The F-35 Lightning II is designed to be fast, but not the fastest; highly nimble, but not the most nimble.
Its main advantages, according to manufacturer Lockheed Martin, are being nearly impossible to track with radar and that it’s packed with advanced sensors and deadly missiles.
The plane is the most expensive weapons system ever built and was plagued by a lengthy development and a lifetime cost of more than $1 trillion. But it is now flying operationally.
The US State Department on Tuesday announced its intention to sell up to 50 F-35 jets to the United Arab Emirates.
Despite other problems – including ejector seats that were dangerous for small pilots, and finicky software – it has a strong safety record, with only four crashes.
It comes in three variants: the A model, meant for use on conventional airfields; the B model, which has vertical take-off and landing capability; and the C model, for use on aircraft carriers.
The F-35 is powered by the Pratt and Whitney F135, an engine developed specifically for the programme; all three variants use it. With more than 40,000 pounds of thrust, according to the manufacturer, it can propel the F-35 to speeds of about Mach 1.6 (2,000kph).
Other, older aircraft are faster; both the F-16 and F-15 can exceed Mach 2, or twice the speed of sound, according to the Federation of American Scientists.
Unlike the F-22, the F-35 does not have in-flight thrust vectoring, in which the jet exhaust can swivel and help the aircraft turn faster.
But the F-35 has large control surfaces – its vertical and horizontal stabilisers are larger than some smaller aircraft’s wings. That, and advanced flight computers, allow the plane to manoeuvre at speeds in which other planes would simply fall out of the air, according to Lockheed Martin.
The F-35’s biggest selling point is its ability to evade enemy radar.
Exactly how stealthy it is has not been made public. Its radar cross-section – the size it “appears” on a radar scope – is a closely guarded secret.
Alongside that is a sensor system designed to vacuum up information about the airspace around the F-35 without giving up its position. Tiny cameras mounted around the plane can project a real-time 360-degree picture of the world for night operations, the manufacturer says.
The US military, with more than 200 F-35s and thousands more on the way, is the biggest user.
Other nations that have bought, or plan to buy, the F-35 include Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, Turkey, Italy, Great Britain and Israel.
Britain and Japan are two of the biggest foreign buyers, with plans to acquire hundreds of the fighters.
Only the United States and Israel have used them in combat.
The F-35 was selected for production in 2001 after a competition against Boeing. But its first flight did not occur until 2006, and it did not enter service until 2015, when the US Marine Corps declared it ready for combat.
Its development was marred with issues, some of them bizarre: because it uses fuel to cool hot parts of the aircraft, fuel in some climates must be kept cool before it is pumped on-board, a Pentagon report found in 2016.
But, the biggest shortfall, critics say, is that it is simply too expensive. In 2012, the Pentagon estimated the lifetime cost for the F-35 at more than $1.5 trillion over 50 years – by far the most expensive aircraft programme in US history.
Germany in January dropped the F-35 from the running to replace its ageing fleet of Tornado jets, telling MPs in a classified document this week that the decision was in part the result of the high cost of operating the jet over its lifetime.
Crashes or unsafe operating characteristics, however, have not been among the aircraft’s problems. Since its first flight, there have been only four crashes.
In September 2018, a US pilot ejected safely in an incident in North Carolina which involved the vertical take-off and landing B model.
Investigators said that crash was likely linked to faulty fuel tubes in the engine, and the global fleet was grounded until the issue was fixed.
In April 2019, a Japanese Air Force F-35 disappeared during a training drill east of the Aomori Prefecture and debris was later found in the ocean. The pilot’s remains were later recovered.
Pilot error and system control issues in May 2020 brought down an F-35 while landing at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida but the pilot ejected. And in September 2020, another US F-35 crashed in California after colliding with a KC-130 during air-to-air refuelling.