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Friday, July 10, 2015

F-35 loss to F-16? Setting the Record Strait

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, 2013
Without 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. 



  1. There are some interesting pieces coming out of War is Boring David Axe is not the most experience writer in the room with the technical stuff. I have to personally correct him just the other day on the number of engines that a H-6K have.... :P

    1. Haha does he actually respond to his comments? I use in line citations as much as I can on the really technical stuff just as a means to ensure I'm not completely full of it.

    2. No responses, but he did corrected it. :D

  2. Hi Matt

    This is just a discussion not a argument :-)

    Fist the F16 being able to get 1 f-35 in it's sight if no where near conclusive that the F-35 is no good.

    The response from LH is poor and that is me being nice,
    >"lack of stealth coatings and software upgrades" it is well documented that the F35 has some pretty serous issues with it's software that they are still having even though they have been identified in early stages of the design. I know that this was one of the early models.
    >Coating, the F22 still can not fly in bad weather, and requires ideal situation to fly. That is all good for the F22. But the F35 needs to be an all weather air craft like the F16 F18 and F15. That is what the f35 was designed for. So another fail IMO

    Going off your point but also the debate I have read, this reminds me of a movie called. "The Pentagon Wars" you should watch it again. :-)

    Washington has not changed and the pentagon has gotten worse.

    I think the only way to see the true capability is to have a red on blue attack exerciser that is not controlled by either LH or any Air-force personal personal involved with F35 project.

    A combination of a squadron of F16 alone, then a mix of f16 & F18/f15 Vs f35. There are more than enough F35 off the production line for this to occur.

    I personal think that the F35 has become "to Big to Fail", and that to many generals and politicians are evolved for hard question to be asked.

    I also think the F35 is a mistake in mass numbers, and that the USA should be producing a 4+++ Generation F15 with a new airframe that can be mass produced.

    An f16 should not have been able to touch the F35 even this model. IMO, because then you have to ask what can a Russian Su35 or new generation Mig can do to a F35 **if detected.

    Kind Regards
    Stone 30

    1. Hi stone,

      I am generally optimistic of the F-35's combat potential and I think five to ten years from now it will be an excellent aircraft once the teething problems are resolved and pilots have gained experience. I agree that larger engagements with multiple aircraft would be more definitive. The program management and acquisition process in DOD grievously bad.

      One of the craziest graphics I've ever seen on DoD acquisition cycle:

      Setting solid requirements is a must and frankly the DoD needs to be less ambitious and make more purpose build systems rather than all in one type systems. Given the insane number of requirements, Lockheed did a commendable job in designing the F-35. There is an engineering maxim that I generally adhere to which is "keep it simple, stupid". We cannot repeat this process of trying to design an all in one system for the next sixth generation fighter, make it purpose built air dominance fighter with separate programs for the Navy and Air Force given their distinct needs and to avoid defense industrial base consolidation.

      The problem is Congress keeps writing more laws and requirements with the noble intent of judiciously using tax payer dollars. But this actually creates the exact opposite affect in which far too much time and money is spent on needless bureaucratic oversight and overhead. Thus, many acquisition officials have urged Congress to repeal existing legislation and simply the system e.g. to get to milestone A status, a program manger must file 68 distinct documents.

      Hopefully some of this will get done.



  3. Something is not right with the explanation. Aren't the stealth coatings "baked" into the f35?

    As for stone30... Don't sweat it. This exercise was about testing manuverability of the f35...and not about air dominance.

    1. Yes, fiber mat was designed such that metallic paint coatings applied to the F-22 and B-2 would be unnecessary. I also found it odd that JPO stated it did not have stealth coatings. Even without coatings, the shape of the F-35 via planform alignment should have reduced its rcs considerably but it might not have made a difference as it was in visual range. It was the second production F-35 produced and I'm aware that the US Gov. will have to spent $1.7B on retrofits to older models but I'm not sure if fiber mat was among the items that need to be fixed.

  4. HI Matt,

    Nice to see a more technical analysis from you. I enjoy the ones which are on specific equipment more than the situational articles you write. (just my preference- all are well thought out)

    I can see why they first wrote the F35 was useless , but then War is Boring followed it up with the F-35 being useless in long range fighting as well, as even I could see it wasn't well written- too much conjecture.

    Thanks for your article. I knew the F-35 had had some deliberate limitations, but I hadn't known it was a test plane or that it didn't have it's stealth coating.



    1. Thanks! I will have some more technical content out in the near future. I am currently researching "The American Approach Part IV: Future TTP - Countering Foreign 5th Generation Threats" which will discuss potential techniques F-22s. F-35s, fourth generation fighters, AWACS, etc. will be used to counter Russian and Chinese stealth aircraft

      With the F-35, there is often too much conjecture and diametrically opposed views. While I certainly think the F-35 has great potential, I do not believe it will never have to engage at visual range as some proponents believe. You always have to plan for the worst.



  5. Thanks from France for this interesting studie. I'd like to find a french translation of your work.
    The critics on the F-35 program are for me a strangely isolated view ... There is a big picture coming out for military tactics in 20 years and this plane is part of it.

    1. No problem! Sadly the best I can offer is Google translate but I don't know if you've already tried:

      Critics of the F-35 often claim 4th generation aircraft are a viable alternative but 20 years from now, fourth generation aircraft will not be survivable in an anti-access environment against foes such as China and Russia.

    2. Hi Matt

      The F35 will be a very effective fighter aircraft against American no 1 new enemy. Mexico.

      President Trump will lunch a fall scale Air, ground and sea battle.

      On the success of wining the battle against Mexico, President Trump will then turn his EGO against Russia and China.

      Which will make the F35 useless because it will be nuclear war. Last time I check Trump was leading the Primary's for the GOP.

      I don't know weather to laugh or cry........ really No1 GOP pick.

      Stone30 :-)

    3. If he were president, I could certainly see it happen :( I've been reading reactions from around the world on Trump and they are pretty great:

      I can pretty much guarantee he won't become the GOP primary candidate so don't worry ;) Last time I checked, he was at 15% among GOP voters so that is actually much smaller among total voting Americans when independents and democrats are factored in. My guess is Jeb or Rubio vs. Clinton in the general election. Domestic politics aside, Clinton would be very good for US Pacific allies given her contributions as Secretary of State.