When is a new plane actually three planes? Answer: when it is the F-35 Lightning II, a fifth-generation fighter that combines advanced stealth with fighter speed and agility. Three variants of the F-35 will be produced and these are meant to replace the United States Air Force's A-10 and F-16, the United States Navy's F/A-18, and the United States Marines Corps F/A-18 and AV-8B Harrier.
The single-engine, single-seat plane is unique in that it can also operate as a conventional-takeoff-and-landing (CTOL) variant for the USAF while the Navy version will operate from an aircraft carrier (CV). The United States Marine Corps, along with the UK's Royal Air Force and Royal Navy, will utilize an F-35 that can operate as a short-takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) fighter.
The aircraft was developed, produced and supported by an international team at prime contractor Lockheed Martin, with support from principal partners including Northrop Grumman, Pratt & Whitney and BAE Systems.
The F-35, which was born out of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program, addresses key issues facing the United States military along with those of its allied fighter fleets, which have gotten both smaller and older. The USAF has fewer fighters than it did during the Cold War, while on average many of its current fighter aircraft are twenty-five-years-old.
As a fifth-generation fighter, the F-35 provides advanced stealth along with improved agility and maneuverability, plus better sensor and information fusion, network-enabled operations and advanced sustainment. This makes the F-35 among the world's most advanced multi-role fighters flying today. It has a range of 1,200 nautical miles, and can reach speeds of upwards of Mach 1.6 (1,200 mph). It is powered by F135-PW-100 engines that provide 40,000lb. of maximum propulsion.
The stealth, multirole fighter's armament includes a 25mm GAU-22/A 4-barrel rotary cannon with 180 rounds of ammunition. There are four internal and six external stations on the wings. It can carry a variety of air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles, anti-ship missiles and bombs. In a "stealth mode" it can infiltrate enemy territory and carry 5,700 pounds of internal ordnance, and in its "beast mode" it can carry up to 22,000 pounds of combined internal and external weapons.
The F-35 features advanced electronic warfare (EW) capabilities that allow the pilots to locate and track enemy forces. In addition, the pilots can jam radars and disrupt threats, while the advanced avionics give the pilot real-time access to battlespace information that includes 360-degree coverage of the tactical environment. In addition, data collected by the fighter's sensors will be shared with commanders at sea, in the air or on the ground. This provides real-time data on the combat situation, which makes the F-35 a true force multiplier during collation operations.
When it comes to military hardware rarely does a "one-size fits all approach" work, especially across services, but the F-35 could truly be the exception to the rule.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and website. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.