This author, along with several others, has been warning for a long time that the F-35 “Joint Strike Fighter” is decidedly inferior even to legacy aircraft, let alone to the latest Russian and Chinese jets and air defense systems.
This conclusion has been drawn from several publicly-known facts, including the F-35’s limited stealthiness, poor weapons payload, limited range and endurance, poor situational awareness, and lack of maneuverability (i.e. sluggishness).
But until this year, any debate about the F-35’s performance and capabilities was purely academic. It could have been conducted only based on paper data and the laws of physics.
That debate is no longer academic.
It has now been established, through realistic testing, that the F-35 is indeed so sluggish, so unmaneuverable, and offers such poor situational awareness to its pilot, that it’s hopelessly outmatched in a dogfight (i.e. close range combat) – even by the legacy aircraft it’s intended to replace. In fact, those “legacy aircraft” can run circles around it.
It has now been publicly released that in January of this year, an F-35 engaged in a simulated dogfight against an F-16 Block 40. To make matters harder for the F-16, it was burdened with two heavy fuel tanks, while the F-35 flew without any external stores, thus impairing the F-16’s maneuverability and increasing the F-35’s odds of victory.
Yet, the F-16 trashed the F-35. It proved far more maneuverable, and it repeatedly sneaked upon the F-35 without the latter’s pilot being aware, because his helmet is so big that he can’t move his head freely in the F-35’s small, cramped cockpit.
WarIsBoring‘s David Axe narrates (emphasis mine):
The fateful test took place on Jan. 14, 2015, apparently within the Sea Test Range over the Pacific Ocean near Edwards Air Force Base in California. The single-seat F-35A with the designation “AF-02” — one of the older JSFs in the Air Force — took off alongside a two-seat F-16D Block 40, one of the types of planes the F-35 is supposed to replace.
The two jets would be playing the roles of opposing fighters in a pretend air battle, which the Air Force organized specifically to test out the F-35’s prowess as a close-range dogfighter in an air-to-air tangle involving high “angles of attack,” or AoA, and “aggressive stick/pedal inputs.”
In other words, the F-35 pilot would fly his jet hard, turning and maneuvering in order to “shoot down” the F-16, whose pilot would be doing his own best to evade and kill the F-35.
“The evaluation focused on the overall effectiveness of the aircraft in performing various specified maneuvers in a dynamic environment,” the F-35 tester wrote. “This consisted of traditional Basic Fighter Maneuvers in offensive, defensive and neutral setups at altitudes ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 feet.”
At top and above — F-35s and F-16s. Air Force photos
The F-35 was flying “clean,” with no weapons in its bomb bay or under its wings and fuselage. The F-16, by contrast, was hauling two bulky underwing drop tanks, putting the older jet at an aerodynamic disadvantage.
But the JSF’s advantage didn’t actually help in the end. The stealth fighter proved too sluggish to reliably defeat the F-16, even with the F-16 lugging extra fuel tanks. “Even with the limited F-16 target configuration, the F-35A remained at a distinct energy disadvantage for every engagement,” the pilot reported.
The defeated flier’s five-page report is a damning litany of aerodynamic complaints targeting the cumbersome JSF.
“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.”
The F-35 jockey tried to target the F-16 with the stealth jet’s 25-millimeter cannon, but the smaller F-16 easily dodged. “Instead of catching the bandit off-guard by rapidly pull aft to achieve lead, the nose rate was slow, allowing him to easily time his jink prior to a gun solution,” the JSF pilot complained.
And when the pilot of the F-16 turned the tables on the F-35, maneuvering to put the stealth plane in his own gunsight, the JSF jockey found he couldn’t maneuver out of the way, owing to a “lack of nose rate.”
And to add insult to injury, the JSF flier discovered he couldn’t even comfortably move his head inside the radar-evading jet’s cramped cockpit. “The helmet was too large for the space inside the canopy to adequately see behind the aircraft.” That allowed the F-16 to sneak up on him.
In the end, the F-35 — the only new fighter jet that America and most of its allies are developing — is demonstrably inferior in a dogfight with the F-16, which the U.S. Air Force first acquired in the late 1970s.
The test pilot explained that he has also flown 1980s-vintage F-15E fighter-bombers and found the F-35 to be “substantially inferior” to the older plane when it comes to managing energy in a close battle.
None of this is any secret to those of us who are knowledgeable about military aircraft and the F-35 program. These issues have been publicly known since at least 2008, when Dr John Stillion and Scott Perdue – both veteran military pilots – released their damning report on the F-35, which, they complained, “Can’t Climb, Can’t Turn, Can’t Run.”
Sadly, the Pentagon and 8 allied defense departments/ministries completely ignored their warning and proceeded full speed ahead with the development and procurement of the F-35, while also killing the only 5th generation stealthy alternative to it available to the US – the much better (and now also cheaper) F-22 Raptor.
Now the US and eight of its allies are stuck with a useless, hyperexpensive jet that is decisively inferior even to legacy aircraft – including those it is designed to replace – to say nothing of modern Russian and Chinese fighters like the Su-27/30/33/35/J-11/15/16 Flanker/Sinoflanker family, the J-10 Vigorous Dragon, the PAK FA, the J-20, and the J-31. The USAF itself has recognized that the F-35 stands no chance of surviving combat against the latest Russian and Chinese fighters and is now developing a sixth-generation fighter.
But that aircraft will not be available for purchase until at least two decades from now. Yet, the US and its allies need new fighters to replace their worn-out aircraft now.
Luckily, there are several options available. The most cost-effective, from both a military and a fiscal standpoint, is the procurement of European Generation 4+ fighters – the Rafale, the Typhoon, or the Gripen.
Obviously, the US will not procure a foreign fighter, but other F-35 program participant countries should not slavishly follow Washington’s diktats. They are under no obligation to do so.
Procuring the Rafale, the Typhoon, or the Gripen would cost-effectively equip their air forces with a modern, capable fighter and allow them to protect their countries for decades to come, at an affordable cost to taxpayers. This is especially true of the Rafale.
Moreover, the Rafale’s manufacturer, Dassault Aviation, offers the best economic benefits (including offsets) to countries now shopping for fighters. For Canada, for instance, it has pledged a full transfer of technology and of intellectual property, and would probably build jets for the RCAF in Canada itself.
There is absolutely no reason for America’s F-35 partner nations to remain involved in that completely failed and utterly unaffordable program. These nations should bail out of that program ASAP.
A Dassault Rafale fighter taking off. Photo credit: Dassault Aviation/S. Randé