Aircraft

F-35 ABCs: Why Are There Three Variants?

The F-35 fighter jet has three variants, with the RAF and Navy being equipped with the F-35B.

The F-35B is Britain's most expensive and advanced warplane.

In June 2020, British F-35Bs departed RAF Marham for trials with the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth in the North Sea.

In 2019, the jets completed their first operational missions over Iraq and Syria.

They have also previously conducted tests on board HMS Queen Elizabeth off the coast of the the United States.

The UK owns 18 of the aircraft, 15 of those based at RAF Marham, with an order placed for an additional 30 jets.

In total, Britain is expected to purchase 138 F-35Bs - but what is the difference between the A, B and C models?

Aircraft ABCs

The F-35 jet has three variants: the F-35A conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant, the F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant, and the F-35C carrier variant (CV).

F-35C aircraft over Sierra Nevada mountains
The C variant of the F-35 was designed to be the US Navy’s first stealth fighter (Picture: US Navy).

The three variants perform similarly and are mainly distinguished by their different basing requirements. As a result, the F-35B and F-35C have unique ways to take off and land - due to their requirements for short take-off and landing or landing on carriers.

Using much of the same parts across the three variants allows for service-specific aircraft while allowing for savings to be made as a result of parts and processes being common to all three variants.

F-35A

The F-35A is the conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant which is designed to operate from regular runways.

It is the only version to carry an internal cannon.

The F-35A is set to be the common F-35 as the US Air Force and the majority of their allied air forces and Foreign Military Sales (FMS) nations will operate the F-35A.

Look out for the F-35A in the skies above Suffolk as they are set to receive their first F-35As by 2021, before eventually maintaining two operational squadrons there.

They are not capable of operating from the UK's Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers.

F-35A lands at RAF Lakenheath
An F-35A landing at RAF Lakenheath last year (Picture: US Air Force).

F-35B

The F-35B model short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant was designed to operate from austere, short-field bases and a range of air-capable ships - including the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers.

The aircraft can also take off and land conventionally from longer runways at major bases.

Each 'B' variant of the jet costs around $122.4m - but Lockheed Martin say they expect this cost will be reduced in the future, starting with the F-35A and then moving on to the B and C.

The company said they will drive the 'A' model's price down to $80m.

At the moment Britain owns 18 aircraft, with an additional order placed for 30 jets.

The UK eventually plans to have 138 F-35Bs.

F-35C

The F-35C carrier variant (CV) is the carrier variant, designed to be the US Navy’s first stealth fighter and the world’s only fifth Generation, long-range stealth strike fighter designed and built explicitly for aircraft carrier operations. 

The F-35C variant has larger wings and more robust landing gear than the other variants, making it suitable for the US Navy's catapult launches and fly-in arrestments aboard naval aircraft carriers.

Its wingtips also fold to allow for more room on the carrier’s deck while deployed.

The F-35C has a greater internal fuel capacity than the other two F-35 variants.

F-35C Carrier Variant for US Navy (Credit: US Dept of Defense)
F-35C variants for the US Navy (Picture: US Department Of Defense).