Image 1: F-35. Image Credit: Liz Kasynski Code One, 2015.
Earlier in July David Axe from “War is Boring” published excerpts from a report made by an F-35 pilot upon the conclusion of basic fighter maneuvering (BFM) exercises which took place in January of 2015. During the exercise, the clean configured F-35 was outmaneuvered by an F-16 with two drop tanks and was subsequently defeated. Axe argues the failure of the F-35 to defeat the aircraft it was intended to replace is the latest in a series of developments which ultimately demonstrate the F-35 is a waste of American tax payer dollars and the aircraft will be of little use on the battlefield against maneuverable fourth generation opponents. The article caused considerable public debate and even prompted an official response by the Joint Program Office (JPO) which oversees the development of the F-35. Upon reviewing the circumstances of the test within the broader context of the maturity of the F-35 program, it becomes apparent that the BFM testing in January does not provide conclusive results with respect to assessing the F-35’s potential dogfighting prowess.
First and foremost, the test aircraft utilized in the BFM exercise (AF-2) is among the oldest in the fleet and is optimized for flight sciences not dogfighting; AF-2 has neither radar absorbent material coatings nor the latest software configuration to enable HMD and full avionics functionality (Jennings, 2015). Thus, the F-35 was effectively deprived of its two most significant advantages over legacy aircraft, enhanced situational awareness and low observability. The combination of stealth and complete situational awareness enables the F-35 to effectively perform “stand-off” kills or beyond visual range engagements. The F-35 sharesthe fifth generation traits of stealth and situational awareness with the F-22which has already demonstrated their value- even when controlling for theF-22’s superior maneuverability performance:
Image 2: F-35 AIM-120 test
“…the results of training exercises indicate the Raptor is highly capable in close range maneuvering fights but it is clearly not invincible. The results of close in maneuvering fights indicates supermaneuverability alone is not responsible for the Raptor's success, stealth and heightened situational awareness have contributed immensely to the Raptor's overall combat effectiveness exercises. All [simulated] instances of Raptors being shot down, with the possible exception of a case where an AIM-120 missile kill was achieved by an EA-18G, occurred at visual range in close in maneuvering fights. The F-35 shares stealth and heightened situational awareness with the Raptor and, given all the information that has been publicly released, there is no credible reason to conclude the F-35 is incapable of performing similar ‘stand-off kills’ utilizing stealth and situational awareness as described by Brown” - Matt, 2013Without stealth and enhanced situational awareness, the F-35 utilized during the test was effectively a fourth generation fighter. But, the lack of stealth coatings and software upgrades were not important as the objective of the test was to determine the limits of – and ultimately improve – the aircraft’s maneuverability characteristics as per the pilot’s recommendations at the end of the report. Lockheed had initially framed the outcome of the test, prior to David Axe’s publication, as a positive outcome given that the F-35 can be “cleared for greater agility as a growth option” (Davies, 2015).
Image 3: F-35 canopy & HMD
The F-35 test pilot concluded the aircraft had an insufficient pitch rate, suffered from an energy disadvantage (drop in speed after maneuvers), and poor rearward visibility. The pilot subsequently recommended increasing the pitch rate to enable the pilot to have greater options, increasing the alpha onset, increasing the beginning of the blended region to 30 degrees (angle of attack), increase pilot yaw authority, and fixing HMD/canopy issues. By following the pilot’s recommendations in addition to planned block upgrades, many of the deficiencies cited in the report will be either mitigated or disappear. For example, Block 6 improvements include both a canopy expansion and propulsion upgrade e.g. adaptive cycle engine with up to 10% increased thrust and 25%-30% range (Norris, 2015). However, some maneuverability challenges would remain such as high-wing loading which cannot easily be remedied as a result of upgrades. Its worth noting that maneuverability is determined by examining several metrics such as thrust to weight ratio, high subsonic acceleration, rate of climb, AOA, sustained radius turn ability, etc. As with prior generations of US fighter aircraft, inherent design considerations made as a result of trade-offs in capability will ensure an aircraft performs better in some maneuverability metrics over others.
Ultimately, the development of tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) by test and evaluation squadrons and the Weapon’s Test School will enable F-35 pilots to maximize the aircraft’s strengths while mitigating its weaknesses during engagements. This effort will include attempting to create dogfighting techniques at visual range which favor the F-35. The recent test is yet another reminder that the F-35 program is still in its infancy when compared to legacy systems and the development of TTP will likely take years. Former F-16 pilot C. W. Lemoine argues the BFM test in January means little as it will take a substantial period of time for F-35 pilots to accumulate proficiency in their aircraft and commentators aught to withhold judgement until F-35 pilots become proficient and new TTP are developed:
Image 4: F-35 & F-16 over Luke AFB. Image Credit: Lockheed Martin
"...a guy with maybe 100 hours in the F-35 versus a guy with 1,500+ Viper hours? I’ve seen thousand-hour F-16 guys in two-bag D-models beat up on brand new wingmen in clean, single-seat jets. It happens. It’s the reality of the amount of experience in your given cockpit...It’s way too early to declare the F-35 the 'worst fighter aircraft design ever imagined.' Please. Let’s see how it does when guys who are proficient in developed tactics do against guys with similar amounts of experience–the realm of the bros in the operational test or Weapons School environment." - C. W. Lemoine , 2015
Much of the debate regarding the F-35 has stagnated towards fixating on particular maneuverability characteristics or specific technical problems in isolation rather than evaluating the holistic potential of the aircraft based upon how it is likely to be used in combat under a combined arms approach with multiple assets and skilled pilots. With these additional factors in mind, ensuring the F-35 will be effective at visual range will become increasingly important over the next ten to fifteen years as both the proliferation of effective electronic warfare/countermeasure systems and foreign fifth generation fighters will challenge the efficacy of the F-35's ability to reliably achieve bvr kills. In summary, January's BFM tests provide few conclusive results other than the F-35 program is still relatively immature and further work is needed to fix teething problems in the airframe and to ensure F-35 pilots are able to accumulate the required experience to be proficient in their aircraft.