The emergence of a first-of-its kind carrier-launched stealth fighter is intended to give the Navy more combat attack flexibility and attack sophisticated enemy air defenses or fortified targets from a sea-based carrier. Such an ability can allow a maneuvering carrier to hold targets at risk from closer proximity if land-bases are far from the combat vicinity.
The new stealth Joint Strike Fighter is slated to become operational by 2018, when it will join the carrier air wing and fly alongside the F/A-18 Super Hornet, E2D Hawkeye surveillance planes and other aircraft. Over the next five years, the Navy plans to acquire as many as 60 or more of the new fighters.
The F-35C is engineered with a new technology called Delta Flight Path which helps pilot land on a carrier deck more easily. Test pilots and engineers credited the F-35C's Delta Flight Path technology with significantly reducing pilot workload during the approach to the carrier, increasing safety margins during carrier approaches and reducing touchdown dispersion.
Stealthy F-35C carrier aircraft, having a lower radar signature, are expected to deliver advanced attack and air-to-air and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, able to perform a wider range of operations without being detected by an enemy.
The aircraft is part of a broader Navy strategy to be well equipped in the event that it needs to engage in massive, major-power war against a near-peer adversary such as Russia and China known to have advanced air-defenses and air-to-air platforms
Two F-35C Lightning II carrier variants conducted their first arrested landings aboard USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) off the coast of the eastern United States on Oct. 2, 2015.
By 2025, the Navy's aircraft carrier-based air wings will consist of a mix of F-35C, F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, EA-18G Growlers electronic attack aircraft, E-2D Hawkeye battle management and control aircraft, MH-60R/S helicopters and Carrier Onboard Delivery logistics aircraft such as the emerging Navy Osprey tiltrotor aircraft variant
F-35C cost per plane as more than $337 million.
The United States Navy intends to buy 480 F-35Cs to replace the F/A-18A, B, C, and D Hornets and complement the Super Hornet fleet. The first F-35C was rolled out on 29 July 2009. The United States Marine Corps will also purchase 80 F-35Cs, enough for five squadrons.
On 22 June 2013, Strike Fighter Squadron VFA-101 received the Navy's first F-35C at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
The USN is dealing with the following issues in adapting their carriers to operate the F-35C.
- The F135 engine exceeds the weight capacity of traditional underway replenishment systems and generates more heat than previous engines.
- The stealthy skin requires new repair techniques; extensive skin damage will necessitate repairs at Lockheed's land-based facilities.
- The adoption of lithium-ion batteries needing careful thermal management, and higher voltage systems than traditional fighters.
- Storing of new weapons not previously employed on carrier aircraft.
- Large quantities of classified data generated during missions shall require additional security.
In February 2014, Lockheed said the F-35C was on schedule for sea trials after the tailhook was redesigned.