After years of development, and having only just entered service officially with the US Air Force last year, the F-35A Lightning II will finally be declared fully combat ready next month, heralding a new age of air power for the service.
Aviation Week reports that the 34th Fighter Squadron, based at Hill AFB, Utah, will take delivery of brand new F-35As fresh from the production line in Dallas, Texas. What differentiates these latest stealth jets from the F-35As currently flown by the Air Force is that they will come with the Block 3F software upgrade.
Block 3F is the final step towards enabling the aircraft to fully utilize every air-to-surface and air-to-air weapon it was built to field in combat. Currently, the F-35s flown by the Air Force and US Marine Corps operate with a limited weapons load while Lockheed Martin and other program contractors ready the Lightning II's software.
A Norwegian F-35A taxiing (Photo Department of Defense)
The F-35 was created as part of the Joint Strike Fighter program of the late 1990s, bringing about a dedicated multirole replacement for the F/A-18 "Legacy" Hornet, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, and the AV-8B Harrier II jumpjet operated by the Marine Corps.
By building aircraft with similar architecture - just different engines - the Department of Defense theorized that money could be saved in the long run while keeping operational readiness for the military's entire fighter fleet at an all-time high. As such, Lockheed Martin has developed three variants of the F-35: the A model for the Air Force, the B model short takeoff/vertical landing for the Marine Corps, and the carrier-capable C model for the Navy.
The F-35 was originally designed to work in tandem with the F-22 Raptor - the Raptor serving as an air superiority fighter while the Lightning II functioning more as a swing-role "Swiss army knife" aircraft. The deployment of the Block 3F software is a huge leap towards making that goal a reality today.
A USAF F-35A departs from Luke AFB in Arizona (Photo US Air Force)
This upgrade comes in the wake of a training deployment conducted by the 34th Fighter Squadron to the United Kingdom earlier this year with F-35As that were still limited in their warfighting capabilities - most in terms of the weapons they could carry and employ. The Marine Corps has also pushed its F-35Bs out to Japan, but are also serving in a limited capacity until the new software update is rolled out.
With fears of a potential confrontation with North Korea, and with the rise of Chinese and Russian stealth fighters on the horizon, maintaining an edge with its own fifth generation fighters has become a major priority for the Air Force. According to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, the F-35s which were deployed to the UK in spring could have been sent to battle if called upon, though their pilots would not be able to access the aircraft's full potential, with the limited software built into their aircraft at the time.
The Pentagon expects to place more than 100 F-35s in Asia within the next three to four years to counter the Chinese air force's fielding of its own fifth generation fighters like the J-31 Gyrfalcon and the J-20 multirole fighters.