By J.M. Eddins Jr., Airman Magazine
/ Published April 26, 2021
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.
To learn more about the F-35, visit:
For more information on the Joint Strike Fighter program, visit:
For more information about the F-35 manufacturer, visit:
Music by: Killer Tracks
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.
Six operational test and evaluation F-35s and more than 85 Airmen of the 31st TES travelled to Mountain Home AFB to conduct the first simulated deployment test of the F-35A, specifically to execute three key initial operational capability mission sets: suppression of enemy air defenses, close air support and air interdiction.
An F-35A Lightning II from the 33rd Fighter Wing streaks across the sky above Eglin Air Force Base, Fla. while coming in for landing after a training sortie. The 33rd Fighter Wing is responsible for F-35 A/B/C Lightning II pilot and maintainer training for the Marine Corps, the Navy, the Air Force and, in the future, at least eight coalition partners. Initially, 59 aircraft and three flying squadrons, one for each service/aircraft variant, will be established at Eglin. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)
ATLANTIC OCEAN (Dec. 3, 2012) F-35B test aircraft BF-3, flown by Lt. Cmdr. Michael Burks, completes the first aerial weapons release of an inert 500-pound GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bomb by any variant of the F-35 Lightning II aircraft. BF-3 dropped the GBU-12 over the Atlantic Test Ranges from an internal weapons bay. The F-35B is the variant of the Lightning II designed for use by the U.S. Marine Corps, as well as F-35 international partners in the United Kingdom and Italy. The F-35B is capable of short takeoffs and vertical landings to enable air power projection from amphibious ships, ski-jump aircraft carriers and expeditionary airfields. The F-35B is undergoing flight test and evaluation at NAS Patuxent River, Md., prior to delivery to the fleet. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin by Layne Laughter/Released) 121203-O-GR159-002
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F-35A Lightning II's from the 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, land at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, April 15, 2017. The aircraft arrival marks the first F-35A fighter training deployment to the U.S. European Command area of responsibility or any overseas location as a flying training deployment. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew)
F-35A Lightning IIs from the 58th Fighter Squadron, 33rd Fighter Wing, Eglin AFB, Fla., perform an aerial refueling mission May 14, 2013, off the coast of northwest Florida. The 33rd Fighter Wing is a joint graduate flying and maintenance training wing that trains Air Force, Marine, Navy and international partner operators and maintainers of the F-35 Lightning II. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen)
Staff Sgt. Bradley Anthis, a 58th Aircraft Maintenance Unit crew chief, monitors the F-35 Lightning II during a maintenance engine run at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla.(U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)
A pair of F-35A Lightning IIs rom the 33rd Fighter Wing streaks across the sky above Eglin Air Force Base, Fl. while coming in for landing after a training sortie. The 334rd Fighter Wing is responsible for F-35 A/B/C Lightning II pilot and maintainer training for the Marine Corps, the Navy, the Air Force and, in the future, at least eight coalition partners. Initially, 59 aircraft and three flying squadrons, one for each service/aircraft variant, will be established at Eglin. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)
A F-35A Lightning II from the 33rd Fighter Wing streaks across the sky above Eglin Air Force Base, Fl. while coming in for landing after a training sortie. The 334rd Fighter Wing is responsible for F-35 A/B/C Lightning II pilot and maintainer training for the Marine Corps, the Navy, the Air Force and, in the future, at least eight coalition partners. Initially, 59 aircraft and three flying squadrons, one for each service/aircraft variant, will be established at Eglin. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III)
An F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 6th Weapons Squadron, U.S. Air Force Weapons School, takes off for a training mission at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Jan. 12, 2021. The school provides academic and advisory support to numerous units, enhancing air combat training for Airmen from the Air Force, Department of Defense and U.S. allied services each year. (U.S. Air Force photo by William R. Lewis)
An F-35A Lightning II fighter jet assigned to the 421st Fighter Squadron, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, takes off during Red Flag 20-1 at Nellis AFB, Nevada, Feb. 5, 2020. The F-35A is designed to provide the pilot with unsurpassed situational awareness, positive target identification and precision strike capabilities in all weather conditions. (U.S. Air Force photo by William Lewis)
Capt. Kristin Wolfe, F-35 Lightning II Demonstration Team commander and pilot, performs the "dedication pass" maneuver at the 2020 Fort Lauderdale Air Show Nov. 21, 2020 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. This was the F-35 Demonstration Team's 11th show of the season and included performances from all four Air Combat Command single-ship jet demonstration teams. (U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Kip Sumner)
Twenty-five F-35A Lightning IIs assigned to the 354th Fighter Wing prepare to launch during exercise Arctic Gold 21-2 April 7, 2021, at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. Arctic Gold evaluated the 354th FW’s ability to effectively generate aircraft and deploy personnel and cargo from across the wing. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Beaux Hebert)
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 by Master Sgt. Matthew Plew)
A B-2A Spirit bomber assigned to the 509th Bomb Wing leads a delta formation consisting of two F-15C Eagles assigned to the 48th Fighter Wing and two Royal Air Force F-35B Lightning IIs as they conduct aerial operations over the North Sea, Sept. 16, 2019. The 48th Fighter Wing and the Royal Air Force routinely train with integrated fourth and fifth-generation capabilities to deliver full spectrum air combat support to European allies and partners. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Matthew Plew)
An F-35A Lightning ll sits in a hangar at Lakeland Linder International Airport, Lakeland, Fla., following an aerobatic routine by the F-35A Lightning ll demonstration team at the Sun 'n Fun Holiday Flying Festival, Dec. 4, 2020. The Lightning II is a stealth-capable, multi-role attack fighter designed to penetrate the most hostile areas of the world without the threat of detection. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Codie Trimble)
An F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 421st Fighter Squadron taxis during Red Flag 20-1 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Feb.5, 2020. (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)
Maj. Nathan Sabin, taxis an F-35A of the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron, a tenant unit at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., before a test flight at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, Feb 17, 2016. Six operational test and evaluation F-35s and more than 85 Airmen of the 31st TES travelled to Mountain Home AFB to conduct the first simulated deployment test of the F-35A, specifically to execute three key initial operational capability mission sets: suppression of enemy air defenses, close air support and air interdiction. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)
An F-35A of the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron, a tenant unit at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., takes off on a test flight at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, Feb 18, 2016. Six operational test and evaluation F-35s and more than 85 Airmen of the 31st TES travelled to Mountain Home AFB to conduct the first simulated deployment test of the F-35A, specifically to execute three key initial operational capability mission sets: suppression of enemy air defenses, close air support and air interdiction. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)
The Lockheed F-35 "Lightning II" flies in formation with its namesake, the WWII-era Lockheed P-38 "Lightning" during formation practice flights at the Heritage Flight Training Course at Davis-Monthan AFB, Tucson, Ariz., Mar 4, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)
An F-35A of the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron, a tenant unit at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., is parked on the flight line at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, Feb 19, 2016. Six operational test and evaluation F-35s and more than 85 Airmen of the 31st TES travelled to Mountain Home AFB to conduct the first simulated deployment test of the F-35A, specifically to execute three key initial operational capability mission sets: suppression of enemy air defenses, close air support and air interdiction. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)
Maj. Garret Dover prepares to taxi in an F-35A of the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron, a tenant unit at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., takes off on a test flight at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, Feb 17, 2016. Six operational test and evaluation F-35s and more than 85 Airmen of the 31st TES travelled to Mountain Home AFB to conduct the first simulated deployment test of the F-35A, specifically to execute three key initial operational capability mission sets: suppression of enemy air defenses, close air support and air interdiction. (U.S. Air Force photo by J.M. Eddins Jr.)
A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing, Hill Air Force Base, Utah, soars overhead during RED FLAG-Alaska (RF-A) 20-3 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Aug. 7, 2020. All RF-A exercises take place in the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex over Alaska as well as a portion of Western Canadian airspace. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Aaron Larue Guerrisky)
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 by Senior Airman Duncan C. Bevan)
F-35A Lightning II aircraft receive fuel from a KC-10 Extender from Travis Air Force Base, Calif., July 13, 2015, during a flight from England to the U.S. The fighters were returning to Luke AFB, Ariz., after participating in the world's largest air show, the Royal International Air Tattoo. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Madelyn Brown)
F-35A Lightning IIs, perform an aerial refueling mission with a KC-135 Stratotanker May 13, 2013, off the coast of northwest Florida. The 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is a joint graduate flying and maintenance training wing that trains Air Force, Marine, Navy and international partner operators and maintainers of the F-35 Lightning II. The F-35As are assigned to the 58th Fighter Squadron, 33rd FW. The KC-135 is assigned to from the 336th Air Refueling Squadron from March ARB, Calif. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Master Sgt. Donald R. Allen)
Capt. Andrew Olson, F-35 Lightning II demonstration team pilot and commander, performs aerial maneuvers during the Aero Gatineau-Ottawa Airshow in Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, Sept. 7, 2019. The demonstration team consists of 10 Airmen who showcase the world’s most technologically advanced fifth-generation fighter jet. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Alexander Cook)
Staff Sgt. Quincy Robinson, a weapons load crew member from the 31st Test and Evaluation Squadron, signals to chock the tires of an F-35 Lightning fighter jet from the 53rd TES before arming and takeoff from Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, Feb. 17, 2016. (U.S. Air Force photo/Tech Sgt. Brian Ferguson)
U.S. and Italian Air Force aircraft consisting of F-35 Lightning IIs, F-16 Fighting Falcons and a B-52 Stratofortress, fly in formation over the Adriatic Sea during exercise Astral Knight 19, June 4, 2019. Astral Knight takes place throughout various locations in Europe, involving more than 900 Airmen and supports the collective defense and security of NATO allies and U.S. forces in Europe. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua R. M. Dewberry)
An F-35A Lightning II, assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base in Utah, and an F-16 Fighting Falcon, assigned to the 18th Aggressor Squadron at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, fly over Denali National Park, Alaska, Aug. 17, 2020. The 388th FW joined the 354th Fighter Wing for RED FLAG-Alaska 20-3, the Pacific Air Forces' premier large force exercise. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jerilyn Quintanilla)
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 by Tech. Sgt. Jerilyn Quintanilla)
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.
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.
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.
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