When it comes to American air dominance, no platform gets more attention than the high-cost and high-performance F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Of course, the F-35’s monopoly on the media’s attention makes a fair amount of sense: by most accounts, it’s the most technologically advanced and expensive aircraft ever to enter the fight, and thanks to America’s political schizophrenia, it’s either the only fighter America should be investing in, or it’s too expensive to use for normal combat operations… depending on the week and political climate.

But attention isn’t what makes a combat platform effective, and now that the F-35 is finally starting to make its way into war zones around the world, the aircraft that’s prompted a million headlines finally has a chance to prove its worth — which begs the question: is it really America’s best fighter? If you’ve read my work before, you likely won’t be surprised by my answer: it really depends on the situation.

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was purpose-built for a specific type of warfare: air-to-ground engagements. Like the F/A-18 Super Hornet and the F-16 Fighting Falcon, the F-35 is expected to hold its own against other fighters in the sky, but it’s real purpose is sneaking past enemy air defenses to engage ground targets in highly contested airspace. The F-35’s data fusion capabilities allow it to identify and engage targets from significant distances, which when coupled with its low observability, make the F-35 an excellent deep penetration strike platform that can lead the way into the fight in highly defended airspace.

Formation of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Madelyn Brown)

If you’ve got a surface-to-air missile platform inside enemy-controlled airspace that you want destroyed, the F-35 just may be the best weapon in Uncle Sam’s arsenal for the job… but that’s not the only job a fighter jet may have in combat.

The venerable F-22 Raptor, sister to the F-35 under Lockheed Martin’s parentage, was the world’s first operational fifth-generation fighter. While the F-22 doesn’t come standard with all of the technological marvels the newer F-35 carries, the F-22 benefits from a design that was oriented toward air-to-air engagements specifically. As a result, the slenderer fighter is currently the only fifth-generation fighter on the planet with super-cruise capabilities — or the ability to maintain supersonic speeds without keeping the afterburner engaged. This allows the F-22 to cover great distances at extremely high speeds while keeping enough fuel in the tank for an air-to-air engagement once it arrives on station.

It can be said that the F-35 was built to feel similar to the F-16 Fighting Falcon, which is why early F-35 pilots that transitioned over from F-16s have been reported to have the easiest time making the switch. In that same vein of thinking, the F-22 was built using the air superiority dynamo F-15 as a theoretical basis. The F-35 and F-16 were built to do certain things well, just as the F-22 and F-15 were built to do different things well. There may be a great deal of overlap in the things they’re capable of, but when it comes down to who’s the best, these distinctions matter.

USAF F-35 (top) flying alongside a USAF F-16 (bottom) (USAF)

Because of the difference in their pedigree, the F-35’s performance stats don’t really hold a candle to the F-22’s. With a top speed of Mach 1.6 or so, the F-35 would lose every drag race to the Mach 2.25 capable F-22. The F-22 also boasts a climb rate of 62,000 feet per minute; far greater than the F-35’s 45,000 feet per minute. They both benefit from stealth designs, electronic warfare suites, and Northrop Grumman radar systems that allow them to engage enemy aircraft from so far away, they likely won’t even know there was an American bird in their airspace (the AN/APG-77 in the F-22 does not have the ground mapping capabilities of the AN/APG-81 found in the F-35, however).

USAF F-22 (top) alongside a USAF F-15 (bottom) (USAF)

The fact of the matter is, war is complex, and like any complex job, things get easier when you’re using the right tools. The F-35 and F-22 both have specific purposes but can be used with great success in combat operations better suited for the other. Likewise, advanced fourth generation platforms like the forthcoming Block III Super Hornets and F-15EXs will continue to prove useful in less contested airspace for decades to come. When it comes right down to it, it costs a fortune to throw F-35s and F-22s at a problem F/A-18s can solve for significantly less, and when it comes to combat operations, money is one of those things it pays to stay mindful of.