The latest and greatest ‘black project’ from Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works – technically referred to as the Advanced Development Programs (ADP) unit, a classified division of the company unrestrained by bureaucracy- the F-35 Lightning II is the most advanced fighter jet on Earth. It’s the first and only stealthed, supersonic, multi-role fighter.
Born out of a demand to dominate the fluid 21st-century battlefield, replacing a plethora of legacy aircraft such as the F-16 and A-10 Thunderbolt II, the F-35s rewriting the rulebook on aircraft design, capable of performing almost any possible role imaginable today – be that strike, support or reconnaissance – with greater efficiency than any other aircraft made to date. The cost of this performance? GBP 86m (USD 139m) per plane.
So what does all that cash actually buy you? To start, the most powerful powerplant ever fitted to a fighter aircraft. The F-35, across all its three variants – read: F-35A, F-35B and F-35C, differentiated largely by takeoff mechanism – is fitted with a Pratt & Whitney F135 afterburning turbofan jet engine, which delivers a mighty 19,500 kilograms (43,000 pounds) of thrust and grants a sound-shattering top speed of over 1,930 kilometres (1,200 miles) per hour; that’s over Mach 1.6 or, to put it another way, infinitely faster than your gran’s Mini Metro!
The cash, which is being dropped in large quantities by the States, as well as eight global partners including Britain – which is set to deploy the aircraft on its new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers – also purchases the operator one of the most advanced aircraft structures in existence. Each F-35 utilizes structural nanocomposites, such as carbon nanotube-reinforced epoxy and bismaleimide (BMI), to produce a framework unrivalled in lightness and strength, as well as heavily integrating epoxy glass resin to maximise aerodynamics. In terms of skin and coatings, each F-35 sports a radar cross-section (ie radar signature) the size of a golf ball thanks to the heavy implementation of fibre-mat over the fuselage.
The cockpit is also state of the art, delivering a full-panel-width, panoramic glass cockpit display as well as a host of bleeding-edge avionics and sensors such as the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-81AESA radar and electro-optical targeting system (EOTS). Further, much of the cockpit has been optimised for speech-recognition interaction, allowing the pilot to control many parts of the jet by voice alone.
Of course, the main attraction of the Lightning II is its diverse armaments – the equipment that transforms it from technical marvel into a master of destruction. You want air-to-air prowess? You’ve got it, with the F-35 capable of launching AIM-120 AMRAAMs, AIM-9X Sidewinders, IRIS-Ts and the futuristic beyond-visual-range MBDA Meteor. For maximum air-to-ground penetration, take your pick from AGM-154 JSOWs, SOM Cruise Missiles and Brimstone anti-tank warheads. Even if you want to engage marine-based targets the F-35 delivers the goods, capable of launching the new anti-ship Joint Strike Missile (JSM). Throw in a raft of other munitions, including the Mark 80 series of free-fall bombs, Mk.20 Rockeye II cluster bomb, the Paveway series of laser-guided bombs and even, in DEFCON 1 situations, the B-61 nuclear bomb and you have one extremely versatile and deadly feat of aviation.
Sensors – The main sensor installed in the F-35 is an AN/APG-81AESA radar, which is produced by Northrop Grumman. This main radar is augmented with an electro-optical targeting system (EOTS) mounted under the nose.
Armament – Asides from a stock GAU-22/A quad-barrelled cannon, the F-35 can carry a wide variety of bombs and missiles, ranging from AIM-9X Sidewinders, through AGM-128S and on to JDAM-guided bombs.
LiftSystem – Made by tech-masters Rolls-Royce, the F-35’s LiftSystem is an innovative propulsion system that allows for the main engine exhaust to be redirected for direct vertical lift. Perfect for carrier deployment.
Structure – The F-35 is the first mass-produced aircraft to include structural nanocomposites, primarily utilising carbon nanotube-reinforced epoxy. Other materials include bismaleimide (BMI) and composite epoxy glass resin.
Powerplant – A Pratt & Whitney F135 afterburning turbofan delivers 19,500kg (43,000lb) of thrust to the F-35, allowing a top speed of over 1,930km/h (1,200mph). The engine is the most powerful ever installed in a fighter aircraft.
Wings – The total wing area of the Lightning II varies dependent on configuration, with the CTOL and STOVL variants sporting43ms (460ft) and the CV variant 62m2 (668ft2).
Stealth – The F-35 has a tiny radar cross-section (the size of a golf ball) thanks to heavy implementation of fibre-mat in its construction, as well as stealth-friendly chines for vortex lift as used on the SR-71 Blackbird.
- Crew: 1
- Length: 15.7m (51.4ft)
- Wingspan: 10.7m (35ft)
- Height: 4.3m (14.2ft)
- Weight: 13,300kg (29,300lb)
- Powerplant: 1 x Pratt & Whitney F135 afterburning turbofan
- Dry thrust: 125kN (28,000lbf)
- Thrust with afterburner: 191kN (43,000lbf)
- Max speed: Mach 1,6 (1,930km/h; 1,200mph)
- Max range: 2,220km (1,379mi)
- Max altitude: 18,288m (60,000ft)
- Thrust/weight: 0.87 g-limit: +9 g
- Guns: 1 x General Dynamics GAU-22/A Equalizer 25mm four-barrelled Gatling cannon
- Hardpoints: 6 x external pylons, 4 x internal pylons
- Max payload: 8,100kg (18,000lb)
- Armament: Air-to-air, air-to-ground, anti-ship