Luftwaffe’s nuclear-capable F-35s enter production in late 2024

Germany’s F-35s are set to be dual-capable, carrying both conventional and nuclear weapons, with production kicking off at the end of this year, according to J.R. McDonald, Lockheed’s VP of F-35 business development. The assembly of the forward bulkhead section is scheduled to begin in November or December. 

British F-35 fighter jet
Photo credit: Royal Navy

Initially, Berlin was against acquiring F-35 fighters. However, after Russia invaded Ukraine, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced that the Luftwaffe would procure 35 F-35s. Interestingly, Berlin might even increase this number to 43, as they are considering acquiring an additional eight aircraft, which was revealed on June 7 this year. 

The Luftwaffe is expected to receive its first batch of six F-35 fighters in 2026. However, these jets will initially stay in the U.S. until 2027, when they will finally arrive in Germany. The full acquisition of all 35 units should be completed by 2029, aligning perfectly with Berlin’s plan to retire the Panavia Tornado aircraft by 2030.

UK will train Ukrainian pilots, even though it cannot train its own - Tornado bomber fighter
Photo credit: RAF

F-35’s nuclear-capable certification

The certification process for the F-35 as a nuclear weapon carrier began in earnest in 2019. Initially, the F-35 underwent a series of ground tests to validate its ability to carry and deploy nuclear weapons. These tests included simulations and mechanical assessments to ensure the aircraft’s systems could handle the unique stresses and requirements of nuclear ordnance. 

Following ground tests, the F-35 entered a phase of flight testing. This phase involved a series of sorties where the aircraft carried inert versions of nuclear bombs to assess their flight characteristics, handling, and release mechanisms under various conditions. 

Authorization for nukes in the fuselages of Dutch F-35A jets
Photo credit: Reddit

One of the critical components of the certification process was the compatibility testing with the B61-12 nuclear bomb. The F-35 had to demonstrate that it could carry, deploy, and accurately deliver this specific type of nuclear weapon, which involved a series of drop tests and precision assessments. Throughout the certification process, the F-35’s software and avionics systems were rigorously tested and updated. Ensuring that the aircraft advanced’s systems could integrate seamlessly with nuclear weapon protocols was a crucial aspect of the certification.

After Germany, the Balkans are next

While Germany’s acquisition of the F-35 might have come as a “semi-surprise,” the fact that Greece and Romania are on the verge of following suit is nothing short of astonishing. Washington will likely greenlight these Balkan countries to join the F-35 program. According to reports from FlightGlobal, a letter of intent [LOI] is already in the works. 

RNAF's 'green' initiative: F-35s to take flight with biofuel
Photo credit: RNAF

Lockheed Martin forecasts that it will have around 650 F-35s operating with European allies by 2035. This would create a significant fleet as next-generation fighter programs continue to develop. 

According to sources, “The number one priority is to stay ahead of emerging threats,” noting that the new European fighter development projects won’t be operational until 2035 and 2040, respectively.

Considerable challenges

South Korean F-35A
Photo credit: USAF

Worries about delays in upgrades have been voiced more frequently by various clients. For example, the Belgian Air Force rejected fighters in August 2023 due to outdated software, and the U.S. Marine Corps has been quite vocal about their dissatisfaction. 

In a significant disclosure, Lockheed Martin’s CEO, Jim Taiclet, shared that their anticipated delivery volumes for 2024 are between 75 and 110 F-35s. This range represents merely 50%-73% of the roughly 150 aircraft initially expected. Alarmingly, after production cuts in 2023, this could lead to 2024 being the year when the Chinese J-20 fifth-generation fighter overtakes the F-35 in production numbers. 

Exploring the specifics of slowing down the F-35’s upgrade to the TR-3 standard, Taiclet elaborated on the core of the issue. “On the TR-3 front, we’ve hit a significant challenge due to the increased complexity level. It’s a meticulous process of running new software through new hardware, and then syncing it with the rest of the aircraft’s systems. This has taken longer than our team initially anticipated,” he acknowledged. “Despite our eagerness to accelerate this, this is the timeline we’re currently working with.”

Australia has shown how rapidly it can cloak its F-35 fleet
Photo by Sergeant Craig Barrett

The 5th-gen stealth

The F-35A is a fifth-generation, single-engine, stealth multirole fighter aircraft developed by Lockheed Martin. It is designed to perform a wide range of missions, including air superiority, ground attack, and reconnaissance. The F-35A is the conventional takeoff and landing [CTOL] variant of the F-35 Lightning II family, which also includes the F-35B [short takeoff and vertical landing] and the F-35C [carrier-based]. 

In terms of dimensions, the F-35A has a wingspan of approximately 35 feet [10.7 meters], a length of about 51.4 feet [15.7 meters], and a height of around 14.4 feet [4.4 meters]. The aircraft has an empty weight of roughly 29,300 pounds [13,290 kilograms] and a maximum takeoff weight of about 70,000 pounds [31,800 kilograms]. 

Not only Russian Su-27 can do it - the F-35 landed on a highway
Photo by James Deboer

The F-35A is powered by a single Pratt & Whitney F135-PW-100 turbofan engine, which provides a maximum thrust of approximately 43,000 pounds-force [191 kilonewtons] with an afterburner. This advanced propulsion system allows the aircraft to achieve a maximum speed of Mach 1.6 [about 1,200 miles per hour or 1,930 kilometers per hour] and a combat radius of over 650 nautical miles [1,200 kilometers]. The F-35A features an advanced sensor suite, including the AN/APG-81 Active Electronically Scanned Array [AESA] radar, Distributed Aperture System [DAS], and Electro-Optical Targeting System [EOTS], which enhance situational awareness and targeting capabilities.

F-35’s armament

The avionics of the F-35A are highly sophisticated, incorporating advanced systems such as the Integrated Core Processor [ICP], which serves as the central processing unit for the aircraft’s mission systems. The aircraft also features a Helmet-Mounted Display System [HMDS], which provides pilots with critical flight and combat information directly on the helmet visor, allowing for improved situational awareness and targeting. 

Finland arms its F-35 fleet with 1,000 km-range bunker busters - JASSM-ER
Photo credit: USAF

The F-35A is equipped with a variety of systems designed to enhance its operational capabilities. These include the Autonomic Logistics Information System [ALIS], which provides real-time maintenance and logistics support, and the Mission Data Files [MDF], which contain threat libraries and mission-specific data to optimize performance in various combat scenarios. 

In terms of weaponry, the F-35A is capable of carrying a diverse array of munitions, both internally and externally. Its internal weapons bays can house up to four air-to-air missiles, such as the AIM-120 AMRAAM, or a combination of air-to-ground munitions, including the GBU-31 JDAM and the GBU-12 Paveway II. Additionally, the aircraft can carry external stores on six hardpoints, allowing for a broader range of weapons, including the AIM-9X Sidewinder, AGM-158 JASSM, and various precision-guided bombs.

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