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F-35 Lightning II: key facts about the world's most popular fifth-generation fighter jet

18th September 2023 - 14:00 GMT | by Norbert Neumann in London


The F-35 programme represents one of the largest international defence collaborations in history. (Photo: USAF)

This growing family of F-35 operators exemplifies the power of collective effort, fostering stronger diplomatic ties and contributing to the evolution of modern aerial warfare on a global scale.

The F-35 Lightning II fighter jet, developed by Lockheed Martin, stands as a prime example of modern aviation technology and international collaboration. Born out of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme, the F-35 sought to create a family of stealthy, versatile and interconnected combat aircraft capable of meeting the diverse needs of the US and its allies.

With each passing year, the global community of F-35 operators continues to expand, forming a network of nations united in their pursuit of air superiority and multi-role capabilities.

In this backgrounder Shephard delves into the journey of the F-35, highlighting its conception, development, capabilities and significance in modern aerial warfare.

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What role was the F-35 designed to fulfil?

The idea of a versatile multi-role fighter to replace ageing fleets of aircraft across multiple branches of the US military was conceived in the 1990s. In 1996, the Joint Strike Fighter programme was initiated with the goal of developing a common platform that could be customised to meet the specific requirements of the USAF, the USN and the USMC, as well as allied nations.

Lockheed Martin's design, known as the X-35, emerged victorious in a rigorous competition against Boeing's X-32 prototype. The X-35 demonstrated superior stealth, agility, and sensor capabilities, leading to its selection as the winner of the JSF programme in 2001. This marked the beginning of a revolutionary aircraft development project.

What advanced technologies does the F-35 incorporate?

The F-35 Lightning II integrates a myriad of cutting-edge technologies, making it one of the most advanced fighter jets in the world.

Key innovations include stealth capabilities, sensor fusion, short-take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) and a high level of commonality and interoperability.

  • Stealth Capabilities: The F-35 employs advanced stealth technology to minimise its radar cross-section, allowing it to penetrate enemy defences without being easily detected. This feature significantly enhances its survivability in contested airspace.
  • Sensor Fusion: The aircraft's sensor suite includes radar, electro-optical targeting systems and electronic warfare (EW) systems. These work in harmony to provide powerful situational awareness, allowing pilots to make informed decisions in complex and rapidly changing environments.
  • STOVL: The F-35B, the USMC variant, is designed to operate from shorter runways and can perform vertical take-offs and landings. This makes it suitable for operation from amphibious assault ships, smaller aircraft carriers, and austere airfields. It uses a swivelling engine nozzle and a lift fan to achieve vertical flight.
  • Commonality and Interoperability: The F-35 family shares a high degree of commonality in design and components across its three variants: F-35A (conventional take-off and landing), F-35B and F-35C (carrier-based). This design philosophy enhances maintenance efficiency and streamlines logistics across various services and allied nations.

    How has the F-35 bolstered international cooperation?

    The F-35 programme represents one of the largest international defence collaborations in history.

    Partner nations, including the UK, Australia, Canada, Italy, and many others, participated in its development. This collaboration allowed the sharing of costs, expertise and access to one of the – if not the most – modern fighter platforms to day, fostering stronger international defence ties.

    CategoriesFixed-wing aircraftFixed-wing aircraft, Fixed-wing aircraftFixed-wing aircraft, Fixed-wing aircraft
    SubcategoriesFighter - multiroleFighter - multirole, Fighter - navalFighter - multirole, Fighter - naval
    SuppliersLockheed MartinLockheed MartinLockheed Martin
    Total Ordered2610448340
    Total Delivered5179846
    Unit Cost (US$)89000000.00115000000.00103000000.00
    First Delivery DateU20112014
    Out Of Service DateUU2077
    StatusIn productionIn productionIn production
    Entry URL
    Length 1 (overall)15.7m15.6m15.7m
    Width 1 (overall)10.7m10.7m13.1m
    Height 1 (overall)4.4m4.36m4.48m
    Weight 1 (overall)31.75t27.22t31.75t
    Speed 1 (maximum)1,066.78kt1,042.77kt1,042.77kt
    Range 1 (overall travel)2,200km1,666.8km2,200km
    Effective Altitude50,000ft50,000ft50,000ft
    No. of engines111
    Service life8,0008,0008,000

    This data has been verified by the same team that brings you Defence Insight. Want to learn more?

    What is the operational significance of the F-35?

    The F-35 Lightning II could be said to redefine the capabilities of modern air warfare. Its ability to simultaneously engage ground and air targets, gather intelligence and share information with other platforms makes it an exceptionally capable fighter jet.

    In addition to traditional combat roles, the F-35's versatility extends to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions, where its sensors can assist in assessing disaster-stricken areas.

    Why is the F-35's powerplant in the news?

    The USAF chose the ECU programme over developing Adaptive Engine Technology Program (AETP) powerplants for the F-35 in March, deeming the cost of the latter too high.

    The service said the ECU will deliver improvements to the engine necessary to meet the demand for additional power and cooling on advanced Block 4 versions of the F-35 – although the exact requirements are not yet publicly known.

    Around 60% of the parts in the new engine will stay the same, which will avoid burdensome sustainment and maintenance processes.

    What future challenges does the F-35 programme face?

    The F-35 programme has encountered its share of challenges, including cost overruns and technical issues.

    According to the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), the programme as a whole has been restructured three times since 2001 with revised cost and schedule estimates.

    The total acquisition cost has risen from $233 billion in 2001 to $406 billion in 2017, while the total number of aircraft to be procured has dropped from 2,866 to 2,470.

    The GAO also notes that of the F-35’s $406 billion estimated acquisition cost, the DoD needs a majority of the funding ($270.3 billion) to purchase the aircraft over 26 years. Of that future funding, the programme plans to spend between $9.6 billion and $14 billion each year through FY2031.

    In addition, the sustainment costs to operate and maintain the F-35 fleet over 52 years are estimated to be $1.12 trillion. However, ongoing efforts to refine production processes and address technical concerns have led to improvements and cost reductions.

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    Shephard's DSEI 2023 coverage is sponsored by:

    Norbert Neumann


    Norbert Neumann

    Norbert is the Aviation, Military Training & Simulation reporter at Shephard Media. Before joining Shephard in …

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