F-35s flying over England
Technology

What You Need To Know About The F-35B

The F-35 programme is said to be the most expensive weapons system in military history. So what's all the fuss about?

F-35s flying over England

Two of the RAF's F-35B Lightning stealth fighter jets have taken to the skies over the North Sea as part of Exercise Point Blank.

Aircraft from the British, US and French Air Forces all scrambled together to practise what was described as part of an "insurance policy" against global threats.

It follows F-35B aircraft landed on the deck of the UK's new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth for the first time earlier this year as part of flight trials off the coast of the United States.

The landing was completed by US aircraft, flown by British pilots, while UK jets will land on deck when HMS Queen Elizabeth returns to Britain.

A British F-35B aircraft performed its first vertical landing at its Norfolk home in 2018, while the UK's first variant of the fighter visited RAF Valley earlier this year.

The aircraft arrived at their Marham home for the first time in June, with a further five arriving in August.

F-35B on HMS QE ramp
US F-35B aircraft have been taking part in flight trials with HMS Queen Elizabeth off the coast of the United States (Picture: Royal Navy).

In November, it was announced that Britain would more than double its number of F-35B aircraft after ordering a further 17 of the jets.

Britain plans to eventually have 138 F-35Bs.

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

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

By 2020, it is hoped they will reach their full operational capability. Lockheed Martin Corporation says 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."

F-35 Infographic 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 Lightnings come in at a grand total of £190 million.

Who will use the jets?

The Royal Air Force will utilise the jets in missions in early 2019 after the current 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. 

The squadron will be based at RAF Marham in Norfolk.

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

Israel has 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 on Friday.

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 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).

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 Lightning 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.

Before it began flight trials off the US coast, we went on board HMS Queen Elizabeth to find out what it is like.

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 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."