U.K. Reports Success Integrating F-35 into Carrier Operations
Ministry of Defence photo
LONDON — Despite pandemic lockdowns and other hurdles, the United Kingdom is moving quickly toward making its fleet of F-35B joint strike fighters fully operational.
Initial operating capability was achieved in January 2021 and full operational capability is expected in 2023, said Lt. Cmdr. Nick Smith, the pilot in charge of standards and operations at the Royal Air Force’s 207 Squadron, which is the RAF’s operational conversion unit for the Lightning, its name for the F-35B.
As of mid-September, the short take-off and vertical landing aircraft (STOVL) model of the F-35 has carried out some 855 sorties from aboard the HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier, which equates to about 1,700 hours of flight time, Smith said at the Defence and Security Equipment International conference in London.
The Royal Air Force currently has 21 F-35B Lightnings with three more expected to be delivered in October for a program of record that stands at 138 aircraft.
“We are building toward full operational capability maritime, which will be in the next few years, and we intend to be able to deploy potentially up to two squadrons onboard a Queen Elizabeth-class carrier, if required,” Smith said.
The F-35B has been put through its paces in a variety of exercises in the Mediterranean and Pacific areas of operations over the past year, he said.
Smith — who served in exchange programs with the U.S. Navy and Marine aviators for close to nine years — was initially surprised with the aggressive schedule. “I was quite staggered about how many exercises that we were going to undertake, compared to what I was used to seeing with the U.S. Navy,” Smith said.
The process began with the Joint Warrior Exercise off the north coast of Scotland in September 2020 and ended in a certification exercise in the same waters in April 2021.
“Just to recognize the achievement: you’re going to bring a brand new aircraft along with brand new crew — most of which have no experience in maritime operations — and in the space of six months declare readiness. I have to say, when I heard that plan … when I joined the F-35 program — not that I was negative about it — but I thought that is quite a challenge,” he said.
U.S. Marine aviators were brought from the United States to assist in the first and final exercises.
Since April, the carrier strike group has participated in several exercises with a two-fold objective, he said. First was “global visibility, promoting Global Britain, as well as getting as much exposure for F-35 readiness as possible.” Global Britain is the nation’s post-Brexit foreign policy that seeks an outlook beyond Europe.
Atlantic Trident, with U.S forces and the French air force, kicked off an aggressive post-IOC schedule. That was followed quickly by Exercise Steadfast Defender, which was near the north coast of Spain in the Bay of Biscay area. Along with aircraft from Spain, Turkey and Portugal, 16 F-35s from the U.K, U.S. Air Force and U.S. Marine Corps all participated with a primary goal of demonstrating interoperability.
There was “lots of concern in the weeks leading up to it that we could get everything working, and then it worked as advertised. … We’ve got 16 aircraft all in the same network, seamlessly sharing information, which is what the platform is designed for,” Smith said.
In the Mediterranean, the strike force and the Italian air force demonstrated mobile forward air refueling, where an Italian C-130 tanker landed on an austere “temporary” landing strip on a small island to refuel the jet fighters. The U.S. Marine Corps is interested in the capability, but the U.K. has no requirement for it so far, Smith said. Yet it was all part of the learning curve, he added.
Two other European operations followed, one in the Black Sea with U.S. and Romanian forces and a second in the Mediterranean, demonstrating interoperability again with Israeli and U.S. F-35s.
The HMS Queen Elizabeth then sailed into the Pacific near Guam, with the U.K. aircraft jointly operating with U.S. F-35s from the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force.
One goal during the Pacific exercises was to show the ability to defend the carrier strike group using its organic assets such as the F-35Bs and working through the challenges of sustaining operations over a long period of time at sea, Smith said.
Four different squadrons seamlessly linked communications and shared data, he said.
Despite the busy schedule, several port visits and other demonstrations in the Indo-Pacific were either canceled or curtailed due to COVID restrictions, he said.
“However, there was still a reasonable amount of opportunities afforded to get what we determined as important visitors out to the ship and show them … what the U.K. strike group is all about,” he said.
Next, the Royal Air Force/Navy team has been coordinating with two other F-35 customers, South Korea and Japan, to look at integration exercises, Smith said.
South Korea will purchase up to 40 conventional take-off and landing F-35s for its air force and Japan 147 A-models and 42 STOVL B-models.
“We approached  as very much of a crawl, walk, run mentality. I wouldn’t go as far to say that we’re into a run quite yet. I think we’re into the early stages of that,” Smith said.
The main challenge ahead for the F-35B Lightning is building up the force, “not just in terms of the vehicles but in terms of engineers and pilots to fly this aircraft,” Smith said.
Meanwhile, U.K. allies Canada and Finland will decide later this year if they will join the F-35 club, Gary North, vice president of customer requirements at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, said at the DSEI press conference. The F-35’s manufacturer is also in preliminary talks with multiple potential new customers for the joint strike fighter.
“We’ve got great interest here in Europe, [and] not only the competition ongoing with Finland. ... We have interest in three or four other countries that are talking to us right now.”
His comments came as Lockheed had good news to share about the program. New statistics revealed that the cost to fly the aircraft will be coming down in the next five years. Critics frequently point to the F-35’s high cost per flight hour and lack of availability due to maintenance issues such as a lack of spare parts.
Lockheed Martin’s portion of the total U.S. fleet cost-per-hour to fly the plane has come down 44 percent over the past five calendar years, and the company has committed to reducing it a further 30 percent over the course of a three-year contract from fiscal year 2021 to 2023, North said.
A sustainment contract issued by the F-35 Joint Program Office Sept. 14 said the company has committed to bring the cost down to $30,000 per flight hour by the end of the contract in 2023. A slide North showed at the briefing stated that such costs would go down a total of 40 percent over the next five years.
Thirty-nine percent of the operations and sustainment cost per flight hour are from Lockheed Martin, 47 percent from the three U.S. services that fly the F-35 — the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps — and 14 percent from engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney, according to JPO statistics North displayed on a chart.
“We believe over the next five years as these contracts go from multi-year contracts, to hopefully longer lead [performance-based logistics] contracts, that we will be able to drive costs down,” North said.
The program is in the process of shifting from its much maligned Autonomic Logistics Information System to the updated Operational Data Integrated Network. The information gathering system is supposed to track data in-flight and relay information to maintainers on the ground in real time so they know when to carry out maintenance and order spare parts.
“We are all — across the enterprise — absolutely committed to bringing the cost down and the availability up across the lifecycle of the program,” North added, attributing the recent reductions to the maturity of the aircraft, advanced technologies and the speeding up of the supply chain.
North was asked about the deep skepticism among members of the British aviation press that the 138 program of record number would hold up.
“The program of record is the program of record,” North said. “We are well aware of the challenges and the discussions of sustainability and maintainability — from all governments. We’re working very hard to ensure that all governments and all our customers understand our commitment to maintain the program of record.”
When critics point to the program costs, they don’t know the whole picture, he suggested.
“There’s an awful lot [the public doesn’t know about] in the classified environment which is absolutely necessary. We display to deter and we conceal to defeat. So the challenge therein is how to keep everyone apprised of the capability that’s provided to the warfighter,” he said.
North and Smith both stressed the importance of the aircraft in multi-domain joint operations — describing the aircraft as more of a stealthy “quarterback” than a fighter — that can pass along data to other aircraft and lead manned-unmanned teaming, where a pilot controls a squad of low-cost attritable robotic platforms performing a variety of missions.
The concept is being hotly pursued by the U.S. Air Force with its Skyborg program.
“The future of deterrence is network-centric integration. And then if deterrence fails then it’s network-centric operations to ensure that the data flows across fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft, from space to air platforms — both manned and unmanned — to surface and subsurface and integrated down to the individual soldier,” North said.
Topics: Air Power