When it comes to American air dominance, no platform gets more attention than the high-cost and high-performance F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Of course, the F-35’s monopoly on the media’s attention makes a fair amount of sense: by most accounts, it’s the most technologically advanced and expensive aircraft ever to enter the fight, and thanks to America’s political schizophrenia, it’s either the only fighter America should be investing in, or it’s too expensive to use for normal combat operations… depending on the week and political climate.

But attention isn’t what makes a combat platform effective, and now that the F-35 is finally starting to make its way into war zones around the world, the aircraft that’s prompted a million headlines finally has a chance to prove its worth — which begs the question: is it really America’s best fighter? If you’ve read my work before, you likely won’t be surprised by my answer: it really depends on the situation.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was purpose-built for a specific type of warfare: air-to-ground engagements. Like the F/A-18 Super Hornet and the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the F-35 is expected to hold its own against other fighters in the sky, but it’s real purpose is sneaking past enemy air defenses to engage ground targets in highly contested airspace. The F-35’s data fusion capabilities allow it to identify and engage targets from significant distances, which when coupled with its low observability, make the F-35 an excellent deep penetration strike platform that can lead the way into the fight in highly defended airspace.

Formation of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Madelyn Brown)

If you’ve got a surface-to-air missile platform inside enemy-controlled airspace that you want destroyed, the F-35 just may be the best weapon in Uncle Sam’s arsenal for the job… but that’s not the only job a fighter jet may have in combat.