Nonetheless, modern short-range missiles are generally estimated to have a hit probability of 80% to 90% for WVR engagements—suggesting that two similarly equipped aircraft aware of each other’s presence would likely destroy each other. To avoid such an outcome, fighter pilots in the future may well prefer to sling missiles from long-range and try to stalk their opponents undetected, rather than close for an aerial knife fight.
Will Rules of Engagement Constrain Fighters to Short-Range Engagements?
The circumstances which forced Phantom pilots over Vietnam to largely forsake taking advantage of their BVR-capable missiles may seem specific to that conflict—but in reality, rules of engagement heavily favoring visual contact with the enemy have remained the rule rather than the exception.
This is both because nobody wants to accidentally shoot down an airliner, but also because opposing fighter jets have often engaged each other in ambiguous circumstances short of total war where the authorization to engage may not be given until the aircraft are relatively close to each other. Think, for example, the downing of a Syrian Su-22 in 2017 by a U.S. Navy FA-18 Super Hornet or two aerial skirmishes involving F-14 Tomcats and Libyan Su-22s and MiG-23s in 1981 and 1989.
Under these circumstances, an F-35 patrolling, say, a no-fly zone might have to approach closer to a hostile aircraft and expose itself to detection and sacrifice its stealth advantage. A faster and more maneuverable fourth-generation jet like an F-15 or Rafale would seem preferable in such a scenario. Of course, that limitation could be solved simply by employing older fourth-generation jets for such air superiority roles, while reserving the F-35s for the deep-penetrating strike roles and intelligence-gathering roles they are optimized for.
Overall, the Vietnam analogy highlights potential vulnerabilities of the F-35, but also cannot definitively account for the different technologies in play when evaluating the Lightning’s adaptability to the air superiority role. Key performance parameters concerning the effective range of long-range IRST, radars and missiles used by and against an stealth jet are probably necessary for a fairer evaluation, but are likely to be kept under wraps by anybody in a position to know.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.