About the Lightning

ROLE

The Lightning fifth-generation combat aircraft will operate alongside the Typhoon.  Lightning is a multi-role machine capable of conducting missions including air-to-surface, electronic warfare, intelligence gathering and air-to-air simultaneously.  

An F-35B flies across the Atlantic to RAF Fairford.
The Lightning has advanced sensors and stealth technology.
Image by: SAC Tim Laurence

CAPABILITY

The aircraft combines advanced sensors and mission systems with low observable technology, or ‘stealth’, which enables it to operate undetected in hostile airspace.  Its integrated sensors, sensor fusion and data linking provide the pilot with unprecedented situational awareness. The pilot is able to share information gathered by the jet with other platforms using secure data links, and/or use the information to employ weapons or electronic means.  

The Lightning’s short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) capability allows it to operate from the new ‘Queen Elizabeth’-class aircraft carriers and the vessels of allied nations, as well as short airstrips. 

Header image by SAC Tim Laurence

Based at

Specifications

Lockheed Martin Lightning:

  • Powerplant: one Pratt & Whitney F135 turbofan rated at 40,000lb st (177.88kN) with afterburning and 40,500lb st (180.10kN) for vertical take-off
  • Length: 51ft 2¼in (15.60m)
  • Height: 14ft 3½in (4.36m)
  • Wingspan: 35ft (10.70m)
  • Wing area: 460sqft (42.70m2)
  • Maximum take-off weight: around 60,000lb (27,216kg)
  • Maximum speed: Mach 1.6
  • Combat radius: on internal fuel more than 450nm (833km)
  • Maximum altitude: 50,000ft
  • Armament: typically two AAMs and two bombs carried internally, with optional 25mm gun pod and underwing pylons enabling stores carriage up to 15,000lb (6,800kg) 

Lightning Recognition

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Lightning Recognition

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Wings

Shoulder swept, tapered wings, 10.7m wingspan

Engine

Single P&W F135 turbofan

Fuselage

'Shark' bevelled nose and side intakes. Total length: 15.6m

Tail

Distinctive twin fins

Recognition image for Lightning
 

History of the Lightning

Lockheed Martin’s Lightning embodies capabilities based on thinking developed through evolving requirements since at least 1983, when the US Navy launched its Advanced Tactical Aircraft (ATA) programme to find a stealthy replacement for the Grumman A-6 Intruder.  That same year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) began its Advanced Short Take-Off/Vertical Landing (ASTOVL) effort, looking to develop a supersonic successor to the Harrier.

Two classified programmes ran under ASTOVL, which was always intended to produce information of value to the US and UK.  The STOVL Strike Fighter (SSF) research ran from 1987 to 1994 and examined the feasibility of creating the technologies necessary for a stealthy, supersonic STOVL fighter, while the Common Affordable Lightweight Fighter (CALF) programme ran for just a year from 1993, combining the ASTOVL and SSF work into a single effort to provide a Harrier replacement specifically for the US and UK.

Meanwhile, ATA had suffered insurmountable technological and financial challenges and closed down in 1991.  In 1990, however, the US Navy had already turned its attention to replacing the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, for which requirement the USAF’s Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) was seen as a potential basis.  The proposal was examined as the Naval ATF, but dismissed in 1991 as too expensive – ATF ultimately evolved into today’s Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.

The USAF had begun a replacement programme of its own in 1990; the Multi-Role Fighter (MRF) was to succeed the General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon.  By 1992, MRF was also being considered as a replacement for the USAF’s Fairchild Republic A-10A Thunderbolt II and US Navy McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C/D Hornet fleets.  But as budgets and forces were cut following the end of the Cold War, F-16 upgrades became more attractive and with its focus on ATF, the USAF ended MRF in 1993.

More or less simultaneously and prior to the termination of NATF, the US Navy returned to the quandary of how to replace the A-6, examining new options under the Advanced-Attack/Advanced/Fighter-Attack (A-X/A/F-A) programme from 1991.  Because it promised to create an aircraft of superior performance and capability, the USAF identified A-X/A/F-A as a potential replacement for its General Dynamics F-111, McDonnell Douglas F-15E Strike Eagle and Lockheed F-117A Nighthawk platforms.

With NATF cancelled, A-X/A/F-A gained new air-to-air requirements and became the Advanced Attack/Fighter (A/F-X) and although progress was made, Congress became concerned at the number of projects under way with hopes of reaching the same or similar goals.  As a result, A/F-X, ASTOVL and is components were merged under the Joint Advanced Strike Technology (JAST) programme in 1994.

JAST aimed to gather and coalesce all the formative technologies existing under the various programmes, but lasted barely a year, becoming Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) when it reached its concept definition phase in 1996.  Late that year, Boeing and Lockheed Martin were awarded contracts to produce two JSF demonstrators each for a competitive fly-off, with Boeing’s aircraft designated X-32 and Lockheed Martin’s X-35.

In 1997, Lockheed Martin added Northrop Grumman and British Aerospace to its team, and the UK has since remained the primary overseas partner on the programme.  The intention with JSF was to create a stealthy tactical aircraft in three major variants: the conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) A-model was primarily an F-16 replacement, the STOVL ‘B’ was intended to succeed the Harrier, and the carrierborne (CV) ‘C’ would belatedly fill the hole left by the US Navy’s A-6, while also replacing some US Navy and Marine Corps F/A-18C/D aircraft.

Boeing was first into the air, with the X-32A, on September 18, 2000.  The X-32B followed on March 29, 2001 and the test programme concluded on July 28.  Lockheed Martin trailed by only a few weeks, flying the X-35A on October 24, 2000.  With ‘A’ testing completed on November 22, the aircraft was modified to X-35B configuration, first flying in its new form on June 23, 2001.

While Boeing had completed CV testing with the X-32A, Lockheed Martin chose to fly a dedicated X-35C, which flew for the first time on December 16, 2000.  The X-35 test programme concluded on August 6, 2001.

On October 26, the Lockheed Martin/ Northrop Grumman/BAE Systems team was announced as winning the JSF contract and the X-35 began to evolve into the F-35 Lightning II.

The UK formally announced its intention to acquire the Lightning F35-B in 2006.  For many years, the country’s JSF programme was known as Joint Combat Aircraft (JCA), which remained F-35B based until the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review, which switched the British requirement to the F-35C.  But with the ‘Queen Elizabeth’-class carrier design well advanced for STOVL, rather than the catapult and arrestor (‘cat and trap’) gear required for CV operations, JCA resorted back to the F-35B, at the same time increasingly becoming known as ‘JSF’ by programme insiders.

Squadron Leader Steve Long became the first British pilot to fly Lightning, on January 26, 2010 and in July 2012 the government announced its decision to purchase an initial batch of 48 aircraft.  The first of these was delivered on July 19 for trials work, a task 17 (Reserve) Squadron assumed in 2014.

The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review confirmed the UK’s intention to buy 138 Lightnings and subsequent work has seen a massive infrastructure upgrade begin at what will be the type’s RAF/Royal Navy main operating base, RAF Marham.  

In British service the aircraft will be known only as Lightning, losing its ‘II’ (it will actually be the RAF’s third Lightning, after the Lockheed P-38 and English Electric Lightning).  The first frontline Lightning unit, 617 Sqn ‘Dambusters’ is expected to arrive at RAF Marham in spring/summer 2018 and continue working towards achieving initial operating capability (IOC) in December.

The Lightning OCU, No. 207 Sqn, will stand up at Marham on July 1, 2019, followed by a second operational unit, 809 Naval Air Squadron (NAS), in 2023.  Trials aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth should also commence in 2018, building towards full carrier strike capability in 2020.  The last of the initial 48 Lightnings is expected for delivery in January 2025, by which time a schedule for the remaining 90 aircraft, and the formation of further squadrons, will no doubt be in place.

 

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