Under CO Wg Cdr Jim Beck, the RAF’s No.17 (Reserve) Test and Evaluation Squadron (No.17(R)TES), the Black Knights, is based at Edwards Air Force Base, California, as part of the F-35 Joint Operational Test Team (JOTT) which also embodies the USAF’s 31st Test and Evaluation squadron and the USMC VMX-22 Operational and Evaluation Squadron, the Argonauts.
No.17(R)TES is made up from specially selected RAF and RN personnel.
The decision to advance from low rate initial production to full rate
production depends on the results of the JOTT test programme in which
No.17(R)TES has a 10% share.
All the UK flying and training is done under UK sovereign jurisdiction using UK engineering documents under UK military flying regulations. All maintenance and servicing is carried out by the squadron engineering personnel.
Earlier UK flying in the F-35 Integrated Test Force at NAS Patuxent River and with the USMC at, for example, MCAS Beaufort with VMFAT-501, had been under US regulations.
Much of the UK effort is looking at mission
capabilities and tactics and writing the UK tactics manuals and also
developing interoperability procedures for use with the Typhoon. With
Lockheed Martin advice the engineering publications are also prepared
based on the work done by the engineering group.
The ACURL (Australia, Canada and UK programming Laboratory) at Eglin
has 40 people to reprogramme mission data software to suit UK needs.
The squadron will remain long term in the US to maximise the
capabilities of the UK F-35B over its life.
The first UK front line squadron will form at MCAS Beaufort in 2016 and move to RAF Marham in 2018 as No.617 Squadron, the Dambusters. Land based initial operational clearance is planned for 2018 with shipboard clearance for HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2020. The first weapons to be cleared will be the Paveway IV LGB and the AIM-120C-5 AMRAAM.