The United Kingdom is negotiating with Lockheed Martin [LMT] and the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) on 26 additional F-35Bs for the U.K., but a contract is unlikely before 2024 or later this decade.

Thus far, the U.K. has ordered 48 F-35Bs and has fielded 26 of them for Britain’s two aircraft carriers, the HMS Queen Elizabeth and the HMS Prince of Wales.

“Earlier this year we informed the U.S.-led F-35 Joint Program Office of our Tranche 2 purchase intention, which will take our fleet total to 74 aircraft,” Travis Yearwood, a spokesman for the British Ministry of Defense, wrote in an Aug. 26 email. “Negotiations are ongoing, but we do not anticipate being required to complete the next stage of contract activity until 2024.”

The U.K.’s final commitment to the buy of the 26 additional F-35Bs is to depend upon the F-35 JPO and Lockheed Martin demonstrating support cost improvements for the F-35 and integration of U.K. weapons on the F-35Bs (Defense Daily, Aug. 24).

In April, Air Marshal Richard Knighton, the U.K. deputy chief of the defense staff, said that an integration program has begun on the F-35 for the MBDA Select Precision Effects At Range (SPEAR)-3 standoff air-to-ground munition and the Meteor air-to-air missile.

The U.K. has planned for three F-35B operational squadrons with 12 to 16 F-35Bs in each squadrons. While Britain is to have 12 F-35Bs for routine deployments on either of its aircraft carriers, the U.K. may operate up to 24 per carrier and has said that each carrier could carry up to 36 F-35Bs.

In the near term, Britain is likely to rely on U.S. Marine Corps’ F-35Bs to supplement the U.K.’s F-35Bs.

In May last year, the HMS Queen Elizabeth deployed for the first time in the NATO maritime live exercise Steadfast Defender 2021 (Defense Daily, May 20, 2021). The ship had U.S. Marine Corps and U.K. F-35Bs.

While 74 is the objective number of F-35Bs that the U.K. is to field, Britain is to decide around 2025 whether it will buy more F-35Bs, depending on the approach the U.K. takes on the Future Combat Air System program. Knighton has said that “it is perfectly plausible to imagine a situation in which we could have the fleet of 138 F-35s that we originally described back in the early 2000s.”