The UK Prepares for F-35 Expeditionary Operations


By Robbin Laird

Last year, the Dambusters squadron flew from Beaufort Marine Corps Air Station to RAF Marham and began its operational life in the UK.

I have had the chance over the past few years to visit both Beaufort MCAS and RAF Marham as well as RAF Lakenheath and seen both the preparation for and the standup of USMC and RAF/RN squadrons as well as the coming of the USAF F-35s as well.

Already there are more F-35s operational worldwide than the current USAF F-22 fleet.

This means that finally the fifth-generation transformation can be accelerated and pilots and maintainers part of what I have referred to as the “renorming of airpower.”

One of my key guides to the process of change in the UK has been Group Captain Townsend, now the base commander at RAF Marham but also given the transfer of Air Commodore Bradshaw to MoD London, the operating F-35 commander as well.

In earlier discussions with Group Captain Townsend he highlighted the preparation of the UK for the coming of the F-35.

In a visit to the UK in 2015, Group Captain Townsend explained the approach to bringing the F-35 into the UK’s defense force.

Question: You are working the task of bringing the F-35B to the UK in 2018 and preparing for its integration with the Queen Elizabeth.

What role does your engagement with the Marines at Beaufort play in this process?

Group Captain Townsend: We have a pooling implementation agreement or PIA with the Marines.

The PIA formalizes how we’re going to work alongside them. We currently have 14 maintainers at MCAS Beaufort but, by the end of 2018, we’ll have about 242 maintainers.

They are all operating under the U.S. Marine Corps regulations and will be ready to come back to the U.K. and operate F-35 independently in late 2018.

Question: And concurrently, you are building your own infrastructure in the UK to then support your F-35s in the UK?

Group Captain Townsend: That is correct.

It is a massive effort to put in place the UK infrastructure but we are learning significant lessons from other F35 partner nations.

We are conducting developmental test flying, operational test flying and frontline flying all at the same time, something we call concurrency.

We’ve never done that before.

If we hadn’t taken that approach, none of the F-35 operators would be where we are right now.

The Marine Corps wouldn’t be IOC, if they haven’t taken that approach.

And we certainly wouldn’t be thinking about IOC in 2018 if we hadn’t taken that concurrency approach.

Then during a visit to RAF Marham in 2018, we continued our discussion of his perspective on the standup of the force at RAF Marham,

The base at RAF Marham is being rebuilt to operate the F-35 and to shape the transition from Tornado to F-35 as well.

But the challenge is not simply to put in place a 21stcentury infrastructure and to introduce a new aircraft, it is about shaping an integrated base operational system which enables the F-35 to become a multi-domain combat system driving innovation throughout the force.

Group Captain Townsend noted that he was travelling to France shortly and to view the Maginot Line alongside a group of RAF senior leaders.

The point of this was to focus on getting the right warfighting strategy to go with the right technology to deal with 21stcentury adversaries.

“The French built the Maginot Line and the Germans built a force which simply operated around that capability.

“The French had a concept of warfare in 1940 that did not meet the reality of the war they had to fight.

“In the past two decades our airpower has been dominant.

“But we do not want to introduce the F-35 as a replacement aircraft operating within the constraints of the legacy system.

“We need a multi-domain capability to ensure that our adversaries do not simply work around a classic airpower template.

“The challenge is to exploit the F-35 as a lever for broader multi-domain combat innovations.

“What we need to make sure is that people don’t use multi-domain to go around our combat air advantage but rather to evolve our combat air advantage and make it a core part of our own cutting edge multi-domain capability.

“What we need to be thinking about is F-35 being able to work with any system within a  multi-layered combat operation, whether it’s airborne, maritime or land-based.”

Few of the British military have ever seen an F-35.

The pilots and crew for the RAF and the Royal Navy are well regarded in the United States are at the head of their game.

But coming to the United Kingdom will start a process, not simply of operating the aircraft, but generating change across the combat force.

“While 617 Squadron will come to this Station as a formed unit, the rest of the Station is still not yet F-35 savvy.

“In addition to the physical set up of the base to support F-35, there is a broader conceptual development requirement as well.

“The whole station needs to understand why F-35 is different, so they can become part of that supporting team.

“They are key to F-35 2.0 becoming a reality.”

This is especially true when one adds the question of the new carrier and the way the Brits are approaching the pairing with the carrier, a subject which I discussed at length with the Royal Navy when in Portsmouth, which I visited later in the same week in early May 2018.

As the RAF stands up the F-35 at its base at RAF Marham, Group Captain Townsend is clearly focused on F-35 2.0 – how best to leverage the coming of the new system to drive change across the RAF and the UK forces over all.

“We should not overly focus on 4th-5thair systems integration.

“That is too focused on airplanes.

“We need to focus on driving innovation across the combat force as we introduce the new air system.”

And standing up the base at RAF Marham for the F-35 is part of a broader transformation of the RAF.

For example, with regard to building the systems to ensure security for the F-35 as an air system is a trigger to a broader set of considerations concerning 21stcentury security in a cyber conflict age.

“We need to just take a step back and understand what security means in the next generation of capabilities.”

During a visit to the UK in May 2019, we discussed the next phase of integrating the F-35 into the force, namely, preparing for the deployment of F-35 as a an expeditionary force.

Here his focus in earlier interviews on both security and sustainability were highlighted as key elements for its coming deployment to Cyprus and for operating onboard the Queen Elizabeth carrier as part of the preparation for its 2021 initial operating tests.

Recently, senior officers announced this coming deployment to Cyprus in the Fall.

Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier said:

“It is great to see 617 Squadron, the modern day Dambusters, flying the most advanced and dynamic fighter jet in the UK’s history and about to start their first overseas deployment.

“I have no doubt that this short deployment will offer many tests, but likewise I am confident that our highly trained and skilled personnel will rise to the challenge and confirm our ability to deliver truly formidable capability.”

Admiral Sir Philip Jones KCB ADC DL Royal Navy, First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff said:

“This first overseas deployment of these world-beating British F-35B aircraft to RAF Akrotiri, together with their embarkation in HMS Queen Elizabeth for the first time in the Autumn of this year, are important milestones to prove their readiness for deployed operations anywhere in the world in defence of our national interests.”

Group Captain Townsend highlighted that the focus on deployment on Cyprus was not just about getting the air system ready for deployment, but in place an expeditionary eco system capable of supporting the operations of the aircraft.

“While we have moved our planes from Beaufort to Marham we have not moved the MCAS to Marham.

“This means we are undergoing significant learning as we integrate the air system into the UK operational environment. We are learning from the ground up how to support the aircraft,

“In a way the deployment is a bit of a pipe cleaner.

“The deployment is deliberately designed to ensure we can learn the lessons associated with deployability before we’re called upon to go and do it for real.

“And the genesis of this deployment was 3 1/2 to 4 years ago, when r Air Commodore Smyth and I were in the office worked the approach that shortly after initial operating capability we would like to try and get this airplane on an exercise overseas to try and test the sustainability.

“And that’s exactly what we are doing.”

He highlighted two main areas where they are focusing significant attention.

The first picks up on the theme which we discussed last year, namely, the security piece.

“My cyber support squadron are an integral part of a deployable air system.

“We have deployed classified systems abroad before, but the F-35 is a bit different and we are focused on the cyber security required to support the data systems integrated into the F-35.”

The second is the sustainment approach which is built around the ALIS (Autonomic Logistics Information System) or the IT system which supports F-35 sustainment.

The squadron has been focused on integrating ALIS within the UK’s sovereign operational systems as well as working on ways to ensure that it can operate effectively in supporting sustainment.  And the cyber support squadron has been a key part of this effort as well.

He noted that they are taking their deployable tactical trailers to Cyprus to provide for the IT support for the ALIS system.

He argued that “I think ALIS is an incredibly malleable system if you understand the system.

“That’s again the work we’ve been doing over the last 12 months.

“We’ve got some deployable infrastructure that we’re going to take with us and use for the first time.”

Townsend argued: “We need to make sure we can protect F-35 in the right sort of way and as you’ll be aware this is a challenge that we haven’t done before in the same sort of way.”

The Brits are treating RAF Marham as the supply hub to resupply F-35s during the Cyprus operation, but in future they could tap into other F-35 supply hubs in the region as well.

The deployment to Cyprus puts them into an environment where the F-35 global collaboration comes into play with USAF, and USMC or USN, Italian or Israeli F-35s operating in the region as well.

“This comes back to the significant opportunity of operating a common fifth generation platform provides for the UK.

“We will have a significant opportunity to cross-learn and cross operate as the F-35 ramps up in deployed numbers in the region as well.

“Somehting which s being repeated as well in Northern Europe.”

And this expeditionary deployment precedes the 2021 deployment onto the Queen Elizabeth.

“The Dambusters will deploy onboard the Queen Elizabeth as a squadron for the first time this Fall, during operational test period 1.

“How can we best exercise our sovereign operational capabilities with the aircraft onboard our carrier?”

“Last year’s operational tests onboard the carrier were heavily supported by the US Navy and USMC.

“This deployment will be British.

“We will need to operate ALIS onboard our carrier and to ensure an effective ops tempo.

“The ship needs to understand how it’s going to integrate with the air system.

“We need to make sure we get the networks right.

“We need to make sure we get the information flow around the ship working properly.

“And we need to understand the security aspect of the operational eco system.”

Group Captain Townsend sees the flow from the Cyprus deployment to that of Queen Elizabeth as parts of the same learning process.

“There are going to be some similarities and some differences operating in the embarked environment.

“This is true particularly on the maintenance.

“And it won’t surprise you to know that because there are not a large number of people in the UK with F-35 expertise, quite a lot of my people from Marham are going to go onto the ship and try and de risk that first operational test period this Fall.”

He emphasized that the cyber support squadron was a key part of the air system deployability not just in terms of ALIS but in the mission systems area as well.

The aircraft is a unique aircraft in terms of how it handles data, and the squadron needs to be structured in a way that is symmetrical with the operational envelopment of the aircraft.

This is not about taking past practices and applying them to a replacement aircraft; this is about crafting a very different eco system for a very different combat air system.

The working relationship with the Marines will continue to be central as the Marines fly onboard the Queen Elizabeth in 2021 but comet to RAF Marham in 2020 as well.

Here working commonality in the logistics area is a key focal point, especially when operating onboard the new carrier.

“The Marines will come on board  with discrete information systems.

“We need to understand how we are going to work side by side.

“Security will always be an interesting challenge between operating nations.

“I think we know all those areas to focus on and we’ve got another 18 months or so to make sure we get them right.”

“I really do think that what the Marine Corp does and the way in which they operate is very similar to what the UK does as well.

“There is a natural working relationship here which needs to be encouraged and leveraged going forward.”

And on June 25, 2019, the UK MoD announced the initial UK F-35/Typhoon combat operation.

F-35s have flown alongside Typhoon aircraft on operational flights over the skies of Syria and Iraq, as part of the ongoing fight against Daesh, the Defence Secretary has confirmed.

It follows a successful training period in Cyprus, known as Exercise Lightning Dawn, aimed at building capability for the aircraft and supporting elements.

Due to the exceptional performance of the aircraft, pilots, and support staff during this time, it was decided that they were ready to make their operational debut from RAF Akrotiri, alongside the Typhoons.

Speaking at RAF Akrotiri, Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt said:

“The F-35s are the most advanced jets our country has ever possessed and will form the backbone of British air defence for decades to come.

“They have passed every test their training has thrown at them with flying colours and their first real operational mission is a significant step into the future for the UK.”

The first RAF F-35B operational sorties were flown on Sunday 16 June in support of Operation Shader, the UK contribution to the Global Coalition’s counter Daesh mission in Iraq and Syria. The two aircraft conducted a patrol over Syria, and UK F-35s have flown a further 12 sorties since then.

The F-35 is the first aircraft to combine radar-evading stealth technology with supersonic speeds and the ability to conduct short take-offs and vertical landings.

The Lightning force is jointly operated by the RAF and Royal Navy. With the ability to operate from land and sea, the F-35 forms a vital part of delivering a ‘carrier strike’ capability to the UK when combined with Britain’s new Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers.

Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, said:

“This first operational mission for the UK’s F-35 Lightning confirms the impressive progress which we have made in introducing this formidable new capability into service.

“It is testament to the outstanding abilities of our dedicated and highly trained air and ground crew that 617 Squadron has achieved this important milestone so quickly and so effectively.”

Admiral Tony Radakin CB ADC, First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, said:

“It’s great to see our F35B Lightning jets already proving themselves on operations so early in their life cycle, ably demonstrating the fantastic capability these world-leading aircraft offer.

“This Autumn, our aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth will return to the East Coast of the United States to conduct Operational Trials with our Lightning Force, taking this 5th generation capability to the next level as they prove their ability to operate from the sea.

“For decades to come, this exciting new combination of aircraft carriers and F35B Lightnings will provide a potent, globally deployable carrier strike capability, a powerful conventional deterrent and the centrepiece of our country’s expeditionary forces.”

Later in the year, 617 Squadron will embark in HMS Queen Elizabeth for the first time. The UK jets will conduct Operational Tests, alongside 17 Test and Evaluation Squadron, onboard the carrier in the USA during the WESTLANT 19 deployment, proving their capability at sea. This is vital step on the path to the first Carrier Strike Deployment planned for 2021.

The UK currently owns 17 F-35B aircraft with the reformed 617 Sqn arriving back in the UK last year. More jets are due in Britain over the coming years, including the imminent arrival of 207 Sqn at RAF Marham, and there is an overall plan to procure 138 aircraft over the life of the programme.

Image of a Royal Air Force F-35B Lightning, being towed into position ready to be loaded for its first operational sortie. In the late evening of 15 June 2019, 617 ‘The Dambusters’ Squadron were preparing two F-35B Lightnings for their first operational sortie from RAF Akrotiri. This was as a result of the aircraft exceeding expectations on its training exercise Ex LIGHTNING DAWN. The UKs 5th generation aircraft was fitted with the live weapons for the first time in a non-training capacity. Credit: UK MoD

The programme has already generated $12.9 billion worth of orders and at peak production will support thousands of British manufacturing and engineering jobs.

UK Air Component Commander for the Middle East, Air Commodore Justin Reuter, said:

“The pilots, crew and aircraft have exceeded all training objectives since deploying to Cyprus so it was only right that they made the next step on their journey.

“The UK has played a vital role in liberating swathes of territory once subjected to Daesh’s cruel regime, and the deployment of our newest and most advanced jets signals our commitment to the enduring defeat Daesh in Iraq and Syria.”

The Defence Secretary also used the visit to hold a meeting with her Cypriot counterpart, Savvas Angelides, to further bolster bilateral ties.

Editor’s Note: In this article by Australian Aviation the transportable trailers mentioned by Group Captain Townsend are discussed.

Defence has signed a $37.5 million contract with Lockheed Martin Australia to provide the Royal Australian Air Force with deployable mission system equipment, primarily for the F-35A Lightning II.

Lockheed Martin is working with Newcastle-based Varley Group to deliver “transportable, secure and environmentally-controlled” Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS) workspaces to enable connection to ALIS elsewhere in the world. ALIS serves as the information infrastructure for the F-35.

The workspace cabins will also host off-board mission planning systems used by the RAAF’s F/A-18F Super Hornet, EA-18G Growler and P-8A Poseidon aircraft.

“Acquiring these new portable, Australian-made cabins is an important part of our Joint Strike Fighter program, and will mean that our top secret systems and personnel who support our jets on the ground will be securely housed and protected,” said Minister for Defence Industry Christopher Pyne.