MARINE AIR STATION BEAUFORT, S.C. — At a U.S. Marine Corps base in South Carolina, newly minted F-35 pilots from the Royal Air Force are making their final preparations for a transatlantic flight that will finally bring the joint strike fighter permanently to the United Kingdom.
But the work won’t stop once the first four jets from 617 Squadron arrive at RAF Marham in early June, or even when another five F-35Bs transfer to the base by the end of the summer. RAF pilots and maintainers will have to hustle to hit a key milestone — initial operational capability — by the end of the year.
The good news is that they will have a head start. The June flight from Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort to Marham is set to happen anytime between June 5 and June 10, weather permitting.
That’s a full two months ahead of schedule, said Wing Cmdr. Scott “Mox” Williams, the U.K.’s senior national representative at Beaufort. Williams has been tapped to lead 207 Squadron, another F-35B squadron, when it reconstitutes in 2019.
“Our base [at Marham] has to be able to take and operate that airplane. So we are at a point now where we believe we can do that,” he told Defense News during a May 17 visit to Beaufort. “And the final thing... that is really driving it all, is that it gives us more time in the U.K. to do that build up to IOC.”
About 120 RAF personnel and 11 of the U.K.’s F-35Bs are currently stationed at MCAS Beaufort for joint strike fighter training. There, both RAF and U.S. Marine Corps pilots learn from the same curriculum, share jets and fly together on a daily basis.
“We train at a very basic F-35 level that’s common across the two services,” Williams said, adding that the only real difference is that U.S. and U.K. pilots will sometimes go to different briefings.
About 40 of the original 160 RAF personnel stationed at Beaufort — including the pilots who will be making the transatlantic flight next month — have already returned to the United Kingdom to get ready for the build up to IOC at Marham.
The pilots will return to Beaufort in late May to refresh their skills on the simulator and do currency flights, Williams said. Finally, the first four F-35Bs will make their flight across the pond, accompanied by an Airbus A330 tanker that will continuously refuel the aircraft.
For both U.S. and international acquisition programs, the milestone of initial operational capability varies depending on that particular country’s requirements.
Williams declined to say how the RAF has defined IOC, but said it involves having a certain number of planes ready to conduct day or night missions in the areas of air interdiction, close air support, suppression of enemy air defenses, defensive counter air and offensive counter air.
During the build-up to IOC, F-35 pilots will fly missions in the full mission simulator as well as in live flights in local training areas. They will also gain experience in working with other U.K. fighter aircraft such as the Eurofighter Typhoon and Panavia Tornado.
But perhaps most importantly, the U.K. pilots will finally have a chance to learn and practice all of the all of tactics unique to the RAF, which will exclusively be taught at Marham ahead of IOC. That makes those extra two months at home station even more important, Williams said.
“Having that six months is great to kind of ramp up the U.K. tactics rather than if you were to wait and do it all in July,” he said. “That would only give us four months to do that workup, which is tight.”
The United Kingdom has committed to buying 48 F-35s, although it has said it will eventually order 138 joint strike fighters.
It will field its F-35B inventory aboard its newest Queen Elizabeth-class carriers, with the first sea-trial aboard the Queen Elizabeth slated for later this year. Those flights will be piloted by RAF test pilots based either at Eglin Air Force Base or Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Williams said.
Britain’s carrier fleet ceased to exist in 2011 as the country retired its Harriers. However, Williams said that experience with other short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing aircraft can at times be a hindrance to pilots learning the F-35 — something the RAF has termed “Harrier baggage.”
“I speak with experience, because I flew Harriers from the U.K. carriers on a number of occasions. A lot of that institutional knowledge is specific to the Harrier, the Harrier’s handling, the Harrier’s performance capabilities and the actual carrier itself,” he said.
“Nobody can treat this airplane like a Harrier replacement. If you do that, you potentially are only going to unlock a very small proportion of its full capabilities.”
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.