Airframe: The F-35A Lightning II

  • Published
  • By J.M. Eddins Jr.
  • Airman Magazine


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 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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.



Some of the Air Force units that operate the F-35A now include:
  • 461st Flight Test Squadron and 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron at Edwards AFB, California.
  • 33rd Fighter Wing AETC at Eglin AFB, Florida.
  • Integrated Training Center for pilots and maintainers at Eglin AFB.
  • 388th Fighter Wing and 419th Fighter Wing at Hill AFB, Utah.
  • 56th Fighter Wing at Luke AFB, Arizona.
  • 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nevada.
  • 354th Fighter Wing at Eielson AFB, Alaska.
  • 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.

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.

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. 



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.

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.


  • 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.


  • 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

VIDEO | 01:57 | F-35A Test Operations