Another milestone in the UK’s F-35 acquisition program was reached this month with the 5th generation fighter making the first five out of twenty planned simulated refuellings from an RAF Voyager tanker. The refuelling trials are being carried out from NAS Patuxent River and will continue through until mid-June by which time the aircraft should be cleared to refuel from all three of the tanker’s drogues (two wing positions and one central fuselage position).
The first trials have been “dry” connections meaning no fuel was transferred between the aircraft but future trials will include “wet” transfers which once complete will help bring the aircraft closer to becoming declared operational with the RAF and then later the Royal Navy. The UK is currently committed to 138 F-35B Lightning IIs which have Vertical/Short Take-off and Landing (V/STOL) capabilities. As well as replacing the RAF’s ageing Tornado fleet the aircraft will also form the backbone of the Royal Navy’s carrier force.
News of the successful completion of the trials comes in the same week that the MoD awarded a £411 million contract to develop a new missile tailored for carriage by the F-35 in British service. Spear 3 is from the same family of weapons as Brimstone which has been proving its worth in Syria and Iraq being carried by RAF Tornado GR.4s and Typhoon FGR.4s. Compared to Brimstone the weapon has a larger warhead, greater range and improved targeting capabilities. Unlike Tornado or Typhoon, the F-35 will have the option to carry the weapon internally thus decreasing its radar cross section which limits an enemy’s ability to detect the aircraft.