Financial approval for the UK's main procurement of the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF)/Joint Combat Aircraft (JCA) is expected in the next three years, a government minister disclosed on 5 February.
Answering questions in the House of Commons, Philip Dunne, Minister for Defence Equipment, Support, and Technology, said that the financial approval for this main buy, known as Main Gate 5, should be granted in 2017.
"The UK F-35 programme is scheduled to seek financial approval for its fifth and final main gate in 2017. At this point the overall cost of the programme will be published," Dunne noted.
With three main gates already passed (Main Gates 1-3 dealt with overall programme strategy and procurement of the initial operational test and evaluation aircraft), Main Gate 4 for the procurement of the first 14 operational aircraft is set to be approved in the coming days.
To date, the UK has received two operational test and evaluation (OT&E) aircraft (BK-1 and BK-2), and one training aircraft (BK-3). Another OT&E aircraft (BK-4) is expected to be signed for in the coming months. Once all have been delivered, BK-1, BK-2, and BK-4 will transfer from Eglin Air Force Base (AFB) in Florida to Edwards AFB in California later in 2014, where they will stand up as 17 (Fighter) Squadron for OT&E duties (BK-3 will remain at Eglin AFB as part of the wider training fleet).
The 14 aircraft to be procured under Main Gate 4 will be delivered in 2016 and handed over to 617 'Dambusters' Squadron when it is reactivated at Beaufort Pilot Training Center at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Beaufort, South Carolina. At this time BK-3 will also be transferred over to the squadron.
In April 2018, 617 Sqn will transfer its aircraft and personnel back to RAF Marham in Norfolk, UK, and in December 2018 the UK will declare initial operating capability - land (IOC - Land) for its F-35B force. A yet-to-be-designated operational conversion unit is expected to be stood up at RAF Marham in 2019.
The second F-35B unit for the UK has been named as 809 'Immortals' Naval Air Squadron (NAS). Despite their separate Royal Air Force and Royal Navy identities, both 617 Sqn and 809 NAS will be operated as combined units, with a mix of service personnel and pilots.
In 2018, operations from the first of the UK's Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers will commence, with a full operating capability (land and maritime) for the F-35B set to be declared in 2023. A decision on whether both carriers will be fielded will be announced in the Strategic Defence and Security Review [SDSR] in 2015. While the programme of record remains at 138 aircraft, no firm numbers will be announced until the SDSR in 2015.