WASHINGTON: Do dogfights matter in the age of tactical stealth? If an F-16 can outmaneuver an F-35 in a dogfight, does it matter? Does it matter if the earliest generation F-35 can’t outmaneuver an advanced model of the F-16 in an early test?
So many questions. We’ll try to answer them because the folks at War Is Boring got their hands on a hot document — an F-35 pilot’s evaluation of an early test of the F-35 against the F-16. Colleague David Axe got the scoop. Basically, the F-35 test pilot said the F-16 could outmanuever the F-35 in most cases during a close engagement, or what most people would call a dogfight.
Here’s where we get to the really complicated bit. Does it matter? Well, of course it matters if the F-35 pilot is in a dogfight and loses. But if you talk with Air Force and Marine pilots who’ve flown the Harrier, the F-18 and the F-16, every one of them I’ve talked with says the F-35 is a superior aircraft. They’ve said it on the USS Wasp. They’ve said it on the USS Enterprise and they’ve said it in the halls of the Pentagon and at Fort Worth, where the F-35 and the F-16 are made.
Why do they say this if an F-35 carrying no external weapons can’t out perform an F-16D loaded with heavy fuel pylons? You might well ask. Basically, it’s because the F-35’s stealth and sensors allow it to spot enemy aircraft long before they are spotted. The result? The F-35 gets a weapon lock and kills the enemy before the enemy knows the F-35 is there.
Few senior officials or pilots have spoken on the record about the F-35 in terms of what it can actually do in combat, though at least a half-dozen pilots have said publicly they would not trade their F-35s for an F-18, Harrier or an F-16. In the only interview the Air Force has done about the F-35’s capabilities and the first 10 days of a full-scale war, retired Gen. Mike Hostage of Air Combat Command, told me this: “In the first moments of a conflict I’m not sending Growlers or F-16s or F-15Es anywhere close to that environment, so now I’m going to have to put my fifth gen [aircraft] in there and that’s where that radar cross-section and the exchange of the kill chain is so critical.”
At the same time, Hostage made it clear that the F-35 is not the plane to send in for hot dogfights. It is, instead, the first US aircraft built specifically for taking out advanced Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS) such as the Russian S-300 and S-400. The plane that would lead the way to take out enemy fighters in close-up battles would be the F-22.
“The F-35 doesn’t have the altitude, doesn’t have the speed [of the F-22], but it can beat the F-22 in stealth,” Hostage told me, “The F-35 is geared to go out and take down the surface targets.” In fact, it takes eight F-35s to do what two F-22s can accomplish in the early stages of a war.
The F-35’s radar cross section is much smaller than the F-22’s, but that does not mean, Hostage concedes, that the F-35 is necessarily superior to the F-22 when we go to war. For those who wonder about the worth of the opinion of a general sitting behind a desk, bear in mind that Hostage flew the F-22, as well as most models of the F-15 and the F-16.
I spoke to another pilot who has closely watched the F-35s development and has extensive combat experience, Dave Deptula, who now heads the Air Force Associations’s Mitchell Institute. He’s also a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors. Deptula flew the F-15 and twice led joint task forces, in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
His bottom line about what the test pilot said: It’s “interesting, but not relevant to the issue of campaign level utility of the other very significant advantages the F-35 possesses in the areas of low observability, sensor capability, and information integration that provide the F-35 an enormous advantage relative to legacy aircraft. If one can target and kill your adversaries prior to the merge, what they can do at the merge really doesn’t matter now, does it?”
He believes “the anti-F-35 crowd are so focused on how we fought in the last century with old equipment that they can’t conceive of, or understand the information edge advantage aircraft like the F-22 and F-35 provide.”
He even disdains the term “fighter” for the F-35 and F-22. “I’ve said for years and will continue to do so until the defense troglodytes finally get it (and some are slowly coming around)—5th generation aircraft are not ‘fighters’—they are ‘sensor-shooters’ optimized for different threat regimes, and can perform the roles of “F,” “B,” “A,” “RC,” “E,”EA,” and AWACS aircraft of the past.”
Deptula says that one F-35 “can create effects that require dozens of legacy aircraft, and in some cases dozens of legacy aircraft simply cannot accomplish with one or two ‘F’-22s or ‘F’-35s can accomplish.” Dogfighting isn’t the sine qua non of air combat, he argues. Killing the enemy before he knows you’re there is. “Bottom line—it’s about the information, stupid.”
The official version of those opinions was issued by the F-35’s Joint Program Office:
“The F-35’s technology is designed to engage, shoot, and kill its enemy from long distances, not necessarily in visual “dogfighting” situations. There have been numerous occasions where a four-ship of F-35s has engaged a four-ship of F-16s in simulated combat scenarios and the F-35s won each of those encounters because of its sensors, weapons, and stealth technology.”
And the JPO notes that this aircraft did not have the current mission systems software that allows it to spot enemies at a distance and was “not equipped with the weapons or software that allow the F-35 pilot to turn, aim a weapon with the helmet, and fire at an enemy without having to point the airplane at its target.”
The official Air Force comment on the story from Maj. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, head of the Air Force’s F-35 Integration Office simply says: “It is too soon to draw any final conclusions on the maneuverability of the aircraft. The F-35 is designed to be comparable to current tactical fighters in terms of maneuverability, but the design is optimized for stealth. This will allow it to operate in threat environments where the F-16 could not survive.” Hostage said virtually the same thing about the F-16 and the F-35 in our interview last year. The reasonable conclusion of all this: the F-35 is not a top dogfighting aircraft because it wasn’t designed to be one. And it wasn’t designed to be one because it is better to kill the enemy from a distance before the enemy can target you.