It is said by some observers that “In the F-35 Lightning II, fighter pilots move with impunity.” The fifth generation F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), considered the world’s stealthiest and most lethal jet, forms the mainstay of not just the American fighter fleet but also of its eight partner nations and other NATO and non-NATO allies, totalling more than a dozen global operators of this magnificent, and technologically advanced machine from Lockheed Martin Aeronautics.
This 35-tonne (with full load) single-seat, single engine, fighter, powered by the American Pratt & Whitney F135 afterburning turbofan, has the international market heating up as demand for sales increase, broadening the F-35 family of users from its nine original partners, who joined the programme at its inception.
Partnered by NATO allies, the fighter jet programme now includes close US non-NATO allies such as Israel, Japan and South Korea, all of whom have declared the fighter combat ready. From being stationed strategically across the US to Australia and aboard warships in the Western Pacific, with nations like Italy and Israel declaring their first ‘kills’, the F-35 Lightning II JSF appears poised to dominate air power from the Mediterranean to the Indo-Pacific in the foreseeable future.
Founded by nine international partners: the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Turkey, the Netherlands, Norway, Australia, Canada and Denmark, the programme, which began in 1995, attracted Israel, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Belgium and Poland as foreign military sales (FMS) customers, taking the tally to more than a dozen, as Lockheed Martin eyed expansion of its global footprint in the aerospace sector, with more nations showing interest.
The US is the world’s largest operator and primary consumer of the F-35 Lightning jets. According to the Pentagon’s long-term procurement plans, the US Air Force plans a total of 1,762 F-35As, while the US Marine Corps and the US Navy would be armed with 693 F-35Bs and F-35Cs respectively.
Turkey was suspended from further participation in the programme after Ankara’s decision to acquire the Russian S-400 surface-to-surface missile defence system. Turkey’s contribution amounted to about seven per cent of the fighter jet’s supply chain.
The UK is currently operating 18 F-35Bs, and has planned up to 138 jets, with 48 out of those by 2025. Jeremy Quin, Minister of Defence Procurement, has spoken of the UK’s intention to purchase around 60 F-35B Lightning jets, which might increase to 80.
Aircraft carriers HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH and HMS PRINCE OF WALES are capable of housing 36 F-35B jets each.
Italy’s order for 60 F-35As for the Italian Air Force and 30 F-35Bs for Italian Navy, totaling 90 was a reduced order from the original 131, most of which have been delivered. Italy is the second most important partner in the programme, after the UK, with a contribution of 4.1 per cent workshare in the design and development stage.
The Netherlands became a partner in the F-35 Lightning programme in 2015 and placed an order of 46 F-35As as a replacement for the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s F-16s, out of which 24 have been delivered to the Dutch Air Force. The supersonic, multirole, stealthy, F-35 Lightning II comprises components manufactured by Dutch firms, with more than two dozen suppliers from Dutch industry contributing towards the programme.
The Australian order to equip four Royal Australian Air Force squadrons with F-35As, is well in place, with 72 fighters expected to be fully operational by 2023. The first squadron became operational in 2021. Australia, which joined the programme as a Level 3 partner, had plans to spend approximately US$16Bn on the four squadrons.
The first deliveries for Norway’s order for 52 F-35A Lightning IIs began in 2015, with the first two undergoing a two-year training period at the American Luke Air Base, before joining their permanent home at the Ørland Air Base in Norway in 2017. Half of the order has been completed. Norway’s contribution in the programme has been in the System Development and Demonstration (SDD) phase.
An industry partner of the F-35 JSF programme for more than two decades, Canada has an order of 88 F-35s to replace its ageing CF-18s. Canada also enjoys the advantage of being awarded the programme’s high value contracts as part of the F-35 global supply chain amounting to approximately US$2Bn.
The first F-35A from an order of 27 for the Royal Danish Air Force, to replace the ageing F-16 Fighting Falcons, is expected in 2023. The deliveries for the full order are expected to be completed by 2026.
The Three Variants
The F-35 JSF Lightning II clan comprises three variants. The F-35A is a conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) variant, the F-35B is a short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant, while the F-35C is a carrier variant. All three are single-seat and single engine planes and share the same advanced avionics and performance characteristics.
The most common variant is the F-35A, designed to operate from conventional runways. The US Air Force and the majority of F-35 international partners operate the F-35A version.
The F-35B boasts the distinction of being the first fighter to incorporate stealth technology with supersonic speed and STOVL capabilities. It can land vertically like a helicopter and take off at very short distances. This allows it to operate from austere, short-field bases and a range of air-capable ships. The F-35B is operated by the United States Marine Corps, the United Kingdom, and the Italian Air Force.
The F-35C Lightning II, the first low-observable, long-range stealth strike fighter designed and built explicitly for aircraft carrier operations, was basically aimed at replacing the US Navy’s carrier-based F/A-18C/D Hornet, as the carrier strike group’s primary offensive combat aircraft for the dual role of close air support and aerial defence. The F-35C is operated by the US Navy and US Marine Corps.
Israel became the first country outside the partner nations, to order 50 F-35As for the Israeli Air Force, through the US Government’s FMS route in October 2010, with the first deliveries beginning in June 2016. Israel has its first fleet successfully operational.
Japan announced an increase from 42 to 147 F-35 fighters in 2018, comprising 105 F-35As and 42 F-35Bs, to be based at 302nd Squadron, Misawa Air Base.
Deliveries of F-35As for the South Korean Air Force, under a Letter of Offer of Acceptance (LOA) for 40 JSF Lightning IIs, signed in 2014, began in 2018, with pilot training in the US. The fighters, after formally entering service, are based at Chongju Air Base. To date, 13 out of the 40 F-35As ordered have been delivered.
In 2019, Singapore declared its intention to replace its ageing F-16 fleet, through an FMS purchase of 12 F-35Bs. The order was kept small, with the aim to first evaluate suitability and capability, before going for larger numbers. This was approved by the US State Department a year later. Singapore has been cleared to acquire four F-35Bs with an option clause of an additional eight.
- Belgium is all set to receive its order of 34 F-35As, under FMS, valued at approximately US$5Bn, to replace its F-16 fleet.
- Poland became the tenth NATO member to join the programme after signing a LOA with the US in 2020 for 32 F-35As.
- Finland has become an industrial participant in the programme after the signing of the LOA this year for 64 F-35As valued at US$10Bn.
- Switzerland is expected to close its own deal before March 2023 for 36 F-35As worth US$5.5Bn.
- Germany has shown interest in buying 35 F-35A jets.
- Spain on the other hand has decided to go for the Eurofighter TYPHOON instead of the F-35.
- Greece, which has just bought 18 French RAFALE fighters, has said that the Greek Air Force’s next fighter would be the F-35, but only after 2028.
- Romania too has shown commitment to buy F-35s after 2030, while it is making do with second-hand planes bought from Portugal and Norway.
The Lockheed Martin communications team has said, “Interest in the F-35 continues. Last year both Switzerland and Finland selected the F-35 for their new fighter jet programmes. Canada recently announced the F-35 is the preferred bidder moving into the Finalization phase of their competition, and Germany stated its intent to acquire 35 jets. We continue conversations here in Greece and are in early conversations with other interested European countries. Follow-on buys continue to be of interest, too. In each of these countries a formal procurement process has yet to be launched.”
Meanwhile, there are regions where the F-35s have not yet entered, to the extent that deals have been cancelled. Last year, UAE cancelled the US$23Bn deal for 50 F-35 multirole stealth JSFs. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has been keen on acquiring the lethal fighter, but Washington has not given the nod to Riyadh.
Thailand, interested in acquiring at least eight F-35s, valued at US$413M, is still awaiting the green light from Washington, as was enunciated by Tim Cahill, Lockheed Martin’s senior vice president for Global Business in February this year at the Singapore airshow.
The Global F-35 Enterprise
From enhancement of national security to powering economic growth, the F-35 Lightning II JSF promises a strengthening of global partnerships, through its traits of being the most networked, most connected, least observable and most highly survivable, giving its pilots an edge over rivals.
A fifth-generation fighter is best known by its efficacy in network connectivity, information fusion, reduced visibility stealth and advanced sensors. The F-35 has not just proven its prowess in the mentioned characteristics, but has also displayed superiority in gathering, analysing and disseminating data, thereby enhancing all surface, airborne and ground-based assets in the battlespace. The stealth design in the F-35 provides a matchless quality of evading enemy detection and entering contested airspace successfully.
Sustenance of the world’s most advanced fighter includes:
- training modules for the pilot and maintainer
- base operations
- round-the-clock repair and upgrade facilities
- regional warehouses
- supply chain management
- the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS)
War-games held in 2021 established the F-35 as a well-suited war-fighting machine capable of defeating adversaries and ground targets, conveying intelligence and supporting other services in a multi-domain warfare scenario. The F-35 programme falls under the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Programme Office, the US Navy, US Air Force and the US Marine Corps. Lockheed Martin remains the prime contractor with a global supply chain of more than 1,500 American companies.
Sensor Suite, Speed, Range, Electronic Warfare (EW) System and Cockpit
The F-35 boasts the most advanced sensor suite than any fighter in history, comprising the:
- Active Electronically Scanned Arrays (AESA) radar
- Distributed Aperture System (DAS)
- Electro Optical Targeting System (EOTS)
- Helmet Mounted Display System
The aircraft’s advanced sensor fusion creates a single integrated picture of the battlefield that greatly enhances awareness, survivability and lethality.
At Mach 1.6, the F-35 is known for its supersonic speed and long range, with a full complement of fuel and internal weapons. The fighter’s advanced EW capabilities can locate and track enemy forces, jam radars and disrupt attacks. However, there has been some talk about displeasure with the engine, resulting in Lockheed Martin’s decision to improve the F-35 Lightning II’s performance through an upgraded engine. Evaluations are being carried out for the same.
The F-35 cockpit is truly a modern fifth generation fighter cockpit, providing the pilot with data, location, enemy position, through advanced situational awareness. The real-time data is a major leap forward from earlier fighters. The earlier generation fighter pilots, romanticised by characters like Maverick and Ice Man in the movie “Top Gun”, largely focused on evading the enemy during a dogfight, but the current crop of fighter pilots have a full picture in front, in order to decide to make the kill through their access to a usable data link.
Comparison with Other Fighters in the Same Class
The only fifth generation aircraft flying in the world today are the American F-35, F-22, Chinese J-20 and the Russian Su-57.
Meant only for the US Air Force, the F-22 RAPTOR is considered the stealthiest fighter jet in the world, boasting a smaller cross radar section compared to the F-35. The RAPTOR is considered superior to F-35 in dogfighting, the Chinese fifth generation twin-engine J-20 is often compared to the F-22 and F-35 by military analysts in terms of its stealth profile and design.
However, former Indian Air Force (IAF) Chief, B.S. Dhanoa had mentioned in a press conference that the Sukhoi-30MKI radars were capable of detecting a J-20 from several kilometres away, thereby rubbishing any comparison.
The Russian Su-57, which was formally unveiled at the biennial airshow MAKS-2021, has been flying combat sorties in Syria. The Su-57 is believed to be faster than F-35 with a maximum speed of 1,616 mph compared to F-35’s 1,199 mph. The Su-57 also has more than double the range which is 3,107 miles versus the F-35’s 1,379 miles.
As per American laws, the F-22 cannot be sold to any other country, while potential customers for the Chinese fifth generation stealth J-20 are Pakistan, and countries in the Middle East, Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa. As per reports, Russia has been eyeing Turkey, Algeria, India, Vietnam and China as probable customers for its stealth fifth generation fighter. While former IAF Chief RKS Bhadauria has said that India will focus on its indigenous platform – the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) and will not import Su-57 or any other fifth generation fighter. Turkey’s interest in the Russian jet is understandable after its ouster from the F-35 programme.
Still on the drawing board are conceptual projects like the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), the BAE Systems’ TEMPEST, and India’s indigenous fifth generation AMCA.
FCAS is a European combat system of systems under development with France in the lead, partnered by the UK, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Spain, with leading manufacturers being Dassault Aviation, Airbus, Thales Group, MBDA and Safran.
The UK-led BAE Systems TEMPEST, supposedly a sixth generation fighter jet under development is also under the FCAS European consortium. TEMPEST, expected to be operational by 2035, is primarily a BAE Systems project with the UK Ministry of Defence, Rolls-Royce, Leonardo, MBDA and Saab pitching in.
Though the metal-cutting for the first prototype of India’s AMCA has taken place, its maiden flight is only scheduled for 2024-25, with series production slated for 2030.
IAF’s Air Marshal (retd) B Suresh, himself a former fighter pilot, says, “The F-35 and F-22 are fusion platforms that can be optimally employed in a networked environment. In my assessment, the J-20, does not quite match up to these two. The stealth characteristics of J-20 too are also a little overplayed. The AMCA will be a fusion ready five plus generation platform that should turn out better than its competitors. The TEMPEST and FCAS are sixth gen concepts. They can be manned or unmanned and can be used in combo as a MUMT. The concept of employment will be different. That is the future of air combat.”
F-35 in Combat
Israel was the first country to get the first air-to-air kill when it shot down two Iranian drones using the F-35 in March 2021. An Italian Air Force F-35 intercepted a Russian transport plane in the Baltic Sea while on a NATO policing duty in Estonia in early May 2021.
Lockheed Martin eyes Europe as a crucial market. The F-35 order book saw an increase in 2020 from 120 to 142 in 2021, as per reports, with an even greater increase in numbers expected in 2022.
Despite a more than two-year long global pandemic, Lockheed Martin, along with its team, has seen that its vision of replacing a Cold War tactical fighter with a modern, networked, stealthy warfighting machine, largely among US allies and American armed services, could well become a reality.
According to a Lockheed press statement, the F-35 is on track. It is a mature programme, whose efficiencies are increasing and 93 per cent of the JSF’s parts have far exceeded performance expectations. Lockheed Martin has delivered over 790 aircraft, and trained more than 1,655 pilots and 12,080 maintenance personnel worldwide. The F-35 fleet has already surpassed more than 517,000 cumulative flight hours.
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