squadron and set up of Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) requirements while the second phase is designed to cover post SDSR 2015 decisions relating to requirements for a second F-35 Squadron to be stood up by 2023 and for subsequent full-force growth requirements.
Royal Air Force and Royal Navy F-35 pilot conversion training is currently undertaken in the US with personnel from both embedded with US Marine Corp squadrons. However, from July 2019 the intention is that the OCU will be up and running and fully operational at RAF Marham.
In terms of background, the UK Government has committed to ordering 138 of the Lockheed Martin built F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning 11 jets through the programme lifetime. The first 48 of these will be the STOVL (Short Take-Off Vertical Landing) ‘B’ variant and when delivered these aircraft will be operated jointly by the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, the latter as part of the UK Carrier Strike Group operating from one of the two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers.
There has, as yet, been no formal announcement in regard of the choice of either ‘A’ or ‘B’’ variant for the remaining 90 F-35 aircraft that are planned to be acquired by the UK subsequently, although it is widely anticipated that the Royal Air Force will at some point during the programme build be provided with the F-35 ‘A’ CTOL (Conventional Take-Off and Landing) variant of the aircraft.
With the United States Air Force (USAF) having also committed to operating F-35A CTOL squadrons in the UK from the nearby base at RAF Lakenheath from 2021 the potential synergies in relation to training, maintenance and support could well be huge. The UK will not only be a major operator of the F-35 Lightning 11 it is also the sole ‘Level One’ partner in the build programme with 15% of the overall F-35 build programme being performed by UK defence companies.
Through the programme lifetime expectations are that over 4,000 F-35 aircraft will be built for both the US and export customers. Many UK companies are involved including BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Martin Baker, Selex, Cobham, GE Aviation, Ultra Electronics and others. In addition the UK, through BAE Systems, has recently been awarded a very significant initial element of the global F-35 Maintenance Repair Overhaul and Upgrade program by the F-35 Programme Office. The decision which was announced late last year not only brings significant additional long term work to the United Kingdom but is also a very positive reflection of the success that BAE Systems has achieved delivering innovative and cost effective support based solutions and military aircraft avionics. It is also a reflection of the importance that BAE Systems places on maintaining skills.
So far, the UK has taken delivery of four pre-operational F-35 aircraft for training and evaluation purposes – these aircraft remaining based in the US at Edwards Air Force base in California or at Beaufort Marine Corp Air Station in South Carolina. Ten of the first fourteen planned ‘operational’ F-35 jets have also been authorised for purchase by the UK Government and these aircraft will be the first operational aircraft flown by 617 Squadron following the standing up of the squadron in March this year at the Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Beaufort, California. Initial Operating Capability (land) is planned to occur at Marham in December 2018 and for Land and Maritime in 2023. The Second F-35 Squadron will be operated by the Royal Navy/Fleet Air Arm 809 Squadron and sea trials of the F-35 (B) variant are expected to begin on board HMS Queen Elizabeth sometime during 2018. By 2023 it is planned that the UK will have a total of 24 front-line F-35 (B) STOVL variant aircraft operating either from the two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers or from RAF Marham, the latter being the primary land base for all training, maintenance and support requirements.
It is not my intention to talk in detail about UK F-35 capability, operation, training or deployment matters in respect of future Royal Air Force and Royal Navy F-35 Lightning ll operation here although I will do so in a separate piece at a later date. I will however record here the quite excellent work done by Air Commodore Harvey Smyth during his period as Lightning Force Commander, a position that from April 2017 will transfer to Air Commodore David Bradshaw. Group Captain Ian Townsend is the Deputy Lightning Force Commander
Preparing RAF Marham, defining requirements and priorities, achieving stakeholder coherence, engaging with planning authorities, local residents and gaining programme and funding approval has all taken time but all has been successfully achieved. With 90% of the airfield operating surfaces required to be resurfaced, security to be upgraded, Tornado GR4 squadron headquarters to be rebuilt, various demolition works and 8 different sites to be developed whilst ensuring uninterrupted operation and sustainment of current RAF Marham based Tornado GR4 outputs this was never going to be an easy task.
Clearly, time is of the essence on a huge project such as this and having seen work at first hand I am hugely impressed with the extent and scale of the work currently being done by Balfour Beatty and other contractors. From standing start enabling works were anticipated to require 21 months to complete and I have no reason to doubt that this timetable will be secure. The importance of these works ahead of other current and later stage construction phase aspects of the programme cannot be underestimated. These include vertical landing pads, hangars, office and technical facilities, hardened aircraft shelters, service platforms, refurbishment of main runway and taxiways has included various amounts of demolition along with significant upgrade work in order to provide modern and efficient high voltage power supply operation.
Opened in 1916, RAF Marham has a long and celebrated history as a bomber station and was also home for many years to the much respected Victor tanker refuelling operation. Marham has previously been home to Canberra Bomber squadrons on two occasions and from January 1983, the date interestingly that 617 Squadron had again been reformed at RAF Marham, the brilliant Panavia Tornado jets. Again, this commentary piece today is not intended to be a history of RAF Marham but suffice to say that it has long been a front line bomber base just as it continues to be today as home to Tornado Force and the three GR4 squadrons so attached, 1X (B), 12 and 31 Squadrons. Note that a follow up piece on 1X (B) Squadron will appear on the 12th of January.
Back to infrastructure development. To avoid contractors using the main gate of the base a separate temporary entrance facility has been built on the opposite side of the base on land rented from a local farmer. My understanding is that DE&S responsibility comprises delivery of Maintenance and Finish Facility, the National Operating Centre, Integrated Training Centre and the Strategic Low Observability Verification Facility (SLOVF). Defence Infrastructure Organisation (DIO) responsibilities include UK Power HV Upgrade, Enablers including demolitions, High Voltage connections from Swaffham to RAF Marham, Internal site-wide installations and diversions of services and utilities, 617 Squadron Headquarters and Ops/Line buildings and to reconfigure 12 x HAS sites, AOS and OCU (contracts expected to be placed in March 2017) Runways 06/24 and 01/19 and associated requirements, hangar, feeder and Taxiways. Decisions are yet to be taken in relation to relocation of some displaced facilities such as Fire Training area and various workshop facilities.
It is not easy mission to oversee huge infrastructure development that will allow F-35 Lightning 11 capability to operate from the base whilst ensuring that the Tornado Force is able to operate unhindered. RAF Marham Station Commander, Group Captain Rich Davies has done a quite brilliant job in my view juggling with various issues in order to keep everyone content whilst at the same time ensuring that the UK’s front-line Tornado Force is properly supported. Of necessity this work has included regular engagement with local people whose daily lives may be disturbed by the amount of work being undertaken at the base and regular communication with his own people and their families.
The bulk of the Marham infrastructure work is required to be completed in time for the first F-35 aircraft to arrive mid-way through 2018. Having seen for myself the progress in detail, I have no reason to doubt that all the planned infrastructure and development work required to be complete by that time will have been done and I congratulate Balfour Beatty along with BAE Systems and also, the role played by Defence Infrastructure Organisation is getting to the stage they have. Of course, while the bulk of work will clearly be done it is the ability to finish all aspects including small and large systems work inside the new buildings that will be the final test of absolute success.
The ongoing infrastructure and development work currently being undertaken at RAF Marham is made all the more difficult by the important requirement for contractors to work around the existing front line Tornado GR4 squadron capability and that is required to remain fully operational right up until final drawdown of the three remaining Tornado GR4 squadrons by the 31st March 2019. Clearly, with Marham based Panavia Tornado GR4 squadrons currently performing the UK’s front-line fast jet capability role in Operation Shader from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, it is crucial that the works to convert RAF Marham to Lightning 11 capability do not interfere with the ongoing Tornado GR4 training, maintenance and support work of this fine capability.
To say that substantial progress has been made is no exaggeration on my part. I was genuinely surprised at the extent of infrastructure and other work going on all around the base. New facilities required include new headquarters for 617 Squadron which will be the first Lightning squadron to be stood up on the base, a new Operational Conversion Unit (OCU), Maintenance and Finish facilities together with a National Operating Centre, Integrated Training Centre which will train pilots and aircraft maintainers, hardened aircraft shelters and other requirements. Planned demolition works are also now complete for this stage of the operation ahead of final Tornado GR4 drawdown when other works will occur.
Late last year witnessed the award of a £27 million contract to Wates Construction for the new Squadron Headquarters which will be used for mission planning, administration and maintenance of the new F-35 aircraft capability. Infrastructure work required is not just on-base either and of necessity, due to the vast change in training and mission support required by F-35, includes substantial upgrading of power requirements and other utilities. Pleasingly, work on a Multi Service Trench facility was well underway by contractors Balfour Beatty during my recent visit and to the best of my knowledge, all infrastructure activities taking place on the base currently are on time and on budget.
As mentioned earlier, it is important to emphasise that infrastructure work by Balfour Beatty and the other contractors involved has to be undertaken without causing any interruption the Marham Tornado GR4 training, operation and support role. Marham has always been a very busy base but now with multiple contractors currently on-site and numbers of construction and other workers involved likely to exceed 1,200 at the peak it is an extremely busy location.
With a total investment of £550 million planned for the site including 8 development sites required to accommodate various aspects of training, maintenance and support and for 617 Squadron that will operate the capability from around the middle of 2019 keeping the infrastructure development required on time and on budget is essential. With no few that 18 main stakeholder organisations involved and as previously mentioned, 8 new building sites required within the total infrastructure development requirement plan and 90% of the airfield runway and taxiway surfaces required to be resurfaced, this is a huge military development exercise and investment by whatever standard one may choose to measure it.
In order to facilitate F-35 operation, Project ANVIL requires that new Maintenance and Finish, National Operating Centre are built together with a vast new Integrated Training Centre, Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) and new headquarters for 617 Squadron itself. In addition, the Marham development requirement includes new shelters for the aircraft similar to those found on US Air Force bases along with large scale power and CIS upgrades in order to provide the base with sufficient electrical power for the new generation of aircraft.
While there is still a very long way to go yet the work of readying Marham for its future is clearly being very well done.
CHW (London – 3rd January 2017)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Wheeldon Strategic Advisory Ltd,
M: +44 7710 779785