Inside The F-35 Lighting II Aircraft: What Makes The US Stealth Fighter Jets Truly ‘Invincible’

Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II is a fifth-generation stealth jet with high maneuverability, supersonic speeds, and multi-role capabilities. It is considered one of the most advanced warplanes in the world. 

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It was in the mid-1990s when the Joint Striker Program was initiated. While the first prototype, called X-35 flew in 2000, the F-35 aircraft took its first flight in 2006. Since then, the fighter leads the pack among the fifth-generation aircraft and is being used by 14 militaries across the globe.

According to Lockheed Martin, as of June 2021, more than 645 F-35s have been delivered, operating from 26 bases around the world. Over 1,255 pilots and 10,030 maintenance staff have been trained on the aircraft.

Australian F-35As on their way to Eielson AFB to meet the arrival of 3SQN RAAF for Exercise RF-A 21-3, July 23, 2021. (via Twitter)

The F-35 has three variants, all single-seat jets. The F-35A is the conventional takeoff and landing variant (CTOL), the most in-demand by international customers. The F-35B is a short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) that can be used either on land or on aircraft carriers. The F-35C is a carrier variant exclusively for naval forces.

Building An F-35

Reporting exclusively from the Lockheed Martin factory at Fort Worth, Texas, Science Focus said, “Dozens of all three versions of the F-35 are in production at Lockheed Martin, their aluminum and titanium panels finished in a luminous green primer before their stealth skin is applied.

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The skin, a polymer-based composite designed to absorb electromagnetic wave energy, is known as radar-absorbing material, or RAM, and is highly classified.”

The facility employs over 16,000 workers including engineers who navigate the building by bicycle or electric golf cart, while the jets are maneuvered on jigs from one workstation to the next.

Each 1,900km/h (1,200mph) jet takes about 58,000 man-hours to build, then is flown to the country that bought it via several rounds of in-flight refueling, the report noted.

An F-35 assembly line. (via Twitter)

Eyeing deliveries between 133-130, Lockheed Martin aims to manufacture 169 F-35 fighter jets in 2022 as the company recovers from delayed deliveries due to the pandemic. The company aims to produce 175 aircraft per year after 2022, including for partner nation deliveries as well as the US military.

The Stealth Factor

Regarded as the stealthiest aircraft in the world, military experts link the key to the F-35’s stealth to its smooth body. All of the weapons and even the fuel tank of the F-35’s sit inside the aircraft, making its “radar return” – how much enemy radar signal bounces off the aircraft – almost negligible.

Even the engine air intakes, a loophole for the radar to detect the jet, are furnished with serpentine inlet ducts, which radar signals bounce back and forth around on their way to the engine. As a result, little, if any, of the signal finds its way back out again, reducing the aircraft’s image on enemy radar screens, according to Science Focus.

Weapons and even the fuel tank of the F-35’s are hidden inside the airframe, increasing its stealth capability. (via Twitter)

This near-invisibility can prevent conflict too. F-35 pilots can opt to avoid enemies and go about their business – a reconnaissance mission – without being seen.

A Flying Computer

It is interesting to note that no two-seat trainer versions have been built for any of the variants of F-35 and instead the F-16s have been used as bridge trainers between the T-38 and the F-35.

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One of the reasons for this smooth transition for the fighter pilots from fourth-generation to fifth-generation technology is the advanced electronic software equipped with the jets.

Comparing it to an iPhone, Jim Beck, the station commander of UK’s Royal Air Force at Norfolk noted that “the jet fuses all the data it receives together and only presents about 1 percent of it to the pilot when a human decision is required. The actual flying of it is the easiest bit”.

With minimal physical controls, the F-35 is designed to sneak up the enemy territory, process the data of the battlefield for a team of people who’ll fire its weapons remotely.

“People think the move into fifth-generation jets is about stealth. It isn’t. It’s about information. Whoever has the most – which is of decision quality – will win the fight,” Beck said.

Sensor fusion is what happens when an F-35 takes data from external sensors – like the heat signature of an aircraft several miles away – then interprets this, determines the threat level, and monitors the situation. If the potential threat level from that aircraft increases, the F-35 will let its pilot know and suggest they investigate, Science Focus reported.

Similarly, the F-35’s £325,000 pilot helmet is one of the advanced ones in the world with airspeed, altitude, and weapons targeting are projected on the inside of the visor, along with a 360° view captured by six external cameras then stitched together,

“F-35s do not hunt as individual aeroplanes,” says Steve Over, Lockheed Martin’s director of business development. “They hunt as a pack, separated by vast distances in the airspace. If you’re flying an F-35 there is never a situation where someone sneaks up behind you. You can take that out of the equation.”

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Fresh Set Of Upgrades

In 2018, Lockheed Martin began working on a fresh set of upgrades under the Block 4 series of enhancements in the jet.

Lockheed Martin describes the F-35’s Block 4 upgrade as a “Continuous Capability Development and Delivery”, making the aircraft boast faster computers, more missiles, panoramic cockpit display, longer ranges, and AI-flown wingmen.

Popular Mechanics reported on one of the most important technological upgrades which include computing power.

F-35 cockpit
The display system inside the F-35 cockpit.

“The F-35 is set to receive new main computers capable of 25 times more instructions than current onboard computers, making the aircraft capable of drawing data from other friendly air, land, and sea sources in order to give the pilot a more information-packed view of the battlefield,” the report said.

Another update is the new “Sidekick” missile launch system, which allows the jet to carry two more AMRAAM missiles into the existing belly-mounted missile bay, for a total of six AMRAAMs.

There were reports that the Sidekick might be an unmanned drone such as the XQ-58A “Valkyrie” UAV.

A new wing-mounted fuel tank system that will increase the F-35’s range by 25 percent is being considered, giving the jet a combat range of about 737 miles at the cost of greater radar visibility.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), a military watchdog, in a report released in March estimated that the Block 4 development is now projected to reach $14.4 billion, noting that the upgrade costs have increased by $1.9 billion.

The watchdog also noted that the modernization effort — which was initially expected to wrap up in 2026 — is now scheduled to conclude by 2027, warning that the projected sustainment costs for the F-35 joint strike fighter are unaffordable.