The F-35 Lightning II

Since this is a tech blog let’s talk about the F-35 Lightning II, the only fifth generation, multirole fighter in the world.

Fifth generation aircraft have the following features:

Variants

F-35A

A basic F-35 for the Air Force. It’s also the cheapest variant and the most popular with our allies. It can pull 9g turns while the other variants max out at 7g (B) and 7.5g (C). The only variant with a cannon.

F-35B

B stands for Bounce. A jump jet for the Marine Corps, it’s the world’s first supersonic Short Take Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) aircraft. Easy to fly because computers handle the balancing act: to transition from conventional flight to hover the pilot has to push the large, friendly STOVL button.

In contrast its predecessor the Harrier was a nightmare to fly.

F-35C

C stands for Carrier. A version for the Navy, it has a larger wing area and a tailhook. The Navy’s first stealth fighter.

It can dogfight

In a well-publicized test1 an F-16 outmaneuvered the F-35 consistently. One pilot said “The F-35A remained at a distinct energy disadvantage for every engagement.”

Critics jumped on this test as proof the F-35 is a failure yet the report stated they can adjust the flight control software to allow better dogfighting. Presumably the F-35 came off the assembly line with its flight controls set to conservative limits for safety, and this test was to find out which settings need to be adjusted to allow better performance.

So this was a flight test not a combat exercise. In mock combat at the 2017 Red Flag exercise the F-35 scored a 20-1 kill ratio. Fighter pilots training on the F-35 rave about the advantages their new plane has over their previous aircraft.

To sum it up, my experience so far is that the F-35 makes it easier for me to maintain the offensive role, and it provides me more opportunities to effectively employ weapons at my opponent.

It’s cost-effective

The F-35A, the most popular variant, is scheduled to cost $85 million in 2019, about the cost of a fourth-generation fighter but with significantly greater capabilities.

Note: In 2020 the F-35 costs $80 million per jet. In contrast the F-15EX—a less capable fourth-generation fighter with no stealth—costs $88 million.

Master of all trades

Wild Weasel

Wild weasel aircraft neutralize surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites before the bombers arrive. Wild weasel aircraft have a special configuration so are used for wild weasel missions and nothing else. The F-35, however, has wild weasel capability built in and can be quickly reconfigured for any mission.

The F-35 started running wild weasel or Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) missions in 2016. Pilots who have flown both the F-35 and F-16 said one F-35 can locate and target SAM sites faster than three F-16s working together. Furthermore the F-16 requires nonstealthy, drag-inducing external pods to perform the mission; the F-35 does not.

Electronic warfare

The F-35 can jam the enemy’s radio and radar systems. Its competition is the EA-18G Growler, a dedicated Electronic Attack (EA) aircraft. Boeing, the manufacturer of Growlers, says you’ll still need Growlers to accompany the F-35. The Air Force says otherwise.

Air superiority

As stated above, the F-35 can dogfight better than fourth-generation aircraft. The F-35 can carry four AIM-120 long-range antiaircraft missiles internally; the fifth generation air superiority fighter F-22 can carry six, plus two AIM-9 short-range missiles. The F-22 is faster and can fly at a higher altitude, but the F-35 is much more versatile.

I continue to be impressed with the performance of the aircraft. The F-16s flying chase don’t have near the fuel capacity or payload capability as the F-35. The Lightning II does very well in comparison. For example, the F-35 often forces the chase aircraft into afterburner when it is in military power.

Recon

The F-35 has a sensor suite comparable to a high-end dedicated reconnaissance aircraft, built right in. The data that would normally take weeks to gather using other recon systems the F-35 can gather with a single overflight.

Ground attack

Attack aircraft are designed for bombing ground targets by going in low for greater accuracy, which exposes the plane to heavy ground fire. The F-35 will make an excellent attack aircraft, using its stealth and EW capabilities to neutralize anti-air missiles and guns. It can carry 18K pounds of payload when loaded externally, almost that of an F-15 Strike Eagle, the standard Air Force attack fighter today.

In summary the F-35 is the same price as fourth generation aircraft, but with much greater capabilities: dogfighting, SEAD, reconnaissance, EW, and ground attack. Like every other successful weapons system2 its teething problems will be forgotten and when it retires, the media will claim its replacement doesn’t measure up to the steady, dependable, workhorse F-35.


  1. F-35A High Angle of Attack Operational Maneuvers. Lockheed Martin, 14 January 2015. 

  2. When the P-51 Mustang was introduced, its non-turbocharged Allison engine couldn’t perform at high altitude. The British swapped the Allison with a Rolls Royce Merlin engine and the rest is aviation history.