UK Expands F-35B Stealth Fighters Capabilities; To Join Eurofighters In Vertical Landing On Highways

The British Royal Air Force (RAF) is set to showcase the capabilities of Lockheed Martin F-35Bs and Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4s in operating from highways in the near future. 

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During the Global Air and Space Chiefs Conference in London on July 13, Air Marshal Harvey Smyth, the RAF’s air and space commander, took the opportunity to divulge the latest plans, first reported by Aviation Week. 

The UK Royal Air Force has recently embarked on expanding its operational capabilities for Typhoons, but the latest revelation of their intention to utilize highways for operating F-35Bs marks a significant and new development.

Air Marshal Smyth further revealed that the RAF’s ambitious plans include deploying Typhoons to Finland within a couple of months, where they will showcase their capabilities by conducting demonstrations from highway strips.

Additionally, the RAF aims to conduct similar demonstrations with F-35Bs, likely from various locations in the United Kingdom, in the next 12 months, further emphasizing their commitment to expanding operational options.

F-35b-USS America
File Image: F-35 Jet

Capitalizing on the strategic precedent set by the Finnish Air Force, which has long been conducting operations with F/A-18C/D Hornets from local highways, the decision to take Typhoons to Finland appears logical. 

This practice, rooted in Cold War traditions, gained renewed significance following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Notably, Finland last year demonstrated its preparedness by temporarily closing a section of a major highway for five days, allowing their fighter jets to practice landings and takeoffs on a reserve road runway—a practice not employed in decades. 

The Nordic country boasts a network of approximately a dozen reserve runways strategically positioned nationwide for wartime use.

Meanwhile, the RAF’s plans to deploy F-35Bs on roads are still in the early stages. The issue of potential damage to road infrastructure caused by the F-35B’s hot engine exhaust during short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) operations is a persistent concern.

However, Air Marshal Harvey Smyth said the service would utilize aluminum AM-2 mats to create a runway-like surface spanning up to 1,500 feet on the highway.

This innovative approach would enable the stealth jets to safely conduct short takeoffs and vertical landings while protecting the underlying road structure. 

The United Kingdom is anticipated to procure a small fleet of F-35B aircraft compared to the initial plan of acquiring 138. The UK government has committed to purchasing 48 of these stealth jets by the end of 2025. Furthermore, funding has been secured for an additional 26 jets.

Rationale Behind The Royal Air Force’s Pursuit Of Highway Operations

Finland and Sweden have long maintained a practice of distributing their forces from primary operating bases, assuming that in the event of a Russian attack, stationary infrastructure would be rendered incapacitated within hours.

Yet, the decision taken by the Royal Air Force reflects a rapidly emerging trend driven by the potential threat of Russian aggression in Europe. 

These strategic plans, designed to address the imminent risk of Russian targeting the UK’s fighter bases, also signify a proactive approach by recognizing the need for preparedness during times of tension.

Although the conflict in Ukraine may have accelerated or influenced the RAF’s plans to reintroduce dispersed operations, the service has been considering conducting such operations since 2021. 

The evolving security landscape and potential threats have spurred the RAF to contemplate and prepare for a more flexible and resilient operational approach well in advance.

File Image: F-35B

In 2021, Air Chief Marshal Mike Wigston, the senior officer of the RAF at that time, disclosed the intention to conduct impromptu exercises involving fighter operations from civilian airfields and potentially even highway strips.  

Wigston emphasized the importance of relearning dispersed operations, highlighting the potential threat posed by the advanced cruise missiles that Russian President Vladimir Putin had been boasting about. 

Specifically referencing the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, Wigston acknowledged that if these missiles, likely alluding to the 9M729 ground-launched cruise missile (also known as the SSC-8 Screwdriver), were stationed there, they would have the capability to reach targets across Western Europe putting the UK within range. 

Nonetheless, the capability to disperse jets and conduct operations in an expeditionary manner is increasingly capturing the attention of air forces worldwide, extending beyond Europe.

This concept holds particular significance in the Asia Pacific region, considering the potential threat posed by China and the vulnerability of conventional airbases. 

The F-35B aircraft has been subjected to rigorous testing by the US Marine Corps, focusing on exploring a range of dispersed and expeditionary operational concepts. 

These tests have assessed the aircraft’s capabilities in operating from various austere and remote bases, enabling greater flexibility and adaptability in challenging environments. 

Italy also operates the F-35B and has conducted successful trials, demonstrating the effective utilization of these advanced jets from remote and rugged bases, as previously reported by the EurAsian Times. 

That being said, the feasibility of operating the F-35B from highways remains a subject of evaluation. The aircraft has garnered a reputation for demanding continuous maintenance, which adds to the challenges. Additionally, installing aluminum mats for the F-35B presents a considerable burden regarding time, personnel, and materials.