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The F-35A Is the Stealth Spine of the U.S. Air Force

The active duty 388th and Reserve 419th Fighter Wings conducted an F-35A Combat Power Exercise at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, Jan. 6, 2020. The exercise, which was planned for months, demonstrated their ability to employ a large force of F-35As -- testing readiness in the areas of personnel accountability, aircraft generation, ground operations, flight operations, and combat capability against air and ground targets. A little more than four years after receiving their first combat-coded F35A Lightning II aircraft, Hill's fighter wings have achieved full warfighting capability. (U.S. Air Force photo by R. Nial Bradshaw)

To the U.S. Air Force, the F-35A is Everything: The Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter is widely touted as the world’s premier fifth-generation platform.

The multi-role airframe’s top-of-the line capabilities, including its geolocation, detection range, and threat identification equip the jet to act as the backbone of America’s aerial defense strategy.

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This truly stunning platform was designed to fulfill specific mission-related roles such as carrier operations, conventional takeoff and landing, and short takeoff and vertical landing.

The Joint Strike Fighter program was designed to replace most U.S. fighters with multiple variants of one singular design, and the Marine Corps, Army and Air Force all sport individualized airframes. The U.S. Air Force operates the F-35A model, which operates as a conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant.

The history of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

Development of the F-35 Lightning II began in the mid-1990’s, when Boeing and Lockheed Martin competed to acquire the Department of Defense contract to produce the new fifth-generation platform. The Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps needed to replace their fleets of F-16 Fighting Falcons, F/A-18 Hornets, A-10 Warthogs and AV-8B Harriet platforms. The goal of the Joint Strike Fighter program was to create a super-formidable fighter that could outperform all near-peer platforms for decades.

Lockheed Martin’s X-35 design emerged simultaneously to Boeing’s X-32. Ultimately, the X-35 was awarded the contract because the jet’s design was considered to be less risky. As the Cold War fizzled out, so did America’s aging airframes. Lockheed Martin proposed developing a singular platform to satisfy the needs of all three branches. The defense giant designed a conventional take-off and landing F-35A for the Air Force’s longer runways, the F-35B for the Marine Corps and the F-35C for the Navy’s carrier-launched operations.

The F-35’s superior makeup

Designed to function as the world’s top air-superiority platform, the F-35 is perhaps the stealthiest jet operable today. According to Popular Mechanics, the fighter uses a “single F135 engine that produces 40,000 lbs. of thrust with the afterburner engaged, capable of pushing the sleek but husky fighter to speeds as high as Mach 1.6.

The aircraft can carry four weapons internally while flying in contested airspace or can be outfitted with six additional weapons mounted on external hardpoints when flying in low-risk environments. The F-35A also comes equipped with an internal 4-barrel 25mm rotary cannon hidden behind a small door to minimize radar returns.”

One of the F-35’s more cutting-edge attributes is the airframe’s ability to convert from “stealth mode” to “beast mode.” In stealth mode, the F-35 carries a smaller amount of ordinance. The priority here is to help the fighter evade detection. In beast mode, the jet can carry nearly four times as much ordinance. Brent Eastwood also notes that, “The F-35 is now nuclear-capable and packed with a full slate of conventional and precision-guided munitions from Sidewinders and AMRAAMs to JDAMs and Small Diameter Bombs.”

What makes the F-35A different?

Lockheed Martin’s F-35A is slowly replacing the U.S. Air Force’s fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons and A-10 Thunderbolt IIs. These aircraft had been the mainstay of the branch’s fighter jet arsenal for decades. The U.S. Air Force saw its first F-35A test aircraft roll off the production line in 2006.

This variant’s CTOL capabilities allow the Air Force and U.S. allies to project air supremacy at all times. The Air Force asserts that the platform’s advanced sensor package, which integrates and distributes more information than any other jet in history, gives its crew headway over enemy aircraft.

While the F-35C shares the majority of characteristics to the F-35B and F-35C variants, some differences exist. The F-35A, for instance, does not have the carrier-based CV/CATOBAR (Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery) that its Navy F-35C variant possesses. The F-35A also does not have the short takeoff and vertical landing abilities the F-35B sports.

These small differences in platform don’t necessarily make one variant better than the others, they just make each variant better suited for the missions they undertake in service of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.


U.S. Air Force Maj. Kristin Wolfe, F-35A Lightning II Demonstration Team commander and pilot, showcases the unique aerial capabilities of the USAF’s most advanced 5th generation multi-role stealth fighter, the F-35A, during Wings Over Solano at Travis Air Force Base, California, May 15, 2022. The Wings Over Solano open house and air show provided an opportunity for the local community to interact directly with the base and its Airmen and see capabilities on full display at Travis AFB. (U.S. Air Force photo by Heide Couch)

F-35 Air Force

A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II, assigned to the 495th Fighter Squadron from Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England, lands for the first time at Souda Air Base, Greece, July 7, 2022. The fifth-generation aircraft will be participating in exercise Poseidon’s Rage, in an effort to bolster U.S.-Hellenic readiness and interoperability. (U.S. Air Force Photo By Tech. Sgt. Rachel Maxwell)


A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II, assigned to the 4th Fighter Squadron from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, conducts flight training operations over the Utah Test and Training Range on Feb 14, 2018. The F-35A is a single-seat, single engine, fifth generation, multirole fighter that’s able to perform ground attack, reconnaissance and air defense missions with stealth capability. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)


A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II, assigned to the 63rd Fighter Squadron, Luke Air Force Base, Ariz., climbs to a higher altitude Aug. 26, 2019, at the Barry M. Goldwater Range near Gila Bend, Ariz. Pilots use the airspace in Gila Bend to train dropping ordnance and conducting strafing passes. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Aspen Reid)


An F-35A Lightning II from the 354th Fighter Wing, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, flies behind a KC-135 Stratotanker assigned to the 117th Air Refueling Squadron, Forbes Field Air National Guard Base, Kansas, over the Indo-Pacific, March 10, 2022. Aircrews routinely fly missions aimed at sharpening the necessary skills needed to respond to emerging situations at a moment’s notice. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Yosselin Perla)


U.S. Air Force Maj. Kristin Wolfe performs a demonstration in the F-35A Lightning II during at the Reno Air Races in Reno, Nevada, September 19, 2021. The F-35 Lightning II Demonstration Team is based out of Hill Air Force Base, Utah. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Nicolas Myers)

Maya Carlin is a Middle East Defense Editor with 19FortyFive. She is also an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.

Written By

Maya Carlin, a Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, is an analyst with the Center for Security Policy and a former Anna Sobol Levy Fellow at IDC Herzliya in Israel. She has by-lines in many publications, including The National Interest, Jerusalem Post, and Times of Israel.