America's F-35 Crushed Russia in This 2015 Wargame
The simulation imagined a Baltic crisis gone hot.
In only one of these runthroughs did the fight enter the merge — long and medium range shots being the norm.
Second. A LO fighter, with high-end sensors to detect (and importantly classify) targets at range when paired with the Meteor BVRAAM is extremely potent. While the F-35 was able to classify the Flankers at extreme range, the Su-35s’ sensors were still only able to classify the F-35 as a “multi-role” — even when it was nearly within weapon range.
This may be fine in a simulation without other hostiles, friendlies and civilians air contacts to sort and track, but undoubtedly would be more complex in real life.
Note also that the game is conservative about the Meteor’s true range — giving it an effective range of 75 nautical miles. The real range is likely to be more than this (think the AIM-54’s 100 nautical mile range), and the Meteor is expressly designed to be lethal all the way out to maximum range, unlike other rocket-powered missiles which “coast” and thus lose energy in the end-game — and thus are easier to evade at long ranges.
The Meteor’s ramjet propulsion giving better Pk at range is modeled — another example of the incredible attention to detail in this simulation.
Also, while the Meteor certainly can be spoofed by chaff in a last-ditch defense, as the West’s newest generation air-to-air missile it seems extremely resistant to ECM/jamming — despite icons clearly showing my Fencer F was having some effect.
Finally, a couple of runthroughs with the Meteors exchanged for internally-carried four AIM-120C AMRAAMs also produced similar results — with four Flankers shot down in short order.
Third. It’s the human, not the machine. Smart tactics and cunning outmatch technology each time. One observation is that I could have made the “jaws” of the the trap tighter and still avoid being detected by the Flankers’ radar enough to put the enemy even closer within the Meteors’ WEZ.
A subsequent playthrough saw me head all F-35s directly into the Flankers’ path and resulting in all four Su-35s being shot down within about a minute and a half of the first Meteor shot — an even better result than the test described in detail here.
Fourth. It is extremely frustrating to play as Red Air and somewhat unnerving to have missiles appear out of thin air.
While a previous simulated look at the F-35 (the infamous “clubbing baby seals” study) concluded that sheer numbers of J-11s would prevail against F-22/F-35s facing masses of Chinese fighter pilots all happily flying into certain death, here the psychological factors were more apparent.
If one, two or three of your flight vanished suddenly in explosions and you still couldn’t get a reliable track/lock on the enemy — at what point do you decide to withdraw and escape?
Fifth. A fifth observation is that the support enablers I added, the E-3D and Rivet Joint appeared to contribute little to the air battle when the Su-35s were emitting.
This may be due to the F-35’s impressive ESM suite — or potentially my non-optimum placement of these assets behind my fighters. Where the AWACS did make a difference was in a couple of runthroughs with the Su-35s staying “radar-silent” — and allowing the F-35s to close to ETOS range to passively ID their targets for missile shots.
Does agility still matter?
So does agility even matter? It certainly seems to — even for BVR combat — because the game takes maneuverability of the target into account in calculating missile effectiveness.
Interestingly, the game database merges fighter “generations” and “agility” to give one overall number — rather than as separate values. So the F-35 in CMANO has a fighter generation/agility in the “5” class — on a par with the F-22/Typhoon/Rafale — while the the Su-35 is 4.5 — which may account for the guns kill at close range by the F-35.
Statistical anomaly, sheer luck or a necessary simplification that while the ultra-agile Su-35 should theoretically be able to have the F-35 for breakfast in a visual dogfight, there may be other factors at work (sensor fusion, HMD, 360-degree electro-optical distributed aperture system, cockpit switchology) that even up the balance?
Indeed, while the leaked dogfight report lays bare some of the F-35’s deficiencies in close-in ACM — the recommendations from the test pilot shows that at least some of them can be addressed by adjusting the FBW system.
However, although software tweaks to the FBW systems will be able to improve the pitch rate, AoA blending and remove some of the flight control restrictions, a heavy fighter with a high wing loading will still remain, and pilots will need to adjust their tactics and skills accordingly.
A close reading of the report also suggests that while the test focused on the F-35 pilot using high AoA and nose-pointing (like an F/A-18) to engage the F-16, it might be more effective fighting at a higher speed/lower AoA — like the F-16 itself. As ever, as the aircraft reaches operational squadrons and we see more DACT encounters, pilots will evolve specific tactics for the fighter. Don’t, however, expect that this will be the last mock dogfight that the F-35 loses — even F-22s have appeared in the HUDs of Typhoons, Growlers and T-38s.
An analogy of the F-16 being replaced by the F-35 might be the U.S. World War II Eagle squadrons in the U.K. trading their nimble Spitfires for the heavy lumbering Jug — the P-47.
While there was initial reluctance from the pilots — it was found that with the right tactics a P-47 could beat a Spitfire in one vs. one combat — but they soon got to appreciate its other advantages in the ground attack role.
The key question then is — will the maneuverability of a production F-35 with only comparable agility to legacy fighters be outweighed entirely by the situational awareness advantages it provides its pilots? Is “information the new 9G?”
As noted above, while these simulated tests give an interesting insight into air combat using LO fighters, they do come with a number of caveats and should not be taken (as is so often the case, firm evidence to support conclusion X).
Your mileage may indeed vary. However, they do highlight the extreme difficulty for an adversary of getting to the merge with assailants, who, if playing “unfair,” maximizes their LO and sensor advantages.
That is not to say that WVR air combat cannot happen.
Leakers, decoys and pop-up threats mean the enemy always gets a vote — and thus F-35 pilots will still need to train how to fight in the visual arena, and learn the strengths and weaknesses of their aircraft versus any threat aircraft.
For those nations, air forces looking to draw conclusions from this single F-16 vs. F-35 leaked “dogfight” report (in reality a dynamic flight test around the stability of the fighter at high AoA and fine-tuning the FBW) — it would seem to be unwise to underestimate the F-35.
Get close-in with a highly agile fighter in a one vs. one and you may be able to beat it, but as these tests seem to indicate, the real challenge will be getting that close without getting turned into burning wreckage.
Tim Robinson is editor in chief of the Royal Aeronautical Society’s flagship monthly magazine AEROSPACE, where this article originally appeared. He can be found online at www.aerosociety.com or @RAeSTimR.
This article first appeared on War Is Boring in 2015.
Image: U.S. Air Force / Flickr