Marham’s F-35 jets ‘ready to fly, ready to fight’
- Credit: Archant
The RAF's new next-generation stealth fighter is now fully operational and ready to take on Britain's enemies anywhere in the world.
Defence secretary Gavin Williamson did not mince his words when he announced that the RAF's new stealth fighter was ready for active service.
He hinted the F-35 Lightning could one day be used to take on foreign powers - as well as defending Britain and its allies in the future from so-called stateless threats like Daesh.
Mr Williamson flew to RAF Marham, where the new aircraft will be based. He met base commanders and personnel in one of the giant new hangars built to house and maintain the £98m jets.
The first nine of an eventual force of 138 arrived last year and have since been carrying out training sorties.
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'We have clear ideas how we want to use the F-35 operationally,' said Mr Williamson. 'We have nine ready to fly, nine ready to fight.'
But he added the Lightning would not be deploying to Syria, to replace the Marham-based Tornados still targeting Islamic State.
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That role be taken on by the Typhoon fighter, after a £425m refurb enabling it to carry the same precision weapons as the Tornado, which is due to retire by the end of March.
Mr Williamson said the Tornado, which entered service in 1979, was 'an amazing aircraft that has inspired so many'.
He said he remembered seeing it flying over his home town of Scarborough as a child.
Tornados have performed duties in Kosovo, Libya, Afghanistan, and more recently against Daesh in Iraq and Syria, where 10 successful air strikes were carried out over Christmas.
Wing Cdr Kev Gatland, Tornado force headquarters chief of staff, said: 'I think everyone is incredibly sad to see the Tornado go but there's a reality that sits behind it that the future generation of aircraft such as the Lightning and the Typhoon aircraft as well really are the future of the next generation of the Royal Air Force.
'Whilst it's tinged with sadness for everyone because so many people have spent so many years, if not careers working, servicing and flying this aircraft the reality is it's time for it to move on now and for the future generation of the aircraft to take its place.'
Some £500m has been invested in Marham, where new hangars, runways and a new command centre have been built for the F-35.
'This gives Britain a cutting edge capability, enabling us to strike our enemies from afar to keep British people safe at home,' Mr Williamson said.
'As the world becomes increasingly dark and the threats become greater who do we turn to to take to the skies to keep Britain safe - the Royal Air Force.'
Mr Williamson said its arrival meant Britain now had 'the most advanced air force in the world'.
He said the world was becoming an increasingly dangerous place, with the country facing state-based threats as well as those from stateless groups. While not naming nations, he said the F-35 brought the capacity to strike 'anywhere in the world'.
'You want people to realise that Britain is a nation that will stand up for itself,' he added.
As well as operating from Marham, their main land base, the F-35s will also be carried on board the Royal Navy's new aircraft carriers the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, which are described as the world's most advanced warships.
Sir Stephen Hillier, chief of the air staff, said: 'I am proud to confirm that the RAF's combat air capability has taken yet another significant step towards the realisation of our next generation air force.
'With its cutting-edge stealth technology, our F-35s are now ready to deploy on operations and, alongside our combat-proven Typhoon, offer a step change in our ability to employ air power around the world.'
As well as 'game-changing' military capability, the F-35 programme is said to support 25,000 UK jobs and bring £35bn to the nation's economy.
Closer to home, it will keep thousands of well paid jobs at RAF Marham, helping to sustain businesses and services like rural pubs and village schools across West Norfolk for at least another generation.