A British pilot has flown the F-35 Lightning – known in the UK as the Joint Strike Fighter – for the first time. Squadron Leader Steve Long of the RAF flew at 20,000 feet over Naval Air Station Patuxent River, a tributary of Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA. Squadron Leader Long has been based with VX-23 US Navy Air Test and Evaluation Squadron since May 2008. It is encouraging that a British Officer has been working on the project, so the Ministry of Defence should not be buying blind.
Squadron Leader Long said:
“Flying the JSF was exactly like the simulators that I’ve been flying for over 18 months now, which gives you a lot of confidence in all the modelling and simulation work that has been done in all the other areas of flying. This aircraft gives the RAF and Navy a quantum leap in airborne capability. A pilot in this aircraft will have an unprecedented level of situational awareness about what’s going on in the airspace and on the battlefield or ocean below because of its highly advanced sensors. This aircraft will plug into coalition battlefield networks and be able to pass that picture on to all other players.”
The Joint Strike Fighter is due to take over front-line duties from the Harrier, both in the RAF and on the Royal Navy’s Aircraft Carriers in its navalised version. It promises to be a very important aircraft, not only with the capabilities that it will offer, but also in that it will be at forefront of RAF-Navy interoperability. In replacing the Harrier it will also play a key role in close air support, something that is proving instrumental in Afghanistan.
There are fears however that with looming defence cuts the UK will face real difficulties in purchasing the JSF. Not having an aircraft to replace the Harrier or to fly off of the new Aircraft Carriers would leave us at a severe disadvantage. The RAF has plenty of Typhoons for Air Defence, but it also needs ground attack craft too. Typhoons can act as multi-role platforms but that is essentially a compromise and hardly ideal, they have been largely multi-roled as an afterthought.
I’m no expert on the high performance of fast jets, and my opinion probably counts for very little. But… Will the JSF prove to be more important to UK Defence than the Tyhoon? I have a feeling that it will be. My impression is that the JSF will be able to act in air defence better than the Typhoon can in ground attack. There are historical parallels – look at how the Harrier performed far beyond anyones expectations in 1982, against technically superior aircraft.
The JSF is likely to have a tough time in the upcoming Defence Review, however.