By PAUL MCLEARY
WASHINGTON: The UK is ready to start deploying the first batch of its new F-35 fighter overseas the country's top defense official said Thursday, while introducing a slew of new cruise and attack missiles for its Typhoon jets.
The announcement of Initial Operational Capability (IOC) for nine F-35Bs comes weeks after the Royal Navy performed its first F-35 landings aboard the new Queen Elizabeth-class of aircraft carrier, built specifically to accommodate the F-35B. The head of Lockheed Martin UK, Peter Ruddock, noted that the IOC pertains to “land-based aircraft.” That seems sensible given that Joint Strike Fighter operations from the carrier just began. But questions surround the overall health of the UK's military, as it embarks on an expansive modernization program that is facing brisk headwinds in the form of an uncertain withdrawal from the European Union and looming budget shortfalls in the coming years.
On Thursday however, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson stood in front of a hangar full of F-35s and Typhoons at the RAF Marham air base, which has just undergone a major facelift to accommodate the F-35 — including new runways and a training center — to declare a new era in UK power projection.
“The incredible F-35 jets are ready for operations, a transformed Typhoon has the power to dominate the skies into the 2040s and we continue to look even further into an ambitious future,” he said. “The RAF has long shown Britain at its great and global best, and today it lifts our nation to even greater heights.”
Alongside the F-35 were Typhoon jets, soon to be equipped with a slew of new capabilities developed under the three-year, $540 million Project Centurion.
Chief among them is the Storm Shadow air-to-ground cruise missile which boasts a range of 350 miles, the precision guided air-to-air Meteor missile with a 62-mile range, and the air-to-ground Brimstone precision attack missile. All of the missiles are made by Paris-based defense firm MBDA, a joint venture between European defense leaders Airbus, BAE Systems, and Leonardo.
Air Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, chief of the Air Staff, added: “The successful integration of Storm Shadow, Brimstone and Meteor on Typhoon completes and enhances the transition of world-class capabilities” from the retiring Tornado jets, which will “offer a step-change in our ability to employ air power around the world.”
After the HMS Queen Elizabeth makes its first deployment in 2021, it will be followed two years later by the HMS Prince of Wales, bringing to a close a gap in carrier capability that Britain has experienced since retirement of the Invincible and Ark Royal.
Royal Navy officials have said they're eager to get back into carrier operations, which will allow the UK to project power with fifth generation aircraft across the Middle East, Pacific, and in the Arctic, which is emerging as a major flash point as Russia and China rush to push assets north.
The deployments will come as a welcome relief for the US Navy, which is struggling with maintenance on its own 11-carrier fleet. The American ships have been strained over the past 17 years of war in the Middle East and growing tensions with China in the Pacific.
But the uncertainties over Brexit hangs over all of these plans.
“Our nation is moving into a new era outside the EU, and our huge achievements in air capability make our commitment to a role on the world stage clear to both our allies and our enemies,” Williamson said.
The UK's Director for Strategic Planning Will Jessett told reporters in Washington earlier this week that the MoD's ability to pump money into new defense programs will be affected by any deal reached between Britain and the rest of Europe, since their defense industries are intertwined.
“Amongst the reasons we started to face this affordability delta in 2017 were because exchange rates did fall, relative to where they were in 2015,” he said. If we get a [Brexit] deal that's OK, I can imagine, personally, exchange rates not just stabilizing but somewhat improving. If not, it is by definition going to add further pressure into this.”
He hastened to add, however, “that's not what we're planning for at the moment.”
In November, the UK's National Audit Office estimated that the Ministry of Defense's defense plans will exceed allocated budgets by an average of 3.7 percent over the coming decade, which would lead to shortfalls of between $8 billion and $18 billion over that timeframe.