The U.K. has become the first nation outside of the U.S. to begin "organic" Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter test operations following the standing up of the Royal Air Force 17 (Reserve) Squadron at Edwards AFB, California.

The joint RAF-Royal Navy operation will conduct operational testing and evaluation of the F-35B using three of the U.K’s initial four aircraft. Although initial operational capability (IOC) for the RAF is targeted for the end of 2018, the test fleet is expected to remain at Edwards to continue evaluation of future weapons and systems upgrades until the end of their lives.

Testing is already underway with the first U.K. aircraft, BK-1, following its trans-continental ferry flight from Eglin AFB, Florida, where initial pilot and maintenance crew training has been taking place. The second U.K. F-35B, BK-2, is due to arrive at Edwards by early March, with a third test aircraft, BK-4, expected to arrive in early 2016.

"Until two weeks ago the aircraft were operated under a partnering agreement with the U.S. Marine Corps, so they’ve been operating and maintaining them and both U.K.. And Marine pilots have been flying them," says RAF Squadron Leader Frankie Buchler. "Once BK-1 arrived here we began organic operations. So all the flying, all the maintenance we are doing here is done under sovereign control, in accordance with our military operations back in the U.K. It is all British personnel working on the aircraft now and it will be the same with the second jet we will bring here shortly. We are the first nation to start conducting organic operations without support from the Marine Corps or U.S. Air Force."

A fourth British F-35B, BK-3, has been transferred from Eglin to Beaufort Pilot Training Center at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina, where it is operated as part of Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 (VMFAT-501). "That will stay at VMFAT-501 for the next few years to help train future U.K. pilots and maintainers," says Buchler, who in March 2013 became the first international F-35B instructor pilot student at the 33rd Fighter Wing to complete a sortie in the JSF.

Modeled after the Joint Force Harrier unit established in 2000 to combine the remnants of the Royal Navy and RAF Harrier squadrons, the U.K’s "Lightning Force" has a maintenance crew made up equally of RAF and Navy personnel. "We have three pilots: two Air Force and one Navy, and the next commanding officer will be Navy," Buchler says. "It’s the Lightning Force. We are trying to set that from the outset. It is one team, one fight. The sole Royal Navy pilot formerly flew Sea Harriers and has been on exchange with the U.S. Navy flying F/A-18E/F Super Hornets before joining 17 Squadron. Commanding Officer of the U.K.’s F-35 squadron, Wing Commander James Beck, formerly flew the Tornado GR4, while Buchler came from a Jaguar and Typhoon background. The fourth U.K. pilot based at Beaufort is also ex-Harrier and has been on exchange with the Air Force flying F-16s.

Buchler and one other U.K. F-35B pilot is currently qualified to fly the aircraft through its full short take-off and vertical landing envelope. "Another two will qualify shortly with the assistance of the Marine Corps," Buchler says. "We will take our aircraft down to Yuma, Arizona, to do initial training there using BK-1 and 2." The training is expected to occur "imminently," clearing the way for the start of a more aggressive expansion into operational test and evaluation.

"We will take the aircraft and operate out of Edwards using the northern ranges and put it through almost real-life combat situations with simulated threats on the ground and in the air. We will see how the aircraft performs and make our assessment about whether it meets the standards we require to then release it to the fleet," he adds. The aircraft are waiting for upgrades to the Block 2B version of the fighter’s software which is also the basis for the Marine Corps’ standard at its IOC target later this year. "We are still in the early stages but this summer we really start expanding operational testing," Buchler says.

Block 2B will form the basis for initial testing but "we are looking ahead to the Block 3F fleet release software when we go to full-rate production. Beyond this there is the Block 4 systems upgrade they will do," he adds. Initial testing will include separation and guided releases of advanced short range Asraam, Paveway IV and medium-range AIM-120 Amraam missiles. Buchler adds that "by the time the U.K. takes the aircraft IOC it will have the capability to fire Asraam, Amraam and Paveway – and eventually the MBDA Meteor air-to-air missile."