Were you surprised by the recent hullaballoo regarding the F-35's lack of dogfighting prowess?  If so, you have not been paying much attention.

Several days ago, an article was posted on the "War is Boring" blogsite entitled:  Test Pilot Admits the F-35 Can't Dogfight.  The article described a 5-page report in which a test pilot criticized the JSF's performance during combat testing against a F-16D Fighting Falcon.  Shortly after, War is Boring published the entire report.

Aviation week has hosted the report in PDF form here. Or you can read it below.

The exercise, which occurred in January, pitted an early production F-35A (the standard CTOL model) against a Block 40 F-16D.  The F-35 had no stealth coating, nor did it have weapons mounted internally or externally.  The F-16D carried no weapons, but did mount two 370 gallon wing tanks.

The F-35A seemed to have every advantage.  Its stealth coating would have been on no use in WVR combat, but the absence of it and internal weapons likely saved a few pounds.  Meanwhile, the two-seat F-16D is one of heavier F-16 variants, but its GE-100 engine lacks the thrust of Block 50 models equipped with either the General Electric F110-GE-129 or Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-129 (28,000lbs of thrust vs 29,400lbs).  The F-16D was also carrying two external fuel tanks, limiting maneuvers to 7g until they were empty, as well as adding weight and drag.

To put is simply, the Viper was sandbagging.

Despite this, the F-35 faired poorly.  Its mass, small wing area, lack of thrust, intrusive flight software and cumbersome helmet all conspired against it.

The report is well worth a read, but here are some choice bits:

  • Overall, the most noticeable characteristic of the F-35A in a visual engagement was its lack of energy maneuverability. 
  • The EM of the F-35A is substantially inferior to the F-15E with PW-229s due to a smaller wing, similar weight, and ~15,000 Ibs less in afterburner thrust. So, in general, the high AoA capabilities of the jet could not be used in an effective way without significantly reducing follow-on maneuvering potential. Even with the limited F-16 target configuration, the F-35A remained at a distinct energy disadvantage for every engagement. 
  • Insufficient pitch rate exacerbated the lack of EM. 
  • No effective guns defense was found during this test. 
  • The helmet was too large for the space inside the canopy to adequately see behind the aircraft. There were multiple occasions when the bandit would've been visible (not blocked by the seat) but the helmet prevented getting in a position to see him.
  • Though the aircraft has proven it is capable of high AOA flight, it wasn't effective for killing or surviving attacks primarily due to lack of energy maneuverability. 
The report also goes into detail about the HMD displaying HMD BST FAULT lights as well as intrusive flight software that would fight the pilots commands initially, but then perform the inputed maneuver after-the-fact.

I can't imagine how those "antlers" could be a problem...
Some of these problems, like the intrusive flight software could be fixed with a mere software patch.  Others, like the bulky helmet, might be correctable in the future given a redesign of the cockpit and/or helmet itself.  

Other issues, like the lack of power, high weight, and small wings are a little tougher to fix.  While a more powerful engine is being studied for the JSF, do not expect to see it anytime soon.  Even then, it likely would not be enough.  As the report states, the F-35 weighs nearly as much as an F-15E, yet makes do with about ¾ of the power and wing area.  By comparison, the F-16 weighs in at just over half of the F-15Es weight, and fittingly has 50% of the power, and 50% of the wing area.

In short, you cannot change the laws of physics.  The F-35 simply has less thrust and lift than the F-16 compared to its weight.

So why is everybody surprised by this report?

It probably has not helped that, in its fervor to promote the controversial JSF, Lockheed Martin has made claims that the F-35 has equal or better kinematics than 4th generation fighters.

As luck would have it, the Lockheed Martin test pilot in the video above extols the virtues of both the F-35's dogfighting capability and its helmet...  Two issues specifically noted in the report as being lacking.

Following this latest report, the folks at Lockheed Martin and the Joint Program Office have done some backpedaling, stating that the 5-page report "Doesn't Tell the Entire Story", since the F-35 used  "was not equipped with many of the features that gives it an advantage".
It [the F-35 in question] is not equipped with the weapons or software that allow the F-35 pilot to turn, aim a weapon with the helmet, and fire at an enemy without having to point the airplane at its target.”
Given that the report mentioned issues with the helmet's mobility this might not have been much of a game changer.  Also, while the AMRAAM is HOBS (high off-boresight) missile, using it thus reduces the missile's energy as it maneuvers and reduces its probability of kill (pK).  There is also no mention that the F-16 (or any other modern fighter) could potentially have the same HOBS capability, as well as a more suitable WVR missile like the AIM-9X or IRIS-T.

Long time JSF defendersThe Lexington Institute, have gone so far as to call the F-35's lack of dogfighting chops to be a feature, not a bug.  Err...  Yeah.

While it is true that BVR combat has been predominant since the Gulf War, that does not mean the days of the dogfight are over.  Air combat throughout the last few decades has been extremely lopsided.  A vastly superior force taking on antiquated fighters that are outnumbered, poorly maintained, flown by less experienced pilots, and lacking modern AWAC support.

The USAF had declared the gun passé prior to the Vietnam War, a deadly mistake for its pilots.  Are they making the same mistake again?  (More on this in a later post...)

Is it just for decoration?

Last summer, during my "Fighter Jet Fight Club" series, I routinely gave the F-35 low marks in the dogfighting category.  While this was mostly educated guessing on my part, I can now back up those low scores even more.  

With more evidence that the F-35 simply is not a good dogfighter, the Joint Program Office seems to be downplaying the need for such.  Instead they continue to play to the JSF's strengths.  They state the F-35 was superior to both the A-10 and F-16 during a close air support (CAS) exercise, without going into detail as to what that exercise entailed.  They also remind us that the F-35 is still meeting "test points" like dropping bombs onto target.

This could be a sticky one, however.  The idea of a fighter jet that cannot "turn and burn" as good as an aircraft designed in the 70s seems like a giant step backward to some.  At the very least, it will make people question if an aircraft that is so expensive, and so late, is even worth it.


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