More than five years ago, reports emerged citing Edwards Air Force Base Tests results of experiments in which F-16s were placed in air-to-air combat against F-35s to assess the ability of the much-discussed 5th-Generation fighter to dogfight.
Citing certain findings from an actual test, multiple news reports said results showed an F-16 actually “out-performed” an F-35 in a dogfight. The reports inspired a large amount of discussion, debate and uproar regarding the F-35. However, as can often the case, key contextual elements of the discussion were often missed in writings about the circumstance and the actual aircraft used in 2015.
F-35: Can it Dogfight?
Some asked the question ..”Can the F-35 truly dogfight?” “Does it need to be able to dogfight?” The answers to these questions are in fact quite clear. Yes it can dogfight but no it might not need to very often given the range, accuracy and fidelity of its sensors and on-board computer processing.
However, what about the actual merits of the question itself? How well can the F-35 dogfight? Would it truly be out-performed by an F-16? An Air Force pilot who was there at the time says the answer is clear. No.
“I was at Edwards Air Force Base when the test pilots were there and they were writing that original report. It's been the narrative ever since and I want to say a few things about that…..
First of all, it should be noted the aircraft (F-35) was in its infancy stages and we were still just trying to learn how to fly the airplane. The entire CLAW (Flight Control Laws) hadn't been delivered yet so the guys hadn't really developed tactics, techniques, and procedures, etc. So to say that the F-35 can't Basic Flight Maneuver (BFM, a term for dogfight), I think is a gross overstatement.
Honestly, you know I think it would be quite eye-opening to see an F-35 and an F-16 in a BFM engagement, depending on how it was managed. Certainly the F-35 has some advantages that the F-16 does not, particularly in its helmet integration, along with its advanced weapons, which are a lot more beneficial in platforms like the F-22 or F-35”
-- Chris “Worm” Spinelli, F-35 Test Pilot, Lockheed Martin, told me in an interesting interview with F-35 pilots.
F-35: Does it Need to Dogfight?
While the F-35 certainly can dogfight, a fact that is quite well known, there is also much to be said about the added reality that, due to its sensor suite and computing technology, it may wind up being very unlikely that an F-35 will actually “have” to dogfight. It may be much more likely that an F-35 will kill enemies without itself being seen.
“From my perspective, having the sensor suite that we have, having sensor fusion and MADL (F-35s Multifunction Advanced Datalink) all of those potential engagements should be avoided before we ever even get within visual range, let alone actually have to dogfight in the air, whatever the opponent is. The tactical scenario, more often than not, is going to be solved much further out, which is going to give us the advantage,”
-- Monessa “Siren” Balzhiser, F-35 Production and Training Pilot, Lockheed Martin, told me in an interview.
F-35: Pentagon's Joint Program Office 2015
I recall writing about this incident and reading the specific Air Force test report in question as far back as 2015. At the time, I received an interesting and very significant response to the issue from the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Program Office. In 2015, the JPO welcomed the report and the assessment but wanted to make certain key facts about the circumstances available as they weighed heavily upon the results. In a statement to me in 2015, the JPO says the reports on the F-35-F-16 encounter left out many crucial facts.
"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," the F-35 JPO office said in a written statement as far back as 2015.
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. 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. The JPO statement also 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."
Finally, the F-35 office said simulated combat scenarios have shown that four F-35s have won encounters when pitted against a four-ship of F-16s.
"The F-35s won each of those encounters because of its sensors, weapons, and stealth technology," the statement said.
What is significant about these 2015 statements from the JPO is that they were from 6 years ago, and the F-35 has continued to evolve substantially since then, a factor which only reinforces their point at the time.
Years after these initial questions surfaced, and the JPO responded, F-35 pilots such as Wilson who have flown 4th and 5th-generation F-35s for years, reflected in great detail upon how an F-35 compares with an F-16 and F/A-18 when it comes to aerial combat.
F-35s: How They Compare With F-16s & F/A-18s
Wilson explained it this way:
“I’m coming from the F/A-18 community. That aircraft has excellent high airway maneuvering capability. So one of the things that we would always try to achieve was to force the fighter jet to go in the direction that would be advantageous. ….By comparison, the F-16 is a great ‘weight fighter.’ It has a lot of high thrust for the weight. Imagine going around a racetrack, except in this case, you want to come around the racetrack faster so you can get behind the other racer and shoot them. The F-16 has fantastic thrust weight capability. ….what the F-35 brings to the pilot is actually a combination of both. It has fantastic high airway capability but doesn't sacrifice thrust to weight. The thrust to weight ratio that I get out of the F-35 is fantastic. So now I have multiple options when I find myself in a dogfight situation depending on what the threat is that I’m dealing with. I can choose which fight is going to best suit me against that opponent.” …
--- Tony “Brick” Wilson, former F/A-18 pilot and current Chief of Fighter Flight Operations (F-35 Test Pilot), Lockheed Martin
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.