An in-depth look at the F-35 Lightning II and its history
The F-35A Lightning II is a fifth-generation fighter combining advanced aerodynamics, survivability in high-threat environments, and an enhanced ability to provide pilots and allied assets across operational domains with robust situational awareness.
The F-35 is the result of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program to develop a single-engine, stealthy, multi-role fighter to replace an aging fleet of mission-dedicated airframes: the F-16 Fighting Falcon and A-10 Thunderbolt II for the Air Force and the F/A-18 Hornet and AV-8B Harrier II for the Navy and Marine Corps.
Although separate airframe variants were designed to meet specific needs of the various military services, all F-35 variants are primarily designed to infiltrate contested airspace, accurately deliver guided and conventional munitions, and collect, process and disseminate real-time reconnaissance while maintaining robust air-to-air combat capability at speeds above Mach 1.
Military and budgetary benefits of international cooperation are well represented in the F-35 program. Partner nations including the U.S., U.K., Canada, Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, Denmark, Norway and Australia, are highly involved in the aircraft's ongoing development. The F-35 has also been sold to Israel, Japan, and South Korea.
Use of a common weapons system among allies promotes an operational familiarity during coalition partner training and combat, while reducing the cost, time, training, manning and research and development of integrating dissimilar airframes of those allied nations.
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is preparing to receive its first squadron of 14 Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning IIs in-country in late 2018.
The Royal Australian Air Force, has committed to obtaining 72 F-35A aircraft to form three operational squadrons at RAAF Base Williamtown and RAAF Base Tindal, and a training squadron at RAAF Base Williamtown. The RAAF is expected to take delivery of its first operational F-35As in December 2018.
Development and design
After winning the JSF design competition, $750 million contracts to build prototypes were awarded in 1997 to both Lockheed Martin for it's X-35, and Boeing, for its X-32.
Boeing's entry incorporated the requirements of all the services into one short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) airframe with thrust being vectored through nozzles, as with the existing Harrier.
The Boeing X-32, left, and the Lockheed X-35 competed for the DoD contract to produce the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) in 1997. Both companies received $750 million grants to build prototypes. The new single-engine, Mach-1 capable aircraft needed to be stealthy and provide robust situational awareness to the pilot during attacks on ground targets and when fighting in air-to-air engagements. It also needed to meet the specifications of the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps as well as nation partners. Lockheed won the competition which would eventually produce the F-35 Lightning II.
Lockheed Martin proposed to produce three airframe variants, one for each service: the conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) F-35A for the Air Force's long runways; the STOVL version, the F-35B, for U.S. Marine Corps and British navy and air force; and the F-35C for U.S. Navy carrier-born operations.
In the end, the Department of Defense determined the X-35B version, with a separate vertical-lift fan behind the cockpit, outperformed the Boeing entry and awarded the overall JSF contract to Lockheed Martin.
Maj. Nathan Sabin, taxis an F-35A of the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron, a tenant unit at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., before a test flight at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, Feb 17, 2016. Six operational test and evaluation F-35s and more than 85 airmen of the 31st TES travelled to Mountain Home AFB to conduct the first simulated deployment test of the F-35A, specifically to execute three key initial operational capability mission sets: suppression of enemy air defenses, close air support and air interdiction.
(U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)
The first F-35A test aircraft purchased by the Air Force rolled off the production line in 2006. The Air Force took delivery of its first production F-35As at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, in 2011 to begin pilot and maintainer training and in 2014 the 58th Fighter Squadron was the first to become a complete F-35A squadron.
After years of testing weapons separation, operational integration and aerial refueling, the Lightning II met its targets for initial operational capability when it was declared "combat ready" in August of 2016 by Gen. Hawk Carlisle, commander of Air Combat Command.
Features and deployment
Air Force units that operate the F-35A now include:
- The 461st Flight Test Squadron and 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron at Edwards AFB, California.
- The Integrated Training Center for pilots and maintainers at Eglin AFB, Florida.
- The 388th Fighter Wing and 419th Fighter Wing at Hill AFB, Utah.
- The 56th Fighter Wing at Luke AFB, Arizona.
- The 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nevada.
An F-35A Lightning II from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., receives fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to MacDill AFB, Fla., about 100 miles off the Gulf Coast March 2, 2016. Airmen from the 33rd Fighter Wing were able to complete modifications to the aircraft ahead of schedule to enable the use of inert munitions instead of simulated weapons, advancing the fifth-generation fighter's syllabus and ensuring pilots receive the most comprehensive training before they support a combat-coded F-35A unit.
The F-35 serves as an unparalleled force multiplier because its advanced sensors and datalinks share information and situational awareness not just between fifth- and fourth-generation U.S. and allied aircraft, but also between coalition land, sea and space assets.
This "operational quarterback" is also proving to pack a nasty ground attack and individual air-to-air combat capability.
During the large-scale combat training exercise, Red Flag 17-1, held at Nellis AFB in the spring of 2017, F-35As participated in multi-aircraft sorties in a highly-contested airspace. Air Force leadership and pilots reported F-35As destroyed multiple ground targets without being detected in the airspace and earned a stellar 20:1 kill ratio in air-to-air combat scenarios.
F-35A Lightning IIs piloted by the 388th and 419th Fighter Wings prepare to depart Hill AFB, Utah, Jan. 20 for Nellis AFB, Nev., to participate in a Red Flag exercise. Red Flag is the U.S. Air Force's premier air-to-air combat training exercise. This is the first deployment to Red Flag since the Air Force declared the jet combat ready in August 2016.
(U.S. Air Force photo/R. Nial Bradshaw)
Despite the impressive individual performance, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein stresses the F-35 is best thought of as an integral component of the Air Force's overall warfighting capability.
During a symposium at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in February of 2017, Goldfein was asked to compare the F-35's capability versus advanced Chinese aircraft like the J-20 and the J-31.
"I hope, over time, we can evolve our discussion from platform v. platform, which I would argue is a 20th Century discussion, to a network versus network," Goldfein said. "Its not about what the F-35 or the J-20 or the F-22 or the J-31 can actually do in a one versus one… it's an interesting conversation, but its not very compelling because we are never going to have the F-35 in there by itself, ever.
An F-35A Lightning II fighter aircraft from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, takes off from Nellis AFB, Nev., Feb. 2, during Red Flag 17-01. This is the first F-35A deployment to Red Flag since the Air Force declared the jet combat ready in August 2016.
(Photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)
"What really counts is we are going to bring a network, a family of systems to bear on the enemy. That's going to be an F-35 that's there with an F-22, that's there with an F-18, that's there with a space capability being fed into the cockpit, that's there with cyber capabilities, that's there with a multitude of ISR, that's there with a submarine force. We're going to bring multi-domain, multi-component capabilities and we're going to bring coalition capabilities.
"As we do today, in the future, we are going to be able to achieve decision speed and maneuver forces from all domains and create so many dilemmas for the enemy that, that in itself, will become a deterrent value," Goldfein said.
An Air Force weapons load crew assigned to the 34th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, Hill Air Froce Base, Utah, loads a GBU-12 into an F-35A Lightning II aircraft at Nellis AFB, Nevada, Feb. 1, 2017.
Partner nations who have purchased the airframe, the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada, Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, Denmark, Norway, and Australia, are highly involved in the aircraft's ongoing development. As such, the F-35 program represents a model of the military and budgetary benefits of international cooperation. The F-35 has also been sold to Israel, Japan and the Republic of South Korea.
Use of a common weapons system among allies promotes an operational familiarity during coalition partner training and combat, while reducing the cost, time, training, manning and research and development of trying to integrate dissimilar airframes of those allied nations.
Did you know?
- The F-35A CTOL variant is flown by the air forces of the Netherlands, Australia, Japan and Italy.
- The three F-35 variants are manufactured in Fort Worth, Texas, Cameri, Italy, and Nagoya, Japan, with 300,000 parts from 1,500 suppliers worldwide.
- The F-35 software has more lines of code than the Space Shuttle.
- An F-35's pilot wears a helmet that has inputs necessary for situational awareness projected onto the interior of the visor: airspeed, heading, altitude, targeting information and warnings. It also projects imagery from around the aircraft, via infrared cameras, onto the visor, allowing the pilot to "look through" the bottom of the aircraft.
- The F-35 Lightning II is named after the famous WWII fighter, the twin-engine P-38 Lightning. The U.S.' leading air combat pilot of WWII, Maj. Richard I. Bong, scored all of his 40 victories flying the P-38.
This article originally appeared on Airman Magazine. Follow @AirmanMagazine on Twitter.