With yesterday’s announcement that the UK F-35B Lightning fifth-generation fighter has entered combat, the latest issue of AFM looks at the deployment of No 617 Squadron ‘Dambusters’ jets to RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus.
No 617 Squadron deployed six F-35Bs to Akrotiri on May 21. The official purpose of the six-week Exercise Lightning Dawn was to test the sustainment of the force away from its main operating base at RAF Marham, Norfolk, and enhance its preparedness for its first operational carrier deployment later this year.
Departure of the Lightnings from Marham was marked with a media event at the base – a pair of RAF Voyager tankers supported the jets on their flight to the Mediterranean. The Lightnings completed the roughly 2,000-mile (3,219km) journey to southern Cyprus after a six-hour flight from Norfolk – plus another two hours in the cockpit for pre- and post-flight checks.
The deployment is the first visit to Cyprus by any F-35 aircraft. While in the Mediterranean, the F-35Bs will undertake live weapons delivery and operations in uncluttered airspace. Currently, RAF Typhoon FGR4s are conducting combat missions from Akrotiri, targeting insurgents of so-called Islamic State under Operation Shader. At the time of deployment, MOD officials said that there were “currently no plans” for the F-35Bs to take part in combat.
On June 25, the UK Ministry of Defence announced that Lightnings had carried out their first sortie over Syria on June 16, but dropped no ordnance on what was a reconnaissance mission escorted by Typhoons. Since then, F-35Bs have flown alongside Typhoons on further operational flights over Syria and Iraq, as part of the ongoing fight against so-called Islamic State, the Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt confirmed during a visit to Cyprus. Since that first mission, UK Lightnings have flown at least 12 more sorties.
Speaking at Akrotiri, 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.”
Chief of the Air Staff, ACM 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, added: “It’s great to see our F-35B 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 fifth-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 F-35B Lightnings will provide a potent, globally deployable carrier strike capability, a powerful conventional deterrent and the centrepiece of our country’s expeditionary forces.”
UK Air Component Commander for the Middle East, Air Cdre 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.”
In addition to combat missions and routine training sorties, the UK Lightning Force is taking the opportunity to train with allies in the region to build international interoperability. One example of this was Exercise Tri-Lightning over the eastern Mediterranean Sea on June 25. This was a one-day defensive counter-air exercise involving friendly and adversary aircraft from the US, UK and Israel, operating the F-35A, F-35B and F-35I respectively.
The USAF F-35As flew from Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, the RAF F-35Bs flew from Akrotiri, and the Israeli Air Force F-35Is flew from Nevatim Air Base, Israel.
“Tri-Lightning was an exercise which had been planned for months, and it provided an outstanding opportunity for the squadron to operate and learn from our fellow F-35 community,” said Wg Cdr John Butcher, No 617 Squadron commanding officer. “In addition it allowed us to share and gain valuable experience that we will be able to exploit during future training and potentially operational deployments, whether embedded on the Queen Elizabeth or from overseas air bases.”
The UK currently operates 17 F-35Bs, nine of which are assigned to No 617 Squadron in the UK.