The U.K. defense ministry is making the final preparations for purchasing its first squadron of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
After the £74 million ($114 million) government flip-flop, changing to the F-35C conventional carrier-borne version in 2010 and then reverting to the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing variant F-35B in 2012, officials are looking toward “Main Gate 4,” a procurement contract milestone that will not only buy the U.K.'s first squadron but also begin the transition toward operations. It is understood the order will be for around 14 F-35Bs.
Speaking at the Professional Engineering Institution's (PEI) annual defense lecture in July, Royal Navy Commo. Rick Thompson, the head of the Lightning II project team in the U.K.'s Defense Equipment & Support organization, said the first squadron of British aircraft should move back to the U.K. in 2018. At that time, they would begin trials with the first Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier with the aim of achieving an initial land-based operating capability in late 2018.
When the U.K. entered the program, it announced it would buy as many as 138 aircraft, although the commitment so far is for 48. A Main Gate 5 decision—due around 2017—is expected to approve the remaining balance of the first tranche of F-35 procurement. Thompson says no decisions would be taken before the next Strategic Defense and Security Review in 2015, in which officials are expected to firm up the final number of JSFs the U.K. will buy. He would not comment on whether the U.K. would purchase more than 48.
Despite JSF being envisioned for carrier-strike operations, the Royal Air Force (RAF) seems to be taking an increasingly leading role. A key RAF station at Marham in Norfolk has been selected as the main operating base for the aircraft, and two RAF squadrons will lead the type into operation. The 17 Sqdn. is scheduled to be re-formed under the banner of a Lightning Operational Evaluation Unit in 2015 at Edwards AFB, Calif., while the noted 617 Sqdn., the Dambusters, will become the first operational squadron. Both squadrons will be jointly manned by Royal Navy and RAF personnel. Only the second operational F-35 unit is slated to carry a Royal Navy squadron designation.
So far the U.K. has taken delivery of three F-35Bs, all of which are now operating with the joint U.K./U.S. Marine Corps training unit at Eglin AFB, Fla. Two pilots—one Royal Navy, the other RAF—are being trained as instructors on the type. Approximately 20 maintainers have also been trained at Eglin. Even though the aircraft are operated under the U.K. military register, the U.K. jets routinely switch between being flown by U.S. Marine Corps or RAF pilots via a special regulatory arrangement between the U.S. Defense Department and the U.K. Ministry of Defense.
The British aircraft will eventually move to Edwards AFB in 2014 to begin operational test and evaluation. British personnel are in place at Edwards to begin preparatory work for the arrival of the aircraft. In the third quarter of 2014, pilots will begin being trained at the Marines Corps center in Beaufort, S.C., which is being updated to handle the trainees.