Introduction: The Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning represents the cutting edge of the Royal Airforce and Royal Navy, bringing advanced air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities on a stealth platform, which allows for persistent and survivable operations.
Background: The story of the F-35 in UK service goes back a long way. The UK had invented radar in the 1930’s, using it to great effect in the Battle of Britain and the Siege of Malta. Due to this, there was also a great understanding in regards to how to decoy and blind radar, in order to protect allied operations, and disrupt enemy operations. This experience would ultimately lead to the development and use of window (chaff) and early forms of electronic warfare. However, there are other means of avoiding radar detection, and that is through the use of specialised RCS reduction techniques in the design, and in the use of radar absorbing paints. An English Electric Canberra was used in trials of the latter, with the intention of using it on the V-Bombers, but such plans never came to fruition. This is likely due to the fact that, at the time of their design, the V-Bombers were already deemed relatively survivable, as they could always fly higher than the interceptor aircraft and AA fire. Once the former could catch up, the V-Force would be replaced by something which flew higher and faster.
The “Stealth Canberra” (image taken from British Secret Projects: Hypersonics, Ramjets and Missiles, by Chris Gibson and Tony Buttler)
However, the shooting down of Francis “Gary” Powers in his U-2 by an SA-2 Guideline surface-to-air missile changed all that. It showed that the enemy radar technology, as well as their integrated defence network, had reached the point that flying higher and faster would not have made much of a difference. This forced a change in doctrine, with high and fast being replaced by high speed at treetop level. The RAF, as well as many other airforces, made do with this, with aircraft like the Vulcan and Buccaneer being used in this role, with specially designed aircraft like the TSR.2, F-111 and Tornado also being developed. However, there was still the need for more survivability, as these aircraft were still detectable by radar, as well as other means. This brought the focus back to stealth technology in the 1970’s and 80’s. The US is now famous for having developed various stealth aircraft, however, they were not the only ones to look into this. The UK was also experimenting with stealth technology, although much of this work still remains classified or obscure.
A 1990’s concept of a stealth aircraft from BAE:
By the 90’s, BAE was beginning to make public certain concept designs, as well as releasing artwork, though most details are still secret, although advanced design work was most certainly ongoing. For instance, in 1995, the Future Offensive Air System (FOAS) requirement was tendered as a replacement for the Tornado GR.4. This was intended to be a family of systems, with various designs including stealth drones, cruise missiles and manned aircraft being designed.
Two manned designs for FOAS:
Across the Pond: At the same time, work was ongoing in the United States on an advanced stealth aircraft to succeed the various types of aircraft currently in service at the time. Studies conducted in the 80’s and 90’s revealed the need for a common aircraft type, which could survive any current and potential threats. It was also necessary to replace the types of aircraft in US inventory, as there was a wide range of aircraft fulfilling different missions, many of which were not deemed survivable in a potential peer-on-peer conflict, ranging from attack aircraft like the AV-8B and A-10, to fighter aircraft like the F-16 and F/A-18. Finally, there was also the need for a smaller stealth fighter aircraft to complement the ATF (YF-22/YF-23), which was undergoing testing at this point, in a similar manner to how the F-16 complemented the larger F-15. By 1995, the Joint Strike Fighter program was created after numerous other programs were merged together, with Britain formally being a part of it by 1997. This gave the UK unprecedented influence on the program, leveraging their experience in the field to the best of their abilities, as they were to become the only “Tier 1” partner in the JSF program.
Concept art for the BAE/McDonnell Douglas/Northrop Grumman JSF concept:
BAE worked together McDonnell Douglas and Northrop Grumman on a design proposal to the requirement. This was beneficial to both sides, as BAE had had previous experience working with MD on the Harrier and T-45 Goshawk, with both sides being able to gain experience from each other. Although this design proposal lost out to the competing Boeing and Lockheed Martin designs, the British would still ultimately have a big role to play in the JSF program, assessing both of the types when it came to the final competition, as well as sharing information which would prove very useful to both companies. The British evaluated both the X-32 and X-35, and ultimately had a say between the two designs.
Additional artwork for the BAE/McDonnell Douglas/Northrop Grumman JSF concept in Royal Navy colours:
Description: The need for a new British combat aircraft came about in the late-1990’s, when it was decided to replace the Sea Harrier FA.2 and Invincible-class aircraft carriers with a new aircraft and fleet of ships respectively. This was initially done under the Future Carrier Borne Aircraft (FCBA) program, which was renamed to Joint Combat Aircraft (JCA) when the RAF joined it to replace their Harrier GR.7/9 fleet. Once the X-35 had been chosen for development as the F-35, the STOVL variant, the F-35B was chosen for operations. With the cancellation of FOAS in 2005, the F-35 also became a replacement for the Tornado. This likely influenced the decision to briefly change to the F-35C in 2010, which gave better range, after the design of the aircraft carriers changed to CATOBAR configuration (as they had had this capability built-in to them in an effort of futureproofing), though this was ultimately reverted. This was due to costs regarding design, maintenance and training for use of catapults, in addition to concerns regarding finances and delays for the new carriers. Additionally, a STOVL aircraft could operate from the vessels of more nations than a conventional type, allowing for greater interoperability with other nations.
Service: The first F-35Bs began arriving in 2013, with No.17 Squadron being formed at Eglin Airforce Base, before moving to Edwards Airforce Base. This squadron was mainly used for test and evaluation purposes. The F-35B made its first ski-jump takeoff in 2015. No.617 “The Dambusters” Squadron became the first UK-based squadron of the type, receiving theirs in 2018, being declared combat ready the following year. No.207 Squadron became the second UK-based squadron, becoming the OCU for the F-35. Both are to be based out of RAF Marham. In 2019, the Lightning saw its first combat use, in the fight against Daesh. That same year, aircraft were embarked on HMS Queen Elizabeth for the first time. The following year, The Dambusters were deployed for their first Red Flag exercise, deploying to Nevada. In 2021, the type was embarked alongside US Marines aircraft during CSG21, which was the first operational deployment of the F-35B from the QE-class carrier. One was lost in a takeoff accident after the lift fan was left covered, with the aircraft falling in the Mediterranean, later to be recovered. In 2022, some F-35Bs were deployed to the Baltic to bolster NATO’s eastern flank after Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine. The type has also been involved in CSG23. The first naval squadron is to be set up in December 2023.
Weapons: The British F-35Bs have slightly different weapons loadouts compared to their American and their other allied cousins. For short-range combat, they are outfitted for use with the ASRAAM, which complement the longer-ranged AIM-120 AMRAAM and Meteor BVRAAM. For air-to-ground use, the Paveway IV is typically used, with standoff capability to be provided by the SPEAR 3 miniature cruise missile, giving the Lightnings a potent standoff capability most other nations lack. Finally, two external 25mm gun pods can be added as standard, with the F-35 being able to carry them, but there is no information as to whether the UK uses them.
- Powerplant: one Pratt & Whitney F135 turbofan rated at 40,000lb st (177.88kN) with afterburning and 40,500lb st (180.10kN) for vertical take-off
- Length: 51ft 2¼in (15.60m)
- Height: 14ft 3½in (4.36m)
- Wingspan: 35ft (10.70m)
- Wing area: 460sqft (42.70m2)
- Maximum take-off weight: around 60,000lb (27,216kg)
- Maximum speed: Mach 1.6
- Combat radius: on internal fuel more than 450nm (833km)
- Maximum altitude: 50,000ft
- Armament: typically two AAMs and two bombs carried internally, with optional 25mm gun pod and underwing pylons enabling stores carriage up to 15,000lb (6,800kg)
- Weapons: ASRAAM, AIM-120C5 AMRAAM, Meteor BVRAAM, SPEAR 3, Paveway IV, JDAM
Conclusion: In conclusion, the F-35B will represent the most advanced capability currently possible for the UK air tree, combining highly advanced air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities on a stealth platform which can integrate and communicate with other assets, using their strengths to the best possible advantage. While way too powerful for now, the rapid rollout of increasingly modern aircraft will eventually mean that aircraft such as the F-35B will eventually be seen in game.
“British Secret Projects: Hypersonics, Ramjets and Missiles” by Chris Gibson
World Air Power Journal, Volume 5, Spring 1991