UK steps up F-35 preparations


Watch the UK skies in July - (Lockheed Martin)

With the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II now confirmed to appear at RIAT and Farnborough Air Shows in July, AEROSPACE columnist HOWARD WHEELDON looks at the UK's preparations as it counts down to operational service.

With the UK MoD close to confirming orders for the first 14 F-35B STOVL Lightning ll aircraft planned as part of the joint Royal Air Force and Royal Navy-operated future carrier force, interesting winds of change are blowing across the air power community. Just as it is in the US, air power remains the essential core competency for future UK defence. The Joint Combat Aircraft, as it was originally known in UK military parlance, will form an intrinsic part of Britain's future combat air capability. Training of UK pilots, together with the engineers that will be responsible for maintaining the UK’s F-35 fleet, is a massive task and it is one that has been meticulously planned. To achieve the F-35 training goals, RAF and RN staff have embedded with the 33rd Fighter Wing, a graduate flying and maintenance training wing located at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. This is the centre of excellence of F-35 training capability, including pilots, maintainers, air battle managers and intelligence personnel. The plan is that, by 2018, the facility will have an annual capacity to train 100 pilots and 2,100 maintainers. For Britain, which is a Tier One partner on the F-35 programme, the ability of our pilots and engineers to train alongside US military personnel is another example of how the UK pools and share assets and expertise with its largest ally.

Last month I saw for myself the superb F-35 training facilities at Eglin Air Base and got to talk with a number of RAF and RN personnel engaged in the F-35 Lightning ll programme. The facilities and particularly the Academic Training Centre are, to say the least, remarkable. UK military embedded at Eglin are highly motivated professionals who are clearly dedicated to the job in hand. In a relatively short period of time, have come a very long way in developing the relationship with the new F-35. In turn, they will become trainers themselves, ensuring that, by the time the jets to be acquired by the UK are fully operational, all the required support is available.

A 3,000+ aircraft programme

While the original UK planning assumption was that a total 140 F-35s would be acquired, the Secretary of State for Defence has subsequently confirmed that the UK will acquire 48 F-35B STOVL variants on top of the four development aircraft already acquired and of which three have so far been delivered. By any standards imaginable and not withstanding concerns over defence cuts, timing and maybe the potential for lowering of aircraft acquisition numbers by some nations, the F-35 is a 3,000 plus aircraft programme. Eight international partners including the UK, Australia, Italy, Netherlands, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Turkey are joined at the hip on the F-35 programme. But for Britain, as a full Level One partner and having invested $2bn in the F-35 development project, the importance and success of the F-35 programme is far greater than that. Level One partner status meant that, right from the start, our F-35 programme requirements have been formally incorporated into the Joint Operational Requirements Document. In practice this means that, ever since F-35 programme inception back in 2001, Britain has enjoyed significant influence on the aircraft development. It has also meant that, led by BAE Systems, hundreds of UK companies are and will continue to be permanently engaged in the F-35 manufacturing programme.

Two-year upgrade cycle

Following the well reasoned change back to the original decision that the UK would acquire the F-35B STOVL version of the aircraft (this followed realisation of potentially very high cost and large scale risk involved in fitting a system of electronic ‘cats and traps’ to the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carrier) it seems to me that the principle remaining area of debate around the UK purchase of F-35s is centred on future aircraft upgrades. Back in 2006, the UK and US signed the ‘Production Sustainment and Follow-on Development (PSFD) agreement. This is the MoU governing how follow-on development and all future upgrades will work. It also includes scope and the full cost-sharing arrangements across the international partnership. The F-35 upgrade strategy has, in fact, been designed to field capability and sustainability improvements on the aircraft every two years with the scope of upgrades being jointly agreed by the international partnership. The UK Government can rightly claim that the PSFD MoU provides the UK with full visibility of cost and it in part explains too why UK personnel are embedded not only at Eglin AFB but in Washington DC as well.

Over an anticipated 30-year programme life, Lockheed Martin expects to produce well over 3,000 F-35s, of which up to a half will likely be exported. The intention is that Fort Worth will eventually produce 100 F-35s annually and, while it is true that the programme is behind the original schedule and that there are some issues left to resolve, such as recently-found cracking on the STOVL version of the aircraft, the programme is progressing very well. Considered a dream for pilots to fly and operate in a denied environment the F-35 relies on no fewer than 8·4m separate lines of code that allow it to do the job effectively. In today’s world of military aviation it is the capability as opposed to the airframe that matters. While the vast majority of required work on F-35 coding lines is now complete, some work remains to be done. Having seen the aircraft fly and the STOVL version in hover at Eglin Air Base and having had the opportunity to speak to two of our fully trained F-35 pilots, I am hugely impressed with how the whole F-35 programme is now progressing.

 In July Her Majesty the Queen will officially launch the first of Britain’s two new ‘Queen Elizabeth’ class carriers currently under construction in Glasgow and Rosyth and from which the UK’s Lightning ll aircraft will eventually operate. Sea trials for the first carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, are due to begin in 2016 and two years later, in 2018, the trials will be further enhanced when the first F-35s are expected to join the ship.

 As mentioned, the UK has already received three of the four F-35Bs, as part of a well planned and co-ordinated pre-operational build up and training process. The UK aircraft, numbered BK1, BK2 and BK3, had, at the time of my recent visit to Eglin, already notched up 144, 158 and 98 hours, respectively. Three RAF and RN pilots have so far completed Lightning ll training and a fourth pilot is expected to complete the course shortly. In total, 44 UK military personnel are now embedded at Eglin. More UK military support engineers have begun the F-35 maintainer course and, on completion, some will be posted either to Edwards or the Marine Corp Air Station (MCAS) Beaufort, South Carolina. 

Clichés are, of course, easy to come by but, when an experienced military pilot emphasises that this an aircraft that will not only keep you out of harm’s way but also one that makes us very relevant, I find such a view compelling. There is no doubt that from a pilot's perspective the F-35 is different from anything that has gone before. Stealth is built-in as an inherent part of the design but the real point behind F-35 for me is that the aircraft offers a giant leap forward in systems management capability within a denied battlespace environment. The bottom line is that an F-35 pilot is far better able not only to make relevant weapons based decisions but also to act on them. The UK’s first squadron of Lightning lls is planned to stand up at RAF Marham as the revived 617 Squadron some time during 2018 when initial operational capability in a land based role has been completed. When not engaged in carrier strike operation all the UK’s F-35Bs will be based at RAF Marham. In the meantime the RN has resurrected 809 Naval Air Squadron as being the first formation to fly the aircraft.

Lightning Academy

UK involvement in the programme is growing and the F-35B variants already purchased and that will remain in the US as part of our training capability are all fully engaged in both the testing assessment and training programmes. The three UK pilots that fly the aircraft together with 13 maintenance engineers that support the UK’s Eglin- based aircraft do so under a partnership agreement with the USMC. The Lightning Academic Training Centre facility at Eglin currently supports all F-35 training activities. Designed and built for purely in connection with F-35 training, the impressive centre at Eglin currently houses six of an intended ten full mission simulators. Maintainers and engineers will spend a full five months at in the Lightning Academy being taught in classes of about 12. A further 12 UK engineers recently arrived at Eglin to begin the five month process of F-35 training and the numbers are likely to increase over the coming months.