The F-35A is the conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) variant intended for the US Air Force and other air forces. It is the smallest, lightest F-35 version and is the only variant equipped with an internal cannon, the GAU-22/A. This 25 mm cannon is a development of the GAU-12 carried by the USMC’s AV-8B Harrier II. It is designed for increased effectiveness against ground targets compared to the 20 mm M61 Vulcan cannon carried by other USAF fighters.

The F-35A is expected to match the F-16 in maneuverability and instantaneous and sustained high-g performance, and outperform it in stealth, payload, range on internal fuel, avionics, operational effectiveness, supportability, and survivability.[228] It is expected to match an F-16 that is carrying the usual external fuel tank in acceleration performance. It also has an internal laser designator and infrared sensors, equivalent to the Sniper XR pod carried by the F-16, but built in to reduce radar cross section.

The A variant is primarily intended to replace the USAF’s F-16 Fighting Falcon. It is also to replace the A-10 Thunderbolt II starting in 2028.