On January 10 the UK celebrated the new Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning’s official entry into operational service during a ceremony at RAF Marham. The event also provided the opportunity to announce that the latest standard of the Eurofighter Typhoon, armed with new weapons, was also ready to deploy operationally. The UK actually declared Initial Operating Capability-Land (IOC-L) for the F-35B about two weeks before the planned date of December 31. IOC was defined as having nine F-35Bs with trained pilots, weapons, engineering and logistics sufficient to enable them to be deployed on operations from land bases.
UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said, "I won't go into specifics on where they're going to be deployed, but this is a fighting aircraft that is there to be used and to keep Britain safe.” Some reports have suggested that the newly “combat-ready” aircraft would be sent to Akrotiri to participate in Operation Shader, flying missions against Daesh in Iraq and Syria.
Williamson told AIN that, “it is important to make sure that you are using the right airframes for the right types of conflict, and at the moment we have got excellent tools for operations over Iraq and Syria in Tornado and Typhoon. Sometimes the F-35 is not going to be the most appropriate or the most cost-efficient type of fighter to be using in certain conflict zones where there is going to be no real peer-peer threat. And we need to match the type of strike capability we use with the type of threat.”
The UK's F-35Bs are cleared to use the Raytheon UK Paveway IV dual-mode IN/GPS and laser-guided bomb in the air-to-ground role, the Raytheon AIM-120D AMRAAM (Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile), and the MBDA AIM-132 ASRAAM (Advanced Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile) in the air-to-air role.
The UK has taken delivery of 17 F-35Bs, nine of which are now operational with No. 617 Squadron at Marham; three are with No. 17 (Reserve) Test and Evaluation Squadron at Edwards AFB, California; and five are with the joint U.S./UK training unit, VFMAT-501, at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Beaufort in South Carolina. One more aircraft is awaiting delivery, and 17 more have been ordered, from the initial commitment for a first tranche of 48.
The Lightning force will declare IOC Maritime on December 31, 2020, with 21 aircraft able to deploy aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth and with a Paveway IV fitted with a tactical penetrator warhead added to the suite of weapons. In 2021, the UK Lightning Force will embark alongside F-35Bs of the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) for the ship’s inaugural operational cruise. Full operating capability (FOC) for the F-35B is scheduled for 2023, with 42 aircraft.
The Typhoon IOC declaration means that the aircraft is now ready to take over from the soon-to-retire Tornado, adding MBDA Storm Shadow long-range cruise missiles and Brimstone precision attack missiles to their existing Paveway IV dual-mode bombs. These new weapons were added under the £425 million ($546 million) Project Centurion upgrade, which also provided enhanced software and the integration of the MBDA Meteor air-to-air missile.
The RAF plans to use the F-35B and Typhoon in concert, exploiting the synergies between them to counter evolving threats in the contested environments. To facilitate this, the UK plans to achieve MOD Main Gate investment approval for a new AESA radar for Typhoon in the latter half of 2019. This, the so-called Radar 2, will be embodied in 40 Tranche 3 Typhoons.
Williamson welcomed the introduction of these new capabilities at the January 10 ceremony, which was held in the new F-35 maintenance facility at Marham. An F-35B and a Tranche 3 Typhoon in Centurion fit were on display alongside a Tornado GR.Mk 4. A mock-up of the FCAS-TI (Future Combat Air System Technology Initiative) Tempest concept served as a backdrop.