33 RAF F-35Bs will achieve full operational capability in 2025

The Royal Air Force [RAF] currently operates 33 Tranche 1 F-35B fighters. These advanced aircraft are expected to achieve full operational capability [FOC] by December 31, 2025. It’s noteworthy that Great Britain was slated to receive a total of 48 F-35B fighters in Tranche 1, though they have already lost one due to an accident. 

British F-35 fighter jet
Photo credit: Royal Navy

This FOC timeline was recently confirmed by UK Military Supplies Minister James Cartlidge. In a letter to Jeremy Quin, Chairman of the House of Commons Defense Committee, Cartlidge provided valuable insights into the development and operational status of the RAF’s Lightning Force. 

Operationally, the Lightning Force is a key player in London’s NATO contributions, especially in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. The F-35Bs have been conducting long-range missions from Marham Air Base, working alongside Voyager air tankers and integrating with operational units including the RAF Typhoon and aircraft from other NATO nations.

Markham welcomes two new British F-35s, expanding fleet to 30
Photo credit: British MoD

What is London planning for the F-35Bs?

Britain is ramping up the combat power of its F-35B fighters by the end of the decade. The plan is to equip these fighters with the French Meteor air-to-air missile and the Spear 3 air-to-ground missile, enhancing their versatility in various combat scenarios. 

One standout improvement is the integration of Block 4 software, a game-changer for the aircraft’s combat capabilities. This software update will enable the F-35B to carry a broader array of advanced weapons, including cutting-edge air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles. The goal? To make these fighters even more adaptable and lethal in the field. 

South Korean F-35A
Photo credit: USAF

Another major upgrade focuses on the aircraft’s sensor suite. Enhancements to the Distributed Aperture System [DAS] and Electro-Optical Targeting System [EOTS] will offer pilots improved situational awareness and pinpoint targeting accuracy, ensuring they stay one step ahead in any battle scenario. 

The F-35B’s propulsion system is also set for refinements aimed at boosting both thrust and engine efficiency. These upgrades will enhance the aircraft’s performance in vertical takeoff and landing [VTOL] as well as conventional flight operations, making it more formidable than ever.

RAF’s F-35

US is talking about an 'interim' F-35 'between Block 3 and 4'
Photo by Aijaz Rahi / AP

The RAF F-35B is a variant of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, specifically designed for short takeoff and vertical landing [STOVL] operations. This capability allows it to operate from shorter runways and aircraft carriers without catapults or arrest arrestor wires, making it highly versatile for various mission profiles. 

The dimensions of the RAF F-35B include a length of approximately 51.2 feet [15.6 meters], a wingspan of 35 feet [10.7 meters], and a height of 14.4 feet [4.38 meters]. The aircraft’s compact size is optimized for carrier operations and confined airfields. 

The F-35B is equipped with advanced avionics, including the AN/APG-81 Active Electronically Scanned Array [AESA] radar, the Distributed Aperture System [DAS] for 360-degree situational awareness, and the Electro-Optical Targeting System [EOTS] for precision targeting. These systems provide unparalleled situational awareness and targeting capabilities.

British F-35 crashed due to one of the F135's air intake blank
Photo credit: Navy Lookout

RAF’s weapon suit

Technologically, the F-35B integrates stealth features, advanced sensor fusion, and network-centric warfare capabilities. Its stealth design minimizes radar cross-section, while sensor fusion combines data from multiple sensors to provide a comprehensive battlefield picture. The aircraft also supports secure data links for seamless communication with other assets. 

The F-35B’s weapons suite includes a variety of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions. It can carry AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles for air combat, as well as precision-guided bombs like the GBU-31 JDAM and GBU-12 Paveway II for ground targets. The aircraft also has an internal 25mm GAU-22/A cannon for close-in engagements. 

Fuel line may have damaged F135, deliveries stopped, no acceptance flights
Photo credit: Twitter

The operational range of the F-35B is approximately 900 nautical miles [1,667 kilometers] on internal fuel. This range can be extended with aerial refueling, allowing the aircraft to conduct long-range missions and maintain a persistent presence in contested environments.

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