Russia will be watching as first F-35 Lightnings touch down at Marham
- Credit: Ian Burt
Russia will be watching Norfolk with interest when the new F-35 stealth fighter arrives at RAF Marham, the Lightning Force commander has said.
Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced that the multimillion-pound warplanes will start touching down at their new home next month.
It comes after a £250m investment in the base, with new runways, hangars and a command centre bringing 1,200 construction jobs.
The supersonic aircraft have been based in America since their manufacture, being tested and used for training by Royal Air Force and Royal Navy pilots.
Describing the moment the F-35 jets will arrive at Marham, Lightning Force commander Air Commodore David Bradshaw said it will be a 'hugely significant' moment.
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Asked how the presence of the jets may be received by Russia, he said: 'I am sure they are watching with interest, the F-35 is an enormous programme - over 3,000 aircraft (are being built) through the life of the programme.'
F-35 Lightning aircraft are also set to start arriving in countries including Norway, Denmark, Holland, Italy and Australia, as well as other allies and partners.
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Air Commodore Bradshaw said: 'The Russians will be watching us.
'But they will be watching many others as well. Obviously the growth of the capability in the US is a significant factor also.
'I will be intrigued to know whether they'll be looking at us with any special view, but clearly the increase in capability that F-35 brings is a fundamental moment for us all.'
The UK is embarked on a £9.1bn programme to buy 48 F-35s by 2025 but has pledged to eventually purchase 138.
Air Commodore Bradshaw revealed that nine of the jets will be in the UK by the end of July or early August.
He said the first arrival is likely to involve four of the jets as they 'tend not to go anywhere in anything less than a pair'.
With a long flight across the Atlantic expected, Air Commodore Bradshaw said that an air-to-air refuelling aircraft would be used as the jets fly home.
He added: 'Coming home early does open up a number of opportunities, but my real focus is making sure we get those aircraft across the Atlantic and back to Marham in a safe manner, and then we will take stock and build from there.
'To get UK F-35 aircraft back to the UK means we transition from a programme into a force and that will grow in capability over the years to come.
'But placing the aircraft at RAF Marham is a real marker of that - we are transitioning to what was being called the next generation, it now becomes the new generation. I am really excited by that prospect.'
By the end of the year, 617 Squadron, which was recently officially stood back up for the F-35 jets, will declare initial operational capability from land, Air Commodore Bradshaw said.