Penny Mordaunt, the UK’s Secretary of State for Defence, revealed during a visit to RAF Akrotiri that the service’s F-35Bs had been undertaking operational missions over Syria and Iraq since June 16. By June 27 14 operational sorties had been flown alongside Typhoons as part of Operation Shader, the RAF’s contribution to the anti-Daesh coalition operations.
Six F-35Bs from the joint RAF/Royal Navy-staffed No. 617 Squadron were deployed to the base on Cyprus from May 21 as part of Exercise Lightning Dawn. At the time the deployment was intended only as a training and evaluation exercise, but due to the speed at which this was accomplished, it was decided that the aircraft and crews were ready for operational sorties. “They have passed every test their training has thrown at them with flying colors, and their first real operational mission is a significant step into the future for the UK,” said the minister.
“The pilots, crew, and aircraft have exceeded all training objectives since deploying to Cyprus, so it was only right that they made the next step on their journey," said the UK Air Component Commander for the Middle East, Air Commodore Justin Reuter. “The UK has played a vital role in liberating swathes of territory once subjected to Daesh’s cruel regime, and the deployment of our newest and most advanced jets signals our commitment to the enduring defeat of Daesh in Iraq and Syria.”
As part of the deployment RAF aircraft also participated in a one-day exercise on June 25 that brought together F-35s from three different air arms, also representing the only nations that have used the aircraft operationally to date. Exercise Tri-Lightning involved RAF-35Bs, U.S. Air Force F-35As flying from Al Dhafra in the UAE, and F-35I Adir aircraft of the Israeli Air Force flying from Nevatim air base. The combined force conducted “Blue Air” defensive counter-air missions against a variety of “Red Air” adversaries over the eastern Mediterranean Sea.
The remainder of 2019 is a busy period for the UK’s F-35B force. The Akrotiri detachment is due to return to RAF Marham in July, and during the month the operational conversion unit, No. 207 Squadron, is expected to move into the base from MCAS Beaufort in South Carolina, from where it has been conducting training missions alongside the U.S. Marine Corps.
In the fall UK F-35Bs are due to undertake operational trials aboard the carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth as the vessel undertakes Exercise Westlant 19 off the U.S. East Coast. This will involve the embarkation of No. 617 Squadron for the first time, alongside personnel from No. 17 Squadron, the test and evaluation unit. The first carrier strike deployment is planned for 2021.