The UK’s expected full operating capability (FOC) date for the initial two squadrons of F-35B Lightning II stealth fighters has been confirmed as likely to be reached in 2025, representing a departure from timelines discussed as early as last year.
As the sole tier one partner to the US-led F-35 programme, the UK has been closely aligned with the build effort and has a commitment to acquire at least 74 of the aircraft, although this figure has dipped significantly from the 138 airframes set as the initial upper limit.
However, responding to a written parliamentary question in the UK Government Hansard portal on 12 September, UK Minister of State for the Armed Forces, James Heappey, stated that UK F-35B FOC “is expected in 2025 at which point Lightning Force will be able to operationally deploy both squadrons concurrently”.
In February this year the UK Government, in response to a Defence Committee report, stated that the F-35B would reach FOC in 2025. In 2021, senior defence officials speaking at the DSEI trade show in London stated that 2023 was the planned FOC target.
It was also revealed that 809 Naval Air Squadron is due to stand up “in quarter two of 2023”, according to Heappey. The first frontline UK F-35B unit, the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) 617 Squadron, stood up in 2018.
An under-strength 617 Squadron deployed onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2021 for the inaugural deployment of the Royal Navy’s new carrier, with the air wing augmented by F-35Bs from the US Marine Corps. During the deployment, one F-35B from 617 Squadron crashed during take-off, sparking a scramble to recover the airframe to prevent it falling into Russian hands.
It had been stated earlier in 2022 that the UK would acquire an attrition replacement airframe to bring its F-35B fleet back to strength, which was again confirmed by Heappey. However, the US has announced a pause to the delivery of F-35 fighters to international customers due to concerns that Chinese-made parts have been used in key systems, raising the possibility of a potential security breach.
Global reach of the F-35
The F-35 is the world’s most mature fifth-generation platform, with several hundred already having been delivered to customer in the US, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific region.
According to programme prime Lockheed Martin in 2021, a rebaseline effort would see 151-153 aircraft delivered in 2022, followed by 156 in 2023. The UK is to receive six F-35Bs in 2022 and seven in 2023, although it is not known how the schedule could be impacted by the recent suspension.
The F-35 has been widely adopted by NATO countries and US allies around the world, having never lost a competition in which it was permitted to enter. Recent wins include Finland, Switzerland, and Germany, which will join other current or planned European operators including Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, and Belgium.
It was revealed at Farnborough International Airshow earlier this year that Lockheed Martin officials had tentatively agreed the production schedules for Lot 15-17 of the F-35 programme, a key milestone that would see elements of the Block IV upgrade integrated into the new airframes. The Block IV upgrades are seen a vital to increasing the capabilities of the fifth-generation platform.