Just Because the F-35 Can’t Dogfight Doesn’t Mean it’s a Bad Aircraft

Read on ecnmag.com.

A report released earlier this week of the F-35A’s (lack of) dogfighting capability is making its rounds and has people up in arms about the aircraft’s credibility (including many of you who commented on our original news report).

The evaluation focused on the overall effectiveness of the aircraft in performing various specified maneuvers in a dynamic environment, according to the F-35 tester. This consisted of traditional Basic Fighter Maneuvers in offensive, defensive and neutral setups at altitudes ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 feet.

The tester reports the F-35 was “significantly less maneuverable” than the opposing aircraft, an F-16C, and that the F-35 was at a “distinct energy disadvantage,” especially when it came to a duel involving cannons.

Now critics of the F-35 are using this report as “evidence” that the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) is inferior to those it is intended to replace and that the trillion dollar program is a failure.

Here’s the thing. One single test is not enough to draw conclusions about the F-35’s ability to dogfight. Yes, pilots will make mistakes and there is a chance of surprise close encounters with hostile aircraft. But even if it turns out that the JSF is inferior to some other aircraft in close air battles, the evidence of the past 25 years of air-to-air suggests that this will be a rare occurrence.

The use of guns in air combat has declined from a high of more than 60 percent of all engagements in the 1960s to around 5 percent for the last 25 years, according to CSBA’s John Stillion’s study (Trends in Air-to-Air Combat: Implications for Future Air Superiority). Around 90 percent of air losses since 1990 have been inflicted by missiles. The reasons for this are simple. There are continuing improvements in sensors and missiles and aircraft connectivity is growing. And there are new tactics that exploit these advances.

It would be nice if the F-35 was good at everything, but it’s not realistic. So instead of dwelling on the slight chance the JSF would ever even get caught in such a close encounter, what you should take away from the report instead is this.

The existing fleets of fourth-generation fighters are increasingly obsolete, and will be inferior to the F-35 in pretty much all future engagements. And should the F-35 ever find itself in one of these air battles, maybe the JSF wouldn’t dominate in that domain. But victory in future air-to-air combat will go to the side that can see first and shoot first.

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