As one of our followers here on FighterSweep, you’re probably someone that likes to keep track of the latest news on America’s most advanced fighters–especially the stealthy, badass fifth-generation F-22 and F-35. More specifically, you’ve probably been keeping tabs on the development of the F-35–its setbacks, its achievements, and its march toward IOC. That also means you may have run across a very recent article that screams, “The F-35 can’t beat the plane it’s replacing in a dogfight!”
As a taxpayer, reading that probably pisses you off. After all, the F-35 acquisitions program is one of the most twisted and over-budget jobs programs in the history of the U.S. military. It’s late. It’s expensive. It’s bloated. It can’t even fly within twenty-five miles of a thunderstorm because they had to remove lightning protection to save on weight–a requirement for the Marines so they could take off and land vertically in the F-35B.
There are hundreds of valid complaints on this aircraft, but the latest clickbait headlines scattering social media aren’t among them; it’s as though suddenly everyone is Colonel John Boyd reincarnate and knows what the problem is.
Now, before we get into the why, let me first preface all of this by saying I don’t have a dog in this fight. I don’t work for Lockheed-Martin. I have nothing to do with the Air Force, Navy, or Marine Corps acquisitions process. As I mentioned in my Hornet versus Viper comparison, the Viper is my first love–so naturally I smiled a little when I read the headline.
But at the end of the day, I–just like every other fighter pilot out there–have to be fair.
First, let’s talk about what really happened. According to the article, an F-35A and a two-bag Block 40 F-16D took off on Jan 14, 2015 to engage in Basic Fighter Maneuver setups to test “the overall effectiveness of the aircraft in performing various specified maneuvers in a dynamic environment…this consisted of traditional Basic Fighter Maneuvers in offensive, defensive, and neutral setups at altitudes ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 feet.”
Just like a normal 1v1 proficiency sortie, the two fighters did canned setups to practice basic dogfighting. In the offensive setups, the F-35 would start off behind the F-16. At the specified range, the F-35 pilot would call “Fight’s On” and maneuver to the F-16’s control zone to employ weapons. In the defensive setups, the F-35 would start off in front while the Viper maneuvered to the F-35’s control zone. And finally, in the neutral (high-aspect) setup, the two aircraft would start completely neutral and fight until whatever DLOs (Designated Learning Objectives) they had were met, be they valid gunshots, valid missile shots, or whatever.
So while this particular article may lead you to believe the two aircraft went out there mano y mano and duked it out, the reality is that we don’t know where each deficiency was found. My guess is the critiques on the pitch rates for gunning and abilities to jink happened in the canned offensive and defensive setups. But one has to remember this is a test platform and they were out to get test data, not find out who the king of the mountain is.
The article talks about energy bleed rates, high-Alpha maneuvering, and the F-35 pilot’s “only winning move” to threaten with the nose at high angle of attack. What does that sound like?
To me, it sounds like a Hornet fighting a Viper. Of course, a Hornet is not going to do well against an F-16 in a sustained rate fight. Its strength is to get slow and use its angle of attack advantage, much like the F-35 did here. It also bleeds energy rapidly and struggles to get it back once bled down. The fact the heavier, drag-encumbered F-35 had this problem is not surprising to me–despite its monstrous amount of available thrust, and it doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things.
As for the helmet problem, I’m sure that’s an ergonomics issue that will be worked out in testing. It’s not “sneaking up” on anyone; the TTL driver likely went blind during the engagement. As they say, “Lose sight, lose the fight.”
This aircraft is still in its infancy. Tactics, techniques, and procedures that key on strengths and minimize weaknesses are just starting to be developed. Taking one report and proclaiming that the F-35 is a piece of FOD (Foreign Object Debris) in the air-to-air arena is irresponsible and sensationalist at best. There are far too many other factors to look at.
For example, the test pilot was a former F-15E pilot. Two-bag Vipers do the same thing to Strike Eagles all day long. Maybe he was just used to it? I keed. I keed. But seriously, a guy with maybe 100 hours in the F-35 versus a guy with 1,500+ Viper hours? I’ve seen thousand-hour F-16 guys in two-bag D-models beat up on brand new wingmen in clean, single-seat jets. It happens. It’s the reality of the amount of experience in your given cockpit.
I’m sure internet debates will rage on. It’s fun to trash the new kid, especially the new kid that’s overweight, wears too much bling, and talks about how awesome it is all the time. It’s way too early to declare the F-35 the “worst fighter aircraft design ever imagined.” Please. Let’s see how it does when guys who are proficient in developed tactics do against guys with similar amounts of experience–the realm of the bros in the operational test or Weapons School environment.
There’s plenty of room to criticize this program, but accuracy is important. The sky isn’t really falling, Chicken Little. And for the rest of you? Blow out your torches and hang up your pitchforks, for we have miles to go.
(Featured photo courtesy of U.S. Navy)