Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II

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F-35 Lightning II
F-35A off the coast of Northwest Florida
A U.S. Air Force F-35A
Role Stealth multirole fighter
National origin United States
Manufacturer Lockheed Martin Aeronautics
First flight 15 December 2006; 13 years ago (2006-12-15) (F-35A)
Introduction F-35B: 31 July 2015 (USMC)[1]
F-35A: 2 August 2016 (USAF)[2]
F-35C: 28 February 2019 (USN)[3]
Status In service
Primary users United States Air Force
United States Marine Corps
United States Navy
Royal Air Force
See Operators section for others
Produced 2006–present
Number built 491 by December 2019[4]
Program cost US$1.508 trillion (through 2070 in then-year dollars), US$55.1B for RDT&E, $319.1B for procurement, $4.8B for MILCON, $1123.8B for operations & sustainment (2015 estimate)[5]
Unit cost
F-35A: $82.4M (low rate initial production lot 12 (LRIP 12) including F135 engine, cost in LRIP14 to be $77.9M)[6]
F-35B: US$108.0M (LRIP 12 including engine)[6]
F-35C: US$103.1M (LRIP 12 including engine)[6]
Developed from Lockheed Martin X-35

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is a family of single-seat, single-engine, all-weather, stealth, fifth-generation, multirole combat aircraft, designed for ground-attack and air-superiority missions. It is built by Lockheed Martin and many subcontractors, including Northrop Grumman, Pratt & Whitney, and BAE Systems.

The F-35 has three main models: the conventional takeoff and landing F-35A (CTOL), the short take-off and vertical-landing F-35B (STOVL), and the catapult-assisted take-off but arrested recovery, carrier-based F-35C (CATOBAR). The F-35 descends from the Lockheed Martin X-35, the design that was awarded the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program over the competing Boeing X-32. The official Lightning II name has proven deeply unpopular and USAF pilots have nicknamed it Panther, instead.[7]

The United States principally funds development, additional funding comes from other NATO members and close U.S. allies, including the United Kingdom, Italy, Australia, Canada, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and formerly Turkey.[8][9] These funders generally receive subcontracts to manufacture F-35 components; for example, Turkey was the sole supplier of several F-35 parts until its removal from the program in July 2019.[10][11] Several other countries have ordered, or are considering ordering, the aircraft. The U.S. plan is to buy 2,663 F-35s to provide the bulk of the crewed tactical airpower of the U.S. Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps in coming decades. Deliveries to the U.S. military are scheduled until 2037,[12] with a projected service life up to 2070.[13]

As the largest and most expensive military program ever, the F-35 has been subject to much scrutiny and criticism.[14] Critics have argued that it was "plagued with design flaws", some blaming the procurement process in which Lockheed simultaneously designed, tested, and produced the F-35 instead of fixing defects prior to mass production.[14] By 2014, the program was "US$163 billion over budget [and] seven years behind schedule".[15] Critics contended that the high sunk costs and politics made the F-35 "too big to kill".[16]

The F-35 first flew on 15 December 2006. In July 2015, the United States Marines declared its first F-35B squadron ready for deployment.[1] Durability testing through 2018 indicated the service life of early-production F-35Bs to be under the expected 8,000 flight hours, possibly as low as 2,100 flight hours. Lot 9 and later aircraft include design changes.[17] The U.S. Air Force declared its first F-35A squadron ready for deployment in August 2016.[2] The U.S. Navy declared its first F-35Cs ready in February 2019.[3] In 2018, the F-35 made its combat debut with the Israeli Air Force.[18]


F-35 development started in 1992 with the origins of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program and was to culminate in full production by 2018.[19] The X-35 first flew on 24 October 2000 and the F-35A on 15 December 2006.

The F-35 was developed to replace most US fighter jets with the variants of a single design that would be common to all branches of the military. It was developed in co-operation with a number of foreign partners, and, unlike the F-22 Raptor, intended to be available for export. Three variants were designed: the F-35A (CTOL), the F-35B (STOVL), and the F-35C (CATOBAR). Despite being intended to share most of their parts to reduce costs and improve maintenance logistics, by 2017 the effective commonality was only 20%.[20] The program received considerable criticism for cost overruns during development and for the total projected cost of the program over the lifetime of the jets.

By 2017, the program was expected to cost $406.5 billion over its lifetime (i.e. until 2070) for acquisition of the jets, and an additional $1.1 trillion for operations and maintenance, totaling $1.5 trillion for its estimated lifetime costs.[21][22] A number of design deficiencies were alleged, such as: carrying a small internal payload; performance inferior to the aircraft being replaced, particularly the F-16; lack of safety in relying on a single engine; and flaws such as the vulnerability of the fuel tank to fire and the propensity for transonic roll-off (wing drop). The possible obsolescence of stealth technology was also criticized.



F-35A prototype being towed to its inauguration ceremony on 7 July 2006
F-35B's thrust vectoring nozzle and lift fan

Although several experimental designs have been developed since the 1960s, such as the unsuccessful Rockwell XFV-12, the F-35B is to be the first operational supersonic STOVL stealth fighter.[23] The single-engine F-35 resembles the larger twin-engined Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, drawing design elements from it. The exhaust duct design was inspired by the General Dynamics Model 200, proposed for a 1972 supersonic VTOL fighter requirement for the Sea Control Ship.[24][failed verification]

Lockheed Martin has suggested that the F-35 could replace the USAF's F-15C/D fighters in the air-superiority role and the F-15E Strike Eagle in the ground-attack role.[25] It has also stated the F-35 is intended to have close- and long-range air-to-air capability second only to that of the F-22,[26] and that the F-35 has an advantage over the F-22 in basing flexibility and possesses "advanced sensors and information fusion".[27]

Testifying before the House Appropriations Committee on 25 March 2009, acquisition deputy to the USAF's assistant secretary, Lt. Gen. Mark D. "Shack" Shackelford, stated that the F-35 is designed to be America's "premier surface-to-air missile killer, and is uniquely equipped for this mission with cutting-edge processing power, synthetic aperture radar integration techniques, and advanced target recognition".[28]

A U.S. Navy study found that the F-35 will cost 30 to 40% more to maintain than current fighters,[29] not accounting for inflation over its lifetime. A Pentagon study concluded a $1 trillion maintenance cost for the entire fleet over its lifespan without inflation.[30] The F-35 program office found that as of January 2014, fleetwide costs over a 53-year lifecycle totalled $857 billion, while unit costs had been dropping and accounted for the 22 percent life cycle drop since 2010.[31] Lockheed stated that by 2019, F-35 pricing will be less than fourth-generation fighters. An F-35A in 2019 is expected to cost $85 million per unit complete with engines and full mission systems, inflation adjusted from $75 million in December 2013.[32]


Ostensible improvements over previous fighter aircraft include:

  • Durable, low-maintenance stealth technology, using structural fiber mat instead of the high-maintenance coatings of legacy stealth platforms[33]
  • Integrated avionics and sensor fusion that combine information from off- and on-board sensors to increase the pilot's situational awareness and improve target identification and weapon delivery, and to relay information quickly to other command and control (C2) nodes[34][35][36]
  • High-speed data networking including IEEE 1394b[37] and Fibre Channel[38] (Fibre Channel is also used on Boeing's Super Hornet.[39])
  • The Autonomic Logistics Global Sustainment, Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS), and Computerized maintenance management system to help ensure the aircraft can remain operational with minimal maintenance manpower[40] The Pentagon has moved to open up the competitive bidding by other companies.[41] This was after Lockheed Martin stated that instead of costing 20% less than the F-16 per flight hour, the F-35 actually costs 12% more.[42] Though the ALGS is intended to reduce maintenance costs, the company disagrees with including the cost of this system in the aircraft ownership calculations.[43] The USMC has implemented a workaround for a cyber vulnerability in the system.[44] The ALIS system currently requires a shipping-container load of servers to run; Lockheed is working on a more portable version to support USMC expeditionary operations.[45]
  • Electro-hydrostatic actuators run by a power-by-wire flight-control system[46]
  • A modern and updated flight simulator, which may be used for a greater fraction of pilot training to reduce the costly flight hours of the actual aircraft[47]
  • Lightweight, powerful lithium-ion batteries to provide power to run the control surfaces in an emergency[48]

Structural composites in the F-35 are 35% of the airframe weight (up from 25% in the F-22).[49] The majority of these are bismaleimide and composite epoxy materials.[50] The F-35 will be the first mass-produced aircraft to include structural nanocomposites, namely carbon nanotube-reinforced epoxy.[51] Experience of the F-22's problems with corrosion led to the F-35 using a gap filler that causes less galvanic corrosion to the airframe's skin, designed with fewer gaps requiring filler and implementing better drainage.[52] The relatively short 35-foot wingspan of the A and B variants is set by the F-35B's requirement to fit inside the Navy's current amphibious assault ship parking area[53] and elevators; the F-35C's longer wing is considered to be more fuel efficient.[54]


The F-35A is armed with a GAU-22/A, a four-barrel version of the 25 mm GAU-12 Equalizer cannon.[55] The cannon is mounted internally with 182 rounds on the F-35A or in an external pod with 220 rounds on the F-35B and F-35C;[56][57] the gun pod has stealth features.[58] External hardpoints may carry various missiles, bombs, and drop tanks at the expense of increased radar cross-section and thus reduced stealth.[59] The F-35 has four underwing pylons that can carry the AIM-120 AMRAAM BVR AAM, AGM-158 Joint Air to Surface Stand-off Missile (JASSM) cruise missile, and guided bombs; and two near-wingtip pylons for the AIM-9X Sidewinder and AIM-132 ASRAAM short-range air-to-air missiles (AAM).[60]

F-35A with all weapon bay doors open.

The F-35 has two internal weapons bays with a total of four weapons stations. Two of these can carry air-to-surface missiles or bombs up to 2,000 lb (910 kg) each on the F-35A and F-35C, or air-to-surface missiles or bombs up to 1,000 lb (450 kg) each on the F-35B; the other two stations are for smaller weapons such as air-to-air missiles.[61][62] The weapon bays can carry AIM-120 AMRAAM, AIM-132 ASRAAM, the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), Paveway series of bombs, the Joint Standoff Weapon (JSOW), Brimstone, SPEAR 3 anti-tank missiles, and cluster munitions (Wind Corrected Munitions Dispenser).[61][63]

An air-to-air missile load of eight AIM-120s and two AIM-9s is possible using internal and external weapons stations; a configuration of six 2,000 lb (910 kg) bombs, two AIM-120s and two AIM-9s can also be arranged.[61][64] The Terma A/S multi-mission pod (MMP) could be used for different equipment and purposes, such as electronic warfare, aerial reconnaissance, or rear-facing tactical radar.[58][65] The British Ministry of Defence plan to launch the Select Precision Effects at Range (SPEAR) Capability 3 missile from the F-35B's internal bays, with four missiles per bay.[66][67]

Lockheed Martin states that the weapons load can be configured as all-air-to-ground or all-air-to-air, and has suggested that a Block 5 version will carry three weapons per bay instead of two, replacing the heavy bomb with two smaller weapons such as AIM-120 AMRAAMs.[68] Upgrades are to allow each weapons bay to carry four GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs (SDB) for A and C models, or three in F-35B.[69] Another option is four GBU-53/B Small Diameter Bomb IIs in each bay on all variants.[70] The F-35A has been outfitted with four SDB II bombs and an AMRAAM missile to test adequate bay door clearance,[71] as well as the F-35C, but the F-35B cannot carry the load of four SDB IIs in each weapons bay due to weight and dimension constraints; F-35B bay changes are to be incorporated to increase SDB II loadout around 2022 in line with the Block 4 weapons suite.[72] The Meteor air-to-air missile may be adapted for the F-35, a modified Meteor with smaller tailfins for the F-35 was revealed in September 2010; plans call for the carriage of four Meteors internally.[73] The United Kingdom planned to use up to four AIM-132 ASRAAM missiles internally, later plans call for the carriage of two internal and two external ASRAAMs.[74] The external ASRAAMs are planned to be carried on "stealthy" pylons; the missile allows attacks to slightly beyond visual range without employing radar.[60][75]

Norway and Australia are funding an adaptation of the Naval Strike Missile (NSM) for the F-35. Under the designation Joint Strike Missile (JSM), it is to be the only cruise missile to fit the F-35's internal bays; according to studies, two JSMs can be carried internally with an additional four externally.[76] The F-35 is expected to take on the Wild Weasel mission, though there are no planned anti-radiation missiles for internal carriage.[77] The B61 nuclear bomb was once scheduled for deployment in 2017;[78] in 2014, Congress moved to defund the weapon's integration.[79] Norton A. Schwartz agreed with the move and said that "F-35 investment dollars should realign to the long-range strike bomber".[80] NATO partners who are buying the F-35 but cannot afford to make them dual-capable want the USAF to fund the adaption to carry thermonuclear weapons. The USAF is trying to convince NATO partners who can afford the conversions to contribute to funding for those that cannot. The F-35 Block 4B will be able to carry two B61 nuclear bombs internally by 2024.[81]

According to reports in 2002, solid-state lasers were being developed as optional weapons for the F-35.[82][83][84] Lockheed is studying integrating a fiber laser onto the aircraft that uses spectral beam combining to channel energy from a stack of individual laser modules into a single, high-power beam, which can be scaled up or down for various levels of effects. Adding a laser would give the F-35 the ability to essentially burn missiles and other aircraft out of the sky.[85] The F-35 is also one of the target platforms for the High Speed Strike Weapon if hypersonic missile development is successful.[86]

The USAF plans to use the F-35A to primarily take up the close air support (CAS) mission in contested environments. Amid criticism that the aircraft is not well suited for the role compared to a dedicated attack platform, Air Force chief of staff Mark Welsh is putting focus on weapons for the F-35 to employ on CAS sorties including guided rockets, fragmentation rockets that would shatter into individual projectiles before impact, and lighter, smaller ammunition in higher capacity gun pods.[87] Fragmentary rocket warheads would have greater effects than cannon shells fired from a gun because a single rocket would create a "thousand-round burst", delivering more projectiles than a strafing run could. Other weapons could take advantage of the aircraft's helmet-mounted cueing system to aim rather than needing to point the nose at a target.[88] Institute for the Study of War's Christopher Harmer has questioned the use of such an expensive aircraft for CAS.[89]


F-35 cockpit mock-up

The F-35's cockpit has:

  • A 20- by 8-inch (50 by 20 cm) glass cockpit touchscreen[90] dubbed a panoramic cockpit display.[91]
  • An Adacel cockpit speech-recognition system, a first for an operational US fixed-wing aircraft, although similar systems have been used on the AV-8B Harrier II and trialed in the F-16 VISTA and other aircraft.[92]
  • A helmet-mounted display system.[93]
  • A right-hand HOTAS side stick controller.
  • A Martin-Baker US16E ejection seat.[94] Launched by a twin-catapult system housed in side rails,[95] the seat is widely used on fighters, but can endanger lightweight pilots wearing the F-35's heavier-than-usual helmet.[96]
  • An oxygen-generating system derived from the one on the F-22, which has been involved in multiple hypoxia incidents. Unlike the F-22, the flight profile of the F-35 is similar to other fighters that routinely use such systems.[97][98] On 9 June 2017, the 55 F-35s at Luke Air Force Base were grounded after five pilots complained of hypoxia-like symptoms over a five-week span. Symptoms ranged from dizziness to tingling in their extremities. The suspension was initially expected to last one day, but was extended to give investigators more time. Flying was resumed on 20 June, with no direct cause having been found.[99]

It does not have a head-up display, making it the first frontline fighter in decades without one.[100]

Helmet-mounted display system[edit]

VSI Helmet-mounted display system

The F-35 does not need to be physically pointing at its target to use weapons.[61][101] Sensors use combined radio frequency and infrared (SAIRST) to continually track nearby aircraft while the pilot's helmet-mounted display system (HMDS) displays and selects targets; the HDMS replaces the head-up display of earlier fighters.[102] Information is also sent to the seeker-head of missiles; recent missile types have a greater ability to pursue a target regardless of launch orientation, called "High Off-Boresight" capability. In concept, these systems strengthen its observe, orient, decide, and act OODA loop; stealth and advanced sensors aid in observation (while being difficult to observe), automated target tracking helps in orientation, sensor fusion simplifies decision making, and the controls allow the pilot to focus on the targets rather than controlling the aircraft.[103][a] Each helmet costs $400,000.[104]

In 2011, Lockheed Martin-Elbit Systems contracted Vision Systems International (VSI) to fix the HMDS's vibration, jitter, night-vision and sensor display problems.[105] The issues led to Lockheed Martin-Elbit issuing a draft specification for alternative proposals based on the Anvis-9 night vision goggles.[106] Adoption of an alternative HMDS required a cockpit redesign.[107] BAE Systems was selected to supply this alternative system in late 2011.[108] BAE Systems' HDMS included all VSI features.[109]

In October 2012, Lockheed Martin-Elbit stated that progress was made in resolving the HDMS's issues, citing positive reports from night flying tests; it had been questioned whether the HDMS gives enough night visibility for precision tasks.[110] In 2013, in spite of continuing problems with the helmet display, the F-35B completed 19 nighttime vertical landings on board USS Wasp at sea,[111] by using the DAS instead of the helmet's night vision capabilities, which offered at best 20/35 vision.[112] In October 2013, development halted on the alternative HMDS due to progress on the baseline helmet.[113] In 2016, a Gen 3 helmet featuring an improved night vision camera, new liquid crystal displays, automated alignment and other software enhancements was introduced with low rate initial production (LRIP) lot 7.[113]

In July 2015, an F-35 pilot stated that the helmet may have caused hardship in a test dogfight against an F-16: "The helmet was too large for the space inside the canopy to adequately see behind the aircraft. There were multiple occasions when the bandit would've been visible (not blocked by the seat) but the helmet prevented getting in a position to see him (behind the high side of the seat, around the inside of the seat, or high near the lift vector)".[114]


An F-35A powerplant on display, 2014

The Pratt & Whitney F135 powers the F-35. An alternative engine, the General Electric/Rolls-Royce F136, was being developed until it was canceled by its manufacturers in December 2011 due to lack of funding from the Pentagon.[115][116] The F135 and F136 engines are not designed to supercruise.[117] However, the F-35 can briefly fly at Mach 1.2 for 150 miles without the use of an afterburner.[118] The F135 is the second (radar) stealthy afterburning jet engine. Like the Pratt & Whitney F119 from which it was derived, the F135 has suffered afterburner pressure pulsations, or 'screech' at low altitude and high speed.[119] The F-35 has a maximum speed of over Mach 1.6. With a maximum takeoff weight of 60,000 lb (27,000 kg),[b][121] the F-35 is considerably heavier than the lightweight fighters it replaces.

The Pratt & Whitney F135 engine with Rolls-Royce LiftSystem, including roll posts, and rear vectoring nozzle for the F-35B, at the 2007 Paris Air Show

The STOVL F-35B is outfitted with the Rolls-Royce LiftSystem, designed by Lockheed Martin and developed by Rolls-Royce. This system is more similar to the German VJ 101D/E than the preceding STOVL Harrier Jump Jet and the Rolls-Royce Pegasus engine.[122][123][124] The Lift System is composed of a lift fan, drive shaft, two roll posts and a "Three Bearing Swivel Module" (3BSM).[125] The 3BSM is a thrust vectoring nozzle which allows the main engine exhaust to be deflected downward at the tail of the aircraft. The lift fan is near the front of the aircraft and provides a counterbalancing thrust using two counter-rotating blisks.[126] It is powered by the engine's low-pressure (LP) turbine via a drive shaft and gearbox. Roll control during slow flight is achieved by diverting unheated engine bypass air through wing-mounted thrust nozzles called Roll Posts.[127][128]

F136 funding came at the expense of other program elements, impacting on unit costs.[129] The F136 team stated their engine had a greater temperature margin, potentially critical for VTOL operations in hot, high altitude conditions.[130] Pratt & Whitney tested higher thrust versions of the F135, partly in response to GE's statements that the F136 is capable of producing more thrust than the 43,000 lbf (190 kN) of early F135s. In testing, the F135 has demonstrated a maximum thrust of over 50,000 lbf (220 kN);[131] making it the most powerful engine ever installed in a fighter aircraft as of 2010.[132] It is much heavier than previous fighter engines; the Heavy Underway Replenishment system needed to transfer the F135 between ships is an unfunded USN requirement.[133] Thermoelectric-powered sensors monitor turbine bearing health.[134] At the end of May 2017 Pratt and Whitney announced the F135 Growth Option 1 had finished testing and was available for production. The upgrade requires the changing of the power module on older engines and can be seamlessly inserted into future production engines at a minimal increase in unit cost and no impact to delivery schedule. The Growth Option 1 offers a improvement of 6–10% thrust across the F-35 flight envelope while also getting a 5–6% fuel burn reduction.[135]

In 2016, the Adaptive Engine Transition Program (AETP) was launched to develop and test adaptive cycle engines, with one major potential application being the re-engining of the F-35. General Electric and Pratt & Whitney were award contracts to develop 45,000 lbf (200 kN) class demonstrators, with the designations XA100 and XA101 respectively.[136]


The maintenance concept is for any aircraft to be serviced in any F-35 maintenance facility and for all parts to be globally tracked and shared as needed.[137] Commonality between the different variants allowed the USMC to create their first aircraft maintenance Field Training Detachment to apply the USAF's lessons to their F-35 operations.[138] It has been designed for ease of maintenance, 95% of all field-replaceable parts "one deep" where nothing else has to be removed to get to the part in question; for instance, the ejection seat can be replaced without removing the canopy. Other features include using electro-hydrostatic actuators instead of hydraulics and an all-composite skin free of the fragile coatings of earlier stealth aircraft.[139]

In 2012, the F-35 Joint Program Office stated that both pilots and maintainers gave positive feedback, suggesting better performance than predecessors at a similar development stage and that the type was relatively stable from a maintenance standpoint. This was attributed to more extensive maintenance training of F-35 maintainers than on the F-22 Raptor; the F-35's stealth coatings are also easier to work with than those of the F-22. Cure times for coating repairs are lower while many fasteners and access panels are not coated, reducing maintenance workload. Some radar-absorbent materials are baked into the composite skin, slowing the degradation of its stealthy signature.[140] Its stealth characteristics makes it still harder to maintain than fourth-generation aircraft.[141]

The DOT&E Report on the F-35 program of January 2015 determined that the plane has not reached any of the nine reliability measures it was supposed to achieve by this point, and that the Joint Program Office had re-categorizing failure incidents to make it look more reliable. Further, its complexity meant that no Service was ready to maintain it, instead being reliant on "contractor support and unacceptable workarounds". DOT&E found that the F-35 achieved 61 percent of planned flight hours and that the average availability rate was as low as 28 percent for the F-35A and 33 percent for the F-35B. The program created a new flight hour projection "since low availability was preventing the full use of bed-down plan flight hours". According to the USAF Assistant Secretary for Financial Management, in FY2014, each non-test F-35 flew only 7.7 hours per month, amounting to approximately one sortie every 5.5 days—for combat purposes, a sortie rate so low as to be crippling. Mean flight hours between removal (MFHBR) had increased but was only 59 percent to 65 percent of the required threshold. DOT&E found that mean corrective maintenance time for critical failures got worse for the F-35A and the F-35C over the year prior. Structural cracking also proved to be a persistent problem as of 2015.[142][needs update]

Sensors and avionics[edit]

Electro-optical target system (EOTS) under the nose of an F-35

The F-35's sensor and communications suite has situational awareness, command and control and network-centric warfare capabilities.[26][143] The main sensor is the AN/APG-81 active electronically scanned array-radar, designed by Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems.[144] It is augmented by the nose-mounted Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS),[145] it provides the capabilities of an externally mounted Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod with a reduced radar cross-section.[146][147] The AN/ASQ-239 (Barracuda) system is an improved version of the F-22's AN/ALR-94 electronic warfare suite, providing sensor fusion of radio frequency and infrared tracking functions, advanced radar warning receiver including geolocation threat targeting, multispectral image countermeasures for self-defense against missiles, situational awareness and electronic surveillance, employing 10 radio frequency antennas embedded into the edges of the wing and tail.[148][149] In September 2015, Lockheed unveiled the "Advanced EOTS" that has short-wave infrared, high-definition television, infrared marker, and superior image detector resolution capabilities. Offered for the Block 4 configuration, it fits into the same area as the baseline EOTS with minimal changes while preserving stealth features.[150]

Six additional passive infrared sensors are distributed over the aircraft as part of Northrop Grumman's electro-optical AN/AAQ-37 Distributed Aperture System (DAS),[151] which acts as a missile warning system, reports missile launch locations, detects and tracks approaching aircraft spherically around the F-35, and replaces traditional night vision devices. All DAS functions are performed simultaneously, in every direction, at all times. The electronic warfare systems are designed by BAE Systems and include Northrop Grumman components.[152] Functions such as the Electro-Optical Targeting System and the electronic warfare system are not usually integrated on fighters.[153] A DAS sensor mounted in a test platform detected a two-stage ballistic missile launch 1,300 kilometers away.[154]

The communications, navigation and identification (CNI) suite, designed by Northrop Grumman, includes the Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL), as one of a half dozen different physical links.[155] The F-35 is the first fighter with sensor fusion that combines radio frequency and IR tracking for continuous all-direction target detection and identification which is shared via MADL to other platforms without compromising low observability.[120] Link 16 is also included to communicate with legacy systems.[156] The F-35 has been designed with synergy between sensors as a specific requirement, providing a more cohesive picture of the local battlespace and availability for any possible use and combination with one another; for example, the AN/APG-81 multi-mode radar also acts as a part of the electronic warfare system.[157] Program Executive Officer General Bogdan described the sensor fusion software as one of the program's most difficult parts.[158]

Much of the F-35's software is written in the C and C++ programming languages because of programmer availability; Ada83 code also is reused from the F-22.[159] The Integrity DO-178B real-time operating system (RTOS) from Green Hills Software runs on COTS Freescale PowerPC processors.[160] The final Block 3 software is planned to have 8.6 million lines of code.[161] In 2010, Pentagon officials discovered that more software may be needed.[162] General Norton Schwartz has said that software is the biggest factor that might delay the USAF's initial operational capability.[163] In 2011, Michael Gilmore, Director of Operational Test & Evaluation, wrote that, "the F-35 mission systems software development and test is tending towards familiar historical patterns of extended development, discovery in flight test, and deferrals to later increments".[164]

The electronic warfare and electro-optical systems are intended to detect and scan aircraft, allowing engagement or evasion of a hostile aircraft prior to being detected.[157] The CATbird avionics testbed aircraft has proved capable of detecting and jamming radars, including the F-22's AN/APG-77.[165] The F-35 was previously considered a platform for the Next Generation Jammer; attention shifted to using unmanned aircraft in this capacity instead.[166] Several subsystems use Xilinx FPGAs;[167] these COTS components enable supply refreshes from the commercial sector and fleet software upgrades for the software-defined radio systems.[160]

Lockheed Martin's Dave Scott stated that sensor fusion boosts engine thrust and oil efficiency, increasing the aircraft's range.[168] USAF official Ellen M. Pawlikowski proposed using the F-35 to control and coordinate unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) via its sensors and communications equipment; a single F-35 could orchestrate an attack made by up to 20 armed UCAVs.[169]

Stealth and signatures[edit]


Landing gear door and access panels of the F-35, showing its stealth sawtooth design

The F-35 has a lower radar cross-section than the preceding generation of fighters,[170] thanks to its shape and the use of fiber-mat and other stealthy, radar-absorbent materials.[33] It is also designed to have lower infrared and visual signatures.[171][172]

Among the design elements that reduce radar signature are chines that generate vortex lift in the same fashion as the SR-71 Blackbird,[65] instead of the leading edge extensions of the F-16 and F/A-18. The small bumps just forward of the engine air intakes—part of the diverterless supersonic inlet, a simpler, lighter means to ensure high-quality airflow to the engine over a wide range of conditions—also eliminate radar reflections between the diverter and the aircraft's skin[173] and reduce the amount of radar energy that reaches the engine fans to be reflected.[174] Such reflection is also reduced by the Y-duct-type air intake ramps, which run parallel to the fuselage and not directly into the engine fans. Special care is taken during production to match the "boilerplate".[175]

F-35A front profile in flight. The doors are opened to expose the aerial refueling inlet valve.

The F-35's radar-absorbent materials are designed to be more durable and require less maintenance than those on the F-117, B-2, and F-22. At some frequencies, the F-35 compares favorably to the F-22 in stealth, according to General Mike Hostage, commander of the Air Combat Command.[176][177] Low-frequency radars can spot stealthy aircraft because of Rayleigh scattering, but such radars are also conspicuous, susceptible to clutter, and have low precision.[178][179] The F-35's anti-radar design is primarily focused on the higher-frequency X-band used by missile lock and targeting sensors, rendering them ineffective beyond close ranges.[180] Ground crews use Repair Verification Radar test sets to ensure that a given repair has not increased its radar signature, which is not a concern for non-stealth aircraft.[181][182][183][verification needed]

Like the Fighter Teen Series (F-14, F-15, F-16, F/A-18), the F-35 can carry large external fuel tanks, but flies most missions without them to keep its radar signature low.


In 2008, USAF officials said the F-35 would be about twice as loud as the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle at takeoff and up to four times as loud during landing.[184] This led residents near two potential F-35 bases—Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, and Eglin Air Force Base, Florida—to request environmental impact studies about the jet's noise.[184] The following year, the city of Valparaiso, Florida, adjacent to Eglin AFB, threatened to sue over the impending F-35 arrival; this lawsuit was settled in March 2010.[185][186][187] In 2009, testing reportedly revealed the F-35 to be "only about as noisy as an F-16 fitted with a Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-200 engine" and quieter than the F-22 and F/A-18E/F.[188] An acoustics study by Lockheed Martin and the USAF found F-35 noise to be comparable to the F-22 and F/A-18E/F.[189] A 2012 USAF environmental impact study found that replacing F-16s with F-35s at Tucson International Airport would subject more than 21 times as many residents to extreme noise levels.[190] Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy began developing ways to protect sailors' ears from the F-35's "thundering 152 decibels".[191] In October 2014, the F-35 program office said that the F-35B's take-off noise was only two decibels higher than a Super Hornet, indistinguishable to the human ear, and is 10 decibels quieter when flying formations or landing.[192]

Operational history[edit]


The first F-35A (designated AA-1) was rolled out in Fort Worth, Texas, on 19 February 2006. In September 2006, the first engine run of the F135 in an airframe took place.[193] On 15 December 2006, the F-35A completed its maiden flight.[194] A modified Boeing 737–300, the Lockheed Martin CATBird has been used as an avionics test-bed for the F-35 program, including a duplication of the cockpit.[68]

The first F-35B (designated BF-1) made its maiden flight on 11 June 2008, piloted by BAE Systems' test pilot Graham Tomlinson. Flight testing of the STOVL propulsion system began on 7 January 2010.[195] The F-35B's first hover was on 17 March 2010, followed by its first vertical landing the next day.[196] During a test flight on 10 June 2010, the F-35B achieved supersonic speeds.[197] In January 2011, Lockheed Martin reported that a solution was found for an aluminum bulkhead cracking during ground testing,[198] In 2013, the F-35B suffered another bulkhead cracking incident.[199] necessitating a redesign while already close to the ultimate weight limit.[200]

The first delivered USAF F-35 on its delivery flight to Eglin Air Force Base in July 2011.
External video
F-35B tests on USS Wasp in 2011
Short TakeOff
BF-04 vertical landing

By June 2009, many of the initial flight test targets had been accomplished but the program was behind schedule.[201] During 2008, a Pentagon Joint Estimate Team (JET) estimated that it was two years behind the public schedule, a revised estimate in 2009 predicted a 30-month delay.[202] Delays reduced planned production numbers by 122 aircraft through 2015 to provide an additional $2.8 billion for development while a 13-month timeline extension was mooted internally.[202][203] JET's performance led Ashton Carter calling for more such teams for other poorly performing projects.[204]

A U.S. Navy F-35C makes the aircraft's first arrested landing aboard the carrier USS Nimitz off the coast of San Diego.

Nearly 30 percent of test flights required more than routine maintenance to make aircraft flightworthy again.[205] By March 2010, the program had used a million more man-hours than predicted.[206] The U.S. Navy projected that lifecycle costs over a 65-year fleet life for all American F-35s to be $442 billion higher than USAF projections.[207] Delays have led to shortfall of up to 100 fighters in the Navy/Marines, being somewhat mitigated via existing assets.[208]

The F-35C's maiden flight took place on 7 June 2010, at NAS Fort Worth JRB.[209] On 9 March 2011, all F-35s were grounded after a dual generator failure and oil leak in flight;[210] the cause was later discovered to have been faulty maintenance.[211] In 2012, Navy Commander Erik Etz of the F-35 program office stated that the F-35's sensors had been tested during exercise Northern Edge 2011, serving as a significant risk-reduction step.[212][213]

On 2 August 2011, an F-35's integrated power package (IPP) failure during a standard engine test, causing an immediate grounding of the F-35 for two weeks.[214][215] On 10 August 2011, ground operations were re-instituted; preliminary inquiries indicated the IPP failure to have been caused by a control valve error.[216][217] On 18 August 2011, the flight ban was lifted for 18 of the 20 F-35s; two aircraft remained grounded for lack of monitoring systems.[218] The IPP suffered a second software-related incident in 2013; there was no disruption as the fleet was already grounded by separate engine issues.[219]

On 25 October 2011, the F-35A reached its designed top speed of Mach 1.6 for the first time;[220] further testing demonstrated Mach 1.61 and 9.9g.[221] On 11 February 2013, an F-35A completed its final test flight for clean wing flutter, being reportedly flutter-free at up to Mach 1.6.[222] In October 2011, two F-35Bs conducted three weeks of initial sea trials aboard USS Wasp.[223] On 15 August 2012, an F-35B completed airborne engine start tests.[224]

In 2011, all eight landing tests of the F-35C failed to catch the arresting wire; a redesigned tail hook was developed and delivered two years later in response.[225][226]

On 6 October 2012, the F-35A dropped its first bomb,[227] followed three days later by an AIM-120 AMRAAM.[228] On 28 November 2012, an F-35C performed a total of eleven weapon releases, including a GBU-31 JDAM and GBU-12 Paveway from its weapons bay in the first weapons released for the F-35C.[229]

On 16 November 2012, the USMC received the first F-35B at MCAS Yuma.[230] A February 2013 Time article revealed that Marine pilots are not allowed to perform a vertical landing—the maneuver is deemed too dangerous, and it is reserved only for Lockheed test pilots.[231] On 21 March 2013, the USMC performed its first hover and vertical landing with an F-35B outside of a testing environment.[232] On 10 May 2013, the F-35B completed its first vertical takeoff test.[233] On 3 August 2013, the 500th vertical landing took place.[234]

On 18 January 2013, the F-35B was grounded after an "improperly crimped" fueldraulic line in the propulsion system failed on 16 January;[235][236] flight tests were cleared to resume on 12 February 2013.[237] On 22 February 2013, the U.S. Department of Defense grounded the entire fleet after a cracked turbine blade was found in a USAF F-35A.[238] On 28 February 2013, the grounding was lifted after an investigation concluded that stressful testing of that specific engine, including a prolonged period of excessive heat, led to cracking, and was not a wider issue.[239][240] The F-35C's first carrier-based night flight operations occurred off the coast of San Diego on 13 November 2014.[241]

On 5 June 2015, the U.S. Air Education and Training Command Accident Investigation Board reported that catastrophic engine failure had destroyed a USAF F-35A at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, on 23 June 2014. A rotor arm had fractured and broke free during takeoff, pieces cutting through the fan case, engine bay, internal fuel tank and hydraulic and fuel lines before leaving through the upper fuselage. Leaked fuel and hydraulic fluid ignited a fire, destroying the aircraft's rear. The loss caused the cancelation of the F-35's international debut at the 2014 Farnborough Airshow in England, a temporary grounding,[242] and ongoing flight envelope restrictions.[243]

An F-35B launches off the "ski-jump" of HMS Queen Elizabeth in 2018

On 19 June 2015, the RAF successfully launched two 500 lb Paveway IV precision-guided bombs, the first time that non-US munitions were deployed by the type.[244] A Royal Navy F-35 conducted the first "rolling" landing on board Britain's newest aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in October 2018.[245]

The USMC declared it had met initial operational capability on 31 July 2015, despite shortcomings in night operations, communications, software and weapons carriage capabilities.[246] However, J. Michael Gilmore, director of the Pentagon’s Operational Test and Evaluation Office, criticized the operational trials as invalid: "the exercise was so flawed that it 'was not an operational test... [it] did not—and could not—demonstrate' that the version of the F-35 that was evaluated 'is ready for real-world operational deployments, given the way the event was structured.'"[247]

In April 2016, the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) reportedly cleared its KDC-10 aerial tanker to refuel the F-35, paving the way for its international public debut at the RNLAF's Open Dagen (Open Days) at Leeuwarden on 10–11 June 2016. The testing required the F-35 to refuel in daylight, dusk and night, with 30,000 lb of fuel being transferred during the tests.[248]

Israel's first F-35 on a test flight

The Israeli Air Force declared the F-35 operationally capable on 6 December 2017.[249] According to Kuwaiti newspaper Al Jarida, in July 2018, a test mission of at least three IAF F-35s flew to Iran's capital Tehran and back from Tel Aviv. While publicly unconfirmed, regional leaders acted on the report; Iran's supreme leader Ali Khamenei reportedly fired the air force chief and commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps over the mission.[250][251]


In 2011, the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation warned that the USAF's plan to start unmonitored flight training "risks the occurrence of a serious mishap".[252] The leaders of the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services called on Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to reconsider the plan.[253] Despite objections, expanded trial flights began in September 2012.[254]

(From the top) F-35A of the 33rd FW, F-35B of VMFAT-501 and F-35C of VFA-101 near Eglin AFB in May 2014.

The F-35A and F-35B were cleared for flight training in early 2012.[255][256] They were restricted to basic maneuvers with no tactical training allowed.[257] On 24 August 2012, a USMC pilot flew the F-35's 200th sortie at Eglin Air Force Base. The pilot said, "The aircraft have matured dramatically since the early days. The aircraft are predictable and seem to be maintainable, which is good for the sortie production rate. Currently, the flight envelope for the F-35 is very, very restricted, but there are signs of improvement there too". The F-35s at the base no longer need to fly with a chase aircraft and are operating in a normal two-ship element.[258]

On 21 August 2012, J. Michael Gilmore wrote that he would not approve the Operational Test and Evaluation master plan until his concerns about electronic warfare testing, budget, and concurrency were addressed.[259] On 7 September 2012, the Pentagon failed to approve a comprehensive operational testing plan for the F-35.[260] Instead, on 10 September 2012, the USAF began an operational utility evaluation (OUE) of the F-35A, including logistical support, maintenance, personnel training, and pilot execution.[261] By 1 October, the OUE was reported as "proceeding smoothly". Pilots started on simulators, then began flying on 26 October.[262] The OUE was completed on 14 November with the 24th flight, the four pilots involved having completed six flights each.[263]

During the Low Rate Initial Production (LRIP) phase, the three U.S. military services jointly developed tactics and procedures for the F-35 using flight simulators. Simulated flights tested the flight controls' effectiveness, helping to discover problems and refine its design.[264] Maintenance staff found that rebooting software and onboard systems often fixed issues.[265] In January 2013, training began at Eglin Air Force Base with capacity for 100 pilots and 2,100 maintainers at once.[266]

At Red Flag 2017, the F-35 scored a kill ratio of 15:1 against an F-16 aggressor squadron.[267]

Basing plans for U.S. F-35s[edit]

On 9 December 2010, a media report stated that the "USMC will base 216 F-35Bs on the East Coast and 184 of them on the West Coast...Cherry Point will get 128 jets to form eight squadrons; Beaufort will have three squadrons and a pilot training center using 88 aircraft; Miramar will form six operational squadrons with 96 jets and 88 F-35s will go to Yuma for five operational squadrons with an additional test and evaluation unit".[268] In 2011, the USMC and USN signed an agreement that the USMC will purchase 340 F-35B and 80 F-35C fighters. The five squadrons of USMC F-35Cs would be assigned to Navy carriers while F-35Bs would be used ashore.[269][270]

In February 2014, the USAF announced that the first Air National Guard unit to fly the F-35 will be the 158th Fighter Wing of the Vermont Air National Guard based at the Burlington Air Guard Station. The 158th currently flies aging F-16s; the F-35A is expected to arrive in 2020.[271] On 11 March 2014, the first F-35A assigned to Luke Air Force Base arrived; 144 are to be stationed there over the course of the next decade.[272][273] On 8 January 2015, RAF Lakenheath in the UK was chosen as the first base in Europe to station two American F-35 squadrons, following an announcement by the Pentagon. 48 F-35s, making up 2 squadrons, will add to the 48th Fighter Wing's already existing F-15C and F-15E Strike Eagle jets.[274]

The USMC plans to disperse its F-35Bs among forward deployed bases to enhance survivability while remaining close to a battlespace, similar to RAF Harrier deployment in the Cold War, which relied on the use of off-base locations that offered short runways, shelter, and concealment. Known as distributed STOVL operations (DSO), F-35Bs would operate from temporary bases in allied territory within the range of hostile ballistic and cruise missiles and be moved between temporary locations inside the enemy's 24- to 48-hour targeting cycle; this strategy accounts for the F-35B's short range, the shortest of the three variants, with mobile forward arming and refueling points (M-Farps) accommodating KC-130 and MV-22 Osprey aircraft to rearm and refuel the jets, as well as littoral areas for sea links of mobile distribution sites. M-Farps can be based on small airfields, multi-lane roads, or damaged main bases, while F-35Bs return to rear-area USAF bases or friendly ships for scheduled maintenance. Helicopter-portable metal planking is needed to protect unprepared roads from the F-35B's engine exhaust; the USMC are studying lighter heat-resistant alternatives.[275]

United Kingdom[edit]

The first RAF F-35B to arrive in the United Kingdom, escorted by two USMC F-35Bs and a pair of RAF Typhoon FGR4s en route to the 2016 Royal International Air Tattoo

The United Kingdom's Royal Air Force and Royal Navy both operate the F-35B, known simply as the Lightning in British service;[276] it has replaced the Harrier GR9, which was retired in 2010, and Tornado GR4, which was retired in 2019. The F-35 is to be Britain's primary strike aircraft for the next three decades. One of the Royal Navy requirements for the F-35B was a Shipborne Rolling and Vertical Landing (SRVL) mode to increase maximum landing weight by using wing lift during landing.[277][278] In July 2013, Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton announced that No. 617 (The Dambusters) Squadron would be the RAF's first operational F-35 squadron.[279][280] The second operational squadron will be the Fleet Air Arm's 809 Naval Air Squadron in April 2023.[281]

By June 2013, the RAF had received three F-35s of the 48 on order, all initially based at Eglin Air Force Base.[282] In June 2015, the F-35B undertook its first launches from a ski-jump at NAS Patuxent River.[283] When operated at sea, British F-35B shall use ships fitted with ski-jumps, as will the Italian Navy. British F-35Bs are not intended to receive the Brimstone 2 missile.[284] On 5 July 2017, it was announced the second UK-based RAF squadron would be No. 207 Squadron, which reformed on 1 July 2019 as the Lightning Operational Conversion Unit.[285] No. 617 Squadron reformed on 18 April 2018 during a ceremony in Washington, D.C., US, becoming the first RAF front-line squadron to operate the type;[286] receiving its first four F-35Bs on 6 June, flying from MCAS Beaufort to RAF Marham.[287] Both No. 617 Squadron and its F-35s were declared combat ready on 10 January 2019.[288]

In April 2019, No. 617 Squadron deployed to RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, the type's first overseas deployment.[289] In October 2019, F-35s were embarked on HMS Queen Elizabeth for the first time.[290]

Combat use[edit]

On 22 May 2018, Israeli Air Force chief Amikam Norkin said that the service had employed their F-35Is in two attacks on two battle fronts, marking the first combat operation of an F-35 by any country.[291][18] Norkin said it had been flown "all over the Middle East", and showed photos of an F-35I flying over Beirut in daylight.[292]

On 27 September 2018, a USMC F-35B attacked a Taliban target in Afghanistan, the first U.S. combat employment; it had taken off from the amphibious assault ship USS Essex in the Arabian Sea.[293]

On 15 April 2019, the USAF deployed F-35As to Al Dhafra Air Base, UAE, for their first Middle East deployment.[294] On 27 April 2019, USAF F-35As were first used in combat in an airstrike on an Islamic State tunnel network in northern Iraq.[295]

On 25 June 2019, the first combat use of an RAF F-35B was reportedly undertaken as armed reconnaissance flights searching for Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria.[296]

In July 2019, Israel reportedly expanded its strikes against Iranian missile shipments; IAF F-35Is allegedly struck Iranian targets in Iraq twice.[297]

Procurement and international participation[edit]

Participant nations:
  Primary customer: United States
  Level 1 partner: United Kingdom
  Level 2 partners: Italy and the Netherlands
  Level 3 partners: Australia, Canada, Denmark, and Norway
  Security Cooperative Participants: Israel and Singapore

While the United States is the primary customer and financial backer, along with the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Canada, Turkey, Australia, Norway, and Denmark have agreed to contribute US$4.375 billion towards development costs.[298] Total development costs are estimated at more than US$40 billion. The purchase of an estimated 2,400 aircraft is expected to cost an additional US$200 billion.[299] The initial plan was that the nine major partner nations would acquire over 3,100 F-35s through 2035.[300] Sales to partner nations are made through the Pentagon's Foreign Military Sales program.[301]

There are three levels of international participation.[302] The levels generally reflect financial stake in the program, the amount of technology transfer and subcontracts open for bid by national companies, and the order in which countries can obtain production aircraft. The United Kingdom is the sole "Level 1" partner, contributing about 10% of the planned development costs[303] under the 1995 Memorandum of Understanding that brought the UK into the project.[304] Level 2 partners are Italy and the Netherlands. Level 3 partners are Turkey, Canada, Australia, Norway, and Denmark. Israel and Singapore have joined as Security Cooperative Participants (SCP).[305][306][307]

Japan announced on 20 December 2011 its intent to purchase 42 F-35s with deliveries beginning in 2016 to replace the F-4 Phantom II; Japan seeks 38 F-35s, to be assembled domestically.[308]

By 2012, many changes had occurred in the order book. Italy became the first country to reduce its order (from 131 to 90 F-35s). Other nations reduced initial purchases or delayed orders while still intending to purchase the same final numbers. The U.S. canceled the initial purchase of 13 F-35s and postponed orders for another 179. The United Kingdom cut its initial order and delayed a decision on future orders. Australia decided to buy the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet as an interim measure. Turkey also cut its initial order of four aircraft to two, but confirmed plans to purchase 100 F-35As.[309][310] Such cuts have raised unit prices, increasing the likelihood of further cuts.[311][312]

On 3 April 2012, the Auditor General of Canada Michael Ferguson published a report outlining problems with Canada's procurement of the jet; the report states that the government knowingly understated the final cost of 65 F-35s by $10 billion.[313] Canada's Conservative government stated it would not reduce its order, and anticipated a $75–80 million unit cost; the procurement was termed a "scandal" and "fiasco" by the media and faced a full review to determine any Canadian F-35 purchase.[314][315][316] On 13 December 2012, in a scathing editorial published by CBC News, journalist Brian Stewart termed the F-35 project a "global wrecking ball" for its runaway costs and lack of affordability for many participating nations.[317] The Canadian government decided not to proceed with a sole-sourced purchase and launched a competition to choose an aircraft.[318]

In May 2013, Lockheed Martin declared that Turkey is projected to earn $12 billion from licensed production of F-35 components.[319][320] In June 2018, the U.S. Senate blocked the transfer of F-35s to Turkey over security concerns.[321] On 17 July 2019, President Trump vetoed the sale of F-35s to Turkey.[322]

In January 2019, Singapore officially announced its plan to buy a small number of F-35s for an evaluation of capabilities and suitability before deciding on more to replace its aging F-16 fleet.[323]

In May 2019, Poland announced plans to buy 32 F-35As to replace Soviet-era jets used by the Polish Air Force.[324] At a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Polish President Andrzej Duda in Washington D.C, an F-35B was flown over the South Lawn of the White House to demonstrate its capabilities.[325] In October 2019, US State Department approved Poland's possible purchase of the F-35.[citation needed]

In January 2020, Greece formally expressed interest in acquiring F-35s following a visit by Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to the White House. A figure of 20 aircraft was floated, to be acquired no earlier than 2024, following the successful upgrading of Greece's F-16 fleet.[326][327]


Configuration of the three original F-35 variants. CTOL for conventional take-off and landing, STOVL for short take-off and vertical-landing, and CV for carrier variant

The F-35 is being built in three different main versions to suit various combat missions.


The F-35A is the conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant intended for the USAF and other air forces. It is the smallest, lightest version and is the only variant equipped with an internal cannon, the GAU-22/A. This 25 mm cannon is a development of the GAU-12 carried by the USMC's AV-8B Harrier II. It is designed for increased effectiveness against ground targets compared to the 20 mm M61 Vulcan cannon carried by other USAF fighters. On 2 August 2016, the USAF declared the F-35A basic combat ready.[328] The F-35A was scheduled to be fully combat-ready in 2017 with its 3F software upgrade.[329][needs update]

USAF F-35A in flight, 2013

The F-35A is expected to match the F-16 in maneuverability and instantaneous high-g performance, and outperform it in stealth, payload, range on internal fuel, avionics, operational effectiveness, supportability, and survivability.[330][331]

The F-35A can be outfitted to receive fuel via either of the two main aerial refueling methods; this was a consideration in the Canadian procurement and a deciding factor for the Japanese purchase.[332][333][334] The F-35As for the Royal Norwegian Air Force will have drag chute installed, being the first operator to adopt the drag chute pod.[335]


Video of a USMC F-35B conducting the first vertical landing aboard USS Wasp (LHD-1) on 3 October 2011
A British F-35B hovering at the Royal International Air Tattoo, 2016

The F-35B is the short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the aircraft. Similar in size to the A variant, the B sacrifices about a third of the A variant's fuel volume to accommodate the vertical flight system. Vertical takeoffs and landings are riskier because of threats such as foreign object damage.[336][337] Whereas the F-35A is stressed to 9 g,[338][339] the F-35B's stress goal is 7 g. As of 2014, the F-35B is limited to 4.5 g and 400 knots. The next software upgrade includes weapons, and allows 5.5 g and Mach 1.2, with a final target of 7 g and Mach 1.6.[340]

Unlike other variants, the F-35B has no landing hook. The "STOVL/HOOK" control instead engages conversion between normal and vertical flight.[341] Jet thrust is sent directly downwards during vertical flight. The variant's three-bearing swivel nozzle that directs the full thrust of the engine is moved by a "fueldraulic" actuator using pressurized fuel as the working fluid.[342]


Two F-35 variants in formation. The F-35C (left) has a larger wing than the two F-35Bs

Compared to the F-35A, the F-35C carrier variant features larger wings with foldable wingtip sections, larger wing and tail control surfaces for improved low-speed control, stronger landing gear for the stresses of carrier arrested landings, a twin-wheel nose gear, and a stronger tailhook for use with carrier arrestor cables. The larger wing area allows for decreased landing speed while increasing both range and payload.

The US Navy declared initial operational capability for the F-35C on 28 February 2019.[3]

Other versions[edit]


IAF F-35I Adir in flight, 2016

The F-35I Adir (Hebrew: אדיר, meaning "Awesome",[343] or "Mighty One"[344]) is an F-35A with unique Israeli modifications. The U.S. initially refused to allow such modifications, then permitted Israel to integrate its own electronic warfare systems, such as sensors and countermeasures. The main computer has a plug-and-play feature for the use of add-on electronics; proposed systems include an external jamming pod, and new Israeli air-to-air missiles and guided bombs in the internal weapon bays.[345][346]

Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) has considered working on a proposed two-seat F-35. An IAI executive said, "There is a known demand for two seats not only from Israel but from other air forces".[347] IAI plans to produce conformal fuel tanks.[348] A senior IAF official said that elements of the F-35's stealth may be overcome in 5 to 10 years despite being in service for 30 to 40 years, thus Israel's insistence on installing their own electronic warfare systems: "The basic F-35 design is OK. We can make do with adding integrated software".[349]


The Canadian CF-35 is a proposed variant that would differ from the F-35A through the addition of a drogue parachute and may include an F-35B/C-style refueling probe.[335][350] In 2012, it was revealed that the CF-35 would employ the same boom refueling system as the F-35A.[351] One alternative proposal would have been the adoption of the F-35C for its probe refueling and lower landing speed; however, the Parliamentary Budget Officer's report cited the F-35C's limited performance and payload as being too high a price to pay.[352] Following the 2015 Federal Election the Liberal Party, whose campaign had included a pledge to cancel the F-35 procurement,[353] formed a new government and commenced an open competition to replace the existing CF-18 Hornet.[354]


An early study for a possible upgrade of the F-35A to be fielded by the 2035 target date of the USAF's Future Operating Concept.[355][356]


One of the RAAF's first two F-35As in December 2014
The F-35I Adir (accompanied by a 253 Squadron F-16I Sufa) on its debut flight in Israel, December 2016


Dutch F-35A in July 2013
 South Korea
  • Turkish Air Force – 4 delivered[387] to Luke Air Force Base. 30 F-35s were ordered,[388] of up to 120 total planned.[389][390] Future purchases have been banned by the U.S. with contracts canceled by early 2020.[391] Intended Turkish squadrons were:
    • 112th Squadron "Devil"
    • 171st Squadron "Corsair"
    • 172nd Squadron "Hawk"
 United States


The first Italian F-35B
First four RAF F-35Bs on a delivery flight to RAF Marham, June 2018
 South Korea
 United Kingdom

18 received,[409] with 15 in the UK[410] and the rest in the US, where they are used for testing and training.[411] 42 (24 FOC fighters and 18 training aircraft) to be fast-tracked by 2023;[412][413] 138 F-35 total planned, first 48 aircraft will be F-35B.[414][415] Declared combat-ready in January 2019.[416]

 United States
A USMC F35B aboard USS Wasp


US Navy F-35C takes off from Eglin AFB
 United States

Accidents and notable incidents[edit]

On 23 June 2014, an F-35A's engine caught fire at Eglin Air Force Base. The pilot escaped unharmed, while the aircraft sustained an estimated US$50 million of damages.[433][434] The accident caused all flights to be halted on 3 July.[435] The fleet returned to flight on 15 July with flight envelope restrictions.[436] In June 2015, the USAF Air Education and Training Command (AETC) issued its official report, which blamed the failure on the third stage rotor of the engine's fan module, pieces of which cut through the fan case and upper fuselage. Pratt & Whitney applied an extended "rub-in" to increase the gap between the second stator and the third rotor integral arm seal, as well as design alterations to pre-trench the stator by early 2016.[433]

The first crash occurred on 28 September 2018; after the pilot's ejection, a USMC F-35B crashed near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina.[437][438] All F-35s were grounded pending a fleet-wide inspection of potentially faulty engine tubes.[439] The next day, the USAF and the U.S. Navy announced that some F-35s were flying again.[440]

On 9 April 2019, a Japan Air Self-Defense Force F-35A attached to Misawa Air Base disappeared from radar about 84 miles (135 km) east of the Aomori Prefecture during a training mission over the Pacific Ocean. The pilot, Major Akinori Hosomi, had radioed his intention to abort the drill before disappearing.[441][442] Both US and Japanese Navy assets searched for the missing aircraft and pilot, finding debris on the water that confirmed its crash; Hosomi's remains were recovered in June.[443][444] In response, Japan grounded its 12 F-35As.[445][442] There was speculation that China or Russia might attempt to salvage it; the Japanese Defense Ministry announced there had been no "reported activities" from either country.[442] Japan's defense minister Takeshi Iwaya stated that the likely cause was the pilot's spatial disorientation.[446] The F-35 reportedly did not send a distress signal nor did the pilot mention any problems during communication. In addition, since the training was not a low-level flight, Hosomi ought to have time to react given his experience level.[441][447]


In April 2015, the General Accountability Office reported "61 violations of quality management rules and policies" during an inspection of Pratt & Whitney's work on the F-35 engine and warned that the problems could lead to "further cost increases" and "schedule delays". [448] Pratt and the F-35 program office responded that they had taken "aggressive steps [to] address the [GAO] findings." Pratt said it had "implemented plans to correct 60 percent of the issues raised" and would complete all but one by July 2015, while the remaining issue would be addressed by year-end.[448]

In late 2017, the GAO, as Bloomberg reported, found that the time needed to repair an F-35 part averaged 172 days, which was "twice the program's objective," adding that those shortages are "degrading readiness" since the jets were "unable to fly about 22 percent of the time" for lack of needed parts.[449] The Pentagon responded that cost had been "brought under control."[449] In a June 2018 report to the U.S. Congress, the GAO recommended that "Congress should consider...that no funds shall be [made] available...for F35 Block 4 until [the Department of Defense] provides a sound business case for the effort" and also recommended to the DoD that "all critical deficiencies" should be resolved "before its full-rate production decision."[450]

In an article in the June 2019 issue of Harper's,[451] investigative journalist Andrew Cockburn reported that out of the six USMC F-35s deployed in the Middle East, they "over several months, only managed to fly, on average, one combat sortie per plane every three days." Additionally, the F-35 initially carried a radar whose frequent freezing required pilots to regularly switch it on and off, a problem that was "eventually corrected," while the USAF version featured an "unacceptably inaccurate" gun on which the service stated is "working." Environmental issues were also cited, such as the F-35 being "at least four times noisier than the ­F-16". The article claimed it belongs in a "bulging arsenal of weapons systems incapable of performing as advertised and bought at extraordinary cost," the ­F-35 costing, as Cockburn claimed, almost six times more than the ­F-16 it is replacing, while the whole program is, at a projected total cost of $406 billion, the "most expensive weapons program in history".[451] By March 2019, the F-35 program is projected to have a lifetime cost of $1.5 trillion, "roughly what [the U.S.] spent on the entire Iraq War."[452]

In June 2019, questions were raised about the integrity of the F-35 supply chain when it was reported that a UK subsidiary of a company in the People's Republic of China, Shenzhen Fastprint, manufactures certain circuit board components for the fighter jet.[453][454] The UK Ministry of Defence denied any risks.[453]

In 2019, the German company Hensoldt claimed that its passive radar detection system TwInvis was able to track the flight of two F-35s for 150 kilometers after the 2018 Berlin Air Show.[455]

Specifications (F-35A)[edit]

F-35A three-view.PNG
The first of 15 pre-production F-35s
F-35B cutaway with LiftFan

Data from Lockheed Martin: F-35A specifications,[121] Lockheed Martin: F-35B Short Takeoff/Vertical Landing Variant,[456] Lockheed Martin: F-35C Carrier borne variant,[457] Lockheed Martin: F-35 weaponry,[458] Lockheed Martin: F-35 Program Status,[459] F-35 Program brief[61] F-35 JSF Statistics[56]

General characteristics

  • Crew: 1
  • Length: 50 ft 6 in (15.39 m) [460]
  • Wingspan: 35 ft (11 m)
  • Height: 14 ft 2.5 in (4.331 m)
  • Wing area: 460 sq ft (43 m2) [61]
  • Empty weight: 28,999 lb (13,154 kg) [461]
  • Gross weight: 49,441 lb (22,426 kg) [120]
  • Max takeoff weight: 70,000 lb (31,751 kg)
  • Fuel capacity: 18,498 lb (8,391 kg) internal fuel
  • Powerplant: 1 × Pratt & Whitney F135 afterburning turbofan, 28,000 lbf (120 kN) thrust dry, 43,000 lbf (190 kN) with afterburner

Performance(F-35A:tested to Mach 1.61)[221]

  • Maximum speed: Mach 1.61
  • Range: 1,500 nmi (1,700 mi, 2,800 km) +
  • Combat range: 669 nmi (770 mi, 1,239 km) - Combat radius[462]
760 nmi (870 mi; 1,410 km) - Combat radius (interdiction mission on internal fuel, for internal air to air configuration)[463]
  • Service ceiling: 50,000 ft (15,000 m) +[464]
  • g limits: +9g
  • Wing loading: 107.5 lb/sq ft (525 kg/m2) at Gross weight
  • Thrust/weight: 0.87 with full internal fuel
1.07 with 50% internal fuel



Differences between variants
Length 50.5 ft (15.4 m) 50.5 ft (15.4 m) 50.8 ft (15.5 m)
Wingspan 35 ft (10.7 m) 35 ft (10.7 m) 43 ft (13.1 m)
Wing Area 460 ft² (42.7 m²) 460 ft² (42.7 m²) 620 ft² (57.6 m²)
Empty weight[470] 28,999 lb (13,154 kg) 32,472 lb (14,729 kg) 34,581 lb (15,686 kg)
Internal fuel 18,498 lb (8,391 kg) 13,326 lb (6,045 kg) 19,624 lb (8,901 kg)
Max takeoff weight 70,000 lb (31,800 kg) class 60,000 lb (27,200 kg) class 70,000 lb (31,800 kg) class
Range >1,200 nmi (2,200 km) >900 nmi (1,700 km) >1,200 nmi (2,200 km)
Combat radius on
internal fuel[462]
669 nmi (1,239 km) 505 nmi (935 km) 670 nmi (1,241 km)
 • full fuel:
 • 50% fuel:



g limit +9g +7.5g +7.5g
Maximum speed Mach 1.6 Mach 1.6 Mach 1.6

Appearances in media[edit]

See also[edit]

Related development

Aircraft of comparable role, configuration and era

  • Chengdu J-20 – Chinese fifth-generation fighter
  • Shenyang FC-31 – Fifth-generation jet fighter currently under development by Shenyang Aircraft Corporation
  • Sukhoi Su-57 – Russian fifth-generation fighter aircraft

Related lists


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  2. ^ Quote: "The F-35A, with an air-to-air mission takeoff weight of 49,540 lb".[120]
  3. ^ F-35B and F-35C have the cannon in an external pod with 220 rounds


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Further reading[edit]

  • Borgu, Aldo. A Big Deal: Australia's Future Air Combat Capability. Canberra: Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 2004. ISBN 1-920722-25-4.
  • Gunston, Bill. Yakovlev Aircraft since 1924. London: Putnam Aeronautical Books, 1997. ISBN 1-55750-978-6.
  • Spick, Mike. The Illustrated Directory of Fighters. London: Salamander, 2002. ISBN 1-84065-384-1.
  • Winchester, Jim (2005). Concept Aircraft: Prototypes, X-Planes, and Experimental Aircraft. San Diego, CA: Thunder Bay Press. ISBN 978-1-59223-480-6. OCLC 636459025.

External links[edit]