Blighty will have a whopping 24 F-35B jets by 2023 – MoD minister

That'll fill just a third of our new 70,000-tonne aircraft carriers

F-35Bs fly past HMS Queen Elizabeth at Rosyth dockyard, Scotland. Crown copyright
F-35Bs from the RAF and USMC overfly HMS Queen Elizabeth fitting out at Rosyth dockyard. Crown copyright

The UK is “on target” for its new F-35B fighters to reach initial operating capability by 2018 – and will own a whopping 24 of the state-of-the-art jets by the year 2023, junior defence minister Philip Dunne told a briefing at the Royal International Air Tattoo (RIAT) this morning.

Dunne was speaking to a morning briefing at RIAT, which is being held at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire. The UK's sole F-35B made its UK airshow debut at RIAT earlier today.

BAE Systems, whose UK arm makes the rear fuselages for the so-called “fifth generation aircraft” – in defence procurement-speak this means it's the newest expensive thing that militaries simply must buy, old boy – live tweeted snippets of Dunne's speech.

As well as mouthing the usual political platitudes about the F-35 programme sustaining “skills and jobs right across the nation”, Dunne said: “This will allow us, after the US, to be the only other nation to be able to project this capability around the world.”

BAE Systems Air veep Cliff Robson added that 25,000 people will be employed on F-35-related programmes across the UK. The company's website states that it employs around 34,000 people in Great Britain.

A followup speech by Air Commodore Harvey Smyth, the RAF's Lightning Force Commander, highlighted that the F-35 and the Eurofighter Typhoon will operate “hand in glove” and provide a “massively complementary capability”. The Typhoon is the EU-built fast jet which has been in service with the RAF since the mid-2000s, replacing the Tornado F3. As a land-based aircraft the Typhoon's main UK role is to provide air defence, including quick reaction alert (QRA) duties whenever unidentified aircraft – or marauding Russian bombers – enter UK airspace.

Commodore Jerry Kyd, captain of HMS Queen Elizabeth, the 70,000-tonne aircraft carrier from which the Royal Navy's F-35s will operate, also spoke at the briefing. It is important to note that the Queen Elizabeth is capable of carrying up to 36 F-35s in her hangars, though the current plan is for the carriers to deploy with an air wing of just 12 jets.

Thus, in seven years' time, the UK's fleet of F-35s will fill just one-third of the available hangar space in the Royal Navy's new aircraft carrier fleet. Allowing for the usual requirements of training, maintenance and so forth, it looks unlikely that the UK will be able to deploy fast jets at sea in any meaningful number until the mid or late 2020s.

The last time Britannia ruled the waves in her own right was 2010, when the final Harriers – RAF GR9s, rather than RN Sea Harriers, which were withdrawn in 2006 – made their last ever launch from HMS Ark Royal. The occasion marked the end of British fixed-wing carrier aviation for what could be up to two decades.

The UK intends to take delivery of 138 F-35Bs by the end of the 2030s. The two Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, QE herself and HMS Prince of Wales, will enter Royal Navy service in the next couple of years, with QE scheduled to begin her sea trials in a couple of months' time. Flight deck trials with the F-35s are scheduled for 2018.




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