It’s been three years since I wrote anything on this thread, but it’s not down to laziness or that I’ve run out of ideas. It’s more that the F35B is now firmly established with the RAF and is even flying off the new aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth, so I can no longer extol the virtues of the Harrier against the Lightning, because it ain’t ever coming back.
Yes, the Harrier was a marvellous piece of engineering and performed very well in its over 40 years of RAF/RN service, and comparisons are still being made with what the UK calls the Lightning and the US calls the F35A, B or C. The arguments about the F35 have raged over the last 5 years about its efficacy, performance, price and value, but I have to concede that after all this time, it is at least equal to the Harrier in some respects, and better at others. I doubt it the F35 was ever envisaged to be taken in to a muddy field and flown off of PSP planking like the Harrier, but then it was never intended to do so. In fact I’m not sure if it was ever meant for rough field or uneven surface handling, but I could be wrong. It performs admirably taking off from a metal runway or carrier, but is still susceptible to attack on the ground. At least the Harrier could, in certain circumstances, take off vertically and fly away; the F35 can’t do that. It’s more of STOVL aircraft, and whether the Harrier was a true STOL aircraft could be open to debate. It couldn’t take off vertically with more than 500 lb of fuel and no weapons, but could take off from a short runway with maybe 2000 lb and weapons hanging off the pylons. The F35 by contrast has enormous carrying capacity and a dazzling array of weapons. But the comparisons must stop, the Harrier is dead, long live the F35 to paraphrase the crowning ceremony of royalty.
The F35 has proved itself in combat and is now in the lexicon of the RAF, who are now down to just two combat aircraft; the Typhoon and the LIghtning. Compare this to a time not many years ago, when we had: Tornado, Harrier, Buccaneer, Phantom, and the old Lightning, all around at the same time, but all doing a specific job. That we’ve got just two aircraft performing all the jobs that were done before is perhaps testament to the designers, who have been helped with new technologies which could only be dreamed of a few years ago. The F35 will possibly be in service for 50 years, but will it be needed in the not too distant future?
Drones or autonomous aircraft are big business now. Who can remember when in the late 50s Duncan Sandys, defence minister, produced his master plan for the RAF that manned aircraft were old hat and everything would be covered by missiles. That didn’t last long, mainly because the missiles of the time were solidly ground based and were not what you would call ‘mobile’, but our responsibilities were spread around the world so missiles were not really a good plan. At the time we had the Javelin, Lightning, Canberra and Hunter which were state of the art at the time, and were threatened with being scrapped. They weren’t and the defence of the country went back to the tried and trusted (at the time) of interceptors and long range bombers for the nuclear deterrent. But I digress, drones are used extensively but are not the end of the road for manned combat aircraft, just a additional aid to their task.
With the F35 being well established as the UK’s premier all purpose combat fighter/bomber/interdictor supplemented by the Typhoon, it seems the UK’s defence needs are well covered for the foreseeable future. When we get the balance of the order, which may take up to 2030 to receive all 138 on order, we will be well set to defend the country which is, after all, the main job of any government.
RAF F35s in echelon