America's Trillion-Dollar F-35: Lethal Super Weapon or Super Bust?
Last week there was a real flurry in the press and the blogosphere about the performance of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Or, more accurately, about the lack of maneuver performance in a trial against an F-16—a design that dates back to the 1970s. War is Boring has been running hard on the issue, with writer David Axe—a frequent critic of the F-35—leading the charge. The story was picked up by the mainstream press, including an ‘exclusive’ in The Australian today.
The story is based on a leaked test pilot’s report (PDF) of an air-to-air exercise in January this year. (Note: the report is marked Export Controlled Information FOUO. For ASPI Strategist readers inside government, this is one to access at home.) The crux of the story is that the F-35 was beaten because it couldn’t outturn the F-16, and suffered from “energy disadvantage for every engagement.” To those who have been strident F-35 critics for years, such as Aviation Week’s Bill Sweetman, this was the news they’d been expecting.
When I first saw the story, I was a bit surprised—but only a bit. Based on figures I’ve seen, my expectation would’ve been that the F-35 and F-16 would be roughly comparable in close-in dogfighting performance, with one or the other having a marginal advantage depending on exactly how the fight was set up, and the configuration of the aircraft—particularly how much stuff was slung under the F-16. And that’s consistent with other, far less reported on, comparative assessments between the two.
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That might seem strange at first. Why, after all, would the latest and most sophisticated combat aircraft around not be able to completely outclass a competitor that pre-dated it by decades? (To be precise, the Block 40 F-16 in the trial is a late 80s design.) The answer, in part, is that it isn’t the fight the F-35 was designed for. An F-35 pilot who finds him- or herself in a tight turning contest within visual range has got something terribly wrong. In fact, in today’s world of helmet mounted off-boresight targeting, any pilot who finds themselves in such a fight is probably going to be walking home. And as for air-to-air gunfighting, as practiced in the January trial, oh please—the 1960s called and wants its top guns back.
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Instead, the F-35 is designed to be lethal at well beyond visual range through a combination of stealth, sensors, superior information processing and electronic warfare capability. There are reasons to wonder how effective the F-35’s bag of tricks will be into the future, especially as counterstealth systems evolve, and I’d like to see it carry more and longer-ranged weapons, But the trial back in January tells us precisely nothing about the effectiveness of the F-35 in the regime it was designed for.
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And if that was all that could be criticized about the recent fuss, it wouldn’t be so bad. But it seems that there was a strong element of confirmation bias at work as well. If you already thought the F-35 was a dog (not entirely a bad thing to be in a dogfight, but I digress), then this report confirmed it. But a careful reading suggests that the flight controls of the F-35 involved were software limited to a point where it was effectively handicapped out of the fight. That’s why the recommendations made at the end of the report read like this:
- Increasing pitch rate would provide the pilot more options
- Consider increasing alpha onset
- Consider increasing pilot yaw rate control authority
And that’s why an Aviation Week piece a couple of months ago (subscribers) about the same trial—which was picked up by Lockheed Martin’s PR team as a positive story—noted that the aircraft “can be cleared for greater agility as a growth option.” Simply put, we don’t yet know what the relative maneuverability of the F-35 to the F-16 is, only what that particular software load allowed. (And even when we do know, the significance will be limited for the reasons mentioned earlier.) I notice that there are now some ‘second generation articles’ that have picked up on the same observation. (You can get an F-16 pilot’s perspective here.)