An F-35 and F-16. A recently-published summary of a mock dogfight between the two jets has raised questions about the F-35’s ability to survive in a within-visual-range battle, but it fails to acknowledge the Lightning II’s full range of capabilities.
There’s been quite a dust-up this week in the defense media–and companion social media sites–over claims the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) has poor maneuverability and may not survive a “close-in” dogfight against more nimble foes.
War is Boring got the ball rolling, with excerpts from a five-page summary from an F-35 test pilot, who (in very blunt terms) described losing engagements against an F-16, during a “within-visual-range” employment test held in January of this year:
“The fateful test took place on Jan. 14, 2015, apparently within the Sea Test Range over the Pacific Ocean near Edwards Air Force Base in California. The single-seat F-35A with the designation “AF-02” — one of the older JSFs in the Air Force — took off alongside a two-seat F-16D Block 40, one of the types of planes the F-35 is supposed to replace.
The two jets would be playing the roles of opposing fighters in a pretend air battle, which the Air Force organized specifically to test out the F-35’s prowess as a close-range dogfighter in an air-to-air tangle involving high “angles of attack,” or AoA, and “aggressive stick/pedal inputs.”
“The evaluation focused on the overall effectiveness of the aircraft in performing various specified maneuvers in a dynamic environment,” the F-35 tester wrote. “This consisted of traditional Basic Fighter Maneuvers in offensive, defensive and neutral setups at altitudes ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 feet.”
The F-35 was flying “clean,” with no weapons in its bomb bay or under its wings and fuselage. The F-16, by contrast, was hauling two bulky underwing drop tanks, putting the older jet at an aerodynamic disadvantage.
But the JSF’s advantage didn’t actually help in the end. The stealth fighter proved too sluggish to reliably defeat the F-16, even with the F-16 lugging extra fuel tanks. “Even with the limited F-16 target configuration, the F-35A remained at a distinct energy disadvantage for every engagement,” the pilot reported.
“Insufficient pitch rate.” “Energy deficit to the bandit would increase over time.” “The flying qualities in the blended region (20–26 degrees AoA) were not intuitive or favorable.”
The F-35 jockey tried to target the F-16 with the stealth jet’s 25-millimeter cannon, but the smaller F-16 easily dodged. “Instead of catching the bandit off-guard by rapidly pull aft to achieve lead, the nose rate was slow, allowing him to easily time his jink prior to a gun solution,” the JSF pilot complained.
And when the pilot of the F-16 turned the tables on the F-35, maneuvering to put the stealth plane in his own gunsight, the JSF jockey found he couldn’t maneuver out of the way, owing to a “lack of nose rate.”
Reading that report, you’d logically conclude that the F-35 is, in fact, a $1 trillion turkey; unable to fight its way out of a turning engagement, a fundamental of air combat since World War I pilots began taking potshots at each other with pistols from their cockpits.
But the account is also highly misleading–another example of JSF critics cherry-picking information to buttress their case. The F-35 Joint System Program Office (JSPO) responded by noting the blog post failed to mention that the jet used in the engagement was an “early test model, not equipped with production-representative mission systems software, stealth coatings, or sensors “that allow the F-35 to see its enemy long before it knows the F-35 is in the area.” The jet was also lacked the missiles and software needed to allow the pilot to target an enemy with his helmet-mounted system. So, the F-35 was at a disadvantage as well.
But the real issue here is the cherry-picking of information to place the JSF in the worst possible light. Fact is, every fighter has strengths and weaknesses. In World War II, for example, Claire Chennault and his Flying Tigers quickly discovered their P-40 Warhawks were no match for the Japanese Zero in a turning fight. They amassed an impressive kill ratio by adopting tactics that played to the P-40’s speed, firepower and rugged construction. Whenever possible, the Flying Tigers wanted to start the engagement with an altitude advantage over their Japanese opponents, diving through the enemy formation (and picking off as many as possible), then disengaging.
Elsewhere in the Pacific, Navy pilots flying the Grumman F4F Wildcat employed the famous “Thach Weave
” to negate the Zero’s advantage in maneuverability. During the Vietnam War, F-4 Phantom crews were told to avoid turning dogfights against the smaller more agile MiG-17s and MiG-21s.
With the introduction of fourth-generation fighters (including the F-15 and F-16) the design “trade-offs” of earlier aircraft appeared to be a thing of the past. Both the Eagle and the Viper had excellent speed, maneuverability and visibility, coupled with excellent radars and weaponry. At last, it seemed possible to build fighters that excelled in all phases of aerial combat. Both General Dynamics (which developed the F-16) and McDonnell-Douglas (which designed the Navy’s F/A-18) emphasized the ability of their aircraft to go from ground attack to dogfighting with literally the flick of a switch.
But even world-beating designs like the F-15, F-16 and the Hornet had their limitations. The original F-15 was designed strictly for air combat; the jet never gained an air-to-ground capability until the two-seat “Strike Eagle” was introduced in the 1980s. Newer models of the F/A-18 became heavier (as the Hornet took on more roles performed by jets like the F-14 and EA-6B Prowler), decreasing its range and agility.
The F-16 experienced a similar evolution, as newer “blocks” gained more capabilities (and weight), making them slightly less nimble that earlier variants. It is also worth noting that early Viper models had a limited air-to-air capability; the original APG-66 radar on A and B models did not support radar guided missiles. Later, a few F-16s assigned to the air defense mission in the Air National Guard were modified to carry and employ the AIM-7 Sparrow. But most F-16s did not gain a beyond-visual-range missile capability until the AIM-120 AMRAAM entered service in the early 1990s–almost 15 years after the Viper joined the Air Force inventory.
What does this prove? There are no perfect aircraft, and even the latest designs involve some degree of compromise, which impacts aerial performance. Consequently, it’s important to look at a fighter’s full range of capabilities before claiming it cannot survive in aerial combat. By that standard, the Flying Tigers should have never left the ground, and Jimmy Thach and his fellow Wildcat pilots had no business taking on the legendary A6M Zero. Instead, they learned to improvise and modify tactics to put themselves in the best possible position, recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of their aircraft, and those flown by their adversaries.
The F-35 is already undergoing that evolution. And that’s not to say the Joint Strike Fighter is being written off as an expensive, latter-day equivalent of the Wildcat or the P-40. Indeed, any fair assessment of a fourth or fifth-generation jet must consider its full range of capabilities. In some respects, the January test put the F-35 in an environment that most Lightning II drivers don’t want to be in.
Like the F-22, the JSF is most effective in the beyond visual range (BVR) environment, using its stealth, networked sensors and long-range missiles to kill the bad guys before it transitions to a visual range fight. As the F-35 JSPO noted, there have been numerous training missions that pitted a four-ship of JSFs against a similar number of F-15s or F-16s. The F-35s have won all of those engagements, utilizing their full range of capabilities.
But don’t take my word for it. Flying against a full-up, fifth generation stealth fighter is tough work, and you’re going to lose. As a USAF aggressor pilot told The Atlantic a few years back, “I saw an F-22 the other day, it was way above me, rocking its wings, just after he called me dead.” The aggressor pilot, trained to mimic the tactics of potential adversaries, never saw or detected the Raptor until after it killed him in the mock engagement. I heard similar comments from F-15 pilots at Langley AFB, VA, which operated Eagle and Raptors until 2010. They expressed absolute frustration at flying against the F-22, and said the high point of any joint sortie was when the Raptors headed for home.
To be fair, no jet is completely invisible, and a number of countries are working on improved sensors to detect stealth aircraft. And, both Moscow and Beijing are working on their own very low observable aircraft, so we’ll have company in the stealth arena in the years ahead. But we still enjoy an advantage in technology and tactics, which allows us to employ fifth-generation fighters to the full extent of their capabilities.
If we don’t preserve that edge, we will lose the aerial dominance that is essential for our military strategy. Not all of our future battles will be fought against terrorists with no air arm and minimal air defense capabilities. That reality dictates more advanced capabilities for our air forces and resisting the temptation to scrap the F-35 and soldier on with upgraded F-15s, F-16s and F/A-18s.