Weapon Systems

F-35 fighters give US, allies versatile weapon as global threats increase


The 'most modern combat aircraft in the world', as described by the German air force, cannot be matched in air-to-air or air-to-ground combat.

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US Air Force F-35A aircraft, from the 388th and 428th Fighter Wings, form up in an 'elephant walk' during an exercise at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, January 6, 2020. [US Air Force]
US Air Force F-35A aircraft, from the 388th and 428th Fighter Wings, form up in an 'elephant walk' during an exercise at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, January 6, 2020. [US Air Force]

The F-35 stealth fighter is expanding its worldwide presence as more and more US allies buy it.

The most recent customer was Germany in December, as it responded to the new security environment Russia created by invading Ukraine in February 2022.

On April 11, the Romanian authorities also approved a plan to acquire F-35 fighter jets to modernise the country's air force.

The latest move indicates Romania could become the third Eastern European ally, after Poland and the Czech Republic, to operate the fifth-generation aircraft.

An F-35 lands at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland in an undated photo. [US Navy]
An F-35 lands at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland in an undated photo. [US Navy]

"These aircraft … allow to achieve and maintain air superiority, a mandatory condition for ensuring sovereignty in the national airspace and, if necessary, its defence," the Romanian president's office said in a statement.

Most advanced military aircraft

The F-35, also known as the Lightning II, is one of the most versatile and advanced military aircraft in the world, designed to meet the diverse needs of modern military operations.

The F-35's primary mission is air-to-air combat. With its advanced stealth capabilities and sophisticated sensors, it is designed to operate undetected in hostile airspace, engage and defeat enemy fighters, and provide air superiority for friendly forces.

The aircraft is equipped with advanced radar systems and avionics that enable it to detect and track enemy aircraft at long ranges, as well as advanced weapons systems that allow it to engage and destroy enemy fighters with precision and speed.

The F-35 is also highly effective in air-to-ground strikes. It is equipped with precision-guided bombs and missiles that enable it to engage and destroy ground targets with great accuracy, even in adverse weather conditions or low visibility.

Lastly, the F-35 also contributes to reconnaissance and intelligence gathering missions. The aircraft can detect and identify enemy targets from long distances, and has sophisticated data links that allow it to share information with other aircraft and ground-based command and control centres.

The Lightning II has three variants.

The F-35A, used by the US Air Force, is the conventional takeoff and landing variant.

The US Marine Corps uses F-35Bs, which "can land vertically like a helicopter and take off in very short distances. This allows it to operate from austere, short-field bases and a range of air-capable ships", according to Lockheed Martin.

The third variant is the US Navy's F-35Cs, the carrier variant, which can take off from any US aircraft carrier anywhere on earth.

Capabilities spread to US allies

These cutting-edge capabilities are enabling both the United States and its allies to secure their interests around the globe.

With the signing of a contract in December, Germany became the ninth foreign military sales (FMS) country to include the F-35 in its family of aircraft, joining Israel, Japan, South Korea, Poland, Belgium, Switzerland, Finland and Singapore.

Introduced in 2006, the F-35 was developed by eight international programme partners -- the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Netherlands, Australia, Norway, Denmark and Canada.

To date, the F-35 operates from 26 bases worldwide, with nine nations operating F-35s on their home soil. More than 875 F-35s are in service today, and more than 1,845 pilots and 13,350 maintainers are trained on the aircraft, Lockheed said in a December statement.

"The F-35 is the most modern combat aircraft in the world," German air force commander Ingo Gerhardt said in December, according to 24 Rhein.

"In terms of effectiveness, the F-35A achieved the best result because ... it includes entirely new, extremely powerful and comprehensively networked systems for protecting and monitoring airspace," said Switzerland's Federal Council in June 2021 when it announced it had chosen the F-35A to replace its aging F-5's and F/A-18's.


One of the key strengths of the F-35 is its versatility as it can be configured to meet the specific needs of a particular mission.

For example, in a typical air-to-air combat scenario, the F-35 can operate in stealth mode, using its advanced sensors and weapons systems to engage and destroy enemy fighters before they even know the F-35 is there.

In an air-to-ground strike scenario, the F-35 can switch to non-stealth mode and strike ground targets with great precision.

And in a reconnaissance and intelligence gathering scenario, the F-35 can operate in stealth mode, using its advanced sensors and data links to gather intelligence on enemy forces without being detected.

The fifth-generation fighter has a top speed of Mach 1.6 (1.6 times the speed of sound) and a combat range of 1,410km.

The F-35 also has a "beast mode" -- when weapons are carried on the wing-mounted pylons as well as inside the internal bay -- that makes it even deadlier when needed.

In normal stealth mode, the plane can carry 2.6 tonnes of ordnance in the internal bay.

Beast mode, which almost quadruples that to 10 tonnes, especially comes into play as hostile anti-air systems are eliminated and as the F-35 no longer has to rely on its stealth for survivability.

In addition to its own ordnance, the plane augments the capacities of other weapon systems, creating a constellation of firepower.

One partner of the F-35 is the Aegis Combat System, an integrated naval weapons system that uses computer and radar to guide various weapons to strike targets.

The F-35's contribution to the Aegis is to extend the radius of detectable targets by providing stealth missions deep into enemy territory. Alternatively, the F-35, when equipped properly, can conduct bombing missions to support an Aegis-directed onslaught.

The F-35, besides being an invaluable auxiliary to an Aegis system, adds to the power and reach of Tomahawk cruise missiles.

With onboard computers to fuse the obtained data, F-35 pilots can co-ordinate efforts with fourth-generation aircraft, such as the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon and the Eurofighter Typhoon, making them deadlier in the process.

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