Aircraft

F-35B: What you need to know about the Lightning jet

The RAF has taken delivery of three brand-new F-35B jets at RAF Marham in Norfolk.

The latest consignment to arrive at the home of the Lightning Force means the UK has now received 30 of the F-35 fifth-generation fighter aircraft.

It means there are now 26 F-35s in operational service in the UK – three test jets are located in the US and one was lost after crashing off HMS Queen Elizabeth's flight deck.

Earlier this year, British F-35 fighter jets took part in a major NATO exercise in the Arctic.

More recently, F-35B jets from the Royal Air Force landed in Estonia to support NATO's enhanced Air Policing mission along the alliance's eastern flank. 

Here's a detailed look at the F-35 Lightning – Britain's most advanced aircraft ever.

How much do F-35s cost?

In March 2020, defence minister Jeremy Quin stated the price of an F-35B was $115m (about £88.8m when using UK Government March 2020 exchange rates), covering airframe and engine cost.

He added that this figure "represents a 24% price reduction from our first aircraft ordered", with the expectation that the "downward trend" regarding the cost would continue.

Specifications

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

Its top speed comes in at 1.6 Mach or 1,200mph – that is 1.6 times the speed of sound – and its maximum thrust tops 40,000lbs.

The jet has a range of 900 nautical miles and a combat radius of 833km.

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

A lift fan mounted behind the F-35B's cockpit allows the jet's short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) capabilities.

Single-seat, single-engine fighters with integrated sensors, the warplanes are used to conduct missions and operations from the Royal Navy's Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.

Unlike earlier generation fighter jets, the Lightning is designed to carry its weaponry internally, decreasing drag and its radar signature.

Depending on missions, the typical armament on the F-35B includes a 25mm cannon, two bays for air missiles, a further two for bombs up to 450kg.

Watch: F-35s take off for their first combat missions from HMS Queen Elizabeth in June 2021.

There are also 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 about 15 pieces of each airframe and Rolls-Royce making the lift fan.

Life on board HMS Queen Elizabeth

The Lightning provides the fifth-generation carrier-strike capabilities to the Royal Navy's two biggest carriers – HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales.

Rather than the traditional catapult launch, the F-35B takes 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 uses forward airspeed, and allows the aircraft to bring back several thousand pounds of extra weight to the ship.

In 2021, F-35s embarked onHMS Queen Elizabeth for the Carrier Strike Group 21 (CSG21) deployment werescrambled a number of times in response to Russian aircraft.

Watch: What is it like scrambling F-35Bs from HMS Queen Elizabeth?

In the earlier stages of the deployment while in the eastern Mediterranean, F-35s were intercepting Russian aircraft almost daily.

The jets were also used to fly combat missions against the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, taking off and landing on HMS Queen Elizabeth.

A British F-35B landing on HMS Queen Elizabeth in August
A British F-35B landing on HMS Queen Elizabeth in August (Picture: MOD).

Who operates the F-35?

The Royal Air Force started using the jets in missions in 2019.

The Lightning Force, made up of RAF and Royal Navy personnel, is based at RAF Marham in Norfolk and oversees operations involving the UK's F-35B aircraft.

According to the Royal Air Force's website, the following British squadrons fly the Lightning fighter jet:

  • 17 Squadron, which is stationed at California's Edwards Air Force Base and has been responsible for operational testing of the UK's F-35Bs since 2014
  • 617 Squadron, the first frontline F-35 unit, also known as the Dambusters, based at RAF Marham in Norfolk
  • 207 Squadron, which is the UK's F-35 Lightning training squadron, also based at Marham

809 Naval Air Squadron, which is due to be stood up in 2023, will be the first Royal Navy formation to fly the F-35.

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

Israel claimed to be the first nation to use the aircraft in a combat situation, while the US conducted its first air strike using the F-35B in 2018.

A graphic detailing the facts and figures behind the UK's F-35 programme
A graphic detailing the facts and figures behind the UK's F-35 programme (Picture: MOD).

Future UK plans for the F-35

The UK has previously planned to eventually have 138 F-35Bs, with 74  of those by 2025.

The 138 figure was clarifiedin 2020 by Sir Stephen Lovegrove as the "upper limit" of how many would be bought, a number reiterated as "perfectly plausible" by Air Marshal Richard Knighton last month.

In March 2021, the Defence Command Paper outlined plans to increase the fleet "beyond the 48 aircraft that we have already ordered".

On 26 April 2022, Air Marshal Knighton told the Defence Committee the MOD are "on contract to deliver 48 F-35B aircraft" and, following the Integrated Review, they have "assumed an increase of a further 26 F-35B aircraft", taking the total fleet to 74.

Air Marshal Knighton, who is Deputy Chief of Defence Staff (Financial and Military Capability) at the MOD, remarked that all 74 aircraft would be operational, but that "about 20%" of them would be "in maintenance at one time".

He added that they expect to build up three operational squadrons consisting of between 12 and 16 aircraft each.

In November 2021, the UK welcomed three more F-35B Lightning jets into the fleet, bringing the total number owned at that time to 24 – 21 based domestically and three stationed in the United States.

It is likely only one Queen Elizabeth-class vessel will be deployed at once, with the other in dock, and with up to two squadrons (around 24 F-35Bs) on an aircraft carrier at one time.