On July 13th Group captain ‘Cab’ Townsend, Lightning Deputy Force
Commander, spoke to members about the RAF F-35B programme. He has a
Harrier background flying GR7s at Wittering, Laarbruch etc, was a
qualified Weapons Instructor and took part in the 1998 Balkans
campaign, the 2005 Iraq war and flew from HMS Illustrious in the Afghan
war. He was also CO of No.1 F Squadron (Harrier GR7) and No. 3 Squadron
(Typhoon). This experience ideally fitted him for his position as Gp
Capt Lightning, the Deputy Force Commander with the responsibility of
generating a war fighting force.
People always want to know the origin of ‘Cab’. Flying a GR7 from Laarbruch he was learning to flight refuel. His first ‘prod’ went perfectly but his second attempt was too slow and the basket was deflected and hit the Harrier’s canopy completely shattering it, turning the aircraft into an open model or cabriolet. After landing safely at Conningsby the name ‘Cab’ was applied and stuck.
Like Joint Force Harrier (“not a marriage made in
heaven”, commented Cab) the Lightning will also be operated as a joint
RAF-RN force. The UK chose the ASTOVL F-35B to operate from the new
Queen Elizabeth class carriers but David Cameron was advised that, in
his government strategic defence review, he should not only withdraw
the Harriers and the Ark Royal but also to change from the F-35B to the
ship-borne F-35C which needed catapults and arrester gear to be
installed in the carriers.
However, the necessary electro-magnetic catapult (the QEs have no
steam for traditional catapults) had been neither designed nor even
demonstrated as feasible and would have been ruinously expensive.
Consequently after a very costly two year hiatus the F-35B requirement
was reinstated. This was a sensible decision as STOVL had been proven
to be essential, not only on Illustrious and Ark Royal, but also at
Kandahar in Afghanistan and other areas with short runways.
The UK is a ‘first tier’ partner with a quarter share in the F-35 design and manufacturing programme which is centred at Lockheed-Martin’s Fort Worth facility at Dallas, Texas. BAE Systems contributed very significantly to the design and development programme and 15% of each $100m aircraft will be UK made, BAES building all rear fuselages and tail units. Rolls-Royce provide the lift fan and other VSTOL items, Martin Baker supply the seats and General Electric, Selex and Suntec are also suppliers.
The UK F-35 team is embedded with the US services in America. There are three RAF pilots, sixty support personnel and three UK aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base with No.17 Reserve Squadron on Operational Test and Evaluation duties. There are UK personnel at Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth, Texas, with its one mile long production line and in the Joint Programme Office in Washington DC. RAF and RN pilots are participating in test flying at Naval Air Station (NAS) Patuxent River, Maryland, and at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS), Beaufort, South Carolina, with USMC squadron VMFAT 501 where there are fifty 617 Squadron RAF and RN personnel, pilots and engineers. At Eglin Air Force Base in the Mission Reprogramming office UK personnel prepares the software for the UK mission systems and weapons. The F-35 is a ‘fifth generation’ fighter. The first generation was the early jets, the second was supersonic with radar and missile armament, the third was multi-role, the fourth had advanced avionics and early stealth and the fifth introduced ‘daily use’ stealth and multiple sensors whose outputs are fused to give the pilot easily absorbed information.
The F-35 has one wide, touch screen to which the ‘fusion engine’ provides a single tactical display derived from the various sensors including a ‘synthetic aperture’ radar (“the best radar in the world”) capable of providing a detailed picture from far off. The information is passed amongst all the F-35s in an attack group and also back to their home carrier. ‘Daily use’ stealth implies that the stealth technologies employed in the F-35 (and F-22) are far more durable than earlier aircraft (F-117, B-2). Nevertheless at RAF Marham there will be a large facility for checking the stealth characteristics of repaired aircraft.
Fourteen countries are in the F-35 programme including: USA, UK, Norway, Australia, Italy, Netherlands, Canada, Turkey, and Denmark. The price per aircraft quoted by Lockheed Martin is $100 million, similar, said the speaker, to the Typhoon. There are 200 aircraft currently flying. The UK has five at present, all operating in the US. In the UK 617 squadron will form at RAF Marham, which is undergoing £500k infrastructure and security update, in 2018 followed by 809 squadron in 2023. The Operational Conversion Unit will form in 2019. All UK squadrons will be joint RAF -RN units. Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) is planned for 2018-19, IOCM (maritime), for carrier operations for 2020/21 and FOC (full) for 2023. By 2017 the UK will have 14 aircraft and 48 by 2024 with a total government authorised buy of 138. The 65,000 ton RN Queen Elizabeth class carriers are the only ones in the world purpose-built for the F-35 and are, said the speaker, “the envy of the US”.
The vote of thanks for this thorough and interesting talk was given by Frank Rainsborough who, commenting on the speakers youthful looks, said he thought it was policemen who got younger as one got older but clearly the same applies to Wing Commanders!