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  (Source: FX)
The F-35 can't attack or defend itself very well, it's no better than the F-15E at bombing, and it's worse than a drone at stealth

Medium's "War is Boring" column has obtained an official report from a test fighter pilot detailing the war games performance of Lockheed Martin Corp.'s (LMT) F-35 Lightning II.  And if the report is accurate, it paints an ugly picture that is far more damning than even the spoiled superjet's most vocal media critics would have dared to suggest.

I. Poor at Offense

The report is detailed as "for official use only" and is not widely available, however it is not classified either, according to Medium.  The report on the account, written by Medium's David Axe, should ring familiar with anyone who's seen the movie Top Gun:

The fateful test took place on Jan. 14, 2015, apparently within the Sea Test Range over the Pacific Ocean near Edwards Air Force Base in California. The single-seat F-35A with the designation "AF-02"— one of the older JSFs in the Air Force — took off alongside a two-seat F-16D Block 40, one of the types of planes the F-35 is supposed to replace.

The two jets would be playing the roles of opposing fighters in a pretend air battle, which the Air Force organized specifically to test out the F-35’s prowess as a close-range dogfighter in an air-to-air tangle involving high "angles of attack," or AoA, and "aggressive stick/pedal inputs."

The exercise itself indeed occurred -- that much is a matter of public record [sourcesource].

The goal of the exercise was reportedly for the F-35 pilot to try to "shoot-down" a F-16.  The F-16 pilot, meanwhile, would try their best to evade and avoid getting hit.  In theory the F-35 should have had a distinct advantage.

F16
An F-16 (bottom) flies aside an F-35 (top). [Image Source: USAF/Medium]

The trusty F-16, the workhorse of the U.S. Air Force (USAF), first took flight in 1974, the year the Watergate scandal broke and U.S. President Richard Nixon (R) resigned.  The F-16D, the variant in this test, was a slightly newer variety that first flew in 1984, a decade later.

More than two decades later in 2006, the F-35A would see its first flight.  The first of the three variants of the F-35 baseline design to reach air readiness, the F-35 is a veritable showcase of high tech wizardry with a 24 million line code base, an advanced stealth skin, a supercharged monolithic engine, and a plethora of high tech sensors.  So in theory it should be more than capable of putting the aged F-16D out to pasture.

But on-paper theoretical comparison are often far different than reality.   In the movie Terminator II: Judgement Day, fans will recall that the T-1000, a more advanced, younger, newer model was, for all its bells and whistles, unable to beat the aging T-800 (model 101) Terminator.  The F-16D vs. F-35A grudge match would play out along similar lines.

F15
A battle tested F-16C (foreground) babysits its replacement, the overpriced, spoiled F-35A fighter jet.  The three-decades old F-16D remains far better at air combat than its younger, much more expensive multi-role replacement critics have long argued.  Now those critics have hard evidence.

The test pilot aboard the F-35A describes:

The evaluation focused on the overall effectiveness of the aircraft in performing various specified maneuvers in a dynamic environment.  This consisted of traditional Basic Fighter Maneuvers in offensive, defensive and neutral setups at altitudes ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 feet.

This consisted of traditional Basic Fighter Maneuvers in offensive, defensive and neutral setups at altitudes ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 feet.  Insufficient pitch rate. Energy deficit to the bandit would increase over time.  The flying qualities in the blended region (20–26 degrees AoA) were not intuitive or favorable.

high yo-yo

The F-35 isn't exactly well suited for those high yo-yo turns. [Image Source: WorldOfWarplanes]

The F-35A test jockey attempt to deftly maneuver to get the F-16D in their sites.  But things didn't go as planned:

Instead of catching the bandit off-guard by rapidly pull aft to achieve lead, the nose rate was slow, allowing him to easily time his jink prior to a gun solution.

In other words, the F-35A was turned too narrowly and too slow to catch the nimble F-16D.  And then the F-16D did the unthinkable -- they turned the tables on the F-35A, bringing it into their sites.  And try as they might, they were unable to juke out of the way because of "lack of nose rate."

The F-35A had lost the round and badly so.  In the real world this would mean the destruction of a fighter jet with a sticker price of up to a quarter billion dollars.  And worse, in the real world such a shootdown would also mean the potentially fatal loss of a top pilot.  And that's only the tip of the iceberg, given that a F-35 shootdown would pose a multitude of other woes including presenting opportunities for foreign rivals to steal America's top military technology.

II. Poor at Defense

The tester did luck upon one strategy to beat the F-16D, but at best it could be termed a survival strategy.  The pilot recounts:

Once established at high AoA (angle of attack), a prolonged full rudder input generated a fast enough yaw rate to create excessive heading crossing angles with opportunities to point for missile shots.  he technique required a commitment to lose energy and was a temporary opportunity prior to needing to regain energy … and ultimately end up defensive again.

In other words, if they saw the attacker and were able to collect themselves, the F-35A pilot would have one desperate attempt to use gravity to increase its rate of turn in order to get the enemy aircraft in sight and pummel it with a missile strike.  If that high risk attempt failed, the pilot would be left with no alternative to fleeing the combat airspace.

A familiar design flaw made spotting the incoming enemy craft challenging:

The helmet was too large for the space inside the canopy to adequately see behind the aircraft.

 
F-35 Helmet
Pilots still have trouble seeing enemy craft in the bulky augmented reality (AR) helmet.
[Image Source:VSI/Elbit/Rockwell Collins]

So to summarize, the F-35A in the real world proved (under its current safety limits) to be slower and less agile than the F-16D both on attack and defense; the F-35A pilot was unable to see incoming craft from behind due to the poor helmet design; and the only shred of hope the pilot had on offense was a risky missile strike maneuver.

As the saying attributed to the "Swamp Fox" goes: "He who fights and runs away, lives to fight another day."

F-35 w/ soldier
The best option for the F-35, when faced with enemy craft is to shoot its missiles and run, says pilot.
[Image Source: USAF]

Given how horrible the F-35A was at visibility, speed, and maneuverability, its test pilot's recommendation was simple -- fight at a distance, but if you get entangled in a turning battle (the classic topsy-turvy combated beloved in pop culture) your best bet is to run, as you'll likely lose -- even to a craft two decades or more.  The F-35A pilot glumly concludes:

There were not compelling reasons [for an F-35] to fight in this region [a turning battle].

The icing on the cake?  The F-16D was handicapped by the addition of "two bulky underwing drop tanks".  In contrast the F-35A was flying "clean" with "no weapons in its bomb bay or under its wings and fuselage."  Ouch.

III. Not That Special in Supporting Roles

But the most damning aspect of the pilot's account comes in what might at first glance appear an anecdotal footnote.

In driving home how hard it is to dogfight with the F-35A, the pilot points to their experience piloting Boeing Comp. (BA) (formerly McDonnell Douglas) F-15E Strike Eagles.  The pilot writes that compared the F-35A, the F-15E is clearly superior in maneuverability and power.

The comparison is particularly damning because in many ways the F-15E is a more tha capable multi-role fighter in its own right.  While it was ultimately a bit behind the later F-16 variants in dogfights, it enjoyed utility in roles such as reconnaissance, strafing, precision bombing, and air-to-air combat at a distance.  The Pentagon estimates that the F-15E destroyed 60 percent of the combat capability of the Iraqi Medina Republican Guard during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

F-15Es and F-16As
A pair of F-16As (front, back) flank a pair of F-15Es and a F-15C during Desert Storm.  Need a multi-role fighter?  Call on the F-15E.  It took out 60% of Iraq's fighting capacity in 2003, according to the Pentagon.  And unlike the F-35A it can actually dogfight. [Image Source: USAF]

In other words, the need for many of the F-35A's non-air supremacy tricks remain marginal at best.  The proven, cheaper F-15E design does most of the same functions (aside from stealth reconnaissance) at lower cost.  And if it does find itself locked in air combat with a modern enemy fighter, it's more capable of both defending itself and killing the enemy attacker.  Thus even among multi-role fighters, the F-35A at present sounds like a pathetically bad design, if the report is to be believed.

Even looking at stealth missions, you could make a strong argument that the F-35 is inferior to stealth drones, which are even less visible, are cheaper, and are more expendable.  Compared to drones, the F-35 has few advantages as a stealth weapon.

Phantom Ray
Stealth drones like the Phantom Ray offer more bang for your buck than the F-35.

Speaking of which, the F-15E has a stealth variant of its own -- the "Silent Eagle" -- that's nearing the finish line.  So in the grand scheme of things, even the F-35's precious claim to fame -- its stealth paint job -- isn't really such a special snowflake it appears.

The growing body of evidence suggest the F-35 in real world missions is mediocre at best, and catastrophically inadequate at worst.

IV. The Most Expensive Weapon in History

The question is, why?

Lack of money certainly isn't holding the fighter back.  

The Pentagon has already bet the farm on the F-35 as the fighter of the future, pouring hundreds of billions into its record-setting development costs.  With the Pentagon forecasting costs of $1.1 to $1.5T USD over its 55-year estimated lifetime in flights are projected to make it the most expensive defense project in U.S. history.  

With per fighter costs ranging from $150M USD to $300M USD, the F-35 is easily, on average, 30 to 40 percent more expensive than veteran designs such as the F-16D and F-15E.

F-35 cost
The F-35 is the most costly weapon in U.S. history. [Orig. Image: Lockheed Martin]

The Pentagon has justified this cost with the argument that the fighter would incorporate the best advantages of the F-15, F-16, etc. and then take them to the next level.  Lockheed Martin promised it would be unmatched in air to air combat thanks to its unprecedented sensor array.  Those same sensors would help to make it (in theory) better at bombing and strafing missions than the F-15E.  And its stealth suit would allow add new utility, giving the craft a leg up in reconnaissance and electronic warfare missions.

The fighter's original nickname -- the "Joint Strike Fighter" -- is symbolic both of its multirole intent and its backing by all three of America's armed forces branched that operate large fleets of combat aircraft: USAF, the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC), and the U.S. Navy (USN).

V. Blind Faith

Commitment wasn't a problem either.

The story of the F-35 Lightning II begins back in in the Clinton era in 1993.  The Pentagon leadership decided to develop a common fighter jet that would serve as America's singular air supremacy platform for decades to come.  The effort was dubbed the Common Affordable Lightweight Fighter (CALF) program.  Both Boeing and Lockheed were awarded development contracts to field next generation superfighters.  Following the CALF program, the pair would compete in the follow-on "Joint Strike Fighter" (JSF) initiative, which launched in 1996.  The winning design would replace the aging fleet of Lockheed Martin F-16s, as well as the Boeing F-15s and F/A-18 Hornets.

Lockheed's JSF design, the X-35, borrowed element of Lockheed's F-22 Raptor design.  And in its preliminary form it performed admirably, flying in 2000 and beating out Boeing's rival design, the Boeing X-32.  

Lockheed's design while employing a unique new vertical take-off and landing (VTOFL) system was deemed more attractive than Boeing thrust vector system as it didn't need the large air intake (a detriment to stealth) and it was more efficient.  Boeing's design would also result in a more unorthodox engine placement and center of mass.  Those issues, along with the X-35's apparent maneuverability edge led the Pentagon to award the final JSF production contract to Lockheed Martin in 2002, snubbing Boeing.

 
Boeing X-32
The CALF and JSF development contracts produced the Boeing X-32 (left) and Lockheed Martin's winning design, the X-35 (right).  The X-35 would go on to become the F-35.

Since then the F-35 has suffered a string of technical issues.  While it took flight in 2006, it failed to hit its target of being fully operational by 2012.  As a result, the 11 year development cycle is now in its 14th year.

But the USAF continues to gush about the craft.  Contrast the real world account from a dogfight to last year's commentary from USMC Lt. Col. David Berke who commands the Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501 (VMFAT-501), a fleet of 20 F-35Bs.  Berke told CBS Corp.'s (CBS) "60 Minutes" program in an interview:

This is a fighter that has amazing capabilities in a lot of ways.  I'm telling you, having flown those other airplanes it's not even close at how good this airplane is and what this airplane will do for us.  [Speed and turn rate] are metrics of a bygone era. Those are ways to validate or value an airplane that just don't apply anymore.

The biggest big deal is the information this airplane gathers and processes and gives to me as the pilot. It's very difficult to overstate how significant of an advancement this airplane is over anything that's flying right now.

Or maybe not, given that the F-35A pilot couldn't even see the F-16D coming.

F-35 sensors

Lockheed Martin sold the F-35 on the basis of its high-tech sensor suite which it called "unmatched".  But when it comes to proving those sensors confer a material combat advantage, little evidence has been seen to date in the real world.

Lt. Col. Berke's wishful commentary shows just how strong the fatal attraction to the F-35's high-tech hype train can be.  Consider his history.  This is a top rank F-16/F/A-18 pilot, an early F-22 test pilot, and as a Top Gun combat instructor.  Of all the people, he's perhaps best qualified to have forecast the F-35's horrific air combat performance.  But instead he bought into the hype alongside the rest of the Pentagon.



Even as the Pentagon has harshened its rhetoric amid delays and technical failures, that same sort of fatal allure convinces them to keep holding onto hope.  The Pentagon's chief weapons buyer, Frank Kendall admits that poor planning at the DOD led to insufficient consideration of the program's risks - something he likens to "acquisition malpractice".  And yet when asked about the status of the program, he responds:

Yes, it is. [Progress is back on schedule.]

His colleague Air Force Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan echoes his initial position, remarking regarding recent tire issues, failing wingtip lights, and gaps in the stealth paintjob:

We're not going to pay for it.  Long gone is the time where we will continue to pay for mistake after mistake after mistake.

When you hear something like that, you just kind of want to hit your head like this and go: "Multibillion dollar airplane? Wingtip lights? Come on!"

Tires aren't rocket science. We ought to be able to figure out how to do tires on a multibillion dollar highly advanced fighter.  And then there are the tires, which have to be tough enough to withstand a conventional landing and bouncy enough to handle a vertical landing.

And yet at the close of the interview, he too circles the wagons around the design, stating:

I don't see any scenario where we're walking back away from this program.   I would tell [the American taxpayer] we're going to buy a lot of these airplanes.

This odd mixture of hope, disappointment, and resignation sort of summarizes the Pentagon's approach to the F-35.  With hundreds of billions already sunk into purchases, the brass at the DOD seem to have a "too big to fail" perspective when it comes to the design.

VI. Too Big To Fail, Too Broken to Survive

But fail it has, again and again.

The hardware is a mess.  In addition to the aforementioned stealth, wingtip light, and tire wear issues, the plane is also highly vulnerable to storms.  Ironically, the craft is far more vulnerable to lightning strikes than past USAF fighter jets and hence can't be operated in inclement weather.  The craft suffered fears regarding poor performance if the fuel was too warm.  The high-tech helmet performed miserably.  

The vertical takeoff system is problem plagued.  The turbofan suffered dangerous cracking and has seen some engines outright die.  The generator was faulty and the plane suffered oil leaks.  The overall picture is not one of a craft that was worth all that was paid for it.

The software is a similar story.  Progress in finishing the 24M+ codebase is proceeding at an excruciatingly slow pace.  Key portions of code -- including the code to fire the Gatling gun -- are currently unfinished.  What code is done appears to be failing to pack the wow factor Lt. Col. Berne and the folks at Lockheed Martin have claimed.

Again, that returns us to the question -- after spending so much and being so passionate about the F-35, why is the end result so bad?

There's actually a couple of answers as I'll explain it in the followup.  For now I'll leave you with the grim conclusion of Medium's Dave Axe:

[W]ithin a few decades, American and allied aviators will fly into battle in an inferior fighter?—?one that could get them killed … and cost the United States control of the air.

Assuming the report is truly accurate, it's hard to disagree.  The whole mess brings to mind the controversial claims made in 2010 by retired Australian RAAF officer WGCDR Chris Mills (AM, BSc, MSc(AFIT)) claims that the JSF might be smoked by fully outfitted Su-35S in one-on-one combat (in a scenario where F-35s were mixed with Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors in a combined squadron).

F-35 fighter
A pair of F-35s fly on blue -- and fortunately hostile free -- skies. [Image Source: USAF]
 
The USAF ardently attacked that claim, as did Lockheed Martin.  And at the time, sentiments seemed to be in their favor.  Most -- even Rand Corp.,  the company conducting the study behind that claim (the August 2008 Pacific Vision simulation) -- seemed to agree that the Australian conclusions seemed a bit overblown.

In retrospect, Mills' analysis may have been overly generous in its estimation of the F-35's real world performance.  With the Pentagon continues to stubbornly insist that the F-35 is is America's air combat fighter of the future, the future is looking bleak indeed.

Source: Medium





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