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What the F-35 v F-16 Dogfight Really Means: Think Pilots

Posted by Dan Ward on

F-35 and F-16

When the story broke about the Joint Strike Fighter’s shortcomings as a dogfighter, the reaction among JSF advocates was swift and predictable. Most objected that the F-35’s poor performance is perfectly acceptable and even expected because that jet was never supposed to do air-to-air combat anyway. That claim does not hold up well to scrutiny and rather begs the question of why the Air Force staged the mock air battle between an F-35 and an F-16 in the first place. Probably because, as the Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Mark Welsh explained in December of 2013, “You have to have the F-35 to augment the F-22 to do the air superiority fight.” In other words, the USAF needs the F-35 to be a dogfighter.

Other defenders explained that the scenario in question was just one test and the leaked report was taken out of context by people who don’t really understand these things, so everyone should hold off on rushing to judgment about the plane’s worth. Since the JSF development contract was signed in 1996 and we’re just now putting it through Basic Fighter Maneuver tests (with full-rate production not planned until 2020), I’d say nobody is rushing to anything on that particular aircraft. But speaking as someone with experience and expertise in testing military gear, I can confirm that it is possible for a single test to provide meaningful, definitive performance data. I suspect the F-35 supporters would have agreed with that perspective if it had won the dogfight.

But a different line of defense caught my eye, one that is simultaneously more relevant, more convincing, more important, and more damning for the JSF. In a piece published at FighterSweep that dismisses Axe’s report as “garbage,” C. W. Lemoine points out that the real reason the F-35 lost the dogfight has less to do with technological shortcomings and more to do with pilot experience. Lemoine would know – he’s flown both the F-16 and the F/A-18 – and he explains:

“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.

“Let’s see how it [the F-35] does when guys who are proficient in developed tactics do [sic] against guys with similar amounts experience–the realm of the bros in the operational test or Weapons School environment.”

Sexist word choice and speculation about specific flight hours aside, the author brings up an important point. The critical factor in determining combat performance is “the amount of experience in your given cockpit.” While Lemoine is arguing that we should withhold judgment until F-35 pilots become more proficient, I see the lack of proficiency itself as an important data point. This is an area where the F-35 comes up profoundly short, not just now but for the foreseeable future.

Developing effective tactics and producing “guys” who are know how to employ them requires flight hours – lots of flight hours. However, the F-35 community faces several significant barriers that will prevent pilots from gaining the experience necessary to create, validate, and disseminate effective tactics for any type of combat mission, dogfighting or otherwise.

For starters, the ever-growing price tag and the constant developmental delays means the Pentagon is buying fewer jets and receiving them later than planned. It’s pretty hard to train pilots if the jets aren’t available in sufficient time and quantity. On top of that is the F-35’s high cost per flight hour, which can severely limit cockpit time for training flights, particularly in eras of tight budgets. These factors directly translate to fewer opportunities for pilots to actually fly the thing, and as Lemoine explains, pilots with fewer flight hours tend to get beaten by pilots with more.

Then there is the issue of complexity, which is my area of expertise. Complex aircraft are harder to learn, harder to test, and harder to maintain than simpler alternatives, and the F-35 is undeniably the most complex aircraft ever developed. For example, it runs 8.3 million lines of code, four times more than the F-22. The difficulty associated with managing all that complexity drives up the cost and slows down the pace of development and testing, which reduces flight hours – again.

From a purely technical perspective, complexity reduces reliability on multiple fronts, such as increasing the number of possible failure modes and increasing the number of potential sources of any given failure. This means more things can go wrong, and when they do go wrong, it will take longer to find and fix the problems. Complexity also drives up maintenance costs, and in times of reduced budgets some maintenance will get delayed which further reduces aircraft availability. The bottom line: complexity equals less time in the cockpit.

In the immortal words of the late Col. John Boyd, machines don’t fight wars. People do. This is the real heart of the story. Let’s be clear: an F-16 did not beat an F-35 in a dogfight. Instead, an experienced pilot in an F-16 beat a less experienced pilot in an F-35. The only way to prevent such outcomes in the future is to produce experienced F-35 pilots who can create and master new tactics, but the current trajectory makes this tremendously difficult.

So forget the question of whether the F-35 should expect to engage in close-in aerial combat or whether this specific test report should carry any weight. If the Joint Strike Fighter is ever going to be good at anything, dogfighting or otherwise, it will require a cadre of professionals who are “proficient in developed tactics.” That means the pilots need experience in the cockpit, but given the enormous costs, continual delays and tremendous complexity involved, experienced pilots is one thing the F-35 isn’t going to have any time soon.

Dan Ward, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel. holds three engineering degrees and earned the USAF Master Acquisition Badge as well as top-level certifications in Program Management and Systems Engineering. He is the author of The Simplicity Cycle and FIRE: How Fast, Inexpensive, Restrained, and Elegant Methods Ignite Innovation. And the White House thinks Dan has some pretty hot ideas about acquisition.

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