The US-made F-35 Lightning II is offering the US military and its allies interoperability, dynamic targeting and upgrades to legacy systems as it spreads among international militaries.
The latest country to purchase the aircraft is Germany.
Berlin on December 14 signed a deal to buy dozens of US-made F-35 fighter jets, US officials said, part of the country's military overhaul following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
"The German F-35 programme will ensure the continuation of Germany's alliance commitments and guarantee NATO's credible deterrence in the future," said the US Embassy in Berlin in a statement.
The 35 jets, the world's most advanced warplanes, should be delivered between 2026 and 2029, it said.
Berlin had announced in March the planned purchase of the aircraft made by Lockheed Martin to replace its ageing Tornado fleet.
"The German-US defence partnership has never been stronger and is a central pillar of NATO's transatlantic partnership," said the embassy statement.
With the contract, Germany becomes the ninth foreign military sales (FMS) country to include the F-35 in its family of aircraft, joining Israel, Japan, South Korea, Poland, Belgium, Switzerland, Finland and Singapore
Introduced in 2006, the F-35 was developed by eight international programme partners -- the United States, United Kingdom, Italy, Netherlands, Australia, Norway, Denmark and Canada.
To date, the F-35 operates from 26 bases worldwide, with nine nations operating F-35s on their home soil. More than 875 F-35s are in service today, and more than 1,845 pilots and 13,350 maintainers are trained on the aircraft, Lockheed said in a December statement.
The capabilities of the cutting-edge F-35 Lightning II are enabling both the United States and its allies to secure their interests in the Middle East and around the globe.
The Lightning II has three variants.
The F-35A, used by the US Air Force, is the conventional takeoff and landing variant.
The US Marine Corps uses the F-35B, which "can land vertically like a helicopter and take off in very short distances. This allows it to operate from austere, short-field bases and a range of air-capable ships", according to Lockheed Martin.
The third variant is the US Navy's F-35C, the carrier variant, which can take off from any US aircraft carrier anywhere.
The various models of the F-35 mean that they can take off from and land on a variety of terrains and platforms that most other aircraft cannot use, exposing the enemy to attack from a number of directions.
The fifth-generation fighter has a top speed of Mach 1.6 (1.6 times the speed of sound) and a combat range of 1,410km.
The F-35 also has a "beast mode" -- when weapons are carried on the wing-mounted pylons as well as inside the internal bay -- that makes it even deadlier when needed.
In normal stealth mode, the plane can carry 2.6 tonnes of ordnance in the internal bay.
Beast mode, which almost quadruples that to 10 tonnes, especially comes into play as hostile anti-aircraft systems are eliminated and as the F-35 no longer has to rely on its stealth for survivability.
'Quarterback of the battlefield'
In addition to its own ordnance, the plane augments the capacities of other weapon systems, creating a constellation of firepower.
The F-35 can stealthily approach the enemy and gather information from its own sensors as well as from ground vehicles, drones, other aircraft and ships.
With onboard computers to fuse the obtained data, F-35 pilots can co-ordinate efforts with fourth-generation aircraft, such as the F-15 Eagle, F-16 Fighting Falcon and the Eurofighter Typhoon, making them deadlier in the process.
"In the F-35, we're the quarterback of the battlefield -- our job is to make everyone around us better," Maj. Justin "Hasard" Lee, an US Air Force F-35 pilot instructor, told Popular Mechanics in April.
"Fourth-gen fighters like the F-16 and F-15 will be with us until at least the late 2040s. Because there are so many more of them than us, our job is to use our unique assets to shape the battlefield and make it more survivable for them."
The Lightning II can also leverage its capabilities to help deliver precision strike munitions while remaining undetected.
By partnering with the Aegis Combat System, an integrated naval weapons system that uses computer and radar to guide various weapons to strike targets, the F-35 can extend the radius of detectable targets by providing stealth missions deep into enemy territory.
Alternatively, the F-35, when equipped properly, can conduct bombing missions to support an Aegis-directed onslaught.
The F-35, besides being an invaluable auxiliary to an Aegis system, adds to the power and reach of Tomahawk cruise missiles, which the US military feeds with data from a variety of sources, including from the F-35.
Proven track record
The F-35 has already proven itself in combat.
In May 2018, Israel announced it had become the first country to deploy the F-35A in combat, using the aircraft to conduct two airstrikes.
Israel was the first country outside the United States to acquire the F-35, and received its first two planes in 2016.
In March this year, Israel also declassified footage of the F-35 scoring its first air-to-air kills last year.
"On March 15, 2021, two Iranian UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] attempted to infiltrate Israel," said the Israel Defence Forces (IDF).
"The Israeli Air Force successfully intercepted these UAVs using a F-35I 'Adir' fighter jet," it said, adding that this was the first operational interception of a UAV by an F-35I aircraft in the world.
The US Marine Corps, using F-35Bs, in September 2018 carried out the plane's first combat mission in the Middle East, an airstrike on an unspecified fixed target in Afghanistan, according to Military Times.
According to Defence News, the US Air Force used two of its F-35As for the first time in April 2019 in an attack on an "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) tunnel network and weapon cache in Iraq.
In April 2021, Lockheed Martin reported in a statement that the US Air Force had deployed the F-35 in the US Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility for 18 consecutive months.
F-35s conducted 1,319 sorties during that period. They "dropped 352 weapons" and fired 3,774 rounds of 25mm ammunition, the statement said.