Landmark moment as F-35 Lightning II jets deployed to RAF Lakenheath for first time

The F-35A Lightning II at RAF Lakenheath. Byline: Sonya Duncan Copyright: Archant 2017

The F-35A Lightning II at RAF Lakenheath. Byline: Sonya Duncan Copyright: Archant 2017 - Credit: Sonya Duncan

A landmark moment for the county and country has seen the first F-35s soar above Suffolk, as the world’s most advanced jets are slated to bring “£3billion” of benefit to British businesses.

The first ever operational deployment of USAF F-35As overseas saw six arrive at RAF Lakenheath for a

The first ever operational deployment of USAF F-35As overseas saw six arrive at RAF Lakenheath for a visit of up to two weeks on Saturday, April 15. Picture: GARY STEDMAN

On Wednesday a US Air Force squadron of six F-35A Lightning II jets, from Utah, took to the skies above RAF Lakenheath on their first ever training flights in the country.

The “game changing” jet, which costs somewhere in the region of $100million to $130million a piece, is set to become a regular feature in skies of East Anglia.

General Tod Wolters, commander of the USAF in Europe and Africa, said he is “incredibly proud” to be at RAF Lakenheath welcoming the F-35s.

Speaking of the start of a new chapter in the ‘special relationship’ with Britain, he added: “We look forward to serving at your [the UK’s] side for many years, decades and centuries to come.”

The F-35A Lightning II at RAF Lakenheath. Charge d'Affaires a.i. Lewis Lukens, US Embassy in London.

The F-35A Lightning II at RAF Lakenheath. Charge d'Affaires a.i. Lewis Lukens, US Embassy in London. Byline: Sonya Duncan Copyright: Archant 2017 - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Lieutenant Colonel Jason Vause, who is in charge of bedding 54 F-35A jets into the 48th Fighter Wing, starting in 2021, said: “Expectations for what you will see as a local to RAF Lakenheath, starting 2018, will be initial works and demolition of some areas in preparation.

“Most of the major construction projects will start in 2019. We have five major projects to complete, with a new hangar, operational maintenance facilities, a flight simulator and a maintenance training detachment for training all of our maintenance crews here at RAF Lakenheath.”

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Next year the first tranche of F-35Bs, with vertical takeoff capability, will start arriving at RAF Marham in Norfolk.

At a RAF Lakenheath F-35 ceremony on Wednesday, RAF and USAF commanders stood side-by-side as they took turns to praise the F-35, the ‘special relationship’ and NATO.

The message from the likes of US deputy ambassador Lewis Lukens, 48th wing commander Colonel Evan Pettus and RAF Air Marshal Stuart Atha was the F-35 marks the start of the next step in US, UK and NATO relations.

Ambassador Mr Lukens said the current F-35 training deployment to Suffolk would strengthen the NATO deterrent to Russia, piling pressure on the Kremlin to work with the west in Syria and act against the illegal use of chemical weapons.

He said the F-35 programme will bring £3billion in benefit to British businesses and 24,000 jobs.

What does this mean for the F-15s?

RAF Lakenheath has been home to several variants of the iconic F-15 jet since 1992. The 48th Fighter Wing consists of 75 F-15s in total.

The F-35 has been slated as a replacement to the F-15 airframe which was first built in the 1970s. However, continual upgrades, resulting in the current F-15E Strike Eagle and F-15C Eagle variants, have meant the Cold War plane is far from outdated.

The Eagles are described as fourth generation military jets, while the F-35s alongside the F-22 are part of the fifth generation.

However, the sheer capabilities of the F-15s have proven hard to replace, and USAFE and USAF in Africa commander General Wolker admitted they are not going anywhere anytime soon.

He said one of the biggest strengths of the F-35s was their ability to work alongside and enhance the role of fourth-generation jets. “The future is bright for the F-15s here at Lakenheath,” he said.