Originally intended to be the future of combat aviation, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter plane was intended to replace the F-16s and F-15s that have been the go-to dogfighters for years. However, a 2015 report showed the F-35 couldn’t keep up, creating concern about the F-35’s future. But the F-35 made a comeback, and its value is now clear.
As reported by Business Insider, the F-35 had lost to F-16s and F-15s during dogfights designed to demonstrate the fighter’s potential, with the 2015 report citing energy management issues as a core problem. The F-35 featured smaller wings and was cited as having an inferior thrust-to-weight ratio in comparison to other fighters being used by the Air Force, Marines, and Navy. This made the F-35 more challenging to maneuver.
However, retired US Marine Corps Major Dan Flatley attributed the below par performance to the newness of the weapons system, still considered to be in the early stages of development during the initial tests, as well as the habits of pilots more familiar with operating F-16s and F-15s.
Flatley participated in the creation of the F-35 training syllabus for dogfights. When discussing the operation of an F-35, he said, “When you first get in the F-35 and try to fight it visually, you immediately go back to everything you knew in your legacy fighter.”
This point is supported in the 2015 report, as the pilot in control of the F-35 had 2,000 hours of flight time in an F-15 Strike Eagle, a fighter featuring a distinctly different design.
Flatley asserted that learning a new weapons system takes time. “If you try to fight it like a fighter it isn’t, you’re going to have terrible results,” said Flatley while discussing the F-35.
The pilots involved in the tests had been pulled from other fighters and had not had the opportunity to fully adapt to the new fighter paradigm before taking part. Additionally, the F-35 reflects changes in how aerial warfare is done, focusing on remaining undetected while using sensors to identify and engage threats before being spotted. Close range encounters, such as the dog fights cited in the report, negates the F-35’s advantages and doesn’t fully explore its true capabilities based on its intended use.
And, while the concept of dogfighting is well-known, the US hasn’t engaged an enemy in a turning dogfight in decades, making certain capabilities less of a priority in the design of new fighter jets.
The findings in the 2015 report did lead to changes in the F-35’s design, aimed at making the jet more formidable during such encounters. The original flight controls featured a significant amount of automation. Flatley said this made it feel as though the F-35 was “fighting you,” or “like the hand of god was pushing you in certain directions.”
Lockheed Martin worked with pilots to fix issues regarding the control systems, allowing the F-35’s dogfighting performance to improve.
Since the improvements were completed, the F-35 has performed admirably in dogfight tests. During Red Flag, considered the most realistic jet-fighter training event led by the US Air Force, the F-35 achieved a 20-1 kill ratio against the legacy aircraft that had previously bested the new jet.
Flatley also states the next generation of pilots won’t experience the issues other pilots experienced, as they won’t have habits based on legacy fighter jets. Flatley said, “[The next generation of pilots] are going to define what the F-35 is going to do.”