Origin Story: How America Ended Up with The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter

Sebastien Roblin

Key point: An attempt to cover multiple desired capabilities in a single airframe.

In 2019, the first fully-combat capable of F-35 Lightning stealth fighters with Block IIIF software will finally enter service—twenty-seven years after it was first conceived, and after over 350 aircraft have already been delivered. Just how did the F-35 go from being a glimmer in the eye of Pentagon bureaucrats to the most expensive weapon system in human history?

In the 1980s, the Pentagon began looking ahead to replacing its formidable stable of fourth-generation fighters with stealth aircraft. The Air Force’s Advanced Tactical Fighter competition would eventually yield a highly capable air-superiority stealth fighter, in the F-22 Raptor. But the Navy and Marines still wanted their own stealth jets, and the Air Force had a large fleet of single-engine F-16 multi-role fighters which the Raptor was too pricy and specialized to replace.

Thus, in 1992 the Navy and Air Force combined their CALF and JAST programs into the Joint Strike Fighter program. Its goal was to devise a cheaper, single-engine attack-oriented stealth fighter, variants of which could be used by all three services to save on costs and which could be exported to U.S. allies across the globe—unlike the F-22. Better yet, the JSF would incorporate cutting-edge digital and material technologies to improve efficiency.

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