The Role of the F-35
Outwardly, the F-35 looks very similar to the F-22. In fact, if you look at them both head-on, then it’s difficult to tell which is which apart from the different shapes of the air intakes. From the back, however, it’s very obvious since the F-35 is a single-engine aircraft.
One common feature of both the F-22 and F-35 is that the horizontal tails are on tail booms extending beyond the engine exhaust. The reasons are slightly different for each aircraft. The F-22 required stealth and agility, so it had to be controllable over a wide range of speeds since it’s a fighter. The F-35 has to land on a carrier, so it needs to be controllable at low airspeeds. The devil is in the details, and the F-35 is meant to carry a larger internal weapons payload, be more versatile, and be cheaper to build than the F-22. The F-35 is capable of exceeding Mach 1.5, but its role will likely see it operating at subsonic speeds. The F-22 in contrast has more power, lower wing loading, and thrust vectoring. Put simply, the F-35 is more of a bomber, whereas the F-22 is a dedicated fighter. Like the F-22, the F-35 will be able to datalink with other aircraft and display sensor data from other planes in the formation (Sweetman, 2004, p. 97 – 135). There’s certainly overlap in their capabilities, but the originally designed role is different.
When compared to the Harrier, the F-35 is designed to be easier to fly and land. The transition to jetborne flight is meant to be automatic. The controls are different as well. In vertical flight, the fore and aft movement on the stick will control vertical acceleration. Left or right on the stick will cause the aircraft to move sideways, the throttle will control fore and aft acceleration, and the rudder pedals will control attitude, not direction (Sweetman, 2004, p. 135).
Sensors & Weapons
The F-35 is equipped with an APG-81 radar which is developed from the APG-77 on the F-22. It is an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) which differs from other radars in that it doesn’t mechanically scan back and forth. Rather, it has a fixed structure with over 1,000 transmit and receive modules, which are basically tiny solid-state radars. Firing the modules in different sequences allows the radar to change the direction, shape, and intensity of the beam instantly. While the exact details are classified, it’s thought that it can track targets beyond 100 nm. In Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) mode, it’ll provide imaging of ground targets at long range in any weather, possibly with good enough resolution to classify vehicles and distinguish between targets and decoys. Additionally, the radar can switch between Ground Moving Target Indication (GMTI) mode and superimpose GMTI tracks on the SAR picture (Sweetman, 2004, p. 132).
Some of the benefits of AESA radars are that they have reduced RCS compared to mechanical radars. It can simultaneously search with multiple beams, with each beam searching only a small sector. Thus, each beam can dwell on a spot and achieve the same probability of detection with less power, making it difficult for other platforms to ID it. The radar also has the potential to vary the characteristics of its signal from one pulse to the next, further complicating interception. Others have suggested that by focusing the radar beam and operating at peak power, it can be used to jam radars and interfere with communication links (Sweetman, 2004, p. 133).
The other main sensor on the F-35 is the Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS). An all-digital infra-red targeting system allowing infra-red search and track (IRST) from altitudes of 20,000 to 25,000 feet in clear weather without emitting radar signals. Another feature of the system is the Distributed Aperture System (DAS) which consists of six fixed infrared cameras each with a 60-degree FOV providing day and night spherical coverage around the plane equivalent to 20:40 vision. The image will be projected on the pilot’s HMD allowing for night vision and cues from infrared imagery which will be advantageous not only for targeting but also for situational awareness. For example, with the projected image, the pilot can look down “through the floor” of the cockpit allowing them to better judge the distances when making vertical landings. However, it has been noted that the experience can initially be disorienting. The HMD can also be linked to provide targeting information to a missile seeker or the EOTS to provide accurate targeting information for GPS-guided bombs (Sweetman, 2004, p. 133- 134).
Since the F-35 will have no traditional HUD, the HMD and the large touchscreens in the cockpit will become the primary instruments (Sweetman, 2004, p. 134).
The F-35 is designed to carry primarily JDAMs for air-to-ground work, but it can also carry SDBs and 500-pound laser-guided GBU-12s. For air-to-air fighting, it can carry 2 AIM-120 AMRAAMs. These are largely designed as a defensive load and there are no further provisions for carrying more air-to-air missiles internally. Externally, the F-35 will have the ability to carry a variety of additional air-to-ground and air-to-air weapons on wing pylons. It has four heavy wing stations, one 1,000-pound centerline station (taken up by the gun pod on the B and C variants), and two wingtip stations on the A and B and under the outer wing on the C, for short-range air-to-air missiles. As for the gun, initial development considered using the 27mm Mauser BK gun that is used on the Tornado, Typhoon, and Gripen, but the USAF didn’t want to add a fourth caliber to its logistics chain since it already uses 20mm in the M61 Vulcan, 30mm in the GAU-8/A, and 25mm in the GAU-12/U. It was ultimately decided to use the GAU-22/A which is a four-barrelled version of the GAU-12/U Equalizer used on the Harrier. Overall, it is lighter and has a slower, but more accurate rate of fire. It will be mounted internally on the A version with 180 rounds of ammo. On the B and C versions, it will be mounted as a gun pod with 220 rounds (Sweetman, 2004, p. 137 – 143).
International Sales of the F-35
Most European fighter development programs can’t really compete with the U.S. in terms of markets. In the post-Cold War economy, the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale had their development facing cutbacks and delays in the 1990s. The F-16 and F/A-18 continued to dominate the market with exports. The F-35 was developed to cover the needs of multiple services domestically offering it economies of scale. The costs were to be achieved with high production rates, lean production, and new technology which would keep it competitive with European rivals. It would also build on the integration of national industries into major programs and the large numbers of aircraft would make participation more attractive. Not to mention that it offered a range of new technologies (Sweetman, 2004, p. 145 – 146).
The most committed partner is the UK which is looking to replace its aging RN and RAF Harrier fleet. The idea would be to create a joint RAF/navy force that would supersede both the RAF and RN Harriers. At the time, the two Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers were still in development and there was debate over whether to purchase the B or C variant. In September 2002, they decided to go with the B variant since it imposed a smaller training burden on a mixed land-based and sea-based force. Furthermore, both the HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales retained their bow ski-jump ramps, making the C variant useless for them (Sweetman, 2004, p. 147 – 148).
One of the biggest issues for exporting the F-35 is the advanced stealth features it has. The Pentagon spends hundreds of millions of dollars per year to protect programs like the F-22 and B-2. It’s been estimated that security measures attached to these projects add 15 to 20% to their costs. The U.S. has three options for exporting the F-35.
- Deliver identical aircraft to export customers. This is obviously risky because the plane, with its stealth features and advanced computer software, could fall into enemy hands where they could develop countermeasures or further defenses against it.
- Deliver a sanitized version. Most sensitive materials and technology would be eliminated. This is hard to do because if you eliminate some of the stealth features, then it’s basically no better than current-generation aircraft. You could buy an upgraded F-16 for cheaper.
- Deliver it with less sensitive materials but still reflect a disciplined approach to stealth. The problem here is that you’d be duplicating the R&D. Stealth features are precise and the most effective stealth features are also the most sensitive, so these changes would not be trivial. It’s not like you’re creating a reduced-fat version. If you’re creating a “less stealthy” version, then you’d basically be redesigning it. Not only that, but this “F-35 Lite” version would have differences in maintenance, training, support, and missions that it would be able to carry out. You’d have to sell this thing on the pitch that the customer is paying $50 million for a cheaper plane that’s more likely to get shot down than the premium U.S. version (Sweetman, 2004, p. 151 – 154).
In 2003, Lockheed Martin was awarded a $600 million supplemental contract to develop an “international partner version” of the F-35. This would include anti-tampering technology to the hardware and software. Sensitive components could not be removed without destroying them, and sensitive software would detect unauthorized access and destroy the data (Sweetman, 2004, p. 154 – 155).
Currently, Israel is developing their own modifications to the F-35A known as the F-35I Adir. Israel is known to do this and they often create unique versions of the aircraft with Israeli software and systems. In fact, the first use of the F-35 in combat by any country was claimed by the Israelis in May of 2018 (Kubovich, 2018, paras. 1-2). The first U.S. use of the F-35 in combat was over Afghanistan in September of 2018 by a USMC F-35B from the USS Essex (Reuters, 2018, para. 2).
Current and planned users of the F-35A aside from the U.S., are Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Israel, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, South Korea, and Turkey. However, Turkey’s orders were canceled after they purchased the S-400 missile system (Pawlyk, 2019, para. 1-8). Italy, Japan, South Korea, and the UK are also to operate the B variant. The only current user of the C version is the U.S., probably because it’s designed for CATOBAR, and the only other country to currently use that style of carrier aircraft is France, but they aren’t buying the F-35. This is France we’re talking about and they already have the Dassault Rafale M for their navy. Again, Israel is unique in that it’s operating its own F-35I variant. Canada is to hold a competition on whether or not to procure the F-35 or an alternative (Curry, 2019, paras. 1-6).
The F-35A achieved IOC in the USAF in August 2016, the F-35B achieved IOC in the USMC in July 2015, and the F-35C achieved IOC in the USN in February 2019 (Eckstein, 2019, paras. 1-3).
Since the introduction of the F-35, costs have gone up and there have been numerous issues with maintenance, training, safety, and the capabilities of the aircraft. I won’t go into them because we’ll probably be here forever. This aircraft has attracted an enormous amount of controversy if only for the fact that its development has set the rather ignominious record for the most expensive in history. By 2014, this thing was more than $160 billion over budget and 7 years behind schedule. Perhaps it’s some consolation that the F-35 is cheaper per unit than the F-22. By 2020, it’s estimated that the cheapest version, the F-35A, will cost $80 million per, compared to the F-22 at $150 million in 2009. Make of that what you will.
All in all, time will tell if the money and wait were worth it. Hopefully, the F-35’s performance in combat will justify the headaches it’s caused. It’s not out of the woods, yet, because there’s talk about whether or not the same job can be accomplished for cheaper with unmanned aerial vehicles. Not to mention that many nations still go with buying the cheaper non-stealthy manned aircraft such as the Saab Gripen. Like the F-22 Raptor, history will judge if the F-35 Lightning II is a valuable asset.
Curry, B. (2019 July 23). Ottawa launches request for proposals for 88 new fighter jets after ‘last gasp’ effort to address supplier concerns. Retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/politics/article-ottawa-launches-request-for-proposals-for-88-new-fighter-jets-after/ .
Eckstein, M. (2019, February 28). Navy Declares Initial Operational Capability for F-35C Joint Strike Fighter. Retrieved from https://news.usni.org/2019/02/28/navy-declares-initial-operational-capability-for-f-35c-joint-strike-fighter.
Kubovich, Y. (2018, May 24). Israel Launched World’s First Air Strike Using F-35 Stealth Fighters, Air Force Chief Says. Retrieved from https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/with-iran-in-syria-israel-launched-world-s-first-air-strike-using-f-35-stealth-fighters-1.6110706.
Newdick, T. (2015). The World’s Greatest Military Aircraft: An Illustrated History. London, UK. Amber Books Ltd.
Pawlyk, O. (2019 July 16). Trump: Turkey Will Be Out of F-35 Fighter Jet Program After S-400 Buy. Retrieved from https://www.military.com/daily-news/2019/07/16/trump-turkey-will-be-out-f-35-fighter-jet-program-after-s-400-buy.html.
Reuters. (2018, September 27). Lockheed F-35 jet used by U.S. in combat for first time: official. Retrieved from https://www.yahoo.com/news/lockheed-f-35-jet-used-u-combat-first-170619430–finance.html.
Sweetman, B. (2004). Ultimate Fighter: Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. St. Paul, MN: MBI Publishing.