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UK F-35s make combat debut against Islamic State

24 June 2019
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Seen arriving at RAF Akrotiri in May, six UK F-35Bs have followed their planned training deployment with the type's first combat missions in national service. Source: Crown Copyright

UK Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning combat aircraft operating out of Cyprus have flown the type's first combat missions in national service, conducting operational sorties against the Islamic State in the Middle East.

The milestone was announced by the UK Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt during a media event at Royal Air Force (RAF) Akrotiri on 24 June. According to the Ministry of Defence (MoD), F-35B combat operations commenced on 16 June and are ongoing.

Aircraft from the RAF's 617 'Dambusters' Squadron (although staffed with mixed RAF and Royal Navy [RN] personnel) have to date flown 13 armed overwatch missions over Iraq and Syria as part of Operation 'Shader' (the UK's mission against the Islamic State in the Middle East).

This inaugural combat deployment has taken place just six months after the declaration of Initial Operating Capability - Land (IOC-Land) in January, and a month after six F-35Bs deployed to RAF Akrotiri in late May for what was described at the time as a training mission to prepare for future operations away from the type's current homebase of RAF Marham in the UK.

At that time the Ministry of Defence (MoD) said that Exercise Lightning Dawn, as the training mission was known, would not see the aircraft used on Operation 'Shader', but noted that this could change at short notice.

In September 2018 the MoD announced that the nature of the mission against the Islamic State had shifted from attack to armed overwatch and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), and this is reflected in the F-35B's first combat duties, with no weapons having so far been employed. The F-35Bs are operating alongside six Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4s that have been in theatre since combat operations began in September 2014.

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