Jon Lake – In mid-November the UK took delivery of its 17th Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning aircraft.
The aircraft was the penultimate aircraft in Britain’s initial block of 18 Joint Strike Fighters and was delivered to U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina, where an RAF training element is embedded within the USMC’s training squadron VMFAT 501 (‘Warlords’).
A few days earlier, on 15 November 2018, British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced that the UK would order 17 more F-35Bs for delivery between 2020 and 2022.
“I am delighted to confirm that we are doubling the size of our F-35 force into a formidable fleet of 35 stealth fighters. This is another massive order in the biggest defence programme in history,” Williamson said.
The UK is scheduled to receive its 18th F-35B before Initial Operating Capability – Land (IOC – Land) at the end of the year. By the time IOC (Maritime) is declared in December 2020, the UK is due to have 21 aircraft. December 2020 will also mark the IOC for the UK’s carrier strike capability, with one carrier, one squadron of F-35B Lightnings and one flight of Leonardo AW101 ‘Crowsnest’ airborne early warning and control helicopters.
Captain Jerry Kyd, commander of the new HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier explained that on the carrier’s initial deployment aircraft numbers were likely to be “very modest”, with the air wing fleshed out with helicopters. “A lot depends on how many USMC F-35s come on our first deployment in 2021,” Kyd said.
Some 42 aircraft are expected to be in service when full-operating capability (FOC) is declared in 2023, with 24 available to the front-line while the remaining 18 will be used for training (with at least 4-5 serving with the OCU), in reserve or undergoing maintenance. It was expected that up to 24 F-35Bs would be able to be deployed on board HMS Queen Elizabeth.
The full batch of 48 F-35Bs for the UK are to be delivered by the end of 2025.
The UK is likely to decide on the final composition of its planned force of 138 F-35 Lightnings at the next Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR) which is expected in 2020, with a possibility that the remaining 90 aircraft could be of the F-35A conventional take off variant.
Some believe that the total number of F-35s delivered to the UK will be much smaller, with a yawning $27 billion (£21bn) gap in the UK’s defence spending plans, and with changing exchange rates causing a $394 million (£309m) increase in the forecast cost of purchasing 48 F-35Bs.
Manufacturer Lockheed Martin has dismissed reports of any reduction in the UK order. Peter Ruddock, chief executive of Lockheed Martin UK has said that he is “quietly confident that we will see F-35 being delivered in the numbers that we anticipate for some time to come.”