It has been revealed that Full Operating Capability for the UK Lightning Force has been delayed by 2 years. Here we look at how UK F-35s numbers are building up, issues that impact the pace of aircraft delivery and how this affects the carrier air group generation.
The trope the Royal Navy has “aircraft carriers without any aircraft” continues to do the rounds as both ships have been seen at sea in 2022 with almost empty decks. There are of course more than 20 F-35B jets already in British hands and ready to equip the carriers but their availability is constrained by several factors that are beyond the control of the RN. Effectively the entry into service of the ships has been achieved approximately on time while development of the fixed-wing air group is behind schedule. 8 UK aircraft embarked on HMS Queen Elizabeth for a 9-month global deployment last year and jets will again be onboard for another operational deployment on the Baltic this Autumn. Until HMS Prince of Wales suffered a mechanical breakdown, the RN was in the fortunate position of having two active aircraft carriers. Normally the RN will have just one carrier at sea or at high readiness and it should be remembered that full operating capability (FOC) for carrier strike is not due to be declared until December 2023.
Backing a winner
The F-35 continues to be controversial, criticised as expensive, delayed and continually failing to meet all its performance targets. Despite the army of naysayers, more nations keep on signing up to buy F-35 simply because the alternatives and adversary aircraft cannot come close to matching its capabilities. Switzerland and Finland are the latest countries to sign up to a programme that is expected to eventually deliver over 3,000 jets worldwide. 15 nations have now placed orders, 9 of them have declared IOC, the US, UK and Israel have already employed the jet on combat missions and another 7 nations are interested or in negotiations to buy. Pilots who have flown the aircraft are very enthusiastic and fully understand what a leap forward from ‘4th generation’ fighters the F-35 represents. The continuing problems with the aircraft relate mostly to software development, maintenance logistics and production schedules.
US Congress has not yet allowed LM to formally move from Low-Rate Initial Production (LRIP) to Full Rate Production (FRP). The ‘Milestone C’ decision had been due by March 2021 but is still pending completion of the final phase of operational testing of the F-35. The main hurdle left to overcome is the development of the highly sophisticated Joint Simulation Environment (JSE), the only option besides actual combat, to fully test the F-35 against modern threats in realistic virtual mission scenarios. To some extent the FRP decision will be symbolic, 142 F-35s were delivered in 2021 and production will rise to 156 jets a year by 2023.
Moving to the right
Besides the wider programme issues, from a UK perspective, the F-35 fleet is growing more slowly than anticipated mainly because orders have been spread out and delivery is behind schedule. Although there had been much speculation it would be delayed, it was confirmed recently that the second frontline F-35 unit, 809 Naval Air Squadron will stand up in 2023 but it will take 2 years before it is deployable. The FOC delay means the Lightning Force will not now be ready until in the second quarter of 2025, at which point both squadrons should be able to deploy concurrently. The expectation is that an operational squadron will comprise 12 aircraft but that has not been formally confirmed.
Project Anvil at RAF Marham concluded in 2018, delivering purpose-built buildings, vertical landing pads, hardened aircraft shelters and resurfaced runways and taxiways to support F-35Bs. Additional aircraft shelters and infrastructure will be needed soon as aircraft numbers grow but Anvil Phase 2 has yet to commence.
The well-publicised problems with the semi-privatised Military Flying Training System (MFTS) are not really a factor in growing the Lightning Force. (A new deal signed in 2021, theoretically will give MFTS capacity for 53 students per year, from 2024 onwards but time will tell if this level is realistic.) For now, at least, there are experienced pilots available to convert to the F-35, especially following the retirement of the tranche 1 Typhoons. The bigger challenge is that the build-up of 617 Squadron has been prioritised ahead of providing instructors and aircraft for 207 Squadron – the Operational Conversion Unit. The OCU currently has limited capacity to qualify pilots on the F-35.
Data from the US fleet shows that overall F-35 availability has improved slightly but is still below the target of 65%. Individual deployed units could sometimes meet 80% of aircraft rated as mission capable but were not able to manage this on a sustained basis. The balance between UK aircraft in the sustainment fleet and the forward fleet will be a very significant factor in how many jets are actually ready for operations from the carriers and elsewhere. Availability figures for UK aircraft are not in the public domain but in the best case scenario can be assumed to be similar to the US and it’s unwise just to extrapolate using typical figures from other aircraft types. It is vitally important that LM drive down the time the jet must spend undergoing maintenance.
The date for completing delivery of the UK’s first tranche of 48 jets had already been pushed right by a year, out to the end of 2025 even before COVID slowed production in the US. Having received just 7 jets in the two previous years, 4 jets arrived in 2021 instead of the planned 6 jets. Two jets have been received this year so far with 3 more expected before the end of 2022. The shortfall should be made up somewhat next year with up to 7 expected in 2023. At the time of writing, the UK fleet stands at 26 jets (3 of which are testing aircraft based in the US) and there should be 36 by the time carrier strike FOC is declared.
If the F-35 had delivered on the early promises of the JSF to provide numerous affordable aircraft through economies of scale, the government fudge that replaced the Harrier and the Tornado with a single aircraft type would not have mattered so much. The UK Lightning Force is committed to both generating carrier air groups and conducting land-based air policing and strike missions. Trying to ride two horses at once, the slow-growing, single operational squadron is over-stretched and inevitably cannot yet provide adequate numbers of jets for either task. Only time will improve the situation as more jets and pilots arrive. The second tranche of 26 aircraft, to be delivered in the late 2020s, will eventually bring the UK fleet up to a total of 73 aircraft.
|001||ZM135||LRIP 3||07/2012 (OEU US)|
|002||ZM136||LRIP 3||10/2012 (OEU US)|
|004||ZM138||LRIP 7||02/2016 (OEU US)|
|018||ZM152||LRIP 11||07/2019 (Lost 17/11/21)|
|036||ZM170||LOT 15||2023 (TR-3)|
Delays come with some benefits in that aircraft from LOT 15 and later will have hardware updates under the Technology Refresh 3 (TR-3) programme. These include a new L3Harris [LHX] integrated core processor and memory unit, 25 x the power of the current system and capable of running the future Block IV software upgrades. TR-3 also includes upgrades to the Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS), an improved Electronic Warfare processor and new receivers plus the Distributed Aperture System (DAS), which provides a 360º view to the pilot, including through the fuselage, via the helmet and a panoramic cockpit display.
If the UK decides it can afford to retrofit Block IV capability for its entire tranche 1 fleet, at an estimated cost of around £22M per aircraft, it would total more than £1Bn for all 48 jets. The software update is a critical requirement, needed to integrate the UK F-35’s two most potent weapons, SPEAR-3 and the beyond-visual-range Meteor air-air missile.
Very complex software lies at the heart of the F-35, used to integrate sensor data, both internally and with other aircraft, and deliver weapons. The staggering technical and management challenge of writing, validating, and debugging that software is now the F-35 program’s biggest single issue. Although there will only be subtle external differences, TR-3 combined with the block IV software represents a major upgrade to the aircraft, harnessing computing developments made in the last decade. The cost of these two parallel projects has risen to around $15Bn with international partners contributing over half. The size of the effort has seen calls in the US for it to be treated as a separate Major Defense Acquisition Program. Block IV development was halted for eight months in 2021 because of multiple problems with the software and funding issues. Now re-baselined, delivery of Block IV software will be 3 years late and unlikely to complete roll-out before 2029.
The Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) which manages F-35 spares and maintenance has consistently underperformed and maintainers have had to use workarounds to keep jets flying. A complete replacement system based on modern computing foundations – the Operational Data Integrated Network (ODIN) will be available to support aircraft that have received the TR-3 hardware package, beginning with Lot 15 in 2023. Earlier F-35s will, at least initially, have to continue with ALIS version 3.5 which is currently receiving new software patches approximately every 3 months.
Ominously, LM say that Lot 15 will see the unit price rise for the first time due to the effects of the pandemic, supply chain disruption and rising inflation. The British Pound has again weakened significantly against the US Dollar in the last two months which will push the price up further if it remains this way in the longer term.
The MoD has published its interim report into the first F-35 loss suffered by the UK. ZM152 crashed into the sea on take-off from HMS Queen Elizabeth in November 2021. It confirms the cause was an engine blank (a cover used to prevent ingress of water and debris) that engineers failed to remove before flight. For the passage through Suez Canal the previous day, all F-35Bs on the flight deck had protective Red Gear fitted which included engine intake blanks. A local accounting procedure was in place, but this was not used for the mass fitting and removal of Red Gear during the Suez transit. Unable to take in enough air, the engine could not attain enough power for take off but it was too late to abort. The pilot ejected safely, landing on the flight deck without even getting wet. The aircraft was recovered from the sea bed in good time and has subsequently been returned to the UK. The airframe has been written off, but some parts can probably be salvaged for re-use.
The loss of a jet costing around £90M due to such basic human error is hard to comprehend and many keyboard warriors are blaming the pilot for failure to conduct a thorough enough visual inspection himself before taking off. It has been suggested that the blank had possibly been dislodged and pushed deeper into the intake where it would have been hard to see. More about the precise circumstances and how procedures will be revised will doubtless be available when the full report is published in future. Although a mistake by RAF 617 Squadron, it should be remembered that an RN pilot commanded the unit at the time which numbers RN personnel among its engineers. Accidents are an inherent part of fast jet aviation and carrier operations carry additional risk. The USN also lost an F-35 to a landing mishap on USS Carl Vinson in January and an F/A-18 blown off the deck of USS Harry S Truman in July 2022.
In December 2021 the first US Airforce F-35A aircraft arrived at RAF Lakenheath where they will be permanently based, 11 jets had arrived by July 2022. While the UK Lighting Force struggles to build up mass, Britain can be thankful for the presence of American F-35s from the 495th Fighter Squadron which will total 52 aircraft by 2024 ready to defend the skies of Europe. Including the substantial US presence and the jet’s procurement by many NATO nations it is estimated there will be around 600 F-35s in the European theatre by 2040.
In summary, while the F-35 is supremely capable and has huge future potential, the UK Lighting Force has to contend with slow deliveries, a very small cadre of experienced pilots, delayed and expensive upgrades, mediocre availability and diverse demands for its employment.