‘Tailored’ F-35 variant contract announced for mystery customer

A contract by the US DOD recently revealed that Lockheed Martin has been awarded a $49m contract to design and develop a tailored variant of the F-35 Lightning II for an unspecified Foreign Military Sales (FMS) customer.

The contract was provided by Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) which is where the F-35 Joint Program Office is stationed. Majority of the work is to take place at Lockheed Martin’s facility in Fort Worth, Texas, and is expected to conclude in December 2026.

Speculation is growing around what the new variant will be and which nation it is for. A new variant of the Lightning II may spark interest initially, but this could mean a small modification to the already existing models such as, avionics, air-to-air refuelling modifications, and weapon capabilities.

An exampling nation of this is Israel, who operate a modified variant of the F-35A, the F-35I. Israel’s F-35I has home produced distinct mission software and the nation is currently adding electronic warfare capabilities to its F-35 fleet. This recent contract could easily support an extension to the ongoing work to Israel’s variant which was due to conclude at the end of 2021.

F-35I
A formaion of Israeli Air Force F-35I 'Adirs' during a Blue Flag 2021 mission. Israeli Air Force

The F-35 has three original variants, the conventional take-off and landing F-35A, the short take off and vertical landing capable F-35B, and the carrier capable F-35C. Both the F-35A and B are operated by foreign customers but the F-35C has no foreign customers.

Given the $49m value of the contract, which is minimal in F-35 terms does favor the speculation behind a small modification to a pre-existing customer of the F-35A or B, and does not support development of the F-35C variant or an outright sale to a new customer.

A finger could be pointed at the Nation of Singapore being the anonymous customer, which recently ordered four F-35Bs. Matching up with the conclusion of the contract, the delivery of these four aircraft is scheduled for 2026. Singapore is known for having its own variants of Western fighters for example, the F-15SJ.

Another contender could be the most recent customers of the F-35 programme, Finland, ordering 64 F-35As. The nation’s current fleet of legacy F/A-18C/D Hornets currently carry out mid-air refuelling missions by a refuelling probe and receive fuel from a drogue equipped tanker rather than the receptacle system on the F-35A from a boom equipped tanker. Therefore, the small variant change could be the F-35A fitted with a refuelling probe like the F-35B.

F-35A Lightning
Finland is the latest customer of the F-35 Lightning II, ordering 64 examples of the F-35A to replace its fleet of F/A-18C/D Hornets. Finnish Air Force

With all these possibilities, it will remain speculation until the contracted customer is revealed and the new variant is provided an official name during the construction, test or delivery stages of its production.