The UK Ministry of Defence has declared the initial operating capability of its F-35B Lightning II joint strike fighter jets, which are ready to be deployed for overseas operations.

Speaking at Royal Air Force (RAF) Marham, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said that the fifth-generation jet will “form the backbone” of the country’s combat air fleet alongside the Typhoon jets.

With the declaration, naval pilots will be able to fly the advanced fighter on front-line missions.

Currently, the nine F-35B Lightning II aircraft will operate on UK soil and will be flown by the 617 ‘Dambusters’ Squadron, which is an RAF formation but almost 50% of its personnel are either Royal Navy pilots or engineers.

Royal Navy Commander James Blackmore said: “This is great news for the Royal Navy and the UK as it is a key milestone along the road to operating the F-35 Lightning at the heart of our carrier strike capability from 2021.”

The next step for the UK would be to declare the F-35B Lightning II operational at sea from HMS Queen Elizabeth.

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In 2018, test variants of the jet carried out several trials aboard the Portsmouth-based 65,000t aircraft carrier off the Eastern Seaboard.

Blackmore added: “HMS Queen Elizabeth was designed from the keel up to support the F-35 and it showed. The ‘marriage’ between the ship and the aircraft was superb. We learned that together, we have got something quite special.”

In December, the UK Government placed an order for additional 17 fighter jets for delivery between 2020 and 2022.

The government intends to acquire 48 jets to meet immediate requirements for the RAF/Royal Navy and have committed to acquiring 138 aircraft in total.

F-35 jets join Typhoon fleet

Meanwhile at RAF Marham, Williamson also confirmed the completion of a $540m upgrade programme of the RAF’s Eurofighter Typhoon fleet.

The Typhoon fleet is now equipped with Storm Shadow cruise missiles, the Meteor air-to-air missile and the Brimstone ground-attack weapon.

Williamson said:“The incredible F-35 jets are ready for operations, a transformed Typhoon has the power to dominate the skies into the 2040s and we continue to look even further into an ambitious future.”

A new maintenance hangar at the RAF has been developed as part of a $700m investment at the airbase, which will serve as the primary main base for the Lockheed Martin-developed fleet of F-35 jets.

BAE Systems Air F-35 Support Director Steve Worsnip said: “Our people have a role in the design and production of every F-35 flown anywhere in the world and at RAF Marham, the home of the UK’s Lightning Force, we see a great example of the role we play in helping to sustain the fleet as part of Lightning Team UK.

“We look forward to continuing to support the UK as F-35 joins Typhoon in the front line of defending the nation for many years to come.”