Tag Archives: F35

The view from down under

With aknowledgement to the National Interest.

The F-35: A Big Mistake or Wonder Weapon?

Brendan Nicholson

March 1, 2017

Perhaps apocryphal, the story goes that a senior US Air Force officer on the Joint Strike Fighter Program found himself sitting next to a Chinese general. ‘I like your aeroplane,’ the General said. That’s nice,’ said the American, How many would you like?’ The general smiled and raised a single finger. ‘Just one,’ he said.

While China has long been concerned enough about the JSF’s capabilities to have plundered its plans in cyber files in the hope of reverse engineering it, critics in Australia have created the broad impression that the aircraft, now officially named the F-35 Lightning ll, is a ‘dog’. That criticism was loud enough to trigger a parliamentary inquiry into whether the RAAF should buy the JSF.

The Senate inquiry, concluded that ‘… the F-35A is the only aircraft able to meet Australia’s strategic needs for the foreseeable future, and that sufficient progress is being made in the test and evaluation program to address performance issues of concern.’ Its report also said that ‘in light of the serious problems that led to a re-baselining of the F-35 program in 2012, and the ongoing issues identified by the US Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, the committee retains a healthy skepticism towards assurances by Defense regarding cost, schedule and capability outcomes of the F-35A.’

That reflected the long held view of the director of ASPI’s defense and strategic program, Dr Andrew Davies, that while the early years of the JSF program were plagued by cost overruns and schedule slippages it had performed much better since action was taken to tighten it up. Costs were now coming down and the production schedule was stabilising.

The committee gave little credence to more extravagant assertions the JSF was outdated and would be outperformed by potential rivals.

It’s often claimed that the RAAF would be better off with the US F-22 Raptor, a bigger, twin-engine cousin of the F-35 produced in the 1990s. In reality, the F-22 is an air superiority fighter very good at clearing the skies of enemy aircraft but not designed to do other tasks as well as the JSF can. It was expensive to buy and operate and the assembly line closed years ago.

The JSF is a multi-purpose aircraft, designed for many roles, from achieving air superiority to sinking enemy warships, attacking targets on the ground and providing close air support for troops. It is, in the words of Group Captain Glen Beck who heads the RAAF’s Air Combat Transition Office, an all rounder—‘a flying batsman/bowler’. The head of the RAAF’s JSF Capability and Sustainment Group, Air Vice Marshal Leigh Gordon, says the Raptor is ‘a wonderful, dated aeroplane which we couldn’t have even if we wanted it.’ The JSF is much more sophisticated with about 8.5 million lines of computer code compared to fewer than 2 million in the F-22.

Donald Trump caused consternation by suggesting that, to wind back Lockheed-Martin’s cost overruns, he’d ask Boeing if it could produce an alternative. But within days, the new Defence Secretary, James Mattis, told a US Senate hearing ‘the JSF is critical for our own air superiority’ because of the jet’s electronics which magnifies its capability. Mr Trump just wanted to bring the price down to get ‘best bang for the buck’, General Mattis said. In truth, the decisions needed to reduce the price were made years ago.

Various prices have been claimed for the RAAF’s JSFs, ranging up to $300 million each. The head of the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Project Office, US Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, said in Australia this week that he was confident the price of each jet—we have 72 on order—would come down to $80 million each. That’s close to the price tag of a much-less sophisticated fourth-generation fighter.

In 2010, alarms rang in the US bureaucracy because the project was running well over budget and two years late. It was ‘rebaselined’ and largely brought under control.

The project is staggeringly complex and it is still having issues but the Americans and the RAAF are confident the fighter will work very well. One recent problem was that the designers had to abandon the guided weapon intended to hit moving ground targets because it was a form of cluster munition which the US no longer uses. A replacement is being worked on.

As well, there’s a delay in producing a suitable anti-ship missile for Australia’s needs. One is being worked on by the Norwegians and Australian defense scientists are developing a sensor for it.

Gordon says the problems are being solved as they emerge and he’s confident the RAAF’s JSFs will meet the new schedule, with the first aircraft arriving in December 2018 and three squadrons and a training unit fully operational in 2023.

© The National Interest 2017

New station for the MC F35

​(With thanks to ‘The National Interest’)

The U.S. Military’s $1 Trillion F-35 Stealth Fighter Is Heading to Japan for a Very Special Mission

Deter China. 

Dave Majumdar 

The United States Marine Corps has started to forward deploy its first operational squadron of Lockheed Martin F-35B Joint Strike Fighters overseas to Japan. The unit, the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing’s Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121)a left  its base in Yuma, Arizona, for its new home at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni on Jan. 9, 2017.

“The transition of VMFA-121 from MCAS Yuma to MCAS Iwakuni marks a significant milestone in the F-35B program as the Marine Corps continues to lead the way in the advancement of stealth fighter attack aircraft,” reads a Marine Corps statement. [3]

Permanently basing the F-35 in Asia for its first overseas posting not only highlights the United States commitment to Asia and to the security alliance with Japan, but it also serves as a deterrent against China’s growing power. In the coming years, as Chinese air defenses become increasingly potent, stealth aircraft such as the F-35 are going to be the only means of penetrating Beijing’s airspace in the event of a war. Moreover, the Marine F-35Bs will afford Japan—which is also buying the conventional takeoff version of the aircraft—an opportunity to operate alongside American forces before its own jets enter operational service.

The Marine Corps initiated plans to move VMFA-121 to Japan in 2012 when the service designated the unit to become the Pentagon’s first operational F-35 unit. In the inventing years, the unit transitioned from the Boeing F/A-18 Hornet to the short take-off/vertical landing STOVL) F-35B with initial operational capability being declared on July 31, 2015, with an interim configuration called Block 2B.

The Block 2B configuration offers marginal combat capability, with the ability to carry two AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles and either a pair of GBU-12 500lbs laser-guided bombs or a pair of GBU-32 1000lbs Joint Direct Attack Munitions. It also offers a limited flight envelope and limited software and sensor capability, but flying the interim configuration affords the Marines a chance to learn how to operate the jets in combat. Moreover, it allows the Marines—who skipped a generation of combat aircraft—to recapitalize a rapidly aging tactical aviation fleet.

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin is continuing development work on the final Block 3F configuration of the F-35 and the Pentagon is drawing up plans for the next upgrade, Block 4. The Marine Corps, the next step is to operationally deploy at sea onboard an amphibious assault ship in 2018. The Navy and the F-35 tested the aircraft onboard USS America (LHA-6) last October. “The final test period ensured the plane could operate in the most extreme at-sea conditions, with a range of weapons loadouts and with the newest software variant,” a Marine Corps statement reads. “Data and lessons learned laid the groundwork for developing the concepts of operations for F-35B deployments aboard U.S. Navy amphibious carriers, the first two of which will take place in 2018.”

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar

The Trumpater

As alluded to in other posts , the President Elect has had a lot to say about many subjects but there is one that is causing undercurrents of dissent amongst the military and defence contractors.

He wants to ‘scrap’the F35 and will ask Boeing to produce a ‘Super’ F18. This reminds of other governments scrapping large projects, and then buying in something else years later when they realise they needed it after all. Need I say ‘Nimrod” and ‘Rivet Joint’ in the same sentence? Like our esteemed (no, not really) Tory government who scrapped the Nimrod MRA4 because of ‘cost overruns’ and extended development time, then five years later; bought an even older airframe (Nimrod Vs B707) to replace the Dimsod after leaving our shores unprotected for a considerable period; Trump says he wants to scrap the trillion dollar F35 and replace it with an airframe from the 70’s. As the website Foxtrot Alpha said:

The problem with wanting to go ahead and start saving money on the F-35 now is that, for the most part, the time to speak up was 20 years ago. Much of the trail of its bloated cost can be found in its tortured development, which itself was borne out of a deeply strange requirement. The one F-35 platform was supposed to replace a bountiful variety of planes, ranging from the fast and light F-16 Viper, to the hovering AV-8B Harrier II, to the massively armoured flying gun known as the A-10 Warthog.

So it seems they have a handle on what Trump is asking for. Of course to scrap the F35 now would be complete folly, especially as it has been ordered and partnered by 10 or more other countries besides the States, and Lockheed claim that ‘5000’ units will be ordered worldwide, which in anyone’s order book is a lot of hooley. One other side of international sales which hasn’t been taken into consideration is that the Department of Defense has stated that computer codes for the repair of the many the computer controlled equipments in the F35 would not be released to third parties, and that all such repairs would be carried out in US. This is in accordance with the ITAR codes which stipulate that any item of defence equipment sold abroad can not have any of its internal circuits available in workshop manuals for use by ‘foreign nationals’. This is because the US is maniacal about such information getting in to the wrong hands like the Russians or Chinese. It even affected the old Harrier fleet, in that ANY component which contained anything made or developed in the US, is subject to ITAR regulations. So, for example a British made component like a circuit board with for example a resistor on it that was made in the US; the whole board is subject to ITAR despite it being British made. This made it very awkward for the military and Defence Contractors who could get fined thousands of dollars for infringing ITAR. ITAR stands for International Traffic in Arms Regulations incidentally. So, the whole F35 program could be in jeopardy if 2nd tier repair organisations aren’t allowed to repair US sourced kit.

Back to Don and his fanciful ideas; it’s been stated by defense experts that the F18 would ‘never’ be able to upgraded enough to be a contender to compete with the F35s capabilities. Scrapping would cost the US economy, and any other country involved in its development and purchase a lot of angst, and also leave them without air cover for many years until an alternative can be introduced, which judging by the 20 year gestation of the F35 could leave many countries in a parlous position.

For better or worse the F35 HAS to go ahead and get into service for the sake of 1) employment in all the countries involved, 2) the horrendous cost of a replacement and most importantly 3) the lack of combat aircraft to protect ourselves.


Show of strength?

Video of F35 taking off and landing on a US aircraft carrier:

F35 Carrier Testing

So, the US Navy placed 12 F35Bs on a carrier and flew them off to show and test themselves how they would work within the context of carrier borne operations.  Good for them, it looked successful and the aircraft seemed to perform to expectations.

One thing I don’t get though, watching the take offs, is what are the long term stresses which are placed on that forward intake door during take off? That panel is an accident waiting to happen. It’s too late now but the Harrier design had everything being used during all phases of flight, yet the F35 carries over a ton of dead hovering weight during forward flight. What possible design concept thought that this would be a good thing to do? We’re stuck with it now.All power to the USAF for getting this trial going. But I still wonder about that front intake door.

No dogfight competition then?

With thanks to business insider UK

Why the F-35 could ‘never in a million years’ out dogfight the RAF Typhoon or the Russian Su-35

Alex Lockie

In a recent interview with Business Insider, Justin Bronk, a research fellow specializing in combat airpower at the Royal United Services Institute, dropped a bombshell about the US’s $1 trillion F-35 program:

“The F-35 cannot out dogfight a Typhoon (or a Su-35), never in a million years.”

In earlier stages of the F-35’s development, some bad reports came out claiming it lost in simulated dogfights to the F-16, a legacy platform the F-35 intends to replace.

Lately, the news coming out about the F-35’s dogfighting ability has taken a visible turn to the positive, but dogfighting was never the main purpose or strong suit of the Joint Strike Fighter.

For that reason, older fighters, like the Eurofighter Typhoon or the Sukhoi Su-35, could likely outmaneuver and kill an F-35 in a close range confrontation.

While every credible report indicates that the F-35 will dominate in stealthiness, situational awareness, and beyond visual range confrontations, dogfights, or up close fights with opposing fighter pilots jockeying for position and a clean shot, depend on a different set of characteristics.

The Eurofighter Typhoon was made to dogfight, the F-35 was not. AP

Thrust-to-weight ratio and wing loading, or the loaded weight of the aircraft divided by the area of the wings, comprise some of the chiefly important factors in dogfighting.

“Typhoon and Su-35 both have positive thrust-to-weight ratios at combat loadings, meaning that they can accelerate vertically and generally both maintain and regain energy in a turn much more successfully than the F-35 (particularly the heavier B and C models),” explained Bronk.

The F-35 does have a positive thrust-to-weight ratio, but when loaded up with fuel and ordinance for combat, it’s unclear if that will remain.

Ultimately, having small wings and a design more geared toward stealth than kinematics hurts the F-35’s dogfighting prospects.

“A low wing loading means that Typhoon and Su-35 can sustain much tighter turns than the F-35 whilst also creating less induced drag and losing less energy,” said Bronk.

In the case of the Russian Su-35, an adversary infinitely more likely to face the F-35 than the Typhoon, the F-35 overcoming the Su-35’s supermaneuverability while dogfighting seems an insurmountable task.

“Su-35 also has thrust-vectoring engines, meaning that it can maintain control and continue to point its nose where the pilot wants even after the wings have stalled (called supermaneuverability) which is a potentially large advantage within visual range and at low speeds.”

Not only does stealth limit the F-35’s mobility, it also limits its capacity for ordinance.

The Su-35 sacrifices stealth to carry more missiles under the wings. The F-35 carries missiles in an internal bay to preserve stealth. Sukhoi

“Typhoon and Su-35 also carry larger missile loadouts than F-35 in normal combat configurations meaning that at close range they have twice as many infra-red seeking missiles to fire at their opponents,” Bronk said.

As Business Insider previously explored, infra-red tracking is key to finding and fighting advanced stealth aircraft like the F-35.

But none of this would be news to the US Air Force, who have intentionally sacrificed dogfighting abilities for stealth and situational awareness. The whole point of the F-35 is to see enemy jets from far beyond visual range and engage them with advanced missiles.

According to Bronk, neither an Su-35 or a Typhoon would see the F-35 until it is very close, at which point the legacy jets are completely at the mercy of the more advanced fifth-gens who can “avoid them, engage them, or position themselves for an engagement entirely on their terms.”

So while an F-35 most likely cannot win a dogfight against a Typhoon or an Su-35, it’s game-changing capabilities at long range all but guarantee it will never have to.

NOW WATCH: This is how pilots train to fly America’s most expensive fighter jets

Early deployment beckons…?

F-35 Marks New Era For Stealth

With thanks to Aviation Week & Space Technology

U.S. Air Force F-35s could deploy in 18 months

Ready for War

It took the Air Force almost a decade to send the F-22 Raptor to a combat zone after declaring the stealth fighter ready for war. But after giving the green light to the first operational F-35A squadron in late July, the Air Force is signaling the fledgling fleet will deploy to fight Islamic State group terrorists in the very near future.

The Air Force’s eagerness to send its shiny new fighter into battle is a marked shift from years past, when deploying the radar-avoiding F-22 to the Middle East was viewed as provocative. But as the U.S. and its allies face a resurgent Russia and the proliferation of advanced weapons that can easily track and shoot down many legacy fighters, the service seems to be casting aside the Pentagon’s historically more cautious use of stealth aircraft.

USAF declared its F-35A ready for war right on schedule Aug. 2

Senior leaders signal the JSF will soon deploy to Europe, the Pacific, and the Middle East

Despite the Air Force’s confidence, the F-35 will not reach full warfighting capability until 2018, at earliest

Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, the chief of Air Combat Command, says he hopes in the next 18 months to send the Joint Strike Fighter to Europe and the Pacific, suggesting that such a move would send a message in response to increasing Russian and Chinese military activity. And if U.S. Central Command asks for the F-35 in the Middle East, Carlisle says he would comply in a heartbeat.

“From my perspective, it sends a good signal,” Carlisle says. “I think it reassures friends and allies and is a deterrent to potential adversaries, so I don’t think it’s a provocative move at all.”

In rolling out the F-35, the Air Force may be taking lessons learned from the Raptor to heart. Although the F-22 entered service in 2005, the jet did not see its first combat deployment until the U.S.-led intervention in Syria in 2014. The F-22’s deployments to the Middle East to fight Islamic State insurgents and to Europe to counter Russian aggression did wonders for its public image. The Raptor is now so popular, Congress has inquired about what it would take to resurrect the production line.

Now as the F-35 comes online, our partners and allies are eager to see the jet in action, Carlisle says.

The current configuration of F-35A aircraft can carry the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, the GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition and the laser- guided Paveway missile. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Madelyn Brown

When F-35s deploy to the European and Pacific theater, this will give our allies and partners confidence in the airframe, Carlisle says. “It will also give them a chance to see it in operation and in interoperability, working with their fourth-generation airplanes,” he adds.

Even though Carlisle lauded the F-35’s performance, the stealthy fighter jet is still immature and has limited capability to actually fight on today’s battlefield. Two U.S. F-35 variants—the Marine Corps’ F-35B and now the Air Force’s F-35A—have been declared ready for combat, but the jet will not be fully operational until it has completed a vigorous testing period that will not begin until August 2018, at the earliest. The initial aircraft will not have its full suite of electronic warfare, data fusion, automated maintenance capability or weapons capacity until the final warfighting software, Block 3F, is fielded in 2018.

For now, the F-35A in its 3i configuration can carry the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile, GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munition and laser-guided Paveway missile. Block 3F will add the short-range AIM-9X Sidewinder missile, Small-Diameter Bomb and main gun system—the 25-mm, four-barrel GAU-22/A.

The gun is key to one of the F-35’s primary missions: protecting soldiers on the ground, also called close-air support. Though a 2,000-lb. bomb is effective in destroying a target, a huge blast is not ideal when enemy and friendly ground forces are engaged in close combat.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s top weapons tester cautions that while it is the Air Force’s decision when to declare the F-35 ready for war, the Block 3i software is limited, and its deficiencies will impact mission effectiveness.

“While the USAF has determined that the F-35A with Block 3i mission systems software provides ‘basic’ capabilities for IOC [initial operating
capability], the limitations and deficiencies in performance for the F-35A with Block 3i discussed in the 2015 DOT&E [Director, Operational Test and Evaluation] Annual Report largely remain and will affect mission effectiveness and suitability in combat,” says Pentagon spokesman Maj. Roger Cabiness.

Still, Carlisle says, the F-35 is equipped to carry out many missions U.S. forces are flying today in the Middle East, including pre-planned airstrikes, interdiction, and defensive and offensive counter air. airstrikes, interdiction, and defensive and offensive counter air. Even without its full potential, the Air Force would have no qualms about sending it into battle.

 Rocket Testsairstrikes, interdiction, and defensive and offensive counter air. Even without its full potential, the Air Force would have no qualms about sending it into battle.

Marine Fighter Attack Sqdn. (VMFA) 121, the “Green Knights” based out of MCAS Yuma, Arizona, will be the first to deploy overseas; in January the squadron flies to MCAS Iwakuni, Japan. Meanwhile, RAF Lakenheath in the U.K. is set to receive its first of 24 jets in 2021. 

“The F-35A brings an unprecedented combination of lethality, survivability and adaptability to joint and combined operations and is ready to deploy and strike well-defended targets anywhere on Earth,” says newly minted Air Force Chief of Staff.

Ed’s note: this all presupposes that those F35 aircraft to be deployed to European airfirces: UK, Austria, Italy et al, will be based in their own countries as well as the USA aircraft. So which Force will have precedence? The US DoD obviously thinks they can do the job better than their European counterparts if they are already announcing deployment from 2018. Surely the home countries defence departments will have greater knowledge of the requirement than the good ‘ole US if A. After all their track record in similar circumstances has not always been good. Comments?



Appearing at an air show near you.

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. 

First F35Bs land at RAF Fairford

So, the first 4 Lockheed F35Bs have flown across the pond for the summer air show season in the UK. They were escorted in by RAF Typhoons, and refuelled in the air. They are to be based at Fairford, a USAF base, for  security, and will perform a flypast at the Farnborough air show in a couple of weeks.

The pity is they won’t be landing at Farnborough to be looked at more closely. A strange decision given that the UK will be eventually buying it is believed over 100 of them. Given the gestation and criticism the F35 Lightening has attracted (especially from this blog), it may have been a PR coup to allow the great unwashed to get up close and personal to this wonderful (?) machine. The UK government are fully committed to the introduction of the F35 into RAF and Royal Navy service and maybe should have insisted on them staying on the ground at the Air show. Perhaps they’ve got other things on their minds at the moment. Or perhaps the paranoid Americans don’t want the risk, however slight, that their equipment will be in any way comprised. Given the amount of money spent on both the F35 and the massive new aircraft carriers coming into service to carry them, I’d have  thought the great British public would want to see where their hard earned money was being spent.Ho hum, roll on the next general election in a few months time.

We can benefit from this….

(With acknowledgement)

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