F-35s flying over England

The supersonic F-35B Lightning II is a single-seat, single-engine fighter with integrated sensors.

A lift fan mounted behind the cockpit allows the jet short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) capabilities. 

The advanced warplanes will conduct missions and operations from the Royal Navy's Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.

In 2018 the jets are due their first trial flight from the carrier’s deck, then by 2020 it is hoped they will reach their full operational capability. Lockheed Martin Corporation say on their website:

“F-35B and the Queen Elizabeth Class carriers will lead the UK’s naval force with pride for the next 50 years.”

the UK’s F-35B Lightning II jets to be flown to the UK
The UK’s first F-35B Lightning II jet being flown to the UK. (Credit: MoD)

How much will it cost?

The overall programme is the most expensive weapons system in military history. An estimated cost from 2015 put the price at £78 million per jet, without engine or electronics.

For everything included, the Lightning IIs come in at a grand total of £190 million.

Who will use the jets?

The Royal Air Force will utilize the jets in missions in early 2018, after the current intense training concludes in the US.

The RAF and Royal Navy pilots from 207 Squadron will return from the training and reform as 617 Squadron, the Dambusters. 

After returning to the UK, 617 Squadron will be based at RAF Marham in Norfolk.

The F-35 programme is being rolled out internationally across the USA, UK, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Norway among others.

Specifications

The jet measures 15.6 metres (51.2ft) in overall length, has a wingspan of 10.7 metres (35ft) and a height of 4.36 metres (14.3ft).

Its top speed comes in at 1.6 Mach or 1,200 mph, that's 1.6 times the speed of sound.

The jets will have a maximum thrust tops 40,000lbs, an amazing range of 900 nautical miles and a combat radius of 833 km.

The Lightning II has a max G rating of 7G which can be compared to the g-force felt in Apollo 16 on reentry to Earth (7.19g).

the first of the UK’s F-35B Lightning II jets to be flown to the UK.
Picture credit: MoD

Unlike earlier generation fighter jets, the F-35B II will carry its weaponry internally, decreasing the drag and its radar signature. 

Depending on missions, the typical armament on the F-35B's includes a 25mm cannon, two bays for air missiles, a further two for bombs up to 450kg. Two wingtip mounds for air to air missiles and four for air to surface or ground missiles.

The jet itself is made by many different companies. The main contractor is Lockheed Martin, with BAE systems making around 15 pieces of each airframe and Rolls-Royce making the lift fan.

The F-135-600 engine has been built by Pratt & Whitney.

HMS Queen Elizabeth
The flight deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth has the ability to transport 40 F35 jets. (Credit: MoD)

Life on board HMS Queen Elizabeth

The Lightning II will provide the 5th Generation carrier-strike capabilities to the Royal Navy’s two new carriers - HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.

Rather than the traditional catapult launch, the F-35B will take off from HMS Queen Elizabeth via the ski jump ramp

The jet is capable of two types of landing - vertically onto the deck, and also through the shipborne rolling vertical landing, which using forward airspeed, allows the aircraft to bring back several thousand pounds of extra weight to the ship.

HMS Queen Elizabeth itself weighs 65,000 tonnes and has a top speed of 25 knots.

Its flight deck is 280 metres long and 70 metres wide, enough space for three football pitches.

HMS Queen Elizabeth with an F-35B Aircraft in the background.
Celebrating British Naval capabilities, a F35B sits on the ski ramp at the naming ceremony of HMS Queen Elizabeth. (Credit: MoD)

Issues

Lockheed Martin, the main American company building the jets, describes its stealth capabilities as "unprecedented".

By design, its advanced materials and other features make it "virtually undetectable to enemy radar".

However, the manufacturer has confirmed that its state-of-the-art communications system cannot link up with older planes.

This means the RAF's F-35 pilots will have to switch to older systems to make contact with the UK's Typhoon fighters, losing their stealth capability and becoming detectable by enemy forces. 

These technology problems could turn out to be extremely costly, with some estimates saying that we could expect delays of up to five years and eye-watering additional costs

While some pilots have raved about the Lighting II and defence experts hinted that there are classified capabilities that warrant the spend, others have condemned the warplanes. 

In 2015, a test pilot revealed that during a dogfight, the advanced jet was unable to manoeuvre and shoot down a 40-year-old F-16 jet. Coincidentally one of the jets the F35b II is destined to replace. 

Royal Air Force Squadron Leader Andy Edgell defended the aircraft saying:

"It is an incredibly, incredibly powerful aircraft and I am not talking about thrust, the capabilities it brings to the battle space - it is incredibly powerful.

"The disappointing thing is I can't share all the details... I do think a lot of the critics would be quietened very quickly."

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