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.

Staying a step ahead in current and future conflicts required a new edge in air warfare. In this episode, we introduce you to the newest fifth generation multirole fighter aircraft, the F-35. Video // Air Force TV

The F-35 is the result of the Joint Strike Fighter program, which was intended to develop a single-engine, stealthy, multi-role fighter to replace an aging fleet of mission-dedicated airframes: the Air Force’s F-16 Fighting Falcon and A-10 Thunderbolt II and the Navy and Marine Corps’ F/A-18 Hornet and AV-8B Harrier II.

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.

Enlarge

160425-F-KS667-061-scaled
An F-35 Lightning II from the 61st Fighter Squadron deploys a GBU-12 500-pound laser- guided bomb for the first time in the squadron’s history April 25, 2016, at the Barry M. Goldwater Range in Gila Bend, Ariz. Three F-35s successfully delivered six inert GBU-12s during the practice sortie, making the 61st FS the second squadron at Luke Air Force Base to drop bombs from the F-35.

U.S. Air Force photo // Airman 1st Class Ridge Shan

Since Operation Desert Storm in 1991, the Air Force has conducted combat operations in a relatively uncontested air domain. As such the Air Force, joint force and the nation were not punished for an aging fleet, or for recapitalization and modernization efforts that cost more than planned, were delivered late, and didn’t always deliver the full needed capability. 

However, peer adversaries China and Russia are rapidly expanding their aerial warfighting capabilities, supported by novel operational concepts and rapid weapons development timelines. 

Because current and future warfighting environments will certainly be highly contested, the F-35 is a key component of an overall fighter-force design built to outpace those key competitors and win the high-end fight. 

Enlarge

200106-F-OD616-0011-scaled
The active duty 388th and Reserve 419th Fighter Wings conducted an F-35A Combat Power Exercise at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Jan. 6, 2020. The exercise, which was planned for months, demonstrated their ability to employ a large force of F-35As — testing readiness in the areas of personnel accountability, aircraft generation, ground operations, flight operations, and combat capability against air and ground targets. A little more than four years after receiving their first combat-coded F35A Lightning II aircraft, Hill’s fighter wings have achieved full warfighting capability.

U.S. Air Force photo // R. Nial Bradshaw

Military and budgetary benefits of international cooperation are well represented in the F-35 program. Partner nations, including the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada, Netherlands, Italy, 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.

Maj. Thomas Hayes, a pilot with the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron, a tenant unit at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., gives an inside look at what it’s like to be a F-35A test pilot. Video // Andrew Arthur Breese

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 took delivery of its first operational F-35As in December 2018.

The first F-35As are scheduled to arrive at RAF Lakenheath, U.K., in late 2021. The base was selected to host the first U.S. F-35A squadrons in Europe based on very close ties with the Royal Air Force, existing infrastructure and combined training opportunities.

Enlarge

216-first-raaf-f-35a
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) received its first squadron of 14 Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning IIs in late 2018.

Photo // RAAF

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, or STOVL, airframe with thrust being vectored through nozzles, as with the existing Harrier.

Enlarge

f70bd2d6cda1b786483e0c55d581baa4
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.

Photo // Boeing

Lockheed Martin proposed to produce three airframe variants, one for each service: the conventional take-off and landing, or 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.

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. In 2014, the 58th Fighter Squadron was the first to become a complete F-35A squadron.

Enlarge

4523033-1
F-35A Lightning II test aircraft assigned to the 31st Test Evaluation Squadron from Edwards Air Force Base, California, released AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9X missiles at QF-16 targets during a live-fire test over an Air Force range in the Gulf of Mexico on June 12, 2018. The Joint Operational Test Team conducted the missions as part of Block 3F Initial Operational Test and Evaluation.

Photo // USAF

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

Some of the 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 33rd Fighter Wing AETC at Eglin AFB, Florida.
  • the Integrated Training Center for pilots and maintainers at Eglin AFB.
  • 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.
  • the 354th Fighter Wing at Eielson AFB, Alaska.
  • the 158th Fighter Wing at Burlington Air National Guard Base, Vermont.

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.

Enlarge

6336294-scaled
Four F-35A Lightning IIs, assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, fly in formation over Denali National Park, Alaska, Aug. 17, 2020. The 388th FW participated in RED FLAG-Alaska 20-3 during which fourth and fifth generation fighter aircraft trained side-by-side in the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, the Department of Defense’s largest instrumented training range.

U.S. Air Force photo // Tech. Sgt. Jerilyn Quintanilla

This “operational quarterback” is also proving to pack a nasty ground attack and individual air-to-air combat capability.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, F-35 squadrons participated in exercise Red Flag at Nellis AFB, and Red Flag-Alaska at Eielson AFB. In Alaska, the newly arrived F-35s from the 356th Fighter Squadron and Joint Strike Fighters from the 4th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force flew together. It was the first time the fifth-generation fighter participated in the Alaska exercise.

In both exercises, the F-35 chalked up nearly a 20:1 kill ratio as it has in previous Red Flag exercises.

U.S. Air Force F-35As completed 18 months of continuous Middle East combat operations in October 2020, flying roughly 4,000 combat sorties and 20,000 combat hours, and employing just shy of 400 weapons while maintaining a 73.5% Fully Mission Capable rate. 

Enlarge

170201-F-OD616-0003
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.

U.S. Air Force photo // R. Nial Bradshaw

Despite the impressive individual performance, the F-35 is best thought of as an integral component of the Air Force’s overall warfighting capability.

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.

As such, the F-35 program represents a model of the military and budgetary benefits of international cooperation. 

The Future Fight

While the F-35’s individual attributes and capabilities are formidable, it will never fight alone. 

As the “operational quarterback”, the F-35A is designed to integrate across domains and forces. The Air Force of the future is being constructed not to fight alongside other services and allies, but with them as one combined force under Joint All Domain Command and Control.

Enlarge

200318-F-QP712-9336F-scaled
A U.S. Air Force B-2A Spirit assigned to the 509th Bomb Wing at Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., and a Royal Netherlands Air Force F-35A Lightning II conduct aerial operations in support of Bomber Task Force Europe 20-2 over the North Sea, March 18, 2020. Bomber missions provide opportunities to train and work with NATO allies and theater partners in combined and joint operations and exercises.

U.S. Air Force photo // Master Sgt. Matthew Plew

Future Air Force F-35s need to fully integrate with Navy and Marine teammates, F-35 international partner nations, and the ever-growing list of foreign military sales customers which also need capable, available and affordable F-35s to integrate across domains and forces. 

The F-35 will be the fighter aircraft cornerstone for many nations – not just the U.S. Air Force – for decades to come. 

To ensure relevance in a high-end fight against peer adversaries, the Air Force is pursuing rapid implementation of Block 4 modernization with Technical Refresh-3, or TR-3, hardware. The full Block 4 upgrades will improve the F-35As capabilities and mission effectiveness in contested environments, increase ability to prosecute targets, increase survivability, advance interoperability, and improve sustainment.

A Block 4 F-35A will be dual-capable and carry a full complement of precision-guided and net- enabled weapons, including: Small Diameter Bomb II; Laser Joint Direct Attack Munition (LJDAM); Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile; Extended Range, or AARGM-ER; and up to six internal air-to-air missiles. 

Enlarge

210216-F-HF102-9338-scaled
An F-35 Lightning II assigned to the 356th Fighter Squadron takes off to participate in an agile combat employment scenario at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam during exercise Cope North 21, Feb. 16, 2021. Engagements incorporating ACE concepts in “less than optimal environments” improve interoperability among forces and help allies and partners increase their capabilities, creating the greatest possible opportunity for long-term advancement of combined interests.

U.S. Air Force photo // Senior Airman Duncan C. Bevan

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 World War II fighter, the twin-engine P-38 Lightning. The United States’ leading air combat pilot of WWII, Maj. Richard I. Bong, scored all of his 40 victories flying the P-38.

Enlarge

DSC2044-2
A P-38 Lightning and an F-35 Lightning II fly around the airspace of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base on March 4, 2016. The P-38 and the F-35 participated in Air Combat Command’s Heritage Flight Training Course, a program that features modern fighter/attack aircraft flying alongside Word War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War-era aircraft.

U.S. Air Force photo // Tech. Sgt. Brandon Shapiro

Fact Sheet / F-35A Lightning II


Primary Function:
 Multi-role fighter
Prime Contractor: Lockheed Martin
Power Plant: One Pratt & Whitney F135-PW-100 turbofan engine
Thrust: 43,000 pounds
Wingspan: 35 feet (10.7 meters)
Length: 51 feet (15.7 meters)
Height: 14 feet (4.38 meters)
Maximum Takeoff Weight: 70,000 pound class
Fuel Capacity: Internal: 18,498 pounds
Payload: 18,000 pounds (8,160 kilograms)
Speed: Mach 1.6 (~1,200 mph)
Range: More than 1,350 miles with internal fuel (1,200+ nautical miles), unlimited with aerial refueling
Ceiling: Above 50,000 feet (15 kilometers)
Armament: Internal and external capability. Munitions carried vary based on mission requirements.
Crew: One

160713-F-HC633-368
See more F-35 photos on Airman’s Flickr page

Airman Logo