Top British F-35 Pilot On How His Fledgling Team Is Forging Its Own Path Forward

A senior F-35 commander explains the triumphs and tribulations of operating the UK's first stealth fighter.

Jamie Hunter

As British armed forces await the official outcome of the forthcoming government defense review and possible cuts to the UK’s F-35B procurement plans, the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy are jointly gearing up for a massive global deployment that will be spearheaded by the fledgling UK Lightning Force. Group Captain Jim Beck is the current Station Commander of RAF Marham, the home base of the British Lightning Force. He is a pilot who has flown the F-35 during some of its most exacting operational evaluations. Few people are better positioned to understand and explain the intricacies and challenges of growing a cadre of operators and aircraft to form a brand new stealth fighter force. Ahead of the high-profile deployment, Beck sat down with The War Zone to explain some of the critical issues in re-establishing Britain's carrier strike force.

The UK's F-35 Lightning Force will undertake its first sustained operational tasking this spring as it deploys aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth as part of Carrier Strike Group (CSG) for CSG21, a combined operation with the U.S. Marine Corps. A large UK/U.S. complement of F-35Bs will embark the Royal Navy’s new flagship aircraft carrier for an operational deployment that is likely to include periods in the Mediterranean and the Indo-Pacific region.

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British F-35Bs alongside examples from the USMC during the Groupex exercise in 2020.

The CSG21 deployment is a major milestone in the British F-35 program. It is a manifestation of the deep UK/U.S. defense and security relationship, and it represents the rebirth of British carrier strike capability just over a decade after Joint Force Harrier was dramatically axed in 2010. Group Captain Beck has been at the center of the joint Royal Air Force/Royal Navy Lightning Force in recent years, having been the first commander of the UK F-35 Operational Evaluation Unit, No 17 Test and Evaluation Squadron, at Edwards Air Force Base in California. “This is going to be the most potent combat air platform of all time,” he told The War Zone in an exclusive interview.

The UK Lightning Force completed a huge “Groupex” deployment aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth in October 2020, which you can read all about here. It included the U.S. Marine Corps’ VMFA-211 “Wake Island Avengers,” the exact same unit that is planned to return to the U.K. in the spring for CSG21. The Marine unit worked alongside the first British frontline Lightning unit, “The Dambusters” of No 617 Squadron. 

“When I walked through the squadron during Groupex, you couldn’t differentiate who was doing what,” says Group Captain Beck. “The two units were blended together with absolute lethality. In fact, the commanding officer of VMFA-211 said that his squadron was closer to 617 now than they are to any other squadron, due to Groupex. It was the exact same team that will deploy together for CSG21, and that was done by design. It could not have been more successful.”

The success of Groupex led to the Lightning Force declaring Initial Operating Capability for the F-35B in the maritime environment, on schedule, at the end of 2020. During Groupex, VMFA-211 and No 617 Squadron collectively deployed 15 jets aboard the British carrier and trained together in preparation for the larger Carrier Strike Group deployment this year.

Britain's F-35 plan evolves

The UK is the sole non-U.S. Tier 1 partner in the System Design and Development phase of the Lightning II program and its official program of record calls for a total of 138 F-35s. To date, the UK has taken delivery of 21 F-35Bs from Lockheed Martin at Fort Worth, Texas, with 18 aircraft now at Marham, and three attached to No 17 TES at Edwards.

According to Lockheed Martin, Britain’s participation in the F-35 program has resulted in significant economic value to the country. It advertises a headline figure for British industrial involvement that roughly equates to 15% by value of every F-35 produced worldwide, however this figure has been questioned and will be detailed in an independent economic impact assessment by KPMG International Limited. Some of this F-35 work is conducted by British-owned companies that are outside the UK, such as elements of the Rolls-Royce Lift-Fan system used in the F-35B, which are assembled in Indianapolis, Indiana.

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The British carriers use a "ski-ramp" on the bow of the deck to assist the launch of F-35Bs.

To date, 48 F-35Bs have been funded by the British government. The aircraft are being procured under a “block buy” approach through the U.S.-led Joint Programme Office (JPO). The UK has actually ordered 35 aircraft so far, and procurement of the next 13 has commenced, according to a statement in 2020 by Jeremy Quin, Minister of State, Ministry of Defence. “These will be delivered through the “Block Buy 2” program [in production Lots 15-17].”

“The current agreed F-35B Lightning procurement profile will see the UK reach 48 aircraft in quarter four 2025,” Quin added in a written statement in November 2020. “This delivery schedule has been developed to support the F-35B Lightning Force generation build profile and Carrier Enabled Power Projection (CEPP) milestone requirements. In December 2023, when Full Operational Capability (FOC) carrier strike is scheduled to be declared, the Lightning Force will have a total of 37 aircraft which will support two frontline squadrons and the Operational Conversion Unit. The full complement, of 48 aircraft, will be available when the CEPP FOC milestone is reached in 2026.” This figure includes the three test aircraft at Edwards AFB.

Jamie Hunter

One of the three British F-35Bs assigned to No 17 Test and Evaluation Squadron, currently based at Edwards AFB.

It has become increasingly unclear, if not outright unlikely, whether the UK will purchase as many as 138 aircraft, although there is a wide consensus that more than 48 F-35Bs are required to properly equip the two new British aircraft carriers. Indeed, reports ahead of the Integrated Review suggest that the number could be capped at 48. Speaking to a British Parliamentary Defence Committee on December 8, 2020, Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff (Military Capability) Air Marshal Richard Knighton stated: “The 48 aircraft are those that we have ordered and [have] funding set aside for, and are due to be delivered over next five or six years. We know from our analysis that in order to sustain the F-35 capability and the carrier capability we do need to increase the number of F-35s that we buy. And that we will want to do that over the period beyond 2025 when this next batch is brought into service.”

Overall British F-35 procurement plans have butted up against the emerging Team Tempest Future Combat Air System (FCAS) and the preferred means by which to replace the RAF’s Eurofighter Typhoons after 2040. The full analysis of this complex requirement is being undertaken over the next few years, and is regarded as being too complicated and too early in the assessment phase to be included in the forthcoming Integrated Review due to be published by the Ministry of Defence.

“The precise number and the shape of that [F-35B] profile is to some extent dependent on our analysis around the overall Future Combat Aircraft System,” explained Knighton. “So, while we know we need to increase the number of F-35Bs to support the carrier right the way through to its out of service date, the precise number will depend a bit on the work we do and the investment we are making in the FCAS. So we expect to be able to make definite judgments around the total future fleet in the 2025 timeframe. It could be up to the 138, it could be less than that, but we need to do that analysis and that work.”

During a further hearing by the British Parliamentary Defence Committee on February 4, 2021, Air Marshal Knighton went further, stating: “Our expectation is that we will buy more F-35s in the second half of the next decade to improve the capacity.” This suggested the UK may not procure any more F-35s until after 2035! Lockheed Martin currently projects that F-35 production will continue until 2046.

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British F-35Bs aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth in June 2020.

Preparing a stealthy force

Despite having one of the world’s most advanced air arms, the F-35B marks the UK’s first foray into the world of operating a low-observable (stealthy) aircraft. Partnership with the U.S. has been critical, with personnel having been assigned to exchange postings flying American fighters well ahead of the commencement of domestic F-35 operations. Others have been assigned to U.S. Navy units as a measure designed to retain a core of corporate knowledge around maritime aviation operations.

Having an operational test squadron embedded as part of the joint U.S., Australian, and Dutch test team at Edwards AFB has also enabled Britain to stay at the leading edge of capability implementation. It has also been critical to the UK regarding bespoke capabilities and trials that have been required to enable effective integration with the two Queen Elizabeth class carriers — both of which are designed specifically with Lightning Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) operations in mind. 

Getting to the point of deploying for CSG21 has taken a huge amount of effort. RAF and Royal Navy pilots and maintainers initially trained and grew the force alongside the USMC at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina. Meanwhile, RAF Marham was being completely redeveloped as the UK F-35 hub, and it received its first jets from the training detachment at Beaufort on June 6, 2018, as No 617 Squadron “Dambusters” returned to Norfolk.

Jamie Hunter

Part of the brand new F-35 operational facility at RAF Marham.

“No 617 Squadron is still quite a small unit,” says Jim Beck. “We are all about making sure we are a balanced, tuned, force, as we look ahead to Full Operating Capability, which is still a few years away. But these things take so long to grow correctly.”

Availability rates for the F-35 in U.S. service have been under intense scrutiny recently. The 2020 report by the Office of the Director Operational Test and Evaluation said: “'Low utilization rates continue to prevent the services from achieving their full programmed fly rates, which are the basis of flying hour projections and sustainment cost models. For the 12 months ending in September 2020, the average monthly utilization rate for the whole U.S. fleet was 19.6 flight hours per aircraft per month. For the F-35A, it was 20.6 flight hours; the F-35B was 14.6 flight hours; and the F-35C was 23.1 flight hours. This compares to service plans from 2013, which expected F-35A and F-35C units to execute 25 flight hours per aircraft per month and F-35B units to execute 20 flight hours per aircraft per month to achieve Service goals.”

Responding to a question about British F-35B availability rates, the RAF provided the following comment: “The United Kingdom’s Air Vehicle Availability is comparable to other F-35B users at a similar level of maturity, providing sufficient availability to meet our operational, training and force growth outputs.”

Jamie Hunter

F-35Bs under the weather shelters at RAF Marham.

While numbers of pilots tend to be a yardstick to gauge squadron progress, Beck says that it’s the maintainers that are the fundamental factor when it comes to the F-35. “Manning is a challenge because it takes so long to train a full-up engineer [on the F-35]. The engineering evolutions we do on this jet are very different from other fighters. While it’s fifth-generation in terms of its warfighting capabilities, it’s a fundamentally different jet to maintain as well. We simply don't undertake routine maintenance in the same way we used to do it.”

“For example, with a car I know when it will need to go back to the dealer for an oil change, and I can predict when that’s going to happen based on my average mileage. It doesn’t work that way with the F-35. It will cough when it needs something. It adapts, it has smart analysis of its own biometrics.” 

Beck says ongoing analysis of the required manning to support F-35s will “drive” how many aircraft are sent on CSG21. “The calculus isn’t the number of engineers [we send], it’s how we make sure we keep enough quality back at Marham to continue to grow the force while CSG21 is underway.” 

Jamie Hunter

Maintainers greet a pilot returning from a mission.

“When an individual completes an engineering evolution on the jet, he or she will go to ALIS [Autonomic Logistics Information System] and manipulate what they’ve done — add the information and that then forms a data picture, which presents the health status of the jet. A small tweak in one area can generally make a big difference and improvement — from the low observable side to the engine or the undercarriage.” Beck says that it takes at least a year for a new maintainer to be sufficiently qualified and experienced.

Pilot training

No 207 Squadron was established in summer 2019 as the domestic training center for the F-35B in the UK, essentially assuming a mirror role that VMFAT-501 “Warlords” at Beaufort provides. So far, the squadron has graduated the new commander of No 617 Squadron CDR Mark Sparrow, and an Executive Officer, both on crossover courses from other types. In December 2020, the first two brand new students graduated from a full conversion course. “The full course takes around eight months,” explains Beck, adding that more courses are currently underway at Marham.

Jamie Hunter

The British Lightning Force shares a pool of aircraft between No 617 Squadron and the Operational Conversion Unit.

The use of synthetic training is central to the way the UK plans to tutor new aviators and maintain readiness. “On the Lightning Force we no longer use the word simulator,” explains Beck. “It’s fundamentally a mindset change for everybody and the word simulator is actually quite unhelpful, because it’s saying that you are merely trying to mimic the live environment. With this jet, we actually go to war in the synthetic environment and we actually then simulate the synthetic environment in the live environment. In my days on the Tornado, we used the simulator to train for our emergencies, because we couldn’t do it in the live environment. Today, you can take that to all levels of warfare across multi-domains. Synthetic training is becoming increasingly important and the Lightning is at the vanguard of those pushing that mindset.”

“We have to rely on the simulators because there are no two-seat F-35s. Every time a student pilot goes to live fly, or more importantly comes to some of the STOVL activity — which is considered to be the more demanding element of flying — fortunately, the Flight Management Software is the same in the actual aircraft and in the simulator. Our synthetic devices have the same software loads as the jet, particularly in the flight sciences domain. The first time I hovered the F-35B I commended our synthetic environment — it set me up perfectly.”

Jamie Hunter

Group Captain Beck at the controls of an F-35B near Edwards AFB.

The UK purchased four full-motion simulators and four cockpits that are included in two Deployable Mission Rehearsal Trainers (DMRTs). Each DMRT is housed inside an ISO container, with two cockpits per container. The DMRTs feature the same cockpit layout and Flight Management System software as the full-motion simulator, but with slightly reduced visual acuity.

The UK is pushing towards a blend of live versus synthetic training that leans heavily towards time in the simulator. “There are certain things in the live environment that you can’t replicate. G-force, vibration, noise, the smell,” Beck says. “The jet does react differently in the live environment to how it does in the synthetic, we’ve just haven't modeled everything yet. A great example is how 6G affects the sensor systems. As society develops, the synthetics need to adapt.”

Lockheed Martin

Inside an F-35 simulator.

Notably, the Lightning Force has moved away from only using hourly targets as a means to measure proficiency, instead referring to pilots as being “safe to fly” and “proficient to operate.” Explaining how this works, Beck says: “There was a month when I was at Edwards where I didn’t actually fly the jet at all. But I’d “flown” the simulator 16 times. I had never been so proficient to operate. Safe to fly is more about the live environment, so we track both of these factors. We track how safe a pilot is, how many hours they have, and also look at warfighting competency — both in terms of live flying and synthetics.”

High-end training

Large exercises such as Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, have underlined the impressive capabilities of the F-35 and how its pilots need to be stressed in training by suitably potent and numeric opposition. These large-force exercises appear to offer a fidelity of training that still cannot be attained in a simulator. “We have found that when there is a human-in-the-loop, machines struggle to punish people as much as we have found historically in the live environment,” Beck explains.

“A great example is Red Flag when you go up against professional aggressors. Those aggressors will punish any mistakes — they are probably the most capable adversaries we will ever go up against — which is why we go to Red Flag. We have found in the synthetic environment, when you add a human into the Red Air loop, the human dynamic moves everything up a level. It’s something we are really keen to pursue here — not just Red Air modeling, but also having humans in the loop.”

Beck says that the current air-to-air live flying that is conducted from home station is designed to “stretch the pilot on timeline,” essentially having an adversary that puts them under pressure. “In the live flying environment, we carefully orchestrate profiles which validate what we have explored in the synthetic. This isn’t simply free for all warfare — we are carefully exploiting each mission, like experimental test points in the air. If it’s a young student, we will expose them to the maximum number of training points in carefully-orchestrated presentations. Where we add the variation will most likely be in the synthetic environment, because we have to extract the maximum value for money.”

Jamie Hunter

A No 617 Squadron F-35B flies with a USMC example.

“Every presentation is valuable to us, because we have to be so far away from each other to do it. In the Tornado days the engagement ranges were such that you just had to lose sight of the opponent, then turn in and “pull the wings off the jet” — those days are long gone. The F-35 “sees” in its rear hemisphere for tens of miles! So to stress the jet and the pilot you’ve got to use virtually all of the UK’s airspace, so we’ve got to make these measured, calculated, presentations, and that's what we’re doing. It’s not a big, marauding Red Air in a Red Flag-type scenario — it’s actually a bit more scientific than that.”

“The vast majority of the work in this jet is Beyond Visual Range [BVR], but we have a BFM [Basic Fighter Maneuvers, close-range] ability, and we train for it. But with fifth-generation, that’s not the intent. We are so capable at such long ranges, and we will fight to our strengths. 

The UK is at the front edge of pushing synthetics. We are a small force with limited resources and will cut our cloth accordingly. We truly understand the value of synthetics and are really comfortable exploring that environment and pushing it.”

Beck says the Lightning Force is working closely with the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) to adapt synthetic environments rapidly to reflect the contemporary world. “We need to be able to rapidly program what the theater looks like and train in it,” he says. “That’s what the future of synthetics looks like, accurate environmental modeling of what the world looks like in the information domain.”

Jamie Hunter

Group Captain Beck at the controls of an F-35B during his time as Officer Commanding No 17 TES.

CSG21 and beyond.

While the forthcoming carrier deployment is clearly a focus for the British F-35 team right now, Jim Beck is keen to underscore that the Lightning Force is not tied to the carrier. “We are as focused on joint operating bases as we are on operations from the ship. We are capable of doing both, or a hybrid. No 617 Squadron has already successfully deployed on operations from RAF Akrotiri [in Cyprus] and is now preparing for the CSG21 operational deployment. But with the assets we have available as this young force grows, it remains under careful management to ensure we hit our obligations to defense. This will continue to build towards full operational capability, with the further aircraft deliveries from our orders and the creation of a second frontline squadron.”

Official policy around the new British aircraft carriers was to be able to deploy one carrier at any given time, with an ambition to position 36 F-35Bs on a ship. The Ministry of Defence is yet to set an exact date on the establishment of 809 Naval Air Squadron, the UK’s second frontline F-35B unit, however, training enough manpower — particularly engineers — is clearly a critical factor in ensuring the Lightning Force is able to deploy sufficient numbers of aircraft aboard the carriers.

With just 18 F-35Bs currently delivered to RAF Marham, and with some undergoing deep modification work, Beck acknowledges that there are “preferential” aircraft to send to the carrier for CSG21. This clearly has an impact on how many British F-35s will join the forthcoming deployment. He also points out that the UK will operate a single standard of aircraft in terms of rolling upgrades, “no jet will be left behind at the moment,” he says, underlining how precious each individual asset is. 

While much of the current attention within Ministry of Defence circles relates to the level of impact Tempest will have on the British F-35s — the UK will have to wait a long time before any more than the initial 48 jets are ordered and arrive on UK shores, with a stark reality that 48could very well be the total buy.

However, a prolonged procurement strategy shouldn’t come as a huge surprise. The carriers have a service life of 50 years and the F-35Bs are currently the only combat jet able to operate from them.

Infrastructure is also among the most critical factors facing the British Lightning Force right now, as indeed it is for the Marine Corps. “It’s not just about the jets,” Beck asserts. “We also need cyber engineers for example, with the bandwidth required for the access needed to mine and manage data, that’s as important as the jet itself! It’s got to be the whole package, and that’s exactly what we are trying to do.”

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An F-35B on the flightdeck of HMS Queen Elizabeth.

The CSG21 deployment is all about bringing that whole F-35B package together as part of an entire Carrier Strike Group, which includes critical support elements such as the new Crowsnest Airborne Early Warning and Control System, for what looks set to be an impressive deployment on a global scale.

The Royal Navy has recently signed a Maritime Security Arrangement with the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces (JMSDF) as part of a deepening relationship. Indeed, CSG21 is designed to enhance defense relations between the two nations, according to a recent Ministry of Defence news release

Japan is looking to expand its Lightning concept of operations by using its planned new F-35Bs in a similar model to that of the UK, flying them from its two Izumo class helicopter carriers. This too could present a vital partnership for the UK as it seeks to enhance its ability to leverage partnerships with fellow international F-35B operators to maximize interoperability and operational effectiveness of Britain’s new F-35 air combat force.

All told, as the F-35 saga continues to unfold on an international stage, the UK's F-35B emerging force is working hard to control its own destiny, regardless of if it ends up getting anywhere near the airframes it was originally promised. 

Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com