Britain’s F-35 stealth fighter jets have flown on operational missions for the first time as they joined efforts to eradicate Islamic State, the Defence Secretary has announced.
Penny Mordaunt visited RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus on Monday where six of the aircraft have been based since arriving for a six-week training deployment in May.
Since June 16 the cutting-edge warplanes have flown on more than 14 sorties above the skies of Iraq and Syria as part of the ongoing hunt for the last remnants of the extremist group.
Speaking to reporters after sitting in the cockpit of the one of jets, Ms Mordaunt said: “I am very proud that these are now flying in defence and in projecting the UK’s national interest.
“This is a fantastic new aircraft, it is amazing, it’s doing so well out here on these operations… it’s a really historic moment.”
Describing the inside of the jet, as she revealed she has previously sat inside other aircraft types, Ms Mordaunt said it is “cleaner, without giving too much away”.
The Defence Secretary, a Royal Navy reservist, added: “It obviously has some incredible capabilities which are really putting us in the lead.”
The jets were deployed to Cyprus, where British Eurofighter Typhoons are also stationed, on Exercise Lightning Dawn, the first overseas deployment for the RAF F-35s which was designed to allow pilots and engineers to gain experience in maintaining and flying the aircraft in an unfamiliar environment.
In the past four weeks the jets have flown in pairs for more than 225 hours, just over 30% of their total flying hours in the last year, and carried out 95 missions before joining Operation Shader, the name given to the UK’s contribution in the ongoing military action against IS.
No bombs have been dropped or missiles fired by the F-35s during their operational missions, which involved armed reconnaissance.
Group Captain Jonny Moreton, the commanding officer of 903 Expeditionary Air Wing based at RAF Akrotiri, said there had yet to be any requirement for the F-35s to attack.
“We haven’t dropped any weapons from Typhoon (also flying as part of Operation Shader) in that period either,” he added. “It is not a very kinetic phase of the operation at the moment.”
Wing Commander John Butcher, the officer commanding 617 Squadron, said Lighting Dawn had gone “exceptionally well”, putting crews “in a position to do some different types of flying”.
He said achieving combat air power so soon after declaring initial operational capability from land, which happened in January, is “testament to the team work of all the personnel involved”.
He said the period since the first F-35s landed at RAF Marham in Norfolk from the US almost 12 months ago had been a “rollercoaster” and crews have been “learning all the time”.
Britain currently has 17 F-35Bs – the short take off and vertical landing variant of the jets, and has pledged to purchase 138 in total from American Aviation giant, Lockheed Martin.
The UK’s £9.1 billion programme to buy the first batch of 48 F-35s has come under fire over capability and expense.
Some estimates have put the overall cost of each jet at as much as £150 million when logistics and support are taken into account.
According to reports, a catalogue of problems with the F-35s have been identified by Pentagon officials in the US, including the blistering of the stealth coating when the jet flies at supersonic speed.
Wg Cdr Butcher said there have been no issues during their deployment to Cyprus but admitted small problems have had to be addressed, which he said have been fixed within a matter of hours.
He added that the jet is better than anything he has previously flown.
Britain’s jets are jointly operated by the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy and will take off from the decks of the new £3.1 billion Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carrier in the Autumn for more testing.