The UK Ministry of Defense has announced and confirmed that its newest F-35B fighter jets 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.
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, but dropped no ordnance on what was a reconnaissance mission. Since that first mission, UK F-35Bs Lightnings have flown at least 12 more sorties.
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.”
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. 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.
No 617 Squadron deployed six F-35Bs to Akrotiri on May 21. The official purpose of the six-week deployment under Exercise Lightning Dawn was to test the sustainment of the force away from its main operating base in UK at RAF Marham and to prepare the the first operational carrier deployment later this year onboard HMS Queen Elizabeth.
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.“