The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) is close to signing the first contract for Lockheed Martin-built F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter (JSF) aircraft, UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond has revealed.
Hammond was quoted as saying in an interview with Reuters Television during the Munich Security Conference that the MoD will soon place a firm order in a bid to have the first squadron ready to start flying training off the Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier in 2018.
The defence secretary, however, refused to confirm that the contract would cover 14 aircraft citing ''we haven't completed the process, but we will be making an announcement in due course."
Unnamed sources were earlier quoted by Reuters as saying that the UK will soon announce a contract for 14 fighters, which represents the country's first firm F-35 awards since its commitment to acquire 48 of the advanced planes in 2012.
The F-35 B short take-off and landing (STOVL) variant is expected to be ordered by the MoD, which has already taken delivery of three of the four training aircraft.
Currently under development in three variants, including a conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) aircraft, and a carrier version (CV), the F-35 JSF is a fifth-generation multirole fighter aircraft designed to conduct an array of ground attack, reconnaissance and air defence missions with stealth capability.
The British aircraft are scheduled to be jointly operated by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Royal Navy from the Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, which are currently under development, and RAF Marham in Norfolk, UK, from 2018.
Image: An F-35 Lightning II aircraft carries out a vertical landing on a US warship during tests. Photo: © 2012 Lockheed Martin Corporation.