[Editor’s Note: To be perfectly clear yet again, we have no partnership with Lockheed-Martin or the F-35 program. In other words, we’re not getting paid by them to write these articles. C.W. Lemoine’s views are his own and do not represent those of the United States Air Force, Navy, or Marine Corps. This is just one fighter pilot’s personal opinion. Keep that in mind.]
Just under two weeks ago, we talked about a poorly-translated test report that gave critics of the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II ammunition to suddenly declare it the worst dogfighter ever.
In the time since that article, you can’t find an aviation-oriented website that hasn’t put its two cents in, declaring the F-35 everything from an F-4 clone, to an F-105, and even going as far as calling it a BVR failure.
So is the F-35 truly the worst fighter ever?
The standard U.S. Air Force Weapons School answer is, “It depends.”
From an acquisitions standpoint, it’s in the running. Plagued by delays, setbacks, and budget overruns, it has had its share of issues. It’s also guilty of a terrible public relations campaign.
But at the end of the day, this aircraft has done one thing no other aircraft has ever been able to do – turn an entire generation of aviation bloggers, journalists, and commenters into overnight military aviation experts.
It’s simply fascinating to watch every hipster who’s ever played Ace Combat sit back and pontificate about the downfalls of an aircraft that hasn’t even reached IOC. It’s like a renaissance of air combat.
As the first fighter in the digital age, the F-35 has allowed people to watch and read about the results of flight tests in near real time, drawing their own conclusions as to the success or failure of the program. Security clearance? Who needs it? Wikipedia has everything that anyone who’s ever played Battlefield 4 on Playstation needs to know in order to realize that the F-35 is a sitting duck if you happen to get it after a respawn.
I’m just a lowly fourth-gen pilot, so my opinions might not be as valid as someone who’s read a leaked FOUO report on the internet, but before the million-man Strawman Army reaches full strength, it may be time to inject some sanity into this discussion:
1) The F-35 vs F-16 flight was a developmental test flight.
I wrote an article about this already, and the horse is very much dead, but I think it’s worth repeating because the actual test report came out after the article. The flight was a Developmental Test Flight in which the test platform F-35 was sent out to test flight characteristics in high performance flight. Did I say test enough?
Flight control algorithms (because this jet has a computer running millions of lines of code telling each control surface what to do) were studied and determined to require adjustment (pitch rates, departure resistance logic, etcetera). No other conclusion is valid from this TEST.
2) Comparisons to any Vietnam-era aircraft are INVALID.
The F-4 struggled in an era of AIM-4, AIM-9, and AIM-7. These missiles failed often (AIM-4) and either had to be guided the entire time of flight (AIM-7) or could only be shot from tail aspect (AIM-9). A reliance on these missiles had come at a time when the Air Force had shifted its focus to shooting down Soviet bombers in a Cold War scenario.
The F-105 comparison is so ridiculous it’s barely worth mentioning. Both the USAF Weapons School and Navy’s TOP GUN develop tactics to suit every aircraft in the fleet. These tactics key on strengths, minimize weaknesses, and address threats. And even after these tactics are developed, they evolve over time. What else do you expect?
It is 2015. Think of BFM as the equivalent of unarmed hand to hand combat for Marine grunts. It is important, because it is self defense, but it is not THE mission. It is not the primary method of achieving a kill. It hasn’t been since the early 80s. Yes, BFM can still happen. There are hundreds of scenarios where an F-35 may find its way to the merge. In a world with high off-boresight short and medium-range missiles, is it still possible to get a guns kill? Absolutely. Is it likely? No.
In an environment where everyone, including the enemy, has these missiles, a prolonged engagement in which you dogfight into a gun weapons employment zone is not a highly survivable situation. Unless you managed to get wrapped up with the only remaining MiG in bad-guy country, it likely means his buddies are close by. Saddling up for a guns kill from a neutral merge takes time and fuel – luxuries you just don’t have in combat. And this applies to any aircraft – fifth-gen, fourth-gen, or said threat country.
Countries have spent a lot of time and money developing these missiles for this very reason. If you find yourself in the phonebooth, the quickest kill is the most survivable. Now, if the F-35 gets into a turning fight is it a sitting duck? I don’t know. You can find HUD footage of a T-38 gunning an F-22 on YouTube. Is a trainer aircraft with paper-thin wings a BFM monster against a jet that nearly flies up its own rear-end during airshows? No. But any given Sunday, anything is possible.
The F-35A is a 9G-capable aircraft with a monster engine and a relatively high-alpha capability. It may not be a Raptor. It may not even be a Viper, but it won’t be an F-4 either. I don’t know how it will do in Dissimilar Air Combat Training until it starts wrapping it up on a regular basis in the real world (i.e. – operational squadrons, not test aircraft in test squadrons). And guess what? None of these journalists do either.
3.) F-35 sensors, avionics, technology, and capabilities are classified.
It’s hard not to laugh when another “definitive” article comes out declaring not only is the F-35 a lame duck WVR, but it’s also dead in the water BVR. Holy crap.
There are two groups of people that know the true capabilities of the F-35: those that have the clearance necessary to read about it, and the people who built it (who have the same clearance)…. And probably the Chinese, but that’s another story. Anyone else that makes claims to know what the capabilities of this aircraft are and how they compare to threat aircraft (also classified, by the way), are just wrong and have traveled so far out of their lane it’s not even funny. They just don’t know what they don’t know.
I’m sorry, but you don’t have a right or need to know. The military keeps these things classified for a very good reason – to save American lives. Sensors, capabilities, tactics, and the like are not going to be released to journalists unless someone does so illegally. And even then, it’s like a dog watching TV. They’re not going to understand what they’re even looking at (as we’ve seen in these “expert interpretations” of a leaked FOUO test report).
Why is this important? Because any unclassified source that claims to know how an F-35 will do in a BVR engagement is flat-out wrong. Anything beyond that is pure speculation based on marketing brochures that are worth less in the real world than the paper they’re printed on. Sorry.
As I mentioned earlier, this is the first aircraft to be developed, tested, and flown in the “instant gratification” age. No other aircraft has had its dirty laundry aired in real time quite like this one. And a lot of people have worn out their “Jump to Conclusions Mat” as a result – without any valid information to back it up.
4.) The F-35 debate is political in nature.
This is where I must apologize. In my follow up, I went a bit out of my way to trash the F-35 as a program.
As a fighter pilot, this is pretty far out of my own lane. The merits of the cost per unit and total program costs/timeline are something politicians and elected officials should debate and explain to America. As a taxpayer, it’s everyone’s right to question how money is spent. But the two issues should not be confused. I should not have brought it up as part of the argument.
How an aircraft is acquired doesn’t mean much in the battlespace. The military acquisitions process needs work, or as Navy dudes say, it’s an “other.” That’s really irrelevant to the onslaught of hit pieces that have come out lately.
5.) The F-35 won’t be a bust, but it also won’t be perfect either.
Both the F/A-18 and F-16 have had almost 30 years worth of development, and neither of them are perfect to this day. They weren’t perfect when they first came out and both aircraft have their own strengths and weaknesses. Having flown both, I have seen it firsthand. That doesn’t mean either aircraft is a bust. Very smart fighter pilots and engineers have done a great job in making them very formidable against even newer and better threat aircraft.
I am confident that the next generation of fighter pilots and engineers will make the F-35 equally lethal through superior training, tactics, and even aircraft upgrades down the road. It’s just what we do as American fighter pilots.
It may be frustrating for spectators and participants alike. There may be more growing pains, but it’s going to push through eventually. And if you’re a true aviation enthusiast, you should be rooting for it.
From my perspective, the horse is dead and I won’t feed the million-man Strawman Army anymore. The show will go on and, eventually, this jet will become the face of the American strike fighter.
Just my humble opinion. Your mileage may vary.
(Featured photo courtesy of U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Darlene Seltmann)