F-35 versus F-16: who wins? Who cares?
7 Jul 2015|


Last week there was a real flurry in the press and the blogosphere about the performance of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Or, more accurately, about the lack of manoeuvre performance in a trial against an F-16—a design that dates back to the 1970s. War is Boring has been running hard on the issue, with writer David Axe—a frequent critic of the F-35—leading the charge. The story was picked up by the mainstream press, including an ‘exclusive’ in The Australian today.

The story is based on a leaked test pilot’s report (PDF) of an air-to-air exercise in January this year. (Note: the report is marked Export Controlled Information FOUO. For Strategist readers inside government, this is one to access at home.) The crux of the story is that the F-35 was beaten because it couldn’t outturn the F-16, and suffered from ‘energy disadvantage for every engagement’. To those who have been strident F-35 critics for years, such as Aviation Week’s Bill Sweetman, this was the news they’d been expecting.

When I first saw the story, I was a bit surprised—but only a bit. Based on figures I’ve seen, my expectation would’ve been that the F-35 and F-16 would be roughly comparable in close-in dogfighting performance, with one or the other having a marginal advantage depending on exactly how the fight was set up, and the configuration of the aircraft—particularly how much stuff was slung under the F-16. And that’s consistent with other, far less reported on, comparative assessments between the two.

That might seem strange at first. Why, after all, would the latest and most sophisticated combat aircraft around not be able to completely outclass a competitor that pre-dated it by decades? (To be precise, the Block 40 F-16 in the trial is a late 80s design.) The answer, in part, is that it isn’t the fight the F-35 was designed for. An F-35 pilot who finds him- or herself in a tight turning contest within visual range has got something terribly wrong. In fact, in today’s world of helmet mounted off-boresight targeting, any pilot who finds themselves in such a fight is probably going to be walking home. And as for air-to-air gunfighting, as practiced in the January trial, oh please—the 1960s called and wants its top guns back.

Instead, the F-35 is designed to be lethal at well beyond visual range through a combination of stealth, sensors, superior information processing and electronic warfare capability. There are reasons to wonder how effective the F-35’s bag of tricks will be into the future, especially as counter-stealth systems evolve, and I’d like to see it carry more and longer-ranged weapons, but the trial back in January tells us precisely nothing about the effectiveness of the F-35 in the regime it was designed for.

And if that was all that could be criticised about the recent fuss, it wouldn’t be so bad. But it seems that there was a strong element of confirmation bias at work as well. If you already thought the F-35 was a dog (not entirely a bad thing to be in a dogfight, but I digress), then this report confirmed it. But a careful reading suggests that the flight controls of the F-35 involved were software limited to a point where it was effectively handicapped out of the fight. That’s why the recommendations made at the end of the report read like this:

  • Increasing pitch rate would provide the pilot more options
  • Consider increasing alpha onset
  • Consider increasing pilot yaw rate control authority

And that’s why an Aviation Week piece a couple of months ago (subscribers) about the same trial—which was picked up by Lockheed Martin’s PR team as a positive story—noted that the aircraft ‘can be cleared for greater agility as a growth option’. Simply put, we don’t yet know what the relative manoeuvrability of the F-35 to the F-16 is, only what that particular software load allowed. (And even when we do know, the significance will be limited for the reasons mentioned earlier.) I notice that there are now some ‘second generation articles’ that have picked up on the same observation. (You can get an F-16 pilot’s perspective here.)

In an interesting incidental commentary, most of those contrarian articles say something along the lines of ‘there are plenty of reasons to be critical of the F-35 program, but this isn’t one of them’. And that captures the problem about much of the public reporting on the F-35. The program has been running almost a decade and a half, with significant schedule slippages, engineering problems, software issues and cost overruns in its early years. The net effect has been to cost the Australian taxpayer many billions of dollars to establish an interim air combat capability. But much of the discussion has been about the wrong thing—yesterday’s concept of air warfare.