Key Point: No fighter is completely invincible. Here's what we know about the F-35's downsides.
Amid escalating tensions between Iran and the United States, in part resulting from U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision unilaterally to withdraw the United States from the 2015 deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program, the U.S. armed forces have deployed a wide array of ships, planes and other weapons to the Middle East.
The American arsenal in the region includes F-35 stealth fighters. If tensions turn into warfare, the factory-fresh F-35s could face an Iranian air force operating some of the oldest active fighters in the world.
The Iranians with their four-decade-old F-4s, F-5s and F-14s might not seem to have a chance against the Americans flying arguably the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft. But history, and recent testing show how Iranian pilots flying old planes could defeat Americans flying brand-new ones.
For one, the F-35, while new, isn’t necessarily a stellar aerial performer. In 2015 someone associated with the F-35 test effort leaked an official report explaining the stealth fighter’s limitations in air-to-air maneuvers with an F-16.
“The F-35 was at a distinct energy disadvantage,” an unnamed F-35 test pilot wrote in a scathing five-page brief. “Insufficient pitch rate,” he added. “Energy deficit to the bandit would increase over time.”
The complaints continued. “The flying qualities in the blended region (20 to 26 degrees [angle of attack]) were not intuitive or favorable,” the pilot wrote, adding that there’s no point for an F-35 pilot to get into a sustained, close turning battle with an enemy pilot. “There were not compelling reasons to fight in this region.”
The pilot’s revelations underscore what many observers long have suspected about the F-35. While its radar-evading qualities and high-end sensors might allow it to gain a favorable position for long-range missile shots, in a close fight the F-35 hardly excels.
If an Iranian pilot can survive a merge with an F-35 and engage the stealth fighter in a turning dogfight, the Iranian might just bag himself a stealth fighter. It’s worth noting that the Iranian air force flies scores of fighters that excel precisely in that regime.
American-made F-5 Tigers, for instance. Former U.S. Navy pilot Francesco Chierici who flew F-5s in the adversary role, sang the plane’s praise in a 2019 article for The War Zone. “The Tiger was clean, just an AIM-9 and a telemetry pod on the wingtips, and occasionally a centerline fuel tank,” Chierici wrote. “She slipped through the ‘number’ (Mach 1) easily. … The F-5 was a pair of engines and wings. It was so simple …”
Aerodynamically, the F-5 will always be what we call a category-three fighter, where the F-35 and F-22 are now category-five fighters. Compared to modern jets, it is underpowered, slow and bleeds airspeed badly in a sustained turn, not to mention it has no stealth other than its tiny size.
But with just a few modifications, the F-5 is being turned into a threat plane with a legitimate sting. The newest upgrades include an [electronically-scanned] radar, good [radar-warning] gear, chaff and flares, a jamming pod and a helmet-mounted cueing system for a high off-boresight IR (infrared-guided) missiles.
A Tiger so outfitted can provide Super Hornets and F-35s a legitimate threat, especially in the training environment.
Iran indeed has been upgrading its F-5 fleet, although the modifications likely will not include the latest sensors and helmet sights.
Still, all things being equal the F-5 despite its age might still possesses the agility to gain the advantage over an F-35. Again, provided the F-5 pilot survives the merge to a close-in fight.
That’s a big assumption. F-35 pilots understand the limitations of their aircraft and certainly would do their best to avoid a dogfight. The Iranians might have to ambush the Americans in order to force the fight to close range. It’s unclear how the Iranians might do so, given the Americans’ huge advantage in sensors and situational awareness.
This article was first published earlier in 2019 and is being republished due to reader interest.