The British air force just got new fighter jets, but there are doubts about whether its fleet is ready to fight

UK Ministry of DefenceAn F-35B Lightning II above the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, September 25, 2018.
  • The British Royal Air Force recently added F-35s and upgraded Eurofighter Typhoons to its air fleet.
  • But it appears that many of the service’s aircraft have been taken off the flight line, either to go out of service or into maintenance.
  • Such moves between front-line service and overhaul periods are part of the life cycle of high-end aircraft.

The British Royal Air Force finalised the initial operating capabilities of its F-35B Joint Strike Fighters and upgraded Eurofighter Typhoons in mid-December, amid rising concerns a growing portion of its overall fleet may not be fit to fight.

Initial operating capability, which was announced on January 10, means the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing capable F-35B is ready to operate anywhere in the world, RAF chief of staff Air Chief Marshal Stephen Miller said, according to Aviation Week.

The British now have 17 F-35Bs, though the IOC only covers the nine based in the UK, flown out of RAF Marham on the country’s east coast. Those aircraft have been expanding their operations, dropping weapons for the first time, sharing data with other aircraft, and taking part in multinational exercises, according to Aviation Week.

Royal Air Force Typhoons based in Romania has been launched in response to Russian Su-24 FENCER aircraft operating near NATO airspace over the Black Sea.British Defence MinistryA Royal Air Force Typhoon.

British F-35s have also exercised with the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier, the HMS Queen Elizabeth. When an F-35 landed on the carrier in September it was the first such operation in eight years. The third round of flight trials is expected this summer, with F-35s embarking aboard the ship to support its operational testing.

The RAF has also completed the addition new air-to-ground and air-to-air missiles to its Typhoons.

Under Project Centurion, a 47-month-long effort, the Typhoon can now fire the Storm Shadow cruise missile and the Brimstone 2 air-to-ground missile. It can also now fire the Meteor air-to-air missile, which uses an active-radar seeker to home in on targets beyond visual range.

The new capabilities put the Typhoon at the forefront of the UK’s support for US-led operations against ISIS, and the F-35 may soon join that effort, with planners reportedly considering sending some of them overseas during the first quarter of 2019, potentially to Cyprus, where the UK’s anti-ISIS air operations are based.

Fighter-jet inaction

British Royal air force RAF Hawk Red Arrows Typhoon F-35BCpl. Steve Buckley/RAFHawk aircraft from the Royal air force aerobatic team, the Red Arrows, seen in formation with an RAF Typhoon and F-35B Lightning II

But the milestones for the UK’s most sophisticated aircraft comes amid questions about the fitness of its fleet.

According to freedom-of-information reports, cited by the British tabloid the Daily Mirror, 142 of the RAF’s 434 aircraft have been taken off the flight line or are undergoing major maintenance.

That includes advanced aircraft like the Typhoon – 55 of the RAF’s 156 Typhoons are in the service’s sustainment fleet and not its forward fleet. A variety of other aircraft are also affected.

Of the RAF’s 20 Atlas A400M transport planes, which started arriving in 2014, five are in the sustainment fleet. Out of 81 Hawk T1 jets, which are used by trainee pilots as well as the Red Arrow aerobatics display team, 44 are in storage or going through maintenance.

British Royal air force chinook helicopter LondonSAC Amy Lupton/RAFA Chinook HC4 helicopter flying in support of the RAF 100 flypast in London, July 10, 2018.

Two of five Sentinel spy planes have been pulled from the flightline. Three of six Sentry spy planes have been moved to sustainment. One of three Air Seeker surveillance and electronic-warfare planes has been moved out of the forward fleet. Four of eight Shadow electronic-warfare planes have been moved into sustainment.

Forty-one of 60 Chinook helicopters have been switched from the forward fleet to sustainment, and seven of 23 Puma helicopters are in sustainment.

None of the the RAFs four BAe 146 planes, which are used to transport the Royal family and senior government officials, and none of its F-35Bs have been moved to sustainment – the only aircraft types for which that is the case.

The report elicited quick responses from the political opposition in the UK, which decried what appeared to be an erosion of British military prowess and criticised the current Conservative government for austerity and budget cuts that had affected defence spending.

‘The RAF as a whole is in good shape’

UK navy F-35 F-35B Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrierUK Ministry of DefenceAn F-35B Lightning II piloted by Royal navy Cmdr. Nathan Grey on the deck of the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, September 25, 2018.

Despite the seeming array of aircraft out of service, the British air force is in good shape, according to Justin Bronk, a research fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

“On serviceability rates, the RAF is well within the top cohort of air forces around the world,” Bronk said.

“Modern combat aircraft are complex and maintenance intensive to operate,” Bronk said, adding that “a regular deep maintenance/upgrade cycle for each airframe” is a standard fleet-management practice around the world.

Having 55 of the service’s 156 Typhoons in sustainment is normal, Bronk added, “and actually better than most comparable fleets in NATO and elsewhere.”

In the US, officials have cautioned that the Air Force’s aircraft-availability rates are too low – 71.3% of the service’s aircraft were mission-capable at any time in fiscal year 2017, down from 72.3% in 2016.

The overall rate was buoyed by the service’s unmanned aircraft, the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones, which were around 90% mission-capable.

Less than half the force’s F-22 Raptors were mission capable in 2017, down from nearly three-quarters in 2014. Just over half of the force’s B-1B and B-2A bombers were mission-capable. The problem extended to mobility and support aircraft as well as to US F-35s.

In Germany, one of NATO’s most important militaries, the problem appears to be even worse.

German air force Eurofighter TyphoonTech Sgt. Michael HolzworthA German air force Eurofighter Typhoon at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska before a combat-training mission, June 11, 2012.

Technical problems with the German air force’s 128 Typhoons left all but four of them unavailable for combat operations, according to a May report by German news outlet Spiegel.

A March report by the same outlet found that Germany’s Tornado fighter jets may not have been able to join NATO missions because of other technical issues, including a lack of friend-or-foe identification systems.

The problems facing its aircraft are only some of the deficiencies plaguing the German military.

“Outside a few isolated areas like the E3D Sentry fleet,” Bronk said, “the RAF as a whole is in good shape and has adequate aircraft, personnel and resources for its defence tasks short of large scale conflict with Russia.”

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