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Flightline Friday early edition: Test pilot excoriates F-35 dogfight performance July 2, 2015

Posted by Tantumblogo in Admin, awesomeness, disconcerting, Flightline Friday, foolishness, fun, history, non squitur, silliness, technology.

I’ve said for a long time that the F-35 Lightning II – the be-all end-all fighter arrived at through doleful compromise and hideous policy decisions – has the kinematic performance of an F-100.  That was a mid-50s fighter bomber.  Actually, I think I’ve been slightly unfair to the F-35, on internal fuel it has range and payload akin to the A-7, a truly great attack aircraft, with maneuverability that is comparable to the old attack plane.  All along the F-35 has always been misnamed, it’s much more of an attack plane than it is a fighter.  So it should be no surprise that it would perform in close in combat somewhere between an F-100 and an A-7 (which, for an attack plane, was actually pretty capable in close).

So when a test pilot engaging in mock dogfights with a two-seat F-16 lamented that the F-16 was far more maneuverable than the F-35 (contrary to Air Force promises that the new plane would be at least equivalent to the F-16) I wasn’t very surprised.  In fact, it was known all along that the F-35 would be quite limited in air-to-air, which is why the Air Force pushed so hard to build at least 339 F-22s- the latter aircraft being the single most capable air-to-air fighter ever produced, by a long shot.  Since Robert Gates, in the single worst defense policy decision of the last 30 years, capped F-22 production at 187 planes, Air Force air dominance capabilities have been effectively knee-capped and detailed war games and simulations have routinely shown the Air Force unable to gain or maintain air superiority over a peer competitor like China simply due to lack of numbers.  And, it turns out, the F-35 is at least as expensive per plane as the F-22, so Gates’ ostensible reason for cancelling the F-22 have proven groundless.  Now the entire US military faces an air-to-air shortfall of huge proportions and who knows what impact that may have at some future date.

Anyway, to the article:

The Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office is defending its new stealth aircraft in response to a recent news report citing a test-pilot’s analysis claiming the aircraft proved to be inferior to an F-16 in “dogfighting” test scenarios.

The test pilot assessment, first reported by the “War is Boring” blog, says the F-35A could not out-maneuver an F-16 or avoid being shot in mock dogfight scenarios during testing in January of this year.

Military​.com received a copy of the Jan. 14 report, titled “F-35A High Angle of Attack Operational Maneuvers,” which does say the aircraft lacked the “energy maneuverability” to succeed in air-to-air test dogfighting scenarios against the older aircraft. [I’ll try to explain this as simply as I can.  Two things dominate fighter maneuverability, thrust-weight ratio and wing loading. For max performance, you want the first to be as high as possible and the second to be as low as possible. The F-22, for instance, at a combat weight of 58,000 lbs and max afterburning thrust of 70,000 lb has a thrust-weight ratio of 1.2.  This “excess thrust” allows the aircraft to make incredible maneuvers and recover energy – speed – very quickly.  It also has a wing loading of 70 lb. per square foot of wing area – a low figure implying extremely good instantaneous and sustained maneuverability.  The F-35, on the other hand, has a combat weight of 50,000 lb but only 43,000 lb thrust. Thus it’s thrust-weight ratio is only about 0.85 – on a par with an F-4 or a Mirage 2000.  It has a wing loading of nearly 110 lb per square foot (this is the real killer) – a figure normally more associated with a bomber or cargo aircraft, not a maneuverable fighter.  All that load on the wing means very low rates of instantaneous and especially sustained maneuverability, and means the F-35 bleeds energy like a stuck pig.  Combined, it equals a quite poor dogfighter – it would probably have it’s hands full with a Phantom (assuming totally equal pilots) and would probably be dead meat for the GREATEST AIRCRAFT IN THE HISTORY OF THE UNIVERSE, THE INCREDIBLE VOUGHT F-8 CRUSADER!]

Overall, the most noticeable characteristic of the F-35A in a visual engagement was its lack of energy maneuverability,” the report states. “Even with the limited F-16 target configuration, the F-35A remained at a distinct energy disadvantage for every engagement.” [he means the F-16D was at high weight carrying two external drop tanks.  The F-16 needs the drop tanks to equal the F-35’s range on internal fuel (even then it comes up a bit short), showing the F-35 is not without some advantages, it is quite long ranged]

The test pilot’s report also says the “energy maneuverability” of the F-35A is inferior to an F-15E with a Pratt & Whitney 229 engine due to a “smaller wing, similar weight and 15,000 pounds less in afterburner thrust.” 

“So, in general, the high AoA (Angle of Attack) capabilities of the jet could not be used in an effective way without significantly reducing follow-on maneuvering potential,” the report says. [when you go high alpha to pull high G’s the speed bleeds off prodigiously and you’re left a sitting duck – that’s due to lack of excess thrust]

The test pilot’s assessment also claimed that the F-35 helmet was too large for the pilot to effectively 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,” the report says. [This is really non sequitur, see below]

[From the F-35 Joint Program Office] “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,” a JPO office written statement said.

In particular, the JPO statement explained that the AF-2 test aircraft did not have the mission systems software designed to utilize the aircraft’s next-generation sensors. [Good point, but that has nothing to do with maneuverability or basic flight performance]

In short, the F-35 is engineered with a suite of next-generation sensors designed to help the aircraft recognize, detect and destroy enemy targets at longer distances – long before it can be identified by an enemy aircraft. [And that’s absolutely key.  Both F-22 and F-35 are very expensive largely due to their stealth characteristics, which means they are designed to shoot down targets waay before visual range.  Hopefully they’ll always be able to, at least for the sake of American and NATO lives, but if it comes to the merge, it sounds like the F-35 – again, really an attack plane, not a fighter (it should have been the A-14, not F-35) – will have a lot of trouble]

“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,” the JPO said. [Like I said, but US planners also thought Phantoms and Thunderchiefs would never have to dogfight, either, and that didn’t work out so good over Vietnam.  However, the technology and tactics have evolved unimaginably since then, and there hasn’t been a true dogfight kill by US aircraft in 20 years or more]

The F-35 office also said the AF-2 test aircraft was not equipped with the F-35’s special stealth coating designed to make the aircraft invisible to enemy radar.

In addition the JPO statement said the AF-2  “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.” [And that is a huge capability, something the Air Force has not implemented on the F-22 for some reason (though it has on F-15s and F-16s).  Modern helmet mounted sights basically allow a pilot to look at a target, cue a weapon, and then shoot.  You don’t even have to turn the plane much of the time, the weapon does all the work. You do, however, have to think in Russian.  But there could still be instances in the future where getting on a guy’s tail will be necessary.]

Finally, the F-35 office says simulated combat scenarios have shown that four F-35s have won encounters when pitted against a four-ship of F-16s. [If they have all their advanced sensors and the stealth is working, sure, I have no doubt of that. But that’s apples to oranges, what we do now know, and the JPO doesn’t seem to refute it, is that the F-35 is a LOT less maneuverable than an F-16.  And that could cause problems down the road]

“The F-35s won each of those encounters because of its sensors, weapons, and stealth technology,” the statement said.

The F-35 is engineered to accomplish what’s referred as “sensor fusion,” namely the technological ability to fuse relevant information from a variety of sources into one common operating picture for the pilot to view – such as digital maps, radar information and sensor information all combined into a single set of screens, Pentagon officials explained.

The idea is to enable F-35 pilots to see and destroy enemies in the air well in advance of a potential dogfight scenario.  This can be explained in terms of a well-known Air Force strategic concept referred to as the “OODA Loop,” for observe, orient, decide and act. The concept is to complete this process quickly and make fast decisions while in an air-to-air dogfight — in order to get inside the enemy’s decision cycle, properly anticipate, and destroy an enemy before they can destroy you.

The F-35 is designed with long-range sensors and data fusion technologies such that, as a fifth-generation aircraft, it can complete the OODA Loop much more quickly than potential adversaries, F-35 advocates and JPO program officials claim.

For instance, the F-35’s Electro-Optical Target System, or EOTS, is an infra-red sensor able to assist pilots with air and ground targeting at increased standoff ranges while also perform laser designation, laser range-finding and other tasks.

In addition, the plane’s Distributed Aperture System, or DAS, is a series of six electro-optical sensors also able to give information to the pilot. The DAS includes precision tracking, fire control capabilities and the ability to warn the pilot of an approaching threat or missile.

DAS is really revolutionary, it provides a 360 degree coverage of the aircraft in all azimuths with advanced electro-optical sensors.  The sensor data is presented onto the pilot’s large helmet mounted sight.  It is one reason the F-35 has become so darned expensive:

Mind, that’s the theory. The practice rarely works quite so perfectly.

Some videos on EOTS, the first an overview, the second shows the incredible clarity of the multispecrtral imaging it provides:

The fundamental problem with the F-35 has been its compromised design.  The Marines’ insistence on STOVL really compromised the entire design.  The need for the forward lift fan made the fuselage grow enormously and contributed to increased weight.  Also, STOVL likes a small wing, so there is better gust response (Harrier had very small wings). But the other services demanded high payload-range capabilities while maintaining stealth, which meant high weight.  In a mistaken bid to keep costs down, a single engine design was specified.  So what you wind up with is a single engine high weight stealth attack aircraft that will surely be very good at many things but which has the overall performance of an F-100/A-7 mashup. That may never be a problem, but, then again, it might lead to disaster.  We’ll see.

One last cool video on a totally unrelated subject, deployment of Minuteman IIIs at Minot in ’72, F-4Ds with Paveway I GBU-10 laser guided bombs, and a cool combat search and rescue scene from Southeast Asia:

Ah what the heck, one more, the last of the Sandies in Vietnam from probably late ’71 or early ’72:


1. Christopher - July 2, 2015

But, Tantum, you’re forgetting the most important part: the F-35 just LOOKS so darn cool and futuristic. C’mon, it’s like the F-22’s little brother, and every war hero needs a little brother.

Plus, what’s the likelihood that in the perfectly predictable scenario which is WAR that an F-35 would ACTUALLY have to dogfight? I mean, it’s weapons and sensors and other cool technostuff will totally negate the need to actually maneuver.

OR….we could just build more F-22s and update their technology a bit, since they can do just about everything an F-35 can do PLUS dogfight, right?

Tantumblogo - July 2, 2015

F-35 is somewhat better in ground attack. It’s weapons bays are configured more for bombs than missiles. Whereas F-22 can carry 8 missiles internally, F-35 can only carry two. I guess that’s another reason it’s not very good as a fighter.

The problem is now we’re just stuck. We’re $100 billion in and there’s absolutely nothing to replace the F-35 with, except building more F-15s, 16s, and 18s (which I would not have a problem with). The problem with the F-22 is that the production line’s been gone now for 4 years and it would be virtually impossible getting it started again. It would be just about as “easy” and expensive and take as much time to design a new aircraft.

Shame on Gates.

Christopher - July 2, 2015

Indeed. And, we’re going to need some effective advanced air warfare systems in the coming decade or two with the Reds in the Far East on the rise. Shame, indeed.

2. richardmalcolm1564 - July 3, 2015

“The fundamental problem with the F-35 has been its compromised design. The Marines’ insistence on STOVL really compromised the entire design.”

The thing is, the STOVL model of the F-35 – the F-35B – is pretty much all win for the Marine Corps and their baby decks. It’s a major upgrade over the Harrier in pretty much every respect (at least, once they get the deck melting problem squared away), and fulfills the missions they need it to fulfill.

The problem is that compromises needed to make the F-35 work for the Corps also made it much more compromised as workhorse for the Navy and the Air Force. DoD did, indeed, try to do too much with this fighter, it seems. But as you say, we don’t have a lot of choice at this point. We just have to find a way to make the best out of it that we can. Fortunately, dogfighting won’t be much called for in the foreseeable future.

3. Christopher - July 3, 2015


Christopher - July 3, 2015

Sorry ’bout that–my Air Force is coming out a bit strong today. I went to basic 8 years ago today, so I’m feeling slightly nostalgic.

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