The F-35 Lightning II is a multirole, stealthy, penetrating, all-weather fighter/attack family of tactical aircraft produced by the multinational Joint Strike Fighter program.
USAF’s conventional F-35A is complemented by the F-35B short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) version for USMC, and the carrier-capable F-35C for the Navy. The X-35 demonstrator first flew on Oct. 24, 2000, winning the go-ahead for the F-35A which first flew in developmental form in 2006.
Lightning II is planned to replace the A-10 and F-16, offering better penetrating capability against advanced A2/AD threats to strike heavily defended targets. USAF’s F-35A can carry up to 22,000 lb of weapons on 10 stations: two internal bays for stealth, and/or six wing and fuselage pylons for max loadout.
An Israeli Air Force F-35I “Adir” drew first blood, hitting Iranian targets in Syria in May 2018, followed by USAF’s initial combat deployment for Inherent Resolve in 2019.
Development, production, and operations are pursued concurrently, requiring rolling retrofits to standardize the fleet. Block 3i software upgrades improved upon the baseline Block 2B software, adding 89 percent of the code needed for full-combat capability as a bridge to Block 3F. The current production/ retrofit Block 3F software delivers full combat capability and adds a range of precision guided munitions.
FY21 transitions to the next Block 4 iteration dubbed Continuous Capability Development and Delivery (C2D2). Block 4 will correct deficiencies discovered in concurrent development/testing and add B61-12 and SDB II weapons capability, sensors, improved EW, and maritime strike. USAF is holding to a lower delivery rate until Block 4 production to minimize retrofit costs.
Fielded F-35As are capable of interdiction, basic CAS, and limited SEAD. FY21 funds procure 60 F-35As (including 12 congressionally added aircraft) and begins Block 4 and structural mods to upgrade capabilities of early production. Completion of operational testing has slipped to at least mid-2021, delaying full-rate production and cost-saving multiyear block buys.
USAF also accepted eight jets ordered by Turkey after that country was expelled from the program, having potentially compromised the F-35’s technical advantage by exposing its stealth secrets to Russia.
F-35s suffered two landing accidents in 2020 including an excess-speed incident at Eglin, exacerbated by flight control software, helmet display, and oxygen system problems. The first two PACAF F-35s were delivered to Eielson on April 21, 2020.
Contractors: Lockheed Martin; BAE Systems; Northrop Grumman; Pratt & Whitney (engine).
First Flight: Dec. 15, 2006.
Delivered: April 2011-present.
IOC: Aug. 2, 2016.
Production: Planned: 1,763 (USAF F-35As).
Inventory: 239 (USAF).
Operator: ACC, AETC, AFMC, AFRC (associate), ANG, PACAF. Planned: USAFE.
Aircraft Location: Burlington ANGB, Vt.; Edwards AFB, Calif.; Eglin AFB, Fla.; Eielson AFB, Alaska; Hill AFB, Utah; Luke AFB, Ariz.; Nellis AFB, Nev. Planned: Dannelly Field, Ala.; RAF Lakenheath, U.K.; Truax Field, Wis.; Tyndall AFB, Fla.
Active Variant: •F-35A. Conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant for the Air Force.
Dimensions: Span 35 ft, length 51.4 ft, height 14.4 ft.
Weight: Max T-O 70,000 lb.
Power Plant: F-35A: one Pratt & Whitney F135-PW-100, 40,000 lb thrust.
Performance: Speed Mach 1.6 with full internal weapons load, range 1,380 miles.
Ceiling: 50,000 ft.
Armament: F-35A: one 25 mm GAU-22/A cannon; standard internal loadout: two AIM-120 AMRAAMs and two GBU-31 JDAMs.
Accommodation: Pilot on Martin Baker MK16 zero/zero ejection seat.