NEWS FROM DSEI: UK Military Leaders Laud F-35 While on Journey to Learn How to Use It
LONDON — The United Kingdom’s navy and air force will be putting their F-35B joint strike fighters through their paces later this year and pairing them with their newest aircraft carrier.
“We stand today at the dawn of an exciting new era of British carrier strike groups,” said Rear Adm. Martin Connell, assistant chief of naval staff for aviation and carrier strike in the Royal Navy.
The nation has 16 F-35B models in hand and expects another 17 to be delivered next year as part of a planned 138 aircraft buy. The aircraft delivery coincides with the arrival of two new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.
This fall, the U.K. armed forces will conduct operational tests of the F-35 within the HMS Queen Elizabeth’s carrier strike group alongside the United States, Connell said Sept. 10 at the Defence and Security Equipment International conference.
Twenty-first century digital aircraft carriers paired with the 5th-generation joint strike fighter “will serve as strategic assets for the United Kingdom epitomizing strength and ambition and offering unparalleled choice for the next 50 years,” Connell said.
However, the F-35Bs have already seen some action. The Royal Air Force earlier this year deployed six land-based F-35Bs in Cyprus to participate with the United States in Operation Lightning Dawn over Syria.
This year will also mark the first capability demonstrations of the F-35 off the HMS Queen Elizabeth with an eye toward the carrier’s first operational deployment slated for 2021. That milestone will require the strike group to either deploy on its own, or with allies, namely the United States and the Netherlands, Connell said.
“This operational test is a pivotal phase of our capability and a key waypoint to truly being operational at the end of next year,” he said.
“There must be genuine interoperability, which is not an easy task in a 5th-generation era,” he added. “We of course need to adapt how we train, sustain and equip our strike groups."
Air Commodore Paul Godfrey, Royal Air Force head of carrier-enabled power projection, lauded the F-35’s sensors, targeting system and networking capabilities. “That’s what I believe fifth generation is. It is that confluence, the convergence of sensors and the network that it brings to the fight.”
The RAF will be attempting to answer several questions as it continues its tests, especially working out rules of engagement. “We are right at the beginning of a journey,” Godfrey said. He called the aircraft a “catalyst for transformation in the maritime domain.”
F-35 pilots have more information at their disposal than any previous military platform could provide in history, Godfrey asserted. The questions that need to be answered are how much decision-making authority will aviators be allowed to have at the tactical edge, how much will be left to combined air operation centers, and how much information does the F-35 need to send back to commanders?
“We do not need all of the information all of the time. We need the right information in the right time and the right place. That is definitely something we need to work out,” he said.
Godfrey advocated adapting the SPEAR-3 air-to-surface missile for the maritime domain. The MBDA-produced weapon is being assessed by the United Kingdom as a weapon for the Typhoon and the F-35. “It would be an absolute travesty if the SPEAR [capability]-3 came into service and didn’t have a naval target capability,” he said.
So far, the spare parts problem that has plagued the U.S. F-35 program and reduced aircraft availability has not affected U.K. trials or operations, the officers said. There were no issues during the land-based operations on Cyprus, Godfrey reported, however he cautioned that they were still in the early stages of using the aircraft.
The autonomic logistics information system, or ALIS, has come under scrutiny for failing to work properly, resulting in maintenance delays.
“What will be key will be to see how [the logistics system] works with the frontline aircraft deployed with the [HMS] Queen Elizabeth” later this year, he said.
Connell said having the U.S. Marine Corps as a partner in the trials was helpful as far as working out logistics because the Marines had already been operating the aircraft for a few years. “We have already done quite a bit of modeling on that," he added.