Nine planes from a new fleet of supersonic stealth fighter jets are now ‘combat ready’.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said the RAF’s F-35 Lightning jets are now ‘ready for operations’ as he promised the air force had the ‘power to dominate the skies into the 2040s’.
The F-35 Lightnings will form the backbone of the UK’s combat air fleet alongside the Typhoon jets which have now been fitted with advanced new weaponry.
Under ‘Project Centurion’, worth £425m over the past three years, Typhoons now have the deep strike cruise missile Storm Shadow, the air-to-air missile Meteor and the precision attack missile Brimstone at their disposal.
It means the Typhoon jets have boosted capabilities to intercept airborne missiles and strike ground based targets, taking over from the Tornado’s attack role as it nears retirement after 40 years as the RAF workhorse.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said the F-35 (above) gives the RAF the ‘power to dominate the skies until the 2040s’
The RAF is modernising its fleet as the Tornado reaches the end of its 40-year service
The first of the RAF’s fleet of F-35 Lightnings, a supersonic stealth fighter jet, are now combat ready
The planes cost £120m each, carry two air to air missiles, and can reach speeds of Mach 1.6
The F-35B: factfile
Powerplant: one Pratt & Whitney F135 turbofan rated at 40,000lb st with afterburning and 40,500lb st for vertical take-off
Length: 51ft 2.5in
Height: 14ft 3.5in
Wing area: 460sqft
Maximum take-off weight: around 60,000lb
Maximum speed: Mach 1.6
Combat radius: on internal fuel more than 450nm
Maximum altitude: 50,000ft
Armament: typically two AAMs [air-to-air missiles] and two bombs carried internally, with optional 25mm gun pod and underwing pylons enabling stores carriage up to 15,000lb
New arms for existing fleet
In addition to declaring nine of the current fleet of 17 Lightnings combat ready, Mr Williamson also announce weapons upgrades giving three main options to the current fleet of Typhoon aircraft:
Meteor (air to air)
Meteor is a state of the art, complex, beyond-visual-range weapon which significantly enhances Typhoon’s Air Defence capability throughout the next decade and beyond.
Storm Shadow (deep strike)
A unique capability giving the UK one of the most advanced weapons of its kind in the world. It offers niche battle-winning capabilities and has been employed to great effect by the RAF since 2003. A fire-and-forget, air-launched cruise missile, with a range in excess of 250km, and able to navigate autonomously using GPS and digital terrain profile matching to attack a range of high value static targets, it was one of the primary weapon systems transferred from Tornado GR4 to Typhoon under Project Centurion.
Brimstone (precision attack)
Brimstone provides a combat proven, low collateral, close air support weapon offering the unique capability of engaging a wide range of target types, including fast moving vehicles / vessels in both land and naval environments and in both direct and indirect modes.
At peak production, the F-35 programme is expected to support 25,000 jobs in the UK.
Speaking today at RAF Marham in Norfolk Mr Williamson said that nine F-35s were now ready to be deployed on operations, and that the RAF’s Typhoon fleet has been upgraded with a new weapons system.
It comes as the last of the Tornados, in service since 1979, will be retired by the end of March.
Mr Williamson said: ‘As we bid farewell to the RAF’s first century, we are setting our sights on the next 100 years.
‘Our nation is moving into a new era outside the EU, and our huge achievements in air capability make our commitment to a role on the world stage clear to both our allies and our enemies.
‘The incredible F-35 jets are ready for operations, a transformed Typhoon has the power to dominate the skies into the 2040s and we continue to look even further into an ambitious future.
‘The RAF has long shown Britain at its great and global best, and today it lifts our nation to even greater heights.’
This year F-35 Lightning pilots and ground crew will continue learning how to operate and maintain the jets in a new centre at the airbase with state-of-the-art simulators, where pilots from 617 Squadron will familiarise themselves with the planes.
The Defence Secretary made the announcement in front of four aircraft, including the Tempest concept fighter jet model, which may come on stream in 2035.
Around 150 UK personnel had been working with the F-35 jets in the US before the first batch of the supersonic aircraft came to the UK.
The Tornado, used by the RAF since the 1970s, will be retired from service this year, after decades of active service providing air power Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and beyond.
With upgraded Typhoons and the new F-35s the UK will be flying the world’s most capable combat aircraft for at least 20 years.
The Typhoon is likely then to be replaced by Tempest, the next-generation stealth jet unveiled last July at the Farnborough air show.
In addition to the Typhoon and F-35, the Tempest concept fighter jet model was also on show.
The model, which represents an example of what the UK’s future capability might look like, was unveiled last Summer at Farnborough International Air Show, when the Defence Secretary launched the nation’s Combat Air Strategy to ensure the UK remains a world-leader in the sector for years to come.
A pair of RAF F-35B Lightning stealth jets over the English Channel during Operation Point Blank, which featured aerial capabilities from the RAF, United States Air Force and French Air Force.
(left to right) An RAF F-35B Lightning stealth jet, a United States Air Force F-15 Strike Eagle and a French Air Force Rafale fly in formation over the English Channel during Operation Point Blank
The aim is then for a next-generation capability to have initial operational capability by 2035.
In October the UK had to ground its fleet of F-35s following the crash of a US jet.
The aircraft were examined to see whether they had a faulty fuel tube after the crash of a US Marine Corps F-35B in September.
The jet went down near a military base in South Carolina on the same day the first F-35B jets landed on the HMS Queen Elizabeth- the pilot managed to eject to safety.
The MOD said at the time ‘Safety is our paramount concern, therefore the UK has decided to pause some F-35 flying as a precautionary measure while we consider the findings of an ongoing inquiry.
‘F-35 flight trials from the aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, are continuing and the programme remains on schedule to provide our armed forces with a game-changing capability.’
The MoD is expected to declare the fleet is ready to meet the ‘resurgent threat’ from Russia
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has described the F-35s as ‘formidable fighters’
The RAF has 15 of the planes, has allocated money for more than 40, and pledged to buy 138
The Lightning’s arrival has not been quick and easy
The delivery of the first of the RAF’s new, US-built F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter in July marked a rare moment of celebration in what has been a troubled project.
The ‘fifth generation’ fighter aircraft is the world’s most expensive weapons system, though costs have finally stabilised at an eye-watering $406billion.
Manufacturer Lockheed-Martin agreed to cap costs after US President Donald Trump critised the project and even tweeted support for a rival aircraft.
Britain is currently embarked on a £9.1billion programme to purchase 48 of the F-35s, from American aviation giant Lockheed Martin, by 2025.
America enticed its Nato and other allies into sharing the cost of the aircraft by offering input into manufacture and 15 per cent of each one is comprised of parts from British companies while some of the jets will be made in Italy.
But the planes have been plagued by a catalogue of problems which have sent costs soaring.
The planes have been beset with technical difficulties and Parliament has slammed the MoD for not revealing the true cost of purchase
There are fears about shortcomings in the technical systems underpinning the new generation of war planes will leave them unable to function properly.
The true cost of the British planes is estimated to be over £150million each to cover ‘extras’ such as software upgrades and spare parts.
There are also concerns plane’s software system is vulnerable to cyber-attack and cannot be tested independently by the UK.
The weak broadband on the Royal Navy’s principal aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth hampered the jet’s abilities in test flights last year.
The reports into the costs and other problems prompted the Defence Select Committee to launch an inquiry into the project. It reprimanded the Ministry of Defence for keeping parliament and the public in the dark about the costs.
The MoD has so far refused to provide the estimated cost to the UK of buying the F-35, beyond referring to a National Audit Office which used teh £9.1billion figure.
The planes are fitted with stealth technology but have been outmatched by older craft in test dogfights
MPs said ‘it is simply not acceptable for the MoD to refuse to disclose to parliament and the public its estimates for the total cost of the programme’.
Though the cost of the F-35 has been the focus of attention, there have also been embarrassing reports of operational shortcomings emerging from the United States.
In a mock air battle in 2015, the cutting edge plane was defeated by an older generation F-16, a plane designed in the 1970s.
Last year Pentagon tests found 276 different faults in jet’s combat system.
They included the 25mm cannon vibrating excessively and problems with the he aircraft’s ‘virtual reality’ helmet
Overheating, premature wear of components in the vertical tails and vulnerability to fire were also found to be issues.
The US Air Force temporarily grounded dozens its F-35 stealth fighters while it investigated an oxygen supply issue.
The Marine Corps, who also operate the same F-35B model the UK has purchased, was forced to ground its planes after flaws were found in the computer system.