The UK has accepted its first F-35 Lightning II fighter jet from US defence firm Lockheed Martin.
The Joint Strike Fighter aircraft is the first to be handed over to a non-US customer and was partly constructed in the UK by programme partner BAE Systems.
It will form part of Britain’s new fleet of jets that are expected to enter service at land-based airfields in 2018, when they will also begin trials from the UK’s new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, which is under construction.
Defence secretary Philip Hammond formally accepted the jet yesterday at a ceremony in Fort Worth, Texas, where he announced the Ministry of Defence intends to order a fourth F-35 aircraft next year to add to the three already on contract.
‘This hugely capable combat aircraft is now officially British and in the hands of our expert pilots,’ he said.
‘Highly skilled British aerospace workers are also playing a vital role in the delivery of Lightning II with UK companies involved in 15 per cent of the production and 25,000 British jobs sustained as a result.
‘Having taken decisions on the final designs of our new aircraft carriers and balanced the MoD’s budget, we can now proceed confidently to regenerating our carrier strike capability with these cutting-edge stealth combat aircraft.’
Hammond also announced that the jets are likely to be based at RAF Marham, Norfolk, but that no decision has yet been made.
The UK currently has no aircraft that can launch from its sole remaining aircraft carrier, HMS Illustrious, which now operates helicopters only following the retirement of the fleet of Harrier Jump Jets in 2010.
Britain’s new Joint Strike Fighters will come in the F-35B Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) configuration as originally planned, after the government earlier this year reversed its decision to instead order the F-35C variant as its catapult launch system was deemed too expensive.
Fifteen per cent of Joint Strike Fighter work is carried out in the UK and more than 130 British companies contribute to the supply chain. The MoD estimates the programme is worth more than £1bn to UK industry each year and will support around 25,000 British jobs over the next 25 years.
Speaking at the handover ceremony, Lockheed Martin’s chairman and chief executive officer Bob Stevens said: ‘It’s fitting that our first delivery to an international partner is to the UK, because without sustained British innovation over many generations, we would not have an event to celebrate today.’