RAF Marham F-35B Lightnings are taking part in their first operational exercise at RAF Lakenheath as they continue their progression to initial operating capability.
U.S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles from the 48th Fighter Wing, have been training with British F-35B and Typhoon aircraft as well as French Rafales for exercise Point Blank at RAF Lakenheath, UK, this week.
Point Blank is the name of a recurring LFE (Large Force Exercise) designed and cohosted by the Royal Air Force and the 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath. Historically, these drills have involved a limited number of assets in a smaller scale and regional level exercise. However, iteration 18-3 is the largest Point Blank ever, that nearly doubled the aircraft which attended the previous editions and the addition, for the first time, of the French Air Force.
The exercise sees the participation of both 4th and 5th generation fighters, reconnaissance and rescue aircraft, launching from multiple locations across the UK, including KC-135 Stratotanker refuelers assigned to the 100th Air Refueling Wing, RAF Mildenhall, and a British Voyager from RAF Brize Norton.
The goal of Pont Blank is to prepare warfighters for a highly contested fight against near-peer adversaries by providing a multi-dimensional battlespace to conduct advanced training in support of US, UK, and French national interests. In particular, the exercise provides a low-cost initiative designed to increase the tactical proficiency of participating air forces stationed within the United Kingdom and Europe.
According to the U.S. Air Force in Europe, the UK airspace is uniquely suited for training due to its geographic proximity to multiple U.S. and RAF installations, thereby allowing the majority of the units involved with the exercise to operate out of their own bases. Additionally, the combination of both overland and overwater airspace allows Point Black staff to create realistic simulations of topographies that our forces are likely to operate in during wartime contingencies.
Two 617 Sqn F-35B Lightning jets are also attending the exercise along with more than 40 aircraft from the RAF, the United States Air Force and the French Air Force. The aircraft are deployed from RAF Marham, East Anglia, UK, home of the British F-35 STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant fleet. The first four aircraft arrived in June 2018, five more arrived on August 3. This month, an order for a further 17 F-35s was announced.
According to the RAF the exercise gave British F-35 pilots an opportunity to continue to develop procedures to integrate 4th and 5th generation fighter aircraft, and it is also another step towards the initial operating capability (IOC) from land bases, expected by Dec. 31.
Dealing with the F-35B, British test pilots flying U.S. jets with the Integrated Test Force at NAS Patuxent River, Md. are currently involved in the first of two First of Class Flight Trials (Fixed Wing) phases, performing a variety of flight maneuvers and deck operations on board HMS Queen Elizabeth to develop the F-35B operating envelope for Britain’s newest aircraft carriers. As part of the trials, on Oct. 13, an F-35B STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant of the Joint Strike Fighter performed the first Shipborne Rolling Vertical Landing (SRVL) on the flight deck of HMS Queen Elizabeth. BAE Systems test pilot Pete “wizzer” Wilson, achieved the F-35B’s first real SRVL touching down at about 40 knots and decelerating to a standstill in about 175 feet.
“This particular exercise is different to any ones that we’ve done previously because of the threats that are out there. It’s the first time we’ve done a peer exercise and that we’ve worked alongside French and US partners,” Wing Commander John “Butch” Butcher, the officer commanding 617 squadron, said.
“We can see the environment is changing, we can see the challenge that Russia is giving to the international rules-based order so we are the insurance policy and we are recognising that through the scenario that we’ve got, the non-permissive environment, and our ability to operate with our allies, the French and the Americans, is paramount. It really is a case of us staying ready so that we can be used if we’re needed. It’s a great insurance policy.” Air Commodore Jez Attridge, RAF Joint Force Air Component Commander, explained in an official Royal Air Force release that highlighted once again the attention to Russia, especially considered the growing tensions with Ukraine around Crimea.
By the way, last month, RAF Lakenheath hosted a Large-Force Dissimilar Air Combat Training, integrating joint service as well as 4th and 5th Generation capabilities. U.S. Air Force F-22, F-15C, F-15E and Navy F/A-18E/F jets took part in the exercise that one of the biggest military drills the 48th Fighter Wing ever hosted.
U.S. Air Force F-22 Raptors assigned to the 1st Fighter Wing out of Langley Air Force Base, Virginia along with U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets assigned to Carrier Air Wing One and deployed from the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman, temporarily deployed to Suffolk to conduct large-force Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) exercises with the local-based F-15E Strike Eagles and F-15C Eagles.
Noteworthy, RAF Lakenheath will also host some F-35s in a few years: the base is to become the first permanent international site for American F-35s in Europe, with the first aircraft arriving in 2021. A first contract, worth 160M GBP was recently signed to prepare Lakenheath for the role with the construction of a flight simulator facility, a maintenance unit, new hangars and storage facilities.