It is expected that the UK will build a front-line fleet of four F-35 squadrons with each squadron having 12 jets. A fifth unit, an operational conversion unit, will also operate 12 aircraft.

The structure of the Lightning force is now somewhat clear.

  • 17(R) Squadron is currently based at Edwards Air Force Base in the US and fills role of F-35B Operational Evaluation Unit.
  • 617 Squadron will be based at RAF Marham and will be the first operational British F-35 unit in 2019.
  • 809 Naval Air Squadron will also be based at RAF Marham.
  • 2 more unnamed frontline Squadrons are to be established.
  • 1 Operation Conversion Squadron will also be formed.

This information comes from Air Cmdr. Harvey Smyth, the commander of the U.K.’s Lightning Force, as told to reporters at a conference in London.

In 2015, the UK government’s Strategic Defence and Security Review confirmed a planned order of 138 F-35s, with 23 of them to be available for carrier duties by 2023.

The UK will have an operational fleet of around 63 aircraft which is less than half of the total number of F-35’s that the UK has agreed to purchase

However, as reported by AviationWeek, Smyth pointed out that “the total number would cover attrition replacements and the so-called sustainment fleet, which is defined as additional aircraft required to sustain the fleet to its out-of-service date as well as to cover maintenance. Other UK combat aircraft also have large sustainment fleets.”

The programme is progressing at a steady rate with the Royal Air Force recently starting in-flight refuelling clearance trials of its Voyager tanker with the F-35.

The F-35B’s maiden deployment is set for late 2017 and it’s bound for the Western Pacific. The jet will deploy aboard an amphibious flattop and the US Marine Corps are planning a more powerful escort force to support it, according to Admiral Scott Swift, head of Pacific Fleet, as reported by the Marine Times.

The F-35B has already flown from American assault ships as part of a series of tests, which largely went well.

Additionally, F-35 unit costs have been going down with each successive lot of aircraft and will continue to do so.

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Seems a sensible number, considering that we will realistically only be using 1 carrier at a time for anything other than flag flying. During peace time, i guess one squadron on one of the carriers and the other 3 based in the UK. Should things get a bit more serious, then 1 squadron on each carrier as a show of force or in the extreme case 4 squadrons maxing out one carrier. It is just a shame that we built such big expensive carriers and yet won’t really equip them anywhere near their potential. It puts things in perspective when… Read more »

David Stone

To be honest, we have a track history of building good but expensive ships then failing to equip them to their potential

John Stevens

Four Squadrons sounds ok to me… I think with the mix of aircraft on the uk carriers they will be well suited to the uk needs. With a surge of aircraft there would be a similar amount of jet’s compared to the Charles de Gaulle if not a few more in numbers.. But i think it’s a very good option also to be able to fly Apache helicopters and up to 900 marines.. Multi-purpose carriers, a potent force.. Look forward to seeing them down in Portsmouth.

Martin Symes

I think we will need 6 squadrons, with Tornado being phased out we will need more aircraft unless you think 6 squadrons of Typhoons is enough to defend the realm?


Tornado’s aren’t anymore ideally suited for QAF type roles, so we are already relying on the Typhoons for this duty.

The question has to be, considering maintance etc, will we have enough jets to surge a carrier, if needed. If not then we have a white elephant of a carrier and should have built smaller carriers and replaced Ocean.

John Stevens

uk will actually have 7 squadrons of Typhoons, but i can imagine the older Typhoon squadrons will be retired as more F35’s come into service. I think the uk will maintain 9 fighter squadrons plus a increased armed drone force for many years to come after seeing this news, perhaps 5 Typhoon and 4 F35 squadrons in the years to come. Not sure though if the uk will have more than 9 fighter squadrons, it’s possible, that force should just about cover the uk needs. I think the uk will need to maintain around 200 jets and armed drones (protector)… Read more »

John Stevens

update: I think with 4 squadrons of F35’s the uk could do a surge of aircraft on a carrier, with 63 F35’s they could put 24 F35’s on one carrier possibly a bit more i would of thought..


Surge capacity is 40 odd jets i believe, which would only ever be needed in the event of a major war like falklands mark 2 or similar.

John Stevens

yes, agree with you steve. I think sometimes USA F35’s will operate with the UK F35’s from the carrier, will add to the potency if needed..


I doubt they would need to operate from the QE class. Ignoring the carriers, the US also has 8 wasp class that will have the ability to carry 20 odd f35b’s each, they effectively have plenty of hulls to go around. I guess they might fly off the QE’s during NATO exercises, where the US doesn’t want to move major assets but want to show commitments to europe.

John Stevens

yes that’s a good point you make…. although you never know, even the US Navy has been a bit over stretched at times, might be a situation where it would be to there advantage to place F35’s on our carrier, but that’s just part of the guessing game we all enjoy!! we will see..

Chris Ferguson

Id like to petition to bring back “111” sqd… It seems weird to not see the lightning bolt on something any more…

Jack William Millen

Is it possible that more squadrons could be commissioned in the future, assuming that the current plan will be implemented?

Michael Rayner

That almost looks as tidy as 1F sqn hanger used to be at Wittering in the GR3 days

Sonny Palin

So we will likely have at tops around 80 if you include some kept around to cover losses?
The standoff squadron usually has more than a frontline squadron so including those extras too.
I hope the Government doesn’t intend selling any off.

Graeme Robertson

Why is there on 12 aircraft per unit it seems a small number

John Sherwewll

The correct abbreviation for Air Commodore is Air Cdre !!

John Sherwewll

12 is the normal number for an RAF Squadron

[…] to the UK’s drone fleet. On top of that all, despite President Trump’s best efforts, the UK will form its first operational F35 Lightning II squadron in 2019 as the Tornado is slowly wound down from its long term deployments in the middle […]


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[…] UK has long publicly committed itself to buying 138 F-35Bs. We know that the UK intends to use around 63 aircraft in its operational fleet at any one time, leaving the rest in reserve. That gives you five usable […]

[…] UK has long publicly committed itself to buying 138 F-35Bs. We know that the UK intends to use around 63 aircraft in its operational fleet at any one time, leaving the rest in reserve. That gives you five usable […]

[…] UK has long publicly committed itself to buying 138 F-35Bs. We know that the UK intends to use around 63 aircraft in its operational fleet at any one time, leaving the rest in reserve. That gives you five usable […]