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When the F-35B Lightning II enters service with the RAF and Royal Navy from 2018 it will represent a significant advance in the situational awareness of pilots and their ability to interpret commander’s intent. It will reduce dependence on reach-back capability to a Combined Air Operation Centre and/or support from large, vulnerable intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance assets such as E-3D AWACS or Rivet Joint. This will significantly enhance operational flexibility and survivability in heavily defended airspace which will boost the UK government’s options in certain crisis situations.
Within the scope of the initial two squadrons of F-35Bs that the UK has committed to purchase in the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review, the most effective use of the aircraft is likely to be as a survivable intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance enabler in defended airspace to enhance the lethality, flexibility and survivability of legacy platforms such as the Typhoon and the Type 45. Whilst the F-35 will have the inherent capability to perform such a role, the rest of the UK’s armed forces need to be set up to take advantage of this. If seamless interoperability is reached, the F-35 will allow these legacy assets to operate against targets and in areas which otherwise would be too heavily defended – either by providing targeting data in real time for stand-off munitions or by supressing key defensive nodes to provide a window for the main force.
If the UK military modernises its cross-platform connectivity, data processing, exploitation and dissemination capabilities, and concepts of operations, the F-35 and the military instrument as a whole will be vastly more capable and efficient. If it does not, the UK will not only be wasting a significant part of the F-35’s potential capabilities, but will risk degrading interoperability with the US and other partners who have progressed further in their thinking on information and network-centric warfare. The latter term is one which has been around for decades and has never delivered on its promises. With the F-35 entering service in the USMC and around the world soon after, it is becoming a reality.