The jet fighter can’t maneuver, the critics say. It’s based on a wrongheaded concept. It relies on unproved technologies. It’s a one-size-fits-all jet for the Air Force, Navy and Marines, and yet it doesn't really meet any of their needs.
Is this Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter I’m describing? No, it’s actually the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, the ubiquitous fighter-bomber, reconnaissance and radar-hunting aircraft that formed the backbone of U.S., NATO and Israeli air power in the 1960s and 1970s. More than 50 years later, the Phantom still flies, as evident when Syrian gunners downed a Turkish RF-4 recon plane last year.
While the Phantom still has many fans, it also had quite a few detractors. And many of those complaints are eerily similar to the criticisms now aimed at the Joint Strike Fighter. Is the F-4 a guide to what we can expect from the F-35?
The F-111 parallel
Comparing the F-35 to other troubled aircraft projects has become a favorite pastime of journalists, analysts and other experts. Most notable was a 2009 op-ed, in which famed aircraft designer Pierre Sprey and defense watchdog Winslow Wheeler made a compelling case that the F-35 is a reincarnation of the infamous F-111.
The swing-wing F-111 was originally conceived in 1960 as a long-range Air Force strike aircraft, until bean-counting Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his staff decided that it should also be the Navy’s carrier-based interceptor.
But the Air Force and Navy had radically different requirements. The Navy backed out, and instead of becoming America’s primary tactical fighter, only 563 F-111s were built for the Air Force and Australia. The F-111 ended up costing far more than planned, suffered crippling design flaws and was ineffective in combat, Sprey tells War is Boring.
“Now change ‘F-111’ to ‘F-35,’” Sprey says. “Same consequences, same likely program result.”
If in fact the F-35 procurement is canceled or slashed, because of tighter defense budgets or a failure to meet performance goals, then it may become an expensive fiasco like the F-111.
However, suppose that all or most of the 2,443 U.S. F-35s, plus another 700 or so foreign orders, are actually built and deployed. That would make it the most common fighter among the U.S. and its allies. Just like the F-4.
Enter the Phantom
With nicknames like “Rhino,” “Lead Sled” and DUFF (“Double Ugly Fat F*cker”), and a shape that looked like a repeat offender against the laws of aerodynamics, the Phantom was proof that “a brick can fly if you stick a big enough engine on it,” to borrow one famous comment.
The F-4 was not pretty, but it was prolific. Some 5,195 F-4s were built, becoming the mainstay of the U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine fighter forces, as well as the main fighter in Israel, Britain and Japan.
The Phantom became an icon of Western air power, the jet that symbolized the air wars in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Despite its aesthetics, the F-4 still earns rough affection in numerous books, videos and Websites.
Yet it didn't start off as a popular aircraft. Just as the F-35 began as a Marine Corps strike aircraft until it became the multi-service Joint Strike Fighter, the F-4 was born in 1959 as a Navy carrier-based interceptor, until McNamara again wanted a common fighter for all the services.
Like the F-35, the F-4 was based on a conception—or a gimmick—of what future air combat would look like. The F-35 was born of the belief that fighters must use stealth and possess the ability to share tactical data with other aircraft—all in order to surprise and pick off their opponents.
For its part, the F-4 was based on the conviction that air combat would be waged from beyond visual range using long-range, radar-guided missiles.
We don't know if the F-35's design philosophy will prove correct, but we learned the hard way that the Phantom’s did not. The Sparrow radar-guided missile fizzled, and in any event U.S. aircraft were forbidden to conduct beyond-visual-range attacks over North Vietnam. Instead of long-range aerial sniping, U.S. F-4 pilots found themselves engaged in low-speed dogfights against less sophisticated but far more agile MiG-21s and MiG-17s.
Because combat was supposed to be long range, the Phantom initially lacked an internal cannon, so even if it could get on a MiG's tail, it was limited to Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles. Its two J79 engines provided much power but also much smoke, so that MiG pilots could see the Phantom from miles away.
The result was that Air Force Phantoms barely achieved a 2:1 kill ratio over North Vietnam. And at one point in 1967, the kill ratio actually favored the MiGs.
Sprey believes the F-4 was a mistake. He contends the U.S. would have been better off with the cheaper A-4 attack plane as its bomber and the low-cost and highly maneuverable F-5 as its dogfighter.
“Buying the F-4 for the USAF instead of the much more effective A-4 meant we delivered far less bombs on Vietnam targets at a cost two and a half times as high while losing at least three times as many of our aircrews,” he says. “You'd have done far better by giving the USAF 500 F-5s for air-to-air and 2,500 A-4s for bombing. That would have cost one-third of what we paid for 3,000 USAF F-4s, and we’d have destroyed far more Vietnamese ground targets and at least twice as many MiGs.”
As rough a time as the Phantom initially had over Vietnam, it sounds like a cake walk compared to what awaits F-35, according to its critics. They see the F-35 as dog meat in a dogfight against the faster and more maneuverable Russian Su-35 and Su-30 and the Chinese J-20. The F-35 already suffers from cost overruns, complex and unproven software and performance compromises to enable it to operate from Air Force bases, Navy carriers and Marine forward airfields.
If stealth doesn't work out as expected in the next air war, and combat turns into Vietnam-style knife fights, the F-35 could be in trouble.
The F-4 Redeemed
It’s hard to find a silver lining when America’s premier aircraft now will cost more than a trillion dollars. Also, aircraft, weapons and enemies have changed since in the half-century since the Phantom first took flight. Yet in the end, while aircraft designers may wake up screaming from dreams of ugly Phantoms in the night, the F-4 didn’t do so badly.
When the Navy pioneered Top Gun air combat training, U.S. kill ratios soared in Vietnam. Israeli pilots muttered at first about losing their zippy little Mirage fighters in the late 1960s, but they grew to love the Phantom’s versatility and durability.
This doesn’t make the F-4 a great aircraft or excuse its design flaws. Everyone wants the best fighter, but there is truth in the adage that better is the enemy of good enough; there an infinite number of brilliant aircraft that never flew off the drawing board. Whatever the Phantom’s problems, they were not so bad as to prevent properly trained pilots from carrying out their missions.
If the F-35 does prove flawed, at least the Phantom shows that even a flawed aircraft can be redeemed. No doubt the Russians and Chinese feel the same way, because only a propagandist or career pessimist would believe that the advanced MiGs and Sukhois don't have their share of bugs and unfulfilled expectations.
Whether the American taxpayer should spend a trillion dollars on a flawed jet is another matter. But if the F-4 is a guide, the F-35 may yet prove good enough.
This piece first appeared in War Is Boring here.