So, they’re here at last. The Lockheed F35B, named Lightning II by the UK, flew over from the United States to appear at at least two air shows here during the summer. Flown by RAF crews and in-flight refuelled, the F35s fulfilled a promise to come to the UK, after a failure to appear in 2014, due to engine problems and an on board fire.
The F35B is the latest 4th generation VSTOL aircraft to be co-produced by a conglomerate of world companies, and is state of the art with advanced avionics and ‘low visibility’ but not stealth. At a cost of £100m a copy, 15% of which has been earmarked for British production they are not cheap, and various development problems over the last 8-10 years, have meant a late introduction into service in the UK. Two aircraft carriers, HMS Prince Charles and HMS Queen Elizabeth are currently in production and the F35 is scheduled to operate from them in 2018, when they are both put into service.
The manufacturers and procurement staff are obviously upbeat about the F35, which will always be compared to the Harrier, and is a direct replacement for it, albeit 8 years after the Harrier was taken out of service. The comparisons are valid: both are VSTOL, both have one engine and one pilot. But the comparisons end there. The Harrier was muted in the 50s, developed in the 60s, operated and improved through to the 2010s by the British and the USA and continues to be in service with the US Marine Corps, the Italian and Spanish Navies and has just been retired by the Indian Navy. The F35 was muted in the 21st century and has been developed and tested making it far superior to what was a 1950s design. It would be like slating the Vulcan bomber, designed in the 40s, to be superior to say the B1 bomber operated by the USAF. Make no mistake the F35 is a quantum leap in technology, materials, techniques, avionics, capability and performance. The Harrier was a perfect workforce for its era, and the fact that several air arms still operate it is a testament to its design and capability. The UK chose wrongly in my opinion and that of many observers around the world, to take the Harrier out of service at the end of 2010 by the new Conservative government. It meant that there was a huge capability gap before the introduction into service of the new carriers and the F35. Several times in the past 6 years there have been many occasions when a carrier with a Squadron of Harriers on board would have seriously defused a situation, like Libya, Syria etc. However it was done and there is no turning back. The UK is committed to buying 138 F35s at a cost of £1.38 billion and is a huge purchase. One could wonder whether we needed such fire power against the likes of IS with their pop guns, but they are getting more sophisticated weaponry and probably will have combat aircraft at some stage. For the kind of money we’re spending on the F35 we could have kept the Harrier and Tornado fleets in service with avionic upgrades for many years and still have had enough air cover for our needs. The reason the Harrier went out of service was because one of the two; Harrier or Tornado had to go. The Harrier for whatever reason lost, and the Tornado is now coming to the end of its life, with only the Typhoon left as the gold standard air defence aircraft for this countries protection. But a bomber it ain’t although it is now officially a muti-role aircraft, probably like F35 will be.
So the F35 is here, albeit temporarily and you can see it at RIAT Fairford where they are based in the UK during their stay, and at Farnborough International. They also flew over RAF Marham accompanied by a Tornado which is where 617 Sqn, the first F35 squadron will form. I wish them every success and good PR while they are here. They return in numbers in two years to populate a dozen squadrons eventually probably and will come to represent the RAF and the Royal Navy much as the Harrier did in its day. Bon chance.