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U.K., U.S. Explore F-35 Partnership In Britain

Aviation Week & Space Technology

Tony Osborne

Jun 23, 2016

U.S., U.K. talk up training and logistics plans for joint F-35 basing in England

Special Relationship

During the 2020s, both Britain and the U.S. will begin building up their fleets of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) in the U.K.

The U.K. will be one of the first countries within the growing F-35 community where U.S. JSFs will be based alongside aircraft operated by other nations, and senior leaders from both countries are looking into the potential benefits this could bring.

Britain pledged in its Strategic Defense and Security Review published last November to purchase 138 aircraft, all to be based at RAFMarham, while the U.S. Air Force plans to station up to 54 F-35As at RAF Lakenheath as part of the future configuration of its 48th Fighter Wing.

Britain is working to form its first F-35B front-line squadron out of MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina, in 2018. Credit: Tony Osborne/AW&ST

As a result, Eastern England could see one of the greatest concentrations of F-35s anywhere, with as many as 192 jets located with 20 mi. between the two stations.

While achieving this full complement is at least a decade or more away, working groups have been set up to establish how the two air arms could work more closely, in areas such as training, airspace sharing, maintenance, logistics and sustainment.

“I see a huge opportunity,” said RAF Air Commo. Harvey Smyth, the U.K.’s Lightning Force commander. “We have got to look seriously at the synergies. It would be silly to do this in two separate stovepipes, particularly from a training and learning perspective,” he told a conference in London in May.

The U.K. and the U.S. have not flown the same fighter aircraft type together in the U.K. since the 1970s, when both flew the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom. The opportunity to benefit from that synergy did not last long, as the USAF quickly transitioned its aircraft at British bases to the General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark.

Today, however, the 48th Fighter Wing—the last remaining USAF combat wing based in the U.K.—is working on plans that call for two squadrons of F-35s at Lakenheath based alongside two units flying theF-15E Strike Eagle.

The decision to base F-35s at Lakenheath follows a wider restructuring of U.S. bases in Europe. The first F-35s are expected to arrive in late 2021.

The U.K. will get its aircraft three years earlier, with the first front-line squadron, 617 Sqn, due to formally reactivate in early 2018 in the U.S. before moving back to Marham in the summer of that year. The U.K. also will establish a training squadron, or Operational Conversion Unit, that will begin work there during 2019. The second British front-line squadron, 809 Naval Air Sqn, is not due to form until April 2023. Eventually the U.K. plans to have four front-line F-35 squadrons, all at Marham.

The two nations have established steering and working groups to meet in a quarterly forum designed to maximize benefits from the partnership. Co-chairs are a United States Air Forces Europe (USAFE) major and an RAF squadron leader.

“It is not just about logistics and sustainment, it is across the board.It is operations, maintenance, and it is training. You name it, we are looking at it,” explains Lt. Col. Tim Trimmell, deputy director of USAFE in the U.K. “We are figuring out what makes sense and how to operate together.” 

An obvious benefit is an idea to network the planned F-35 simulators at both Lakenheath and Marham so USAF and U.K. Lightning Force crews can train together despite sitting 20 mi. apart. There are a number of network and security issues to overcome, however.

Trimmell says there may not be many opportunities to share maintenance, although the two nations will be able to cross-service each other’s aircraft in the event that a USAF F-35 has to land at Marham or a U.K. JSF at a U.S. base. However, the USAF is eyeing the potential of training some of its maintenance personnel at facilities planned for Marham.

“Marham is buying a good number of the high-end training devices, which the USAF has decided not to buy, just because we have the aircraft to train on,” explains Trimmell. “Some of the things they are buying are beneficial to us because [they let] us keep our aircraft on schedule and in the mix rather than having to pull them off the schedule and use them for training.”

The USAF plans to base 54 F-35s at RAF Lakenheath along with two squadrons of F-15E Strike Eagles (pictured). A substantial proportion of USAF airpower will be based in the U.K. in the mid to late 2020s. Credit: Tony Osborne/AW&ST

Airspace for training is likely to present a major challenge, however. With adding more combat aircraft to Lakenheath and airspace availability being squeezed to allow more and more commercial flights, RAF commanders are increasingly concerned about where live-flying training can take place, potentially pushing large-force training into the simulator environment or overseas.

“Often we would de-conflict with the F-15s at Lakenheath and do our own training in a stovepipe,” Smyth said. “Now we are looking at how we can do that more joined up in terms of the limited airspace we have got.

“In the good old days . . . we could put 40-50-60 aircraft into Scotland and run a pretty good joined-up exercise, and everyone would have their own piece of airspace, and we’d get lots of good training out of it,” Smyth explained.

 “I can pretty much take up that same airspace with an F-35 four-ship, so when we start talking about putting multiple four-ships out of Marham or Lakenheath, the U.K. simply isn’t big enough,” he pointed out. “If the U.K. itself was a range, we would struggle.”

Smyth also suggested some elements of training were being handicapped by security concerns over the potential of adversaries listening to electronic emissions.

“Our Typhoon force is already strongly handcuffed,” because of “collectors sitting in the North Sea,” he said. “We are keen not to give away our crown jewels.” 

The U.K. has already begun work on preparing the base at Marham for nearly £500 million ($735 million) worth of new infrastructure, which has to be ready for the F-35’s arrival in 2018. 

In April, a £142 million contract was signed with Lockheed Martin andBAE Systems to construct centers for logistics operations, integrated training, and maintenance and final finishes responsible for upkeep on the aircraft and its low-observability stealth coatings.

The three facilities will be key elements in meeting the U.K.’s requirement for a so-called Freedom of Action capability allowing Britain to conduct F-35 operations independently. Two additional contracts are to be signed later for the building of hangars, offices and technical facilities, aircraft shelters, servicing platforms and three vertical landing pads, plus the refurbishment of runways, taxiways and hardened aircraft shelters.

Design work for the new facilities at Lakenheath is set to begin in fiscal 2018, so construction can begin in 2019 on a new squadron operations building and maintenance facilities, as well as weather shelters and a simulator building.

“We have 55% of the air force combat aircraft in Europe at this base; it makes sense to come here,” explains  Col. Robert Novotny, commander of the 48th Fighter Wing. “We have the capacity and the culture to take on more aircraft.” 

As well as the new facilities, Lakenheath will receive an additional 1,200 personnel to support the F-35.

“It makes sense for the USAF to get it right in the U.S.: bedding it down in the continental U.S. first, and then we are ready to go overseas,” Novotny says. “You want to get it right when you come overseas.”

The U.K. will not be the only country where U.S. F-35s will be based alongside those from foreign nations. Similar opportunities exist in Japan, South Korea and Italy, if the U.S. decides to put the F-35 into its bases there. 

The U.K. also is working closely with the U.S. Marine Corps, and it is likely the service’s F-35Bs will operate from Britain’s new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers as mentioned in the Marines’ 2016 Aviation Plan.

Officers from both countries believe there is potential in the new relationships that could emerge with both countries operating the F-35, even down to closer integration of exchange officers, according to Novotny.

“The goal would be that, ideally, after the aircraft are all settled, an American pilot who lives at Lakenheath—whose kids go to school there—gets in his car, goes to Marham and flies an F-35B as an exchange pilot; and an RAF pilot—whose family lives at Marham—drives to Lakenheath and flies an ‘A’ model,” says Novotny.

“Everybody likes that idea. It’s a long way off, but at least we are talking about those things.” 

Posting as:Clive H

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