A deal to build the first wave of the new fighter planes to be based at RAF Marham has been agreed in principle, defence chiefs have announced.
The contract with American aerospace firm Lockheed Martin, which is expected to be finalised in the next few weeks, is for an initial batch of four Lightning II stealth combat fighter aircraft.
An initial 14 of the planes, which can operate from both land bases and the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers, will be ordered over the next five years, with the UK’s first Lightning squadron to be based at Marham from 2018.
Defence secretary Michael Fallon, who announced the deal on Tuesday, described the agreement as “a major step forward.”
He said: “The Lightning II will equip the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force with a highly advanced multi-role stealth combat aircraft, operating from both our new Queen Elizabeth class carriers and land bases.
“These aircraft will form part of the first UK-based squadron of F-35s, which will take up station at RAF Marham in 2018.
“This programme is also bringing substantial industrial benefits to the UK, providing thousands of skilled jobs in the UK aerospace industry.”
The RAF already has three of the Lightning planes, which are currently in the United States for testing and evaluation.
Bernard Gray, the Ministry of Defence’s chief of defence material, said: “I am delighted that this agreement prepares the way for the first batch of operational combat aircraft.
“It ensures the MOD remains on target for achieving both operational capability from land bases and the start of flying trials aboard the carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2018.”