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Up in the air
In Defense of the F-35

The Times of London has joined the pile-on against the F-35 Lightning II, the embattled Lockheed Martin stealth fighter currently being tested by the U.S. military:

America’s most advanced fighter jet performs worse in a dogfight than the ageing aircraft it is designed to replace, according to one of its test pilots.

The F-35 joint strike fighter, the most expensive weapon system developed by the Pentagon at $400 billion for the whole programme, has already suffered from technical hitches. Now a debriefing report by a pilot has claimed that the F-35 cannot match the F-16, which it is replacing, in aerial combat.

Saying the F-35 can’t beat the F-16 in a dogfight is a little like complaining that a tank can’t beat a horse at a fence jump and calling for a return to the age of cavalry charges. Tanks aren’t built to jump fences; they are built to flatten them. Similarly, F-35s aren’t made so much to win dogfights with lesser planes as to blast them out of the sky from afar—before a visual combat situation has begun. Moreover, the press reports do not mention that the F-35’s missile defense systems and ability to suppress enemy radar can enable F-16s and other aircraft, unmanned as well as manned, to get much closer to their targets and strike them much more effectively than would otherwise be possible.

There are lots of problems with any complicated weapons system as it is being developed, and the F-35 is the most complex fighting instrument ever designed. It has had teething pains; it will have more. It represents a series of compromises between the services. In a perfect world, the U.S. military would have enough money to make purpose-built aircraft for every service and every role. But the F-35’s upgradability and adaptability (in an era in which software is going to play an ever increasing role in the effectiveness of combat) is unmatched. If the program were going to be killed, that should have happened years ago. Having come this far, the smartest choice is to go ahead with full deployment, something that will also bring down unit costs, and start thinking about the next platform and the next system as we learn more from this experience.

In a subject like defense spending, where the public has only limited information and interest, high-profile stories hyping or slamming different weapons systems are common and almost always misleading. The F-35 isn’t a miracle weapon that fixes every problem and performs every function flawlessly. But it represents a realistic path to continued air superiority for the United States and our allies in a dangerous world. We would be fools not to learn from the missteps and errors made during the development of this system; we would be greater fools not to deploy the best available all-around air weapon that the world has ever known.

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  • Andrew Allison

    Jack of all trades, master of none!

  • Boritz

    “Similarly, F-35s aren’t made so much to win dogfights with lesser planes as to blast them out of the sky from afar—before a visual combat situation has begun. ”

    The M1 Garand was designed to blast an enemy before he could get into bayonet range.  However, bayonets were included just in case.

  • rheddles

    F-35s aren’t made so much to win dogfights with lesser planes as to blast them out of the sky from afar

    How’d that work our for the F-4?

    • Daniel Kennelly

      It wasn’t the F-4’s fault. The Aim-7 Sparrow wasn’t a particularly effective BVM missile. But they got better in very short order. Today’s BVM missiles are a heckuva lot better. And anyway, F-4s still enjoyed a more-than-favorable rate of exchange in enemy encounters.

      • rheddles

        533 Aircraft lost in combat against 196 MiG 17-19-21’s and AAA & SAMs sounds pretty bad to me. What if they had been up against first class aircraft flown by first world pilots?

        • Daniel Kennelly

          Why did you include SAM/AAA kills in that count?

          • rheddles

            That was the finest granularity I could find. If you have the air to air numbers I’d be happy to be enlightened. But my recollection is that the F-4 got its clock cleaned until tactics were developed to compensate for its lack of maneuverability. This led to Boyd, the Fighter Mafia, the F-15 and the F-16, two incredibly successful designs. Looking at the F-35 you’d think MacNamara was still SecDef and nobody understood energy-maneuverability theory.

            Prevailing in air to air combat with missiles seems a lot like fusion. It will be great when it happens and it’s always 10 years away.

          • Daniel Kennelly

            Not quite. It’s maneuverability wasn’t exceptional, but it was acceptable. It also had more power, and exceptional climbing power. Read about Randy Cunningham’s big fight, where he downed (I think) 3 Migs in a day. (One of those downed was a Mig-21 flown by Vietnam’s top pilot, and the fight largely took place while they were vertical.)

            Performance of Migs vs. F-4s depended on a lot of factors, obviously. One, for example, was where the fight was taking place. On “home turf” the Migs could take their cues from ground-based air controllers; they could leave their radars off, take direction from the ground-based controller, and launch a heat-seeker, all without the U.S. pilots even knowing the Mig was out there. On the other hand, over South Vietnam, they tended to get smacked down quickly.

            Interestingly, the F-16 began life as a super-maneuverable dogfighter, but over the course of its life it’s morphed into a multirole craft that usually carries lots of external ordnance and fuel tanks that significant diminish its dogfighting characteristics. It’s also been massively upgraded in the electronics/sensors department; its BVR capabilities in the latest models are now pretty top-flight. As an example of the F-16’s evolution consider, the Block-60s flown by UAE. Those conformal fuel tanks they added probably don’t do much for its maneuverability in a tight-turning dogfight, but that hardly matters; it’s got a top-of-the-line AESA radar and data-handling capabilities that mean that you’re not just up against the sensors of a single fighter but an entire integrated air defense system.

            Anyway, as I mentioned in another comment, the last gun kill was some time in the late 1990s, as far as I know. You can probably count the number of gun kills in air-to-air combat since the mid-1980s on one hand.

          • f1b0nacc1

            Interesting you should bring up the death of Col Toon (Cunningham’s big day), as it demonstrates the very problem with the whole F-4 model. Cunningham was flying a F-4J, not a C, and thus actually was able to maneuver with (though NOT outmaneuver) Tomb, and his kills came with Sidewinders, not Sparrows. As a minor point, the late Col was flying an MiG-17, not a 21. My point is that Cunningham used short ranged weapons and tactics, not BVR weapons to defeat a far more maneuverable opponent in a generally inferior aircraft.
            Your point regarding the F-16 is better taken, but consider that the Israelis (the ones who really have combat experience with the F-16s in an air-to-air mode) tend to use them in a dogfighter, NOT BVR mode. They use their F-15s for BVR, giving them a true high/low mix, which is what the F-16 was designed for in the first place. The Block 60s (really the 50/52 is more common) are substantially more sophisticated, but are typically used as light bombers and only VERY rarely used in a dogfighting mode. Whether this is because that they are not useful for other purposes or because that is the way the USAF’s doctrine pidgeonholes them is another debate, however.

          • Daniel Kennelly

            I misremembered the Toon shootdown, obviously. I knew it was with Sidewinders, but forgot that he was flying the Mig-17. The Mig-17 was certainly a fearsome dogfighter for its time.

          • f1b0nacc1

            When it faced F-4s and F-105s perhaps. Facing more nimble aircraft (F-5s, for instance), not so much.

      • f1b0nacc1

        1) The existing ROE in Vietnam prohibited using the AIM-7 in BVR mode, and this didn’t change until the 1980s.
        2) The radars of the time were insufficient to detect small maneuverable MiGs in many cases, which left the F-4Cs (which had no gun) without any effective defense against those aircraft.
        3) While the AIM-120 and various iterations of AIM-9s (mostly the X2) are inarguably superior to the AIM-7 series, the opposition is far better too, and they have had 50 years to learn new techniques to evade.
        4) Even during the last combat in Iraq, the performance of our BVR missiles was unimpressive. The AIM-9 series (Sidewinder) still accounted for most of the kills.
        5) The F-4Cs (which had no gun) did NOT enjoy a favorable kill ratio until they got gun pods and the F-4Es (with guns, as well as better slats to enable them to maneuver properly) were introduced, largely based upon the experience of the F-4C in combat.

  • זאב ברנזון

    the f-35 is an anti SAM precision bomb truck made to fight the probable enemy’s of western civilization
    it can do air defense but that is the secondary assignment
    the f-35 is the next gen off f-16 tactical fighter bomber it was never designed to be an f -15 replacement
    media hysteria by idiots is annoying

    • f1b0nacc1

      Your first sentence is fairly close to the mark, your second is simply wrong. The F-35 is supposed to replace pretty much everything (the F-22 isn’t available in large enough numbers to be relevant in anything other than limited circumstances), and it will do so badly.
      The F-35 won’t even be able to handle the SBDII for another 5 years or so…so much for precision bomb truck…

      • זאב ברנזון

        don’t worry you can buy the Israeli “iron hale” series of smart munitions
        that are already integrated for Israel
        i believe the export name is “spice”

        • f1b0nacc1

          Actually that might work out nicely….grin…
          Sadly, the problem is far broader and deeper than that easily fixed one….this thing is simply a lemon!

  • CaliforniaStark

    Since the article states the “public has only limited information and interest” and does not understand this weapon system; I would suggest viewing the comments made by Pierre Sprey, the designer of the F-16, regarding the F-35. Go to YouTube and type in “Pierre Sprey, The F-35 is a lemon.” The video explains why the F-35 is not effective in air combat; it should also be added the F-35 does not have an effective gun defense for air combat.

    Designing a fighter jet through a “series of compromises” between the services is unsettling. The article’s recommendations is that “the smartest choice is to go ahead with full development”, and start thinking about the next platform and system “as we learn more from this experience.” How smart is it to spend 1.5 trillion dollars of taxpayers money on a weapon system which is clearly deficient, as a learning experience?

    • Daniel Kennelly

      A couple of quick points: 1) Sprey has the reputation of being something of a crank in the field. Google will point you to a handful of sources of defense experts fisking his comments on the F-35. It’s not all wrong-headed, but a lot of it is. 2) The last gun kill in air-to-air combat (if I recall correctly) was an Eritrean Su-27 shooting down an Ethiopian Mig-29 in the late 1990s. Before that, I think there was one gun kill by a U.S. pilot of an Iraqi helicopter during the first Gulf War, and a handful of Israeli gun kills in the early 1980s. It’s not that a dogfight involving the use of guns can’t happen; it’s that those circumstances are now exceedingly rare. One might as well lament the B-2’s lack of a tail gunner.

      • f1b0nacc1

        You are correct about the last gun kill, but that is also largely irrelevant. The amount of serious air-to-air combat since the late 90s (‘serious’ does not include the massacres of the few aircraft that went up during our invasion of Iraq) has been very low, so we have far too small a sample size to work with. We DO know, on the other hand, that our like peer foes (such as the Chinese and Russians) are both designing highly capable aircraft to engage in exactly this sort (dogfighting) of combat. Perhaps they will not work, but simply pretending that they aren’t a threat is a dangerous bit of hubris.
        As for Sprey, I share your skepticism of him…perhaps you might want to learn a bit more skepticism yourself about the somewhat inflated claims of the missileers….

        • Daniel Kennelly

          Funny you say that, re: the missileers. I happen to know an F-16 pilot who was flying in Red Flag when his radar malfunctioned and he had to RTB. On the way back home he spotted a German aircraft visually, snuck up behind him, and scored a “gun kill.” I stand by my statement that these kinds of kills are rare and likely to be even less common as the years roll by.

          Anyway, re: the F-35’s maneuverability, I suspect (with my relatively untutored suspicions, admittedly) that its underperformance thus far has more to do with the way the flight software is currently configured than any defects in the airframe or engine. But we’ll see…

          • f1b0nacc1

            I know a great many pilots of both F-15s and F-16s (long story), and they have all had failures with their missile systems that have left them in ugly situations facing dogfighting optimized opponents. The consensus seems to be that while they all believe that they will be using missiles most of the time, they all want the guns for those ‘other times’. By the way, they absolute consensus is that the missiles that are going to be doing the killing are the Sidewinders (particularly the X2s, which have some truly amazing capabilities), not the AMRAAMs.
            Regarding the F-35, the maneuverability problems are related to several severe design issues, not software. The fuselage is too wide, the plane is too heavy, and the power/weight ratio is way, way off. To add to the problem, the plane has a huge blind spot that destroys rear visibility, though if they ever get the bugs out of the helmet, they should be able to beat that with a software based ‘virtual view’. Against an F-16, it is toast, against an SU-35 (the SU-30s have some serious problems of their own), it is crumbs.
            Look, I am actually a big believer in BVR systems, but they are not a panacea, and the USAF’s argument that ‘we don’t really need that anyway’ reeks of dishonesty and post-hoc rationalization. The F-35 is a failure on just about every level (see Fat Man’s comments below for what I would do with it and those involved with its design/procurement), which is what the milicrats are simply unwilling to acknowledge. We can fix a lot of this, but until we accept that the problem exists, we aren’t going to be able to do that.

  • Loader2000

    All well and good, but I would keep contingents of F-16s and F-18s with pilots trained to dog-fight….just in case. You never know what counter measures another country might employ that would disable the latest and greatest advanced systems but would leave older, cruder systems somewhat intact.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Sadly, that isn’t much of an option. Metal fatigue and the march of technical progress mean that the effective life of these aircraft is limited unless we decide (as we should) to produce new models. The latest F-15SA sales to the Saudis (and the so-called ‘Silent Eagle’ prototypes that Boeing has produced) are interesting…I have also seen a few intriguing updates to the F-16 and F-18 that would be entirely suitable.
      My suggest would be to engage the Israelis in a long conversation about this…they have a knack for upgrading our base models, and they are institutionally committed to the F-35 the way the Pentagon is.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    The F-35 is likely the last manned fighter aircraft that will be built, unmanned aircraft will be taking over the combat duties of fighter aircraft. This is because planes can now be built that can kill a man from the gee forces of just turning, and without the need for life support and control systems, the expense, weight, etc…drops. In addition when guided from a distance, more than one or two men can be used to focus each critical function drastically reducing the information overload, and air crew fatigue (they can be replaced when needed).

    • f1b0nacc1

      Perhaps, but there is a significant argument to be made that air combat is more than high-g turns.

  • Fat_Man

    It is a dog. And it is eating our defense budget live. The air force wants to scrap the A-10 which is the perfect weapon in the Middle East now, in order pour more money into the F-35.

    Here is the problem. The F-35 may be designed to do stand off and shoot down enemy aircraft. But it can’t do that right now. And no one can tell us when or if it will ever do what it was designed to do in any finite time and with any finite amount of money.

    I am sure that Obama is thrilled with the F-35 because it does what he wants it to do: cripple America’s air power and destroy its military effectiveness.

    I am a defense hawk, and I believe the United States should spend what ever it takes to assure that it retains unparallelled military supremacy over every other country in the world. I want that because I believe the ancient Romans understood war and defense far better than anyone alive today. In 390 C.E. Flavius Vegetius Renatus wrote in the “De re militari”. He said: “Qui desiderat pacem, bellum praeparat; nemo provocare ne offendere audet quem intelliget superiorem esse pugnaturem”. (Whosoever desires peace prepares for war; no one provokes, nor dares to offend, those who they know know to be superior in battle.)

    The F-35 is a poison pill. We should spit it out. The contracts should be cancelled with minimal compensation (i.e. reimburse hard costs but not anticipated profits). Every person in the military and every consultant who worked on the project should be fired and debarred from ever getting another job with the US defense establishment. Kill them all and let God sort it out.

    We should respecify our future defense acquisitions. We want something to replace each airplane that is 10% better and costs 10% less. The acquisition process needs to be totally redone. It should not be a toy factory. It should acquire new useful things that are incrementally better and incrementally cheaper than what they replace. No more 80 implement Swiss army knives. Useful tools.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Tell us what you really think

  • f1b0nacc1

    The F-35 is an absolute mess, but it really shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone who follows how defense procurement happens in modern democracies (and non-democracies too, I suppose). It is designed to FIRST meet institutional needs, and only second to actually engage in combat.
    The F-35 was intended to replace essentially all of the existing figher aircraft in the American arsenal, with the exception of the F-22. Since the F-22 is present in only very small numbers (roughly 180 or so, fewer if you discount spares and attrition), we can pretty much disregard it outside of some ‘special occasions’. This means in practice that we are replacing F-15s, F-16s, F-18s, A-V8s, A-10s, etc. or in other words everything from VSTOL bomb trucks to high-performance fighters. The very idea that a single airframe could do all of this is ludicrous on the face of it, and the F-35 experience shows us how this fails. On the other hand, it is ideal for a military bureaucracy that wants to simplify its inventory, reward favored contractors, and provide major career advancement for ‘fast-track’ procurement officials in and out of the military. The idea of ‘one plane to rule them all’ has been a dream of the milicrats going back to the dark days of McNamara and the TFX, and interestingly enough many of the exact same issues that bedeviled that sorry abortion are cropping up again with the F-35.
    We have everything from maneuverability issues (largely a result of the airframe being too wide in order to meet the needs of the VSTOL F-35B configuration, as well as being seriously underpowered), poor range (too heavy, among other things), unable to accommodate a number of modern weapon systems without serious modification (largely a result of the fixation with stealth that has paralyzed the USAF), and far too expensive to purchase in quantity (all of the above, and then some). There are certainly some significant advantages that the aircraft enjoys (notably its sensor and comm suite, both of which are superb), but even here the numerous software and integration issues make these problematic, and in any case, they could be implemented on upgrades of existing airframes. There seems, however to be little or no real attention paid to how these aircraft are going to FIGHT, just upon how they are going to be purchased.

    • AaronL

      Two questions:
      1. Why not re-open the F-22 production line and replace the old fighters with F-22s instead of F-35s
      2. Do the Israeli’s want guns on their F-35s. If so maybe we should be listening.

      • f1b0nacc1

        1) Reopening a production line is not a simple (or cheap thing), and in the case of the F-22, the original templates are no longer with us. It could be done, but it would cost a fortune to do so, and would take time. Mind you, I wouldn’t be opposed to the idea (if we cancelled the F-35, and built a significant number of F-16+ and F-18+ aircraft to ‘fill in the gaps’), but It is not likely at all
        2) The F-35 has a gun, it is the utter lack of maneuverability, lousy power/weight ratio, and poor visibility that is the problem.

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