Report: F-35 Loses to F-16 in Air Combat
David Axe at the blog War is Boring reportedly obtained an Official Use Only report from an Edwards AFB Test Pilot decrying the inability of his F-35 to best the older F-16 it is supposedly intended to replace:
“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…”
“Even with the limited F-16 target configuration, the F-35A remained at a distinct energy disadvantage for every engagement,” the pilot reported.
One potentially saving grace not explicitly described in the blog is the precise type of BFM the two were flying. The blog reported:
The F-35 pilot came right out and said it — if you’re flying a JSF, there’s no point in trying to get into a sustained, close turning battle with another fighter. “There were not compelling reasons to fight in this region.”
That doesn’t mean, as Axe concluded, that the pilot was saying the F-35 should stay out of a turning air-to-air engagement. Rather, it likely means (absent reading the actual report) the F-35 should avoid the type of turning fight described in the report.
There is more than one way to fight what most people understand to be a “dogfight.” There are rate fights and radius fights, energy fights and nose position fights. Almost every aircraft is “good” at one while not being good at the other, since the types of fights are often mutually exclusive. Or, an aircraft could be good at one type of fight under one condition (for example, high speed or a certain configuration) and better in a different type of fight under other conditions (that is, low speed or other configurations).
So it is a leap to say that one sortie report revealed the “new stealth fighter is dead meat in an air battle,” as David Axe says.
That said, the F-35 Joint Program Office essentially belittled their own aircraft when they said the F-35 wasn’t designed to dogfight:
While the close-in dogfight allowed the F-35 to be tested on the edge of its handling limits, it was not the type of combat the jet was intended for and the results were “misleading”…
“The F-35’s technology is designed to engage, shoot, and kill its enemy from long distances, not necessarily in visual ‘dogfighting’ situations,” the statement said.
The report also touched on some long running criticisms of the F-35:
The JSF flier discovered he couldn’t even comfortably move his head inside the radar-evading jet’s cramped cockpit. “The helmet was too large for the space inside the canopy to adequately see behind the aircraft.”
Pilots have known since before the days of the P-51D — the first Mustang with a “bubble canopy” — about the pros and cons about being able to move around inside the cockpit and see behind the aircraft:
The F-35 eschewed such a canopy primarily because of the constraints of the F-35B’s lift fan, a structural restriction that is present in all of the F-35 variants, even if they don’t have the lift fan. The F-35 was supposed to mitigate this limitation with its ability to see “through” the jet with the aid of the advanced helmet.
But the pilot said he couldn’t even get the helmet around far enough to see.
The F-35 undoubtedly has some outstanding capabilities — likely focused in its systems, sensors, and technology — as well as some significant limitations (or “flaws,” depending on how you look at it).
However, the F-35 was never intended to be a do-all aircraft — though it is increasingly being sold as precisely that. After all, it is purportedly going to replace F-18s, F-16s, AV-8s, A-10s, GR4s, and potentially even F-15s. If it can replace all those aircraft, it can surely do their missions just as well as they can, right?
Common sense — and any fighter pilot — could tell you that can’t possibly be true.