Markham welcomes two new British F-35s, expanding RAF fleet to 30

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The operational combat fleet of F-35s in the Royal Air Force has recently expanded to 30, thanks to the addition of two new British F-35s that landed at RAF Markham last week. Currently, the documented number of F-35 fighters in London’s possession stands at 34. However, due to one unfortunate crash and four being devoted to testing in the US, the actual operational count totals 30. According to the plans, Britain is on track to possess a fleet of 47 of these fighters by the end of 2025.  

Photo credit: British MoD

Information gathered from various sources reveals that the British F-35s, right after touching down at the Norfolk, Virginia base, were transitioned to the 207 Squadron operational conversion unit. Here, they were received by the diligent engineers of the squadron. After passing their maintenance checks, these two aircraft are set to soon boost the operational strength of the UK’s F-35B Lightnings. Yet, what raises eyebrows is the delayed announcement of their arrival, which took place on March 16th.

British F-35 in NATO exercise

Photo credit: USAF

Just last week, the F-35B Lightning fighters, part of the UK Carrier Strike Group [CSG], flew back to their native soil after their involvement in NATO’s largest post-Cold War exercise to date, STEADFAST DEFENDER. 

The state-of-the-art fighter jet made its way to RAF Marham from the deck of the HMS Prince of Wales, the leading vessel of the CSG for this multinational drill. RAF Marham is proud to be known as the home base for the F-35B Lightning, a stealth multirole fighter of the fifth generation.

The British “nuclear” F-35s

Photo credit: Reddit

The UK’s F-35 stealth fighter jets play a pivotal role in the country’s nuclear defense strategy. This statement gains immense significance as recent news showcases the successful certification of the F-35 by the US as an official carrier of nuclear weapons. In light of this, with the latest updates from the USA, it’s worth mentioning that London is also channeling efforts to amplify its nuclear capabilities. 

In September of the past year, BulgarianMilitary.com reported that, according to a myriad of Western reports, the US Air Force is deep in the intricate process of restructuring its forward-based nuclear forces within the boundaries of the United Kingdom. The 2024 budget justification package for the service highlights plans to establish a “warranty dormitory” at RAF Lakenheath. 

Significantly, the term “warranty” is frequently encountered within the halls of the Pentagon and the Department of Energy. This term symbolizes the critical duty of upholding the security and safety of nuclear weapons.

Photo credit: USAF

The prospective mission

The report forecasts the launch of the future mission, Surety, to coincide with the establishment of two F-35 squadrons. This prediction includes the development of additional facilities, presumably intended to facilitate nuclear deployment. The proposed timeline for this strategic evolution spans from 2024 to 2026. 

Insightful notations found within the MoD’s FY 2023 budget documentation for the NATO Security Investment Programme explicitly state the UK’s participation. 

The document proclaims, “NATO is concluding a significant thirteen-year, $384 million infrastructure enhancement operation at storage sites in Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Turkey.” The United Kingdom is referenced alongside other continental nations currently holding US nuclear weapons and participating in nuclear weapon-sharing agreements.

The British F-35 is different

The British version of the F-35 fighter jet, officially recognized as the F-35B Lightning II, represents one variant of the F-35 aircraft series with a unique attribute. This specific model is the short take-off and vertical landing [STOVL] iteration, intricately engineered to enable operations from compact runways and dedicated aircraft carriers. 

Photo credit: Twitter

The Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy of Britain utilize the F-35B Lightning II, which contrasts distinctly with the original model, the F-35A. The most significant difference is the STOVL functionality of the F-35B, an amazing feature facilitated by a unique lift system, inclusive of a lift fan, drive shaft, and support struts. This system grants the aircraft the impressive capacity to take off from tight runways and execute vertical landings. 

Another variance in the British F-35B, compared to the standard F-35A, lies in their operational reach and payload-bearing abilities. The F-35B’s range undergoes a slight reduction due to the lift system’s extra spatial requirements, limiting its payload size. However, apart from these variations, the British F-35B shares numerous characteristics with the original F-35A model. Both being stealth aircraft, they are masterfully designed to evade enemy radar. They also boast advanced avionics, using components such as the AN/APG-81 active electronically scanned array radar, and the high-end Electro-Optical Guidance System [EOTS].

Reaching the FOC

Photo credit: UK MoD

In 2023, it had been anticipated that the UK would achieve full operational capability [FOC] for its first two F-35B Lightning II stealth fighter squadrons. Nonetheless, based on the latest data, 2025 now appears to be a more likely timeline.  

This revised timeline became evident in 2022, revealed in response to a printed parliamentary query listed on the Hansard portal, the official record repository for UK government proceedings and declarations.  

This viewpoint was further confirmed when James Heapy, the UK’s Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, announced on September 12 that the FOC of the UK’s F-35B is projected to be achieved in 2025. At this point, the Lightning Force will be able to operationally deploy both squadrons simultaneously.  

Photo by Monica White Martinsen / NRK

Notably, the UK’s F-35Bs are not entirely new to the field. These planes have already been tested in various scenarios, including combat missions in Iraq and Syria in 2019. Nevertheless, full operational capability goes beyond mere action deployment. It is a comprehensive process encompassing the required infrastructure, a competent workforce, and established tactics for effective maintenance and operation.

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