The F-35 Joint Program Office countered a leaked report describing the jet’s dismal performance. The test pilot report criticized the jet’s abilities in the within-visual-range air-to-air arena, even against an F-16D sporting a pair of 330 gallon wing tanks. Amazingly, their response is damning in its own right and is far from forthcoming on the issue.
The response, posted on F-35’s official site reads:
The media report on the F-35 and F-16 flight does not tell the entire story. The F-35 involved was AF-2, which is an F-35 designed for flight sciences testing, or flying qualities, of the aircraft. It is not equipped with a number of items that make today’s production F-35s 5th Generation fighters.
Aircraft AF-2 did not have the mission systems software to use the sensors that allow the F-35 to see its enemy long before it knows the F-35 is in the area. Second, AF-2 does not have the special stealth coating that operational F-35s have that make them virtually invisible to radar. And third, it 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.
The tests cited in the article were done earlier this year to test the flying qualities of the F-35 using visual combat maneuvers to stress the system, and the F-16 involved was used as a visual reference to maneuver against. While the dogfighting scenario was successful in showing the ability of the F-35 to maneuver to the edge of its limits without exceeding them, and handle in a positive and predictable manner, the interpretation of the scenario results could be misleading. The F-35’s technology is designed to engage, shoot, and kill its enemy from long distances, not necessarily in visual “dogfighting” situations. There have been numerous occasions where a four-ship of F-35s has engaged a four-ship of F-16s in simulated combat scenarios and the F-35s won each of those encounters because of its sensors, weapons, and stealth technology.
The release of this FOUO report is being investigated. The candid feedback provided by our test community is welcomed because it makes what we do better.
The disclosure of this report should not discourage our warfighters and test community from providing the Program Office and Lockheed Martin with honest assessments of the F-35’s capabilities.
The F-35 Joint Program Office is passively admitting the report is valid (I mean, it is written by one of their own test pilots, for goodness sake) while at the same time saying that it doesn’t tell the whole story. They then say that the F-35 is going to be good at an entirely different aspect of the air-to-air combat mission, the beyond-visual-range one. Basically, they are admitting that their fighter is not much of a fighter at all, and then quickly changing the subject by saying that it will be a good interceptor instead.
That’s like responding to an SUV review stating the vehicle’s blind spots, deep overhangs, and poor turning radius make it hard to parallel park by saying the SUV’s unrelated features X, Y and Z make it easy to park at the mall. That may be true, but what does that have to do with parallel parking?
I don’t doubt that the F-35, with its fantastic planned avionics suite, sensor fusion, and low observability, will be a capable interceptor once the whole concept is mature and working properly, especially when multiple F-35s work as a team while using tailored tactics to confuse, surprise, avoid, or overwhelm enemy aircraft formations. But for 20 years of development and well over $100,000,000 per jet (and even more when you include research and development costs), the F-35 better be a decent beyond-visual-range missile chucker. It is quite literally, the least the Pentagon can ask from the F-35 program.
The fact of the matter is this has nothing to do with the aircraft’s ability to defend itself when it is facing a near peer-state enemy that has its own tricks, not to mention the possibility of a great numerical and geographical advantage. The F-35 Joint Program Office may be able to state that the F-35 will be good at beyond-visual-range combat, but they cannot guarantee that the aircraft will never face enemies within visual range, especially given its 30+ year service life. This is a contingency that aircraft like F-22, Typhoon, Rafale and earlier aircraft like the F-15 and F-16 were designed to handle, and in war games even the stealthy F-22 utilizes it with great success, especially when its quiver of six beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles run dry.
Once again, nobody should be claiming that the F-35 will be incapable, or even highly challenged, when it comes to shooting down enemy aircraft at beyond visual range distances. But what is clear, is that within-visual-range it is not up to par with even a 4th generation fighter packing external stores. Also, that Helmet Mounted Display the Joint Project Office’s statement says the pilot didn’t have to cue high-off-bore-sight short-range missiles with, well the other guy in the 4th generation fighter has one as well, and Russian fighters have had it since the mid 1980s. So even if the test aircraft was equipped with this system, this amounts to no decisive advantage. This is especially true since the pilot can’t even see over their shoulder in some circumstances, at least according to the damning dogfight report and the F-35’s clear lack of reward visibility.
The Joint Program Office also claims that the F-35’s stealthy skin will help it dominate the beyond visual-range fight. This is true, but once again, we are not talking about the aircraft’s abilities in that realm of air-to-air combat. Even so, the F-35’s low-observability will be degraded even for long distance encounters if it were to actually carry missiles that use the F-35’s Helmet Mounted Display for targeting during a dogfight. Namely that missile being AIM-9X, as they are currently carried externally. This compromises the jet’s low radar cross-section.
The AIM-9X Block II will have lock-on after launch capability, which could theoretically allow it to be launched from the F-35’s weapons bays without locking its seeker onto the target first. But in order to do so, the F-35 has to give up two of only four missiles stations it has in order to carry a pair of AIM-9X internally. Doing so cuts back further on the F-35’s dismal beyond-visual range air-to-air missile capacity, which is just four missiles. If two AIM-9Xs were put in the jet’s weapons bays, this would mean only two beyond visual range missiles could be carried. As such, it is doubtful that we will see such a configuration during strictly counter-air operations against a serious threat, especially since the Program Office has admitted that the jet’s great advantage when it comes to air-to-air combat is in the beyond visual range realm, for which it will need every beyond-visual-range missile it can carry.
Then there is the question of the F-35’s 25mm internal cannon, which can be seen now largely as a ground attack weapon, albeit one with a limited volume of fire as it only holds 180 rounds. Simply put, based on the test pilot’s report, which was not dispelled by the Joint Project Office’s statement, the F-35 would have a hard time putting a capable enemy aircraft, flown by a capable pilot, within its gun’s aiming pipper. Sure, tactics can be developed and applied to try a minimizing the F-35’s poor close-in air-to-air performance, just like they were during Vietnam, the last time we thought close-in aerial combat was a thing of the past, an idea that many crews paid for with their lives. And yes, under some circumstances an opposing pilot that makes mistakes may end up in a low energy state or in a certain position where an F-35A could shoot them dead with their cannon, but where is the confidence in the weapons system’s capability to do so going into within visual range fight from the outset?
Possibly the best tactic for an F-35 to survive such an engagement would be to run from one, even if doing so would have a larger impact on the overall mission, and even that is a choice that may not be available under certain circumstances, such as when defending a high value asset or a key piece of geography. In those cases, the F-35 will have to engage within-visual-range if the enemy survives a beyond visual range exchange.
In the end, the ‘response’ to the F-35 Program’s own test pilot report is actually a sad omission by the F-35 Program that as so many predicted, the “F” in F-35 really isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. We better hope the enemy doesn’t come at our F-35 formations with more targets than they can handle. Let’s also hope the enemy doesn’t have their own ways of disrupting our battlespace networks that we rely heavily on for situational awareness. If this happens, or the fog of war allows ‘squirters’ to get past the F-35’s beyond-visual-range screen, the Lightning II may find itself having to fight for its life up close and personal. A proposition we know now is not something pilots flying the F-35 can enter into with confidence.
Contact the author at Tyler@jalopnik.com.