The UK’s F-35 Lightning stealth fighter jets are ready to be deployed on operations for the first time, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has announced.
The first of the multimillion-pound aircraft touched down at RAF Marham in Norfolk in June 2018.
Mr Williamson, speaking at the airbase on Thursday, said that nine F-35s were now ready to be deployed on operations, and that the RAF’s Typhoon fleet has been upgraded with a new weapons system.
He pledged that the UK will buy 138 F-35 jets in total.
There are currently 17 in the F-35 fleet.
It comes as the last of the Tornados, in service since 1979, will be retired by the end of March.
He said of the F-35s declaring initial operational capability and the message this sends to Britain’s adversaries: “It means don’t mess with us, because we have the capability and we have the people, and we have the will to always defend ourselves.”
Asked by a reporter if Britain’s adversaries should be scared of us, Mr Williamson replied: “Yes. Because you want people to realise that Britain actually is a nation that can stand up for itself.
“We’ve always, throughout our history, been that nation that will stand up for our values and stand up for our national interest, but we have to continue to invest in defence.”
He added: “We mustn’t forget how dangerous the world is and increasingly getting, and no longer are we talking about threats from people just in ungoverned spaces – we’re also talking about state-based threats.”
Mr Williamson said: “As we bid farewell to the RAF’s first century, we are setting our sights on the next 100 years.
“Our nation is moving into a new era outside the EU, and our huge achievements in air capability make our commitment to a role on the world stage clear to both our allies and our enemies.
“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.
“The RAF has long shown Britain at its great and global best, and today it lifts our nation to even greater heights.”
The Defence Secretary made the announcement in front of four aircraft, including the Tempest concept fighter jet model.
The aim is for a next-generation capability to have initial operational capability by 2035.
Around 150 UK personnel had been working with the F-35 jets in the US before the first batch of the supersonic aircraft came to the UK.