Former F-16 pilot Nate “Buster,” Jaros asks if the stealth and advanced technologies of the F-35 overshadow the need for nimble fighters.  What he says might surprise you.

Everyone knows that the F-4 Phantom was originally designed without a gun. At the time it entered service in the early 1960s, the Pentagon believed that the “age of the missile” had arrived. Dogfights resulting in a gunfight would be a thing of the past. Are we staring down the same road with the F-35 and “the age of stealth?”

Reports say that the F-35 is not as agile of a fighter in a BFM (Basic Fighter Maneuvers) engagement…but will that matter? Will stealth and advanced technologies overshadow the need for nimble fighters? Or did we already learn this lesson in Vietnam?

The F-35 is poised to be the hottest and most capable aircraft ever produced. Yes, I know that you have read about all its shortcomings and trials and tribulations. Show me a single U.S.-built aircraft that hasn’t had multiple failings, changes, or problems during Developmental and Operational Tests.

Some might have forgotten about the F-22’s problems with the onboard oxygen system, and the subsequent altitude and performance reductions that were enacted. Not to mention all the issues it had with stealth coatings and such. Don’t forget as well that even the mighty F-16 had controllability issues related to its then-new fly-by-wire technology, and that it failed its initial Operations Test so much that the aircraft couldn’t be fixed before full-scale production was set to begin. Even the F-18 Hornet had its share of problems, and in the 1980s a decade after production, all F-18s were grounded for a “design problem” with its twin vertical tails.

The F-35 is not the first fighter to see its share of growing pains.

So What Might Be The Problem?

That being said, put that all aside, and let’s focus for a second on the F-35’s maneuverability and cockpit visibility. This is where I think we might have a problem, and might be looking at another F-4 Phantom style inadequacy.

A report stated that the F-35 could be out-maneuvered easily by an F-16 in test and training engagements. “The F-35 was at a distinct energy disadvantage,” “Insufficient pitch rate.” “Energy deficit to the bandit would increase over time.” “The flying qualities in the blended region (20–26 degrees AoA) were not intuitive or favorable” as well as other negative comments.

It’s also clear to any fighter pilot that the “bubble” canopy on the F-35 is not as “bubbly” as say the F-16 or F-15 canopy. I’m pretty certain that rearward visibility (something critical in a turning dogfight) is going to be difficult or poor for the pilot in an F-35.

The F-35 Cockpit area. Courtesy Lockheed Martin
The F-35 Cockpit area. Courtesy Lockheed Martin

But does it matter?

The F-35 is predicted to have some of the finest sensor suites and technology ever put into an aircraft. One report stated that the F-35 is so good at technology and network-style interoperability that it might be used as a massive sensor for other fighters in the battlespace. A quarterback in the sky if you will.

It’s an interesting concept. Let the F-35 take a picture of the battlespace and then assign and manage air and ground targets as appropriate to the rest of the stealthy and conventional forces. It’s a fascinating philosophy shift for what most old strategists and fighter pilots (like me) would call “not right.” A fighter isn’t supposed to be a ‘node’ for information flow…it’s supposed to go out and kill bad guys.

Or is it?

Additionally, the F-35 sports a reported incredible, first-of-its-kind, pilot visualization system. It’s called the DAS (Distributed Aperture System). Specifically, the DAS’s six focal point array IR (infrared) cameras allow the pilot to use onboard sensors and “Mark I eyeballs” to see in any direction, even though the aircraft structure. The DAS, combined with other sensors will allow the pilot to identify and track anything with a heat signature in a full sphere of SA (situational awareness).

It’s tuned to a spectrum such that it can see rocket motors. If it detects a launch, it will say, “Launch, right 2:00 low” [to the pilot].

That’s pretty cool.

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The most advanced cockpit ever. Courtesy Driven Technologies
The most advanced cockpit ever. Courtesy Driven Technologies

All F-35s share their sensor collections with everyone else on the network. So if an F-35 detects a hostile aircraft approaching, all the other F-35s—even hundreds of miles away—have this information about the battlespace. It’s called Advanced Fusion, and it’s better than a simple, single-cockpit with only sensor fusion.

Maybe F-35 pilots won’t have bad necks anymore, like me and most of my 4th Generation fighter buddies. Looking backward under high G never felt good.

If you read my article from earlier this year on the 6th Generation fighter you know that I envision a day when multiple slow-moving airborne sensors with directed energy weapons will sterilize a chunk of the battlespace.

That being said, maybe the F-35 is approaching that capability now, or is at least starting to break the ice on those concepts. Collective sharing of battlespace information and SA is not a new concept. But with new sensors, AESA radar, and DAS on the F-35, anyone on their network will receive a wealth of SA in their cockpit.

The Future of the F-35

Eventually, seeing the error in their ways, military leaders did strap a gun on the F-4 which helped tremendously in Vietnam air-to-air engagements. Doing so completed the F-4 weapon system and untied the proverbial arm from behind its fighter pilot’s backs.

Will we regret the compromises in the F-35? It’s supposed clumsy maneuvering ability and less-than-stellar rearward visibility. Will future air combat engagements have F-35 pilots complaining about those limitations? Are stealth and sensor magic enough to surpass those weaknesses?

Your guess is as good as mine. However, I’m inclined to think just maybe this time technology will save the day. The incredible sensor suite on board the F-35, combined with a high-speed data network and Advanced Fusion tech just could be the wave of the future.

Once the bugs are worked out, I think the F-35 will be the most capable fighter in the inventory.

Top Photo courtesy Lockheed Martin