LONDON — Britain is to order a fourth F-35B short-takeoff and vertical-landing (STOVL) fighter next year from builder Lockheed Martin. The aircraft will be the first production-standard F-35 destined for the training fleet, rather than the test and evaluation role being undertaken by the first three aircraft ordered by the British.
Defence Secretary Philip Hammond made the order announcement during the handover of the first of the aircraft at a ceremony at the U.S. contractor’s Fort Worth plant in Texas on July 19. The initial three aircraft were purchased at a cost of nearly 300 million pounds ($469.2 million) for test and evaluation, but the fourth will be used to give front-line pilots their first taste of training on the F-35.
The second evaluation aircraft will be delivered next month and the third is scheduled for handover in early 2013. The latest order will see the fourth aircraft delivered in the 2015-2016 time frame.
The British, the only full-scale international partner in the development of the Joint Strike Fighter, become the first country outside the United States to take delivery of an aircraft.
The fighter will be jointly operated by the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force.
Hammond recently said that although no final decision had been made, the RAF jets were likely to be based at Marham, Norfolk, starting in 2018. Flight trials from the Royal Navy’s new Queen Elizabeth-class carrier will commence at about the same time.
The handover and new order follows a period of near farce when the British government managed two U-turns in quick succession on the variant of the F-35 it intended to operate.
An initial, long-standing decision to go for the B STOVL variant was overturned in favor of the C conventional carrier version, only for the Conservative-led coalition government to change its mind again a few months later when it became apparent that the cost of modifying the aircraft carriers now being built would be prohibitive.
The British have declined to give any information on aircraft order numbers ahead of the next strategic defense and security review, scheduled for 2015.