About that F-35 vs. F-16 dogfight…

The interwebs and Facebook exploded this week with the latest revelation that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a dog that can’t dogfight.

David Axe’s post has set off a firestorm of criticism over the inability of the F-35 to outperform the 40 year old F-16. Everyone who has access to the internet is up in arms over this horrible failure.

But here’s the thing. The JSF is not really a fighter. Or rather, the emphasis is on strike, more than on fighter. It’s a bomb truck. It does also have a robust air to air capability, but that role is somewhat secondary to its ability to attack ground targets.

The F-16 was conceived during the last years of the Vietnam war, and designed immediately following it. COL John Boyd’s Energy/Maneuverability Theory had a very large impact on its configuration. The ability of outmaneuver potential Soviet threat aircraft was the paramount concern of the design. And the aircraft had to be able to outmaneuver because of the limitations of the armament of the day. To wit, the plane John Boyd and the Fighter Mafia wanted was to be dirt simple, with only the most crude radar for cueing weapons, and armed only with a pair of AIM-9P Sidewinder short range missiles, and the M61 Vulcan 20mm cannon.

The other jet fighter the Air Force was buying at that time, the F-15 Eagle, took a completely different approach, with the biggest radar they could stuff into a fighter sized jet, and a whopping 8 air to air missiles, four of the big AIM-7 Sparrows (the primary armament) and four Sidewinders, as well as a gun.  The Eagle also was built with the E/M theory very much in mind, but primarily saw itself as a beyond visual range fighter, picking off Soviet MiG-21s and MiG-23s before they could even return fire.

The anti-F-35 camp (the loudest members of which are probably David Axe, Eric L. Palmer, and Pierre Sprey*) insist that any fighter simply must follow the E/M theory, or it is utterly worthless.

The problem is, E/M theory isn’t applicable to just airplanes. Turns out, it applies pretty well to air to air missiles also. And whereas a manned airplane can’t really go much above 9G without harming the meatware, missiles have no problem pulling 60G or more.  Building agility (high G capability) into an airplane involves tradeoffs. The structure has to weigh more or it will crack sooner, and conversely, intense efforts at weight reduction have to be implemented, as weight factors strongly into the equation. Having reached an effective plateau of about 9Gs, it simply makes more sense to concentrate on enhancing the maneuverability of the weapon, not the airplane.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6YMSfg26YSQ]

Furthermore, it should be noted, there’s quite a few people pushing back against Axe’s sensationalistic piece. Far from being the true test that shows once and for all the F-35 is a POS, it was in fact, a first look, aimed at finding out not so much how well the F-35 performed against the F-16, but rather at what parts of the flight control software could be improved to give the F-35 more maneuverability, particularly at high Angles of Attack (AoA).  It appears the F-35 used in the test, AF-2 the second build “A” model for the Air Force, was also using flight control software that restricted certain portions of the envelope. And my sources also tell me the test took place during a time when there were restrictions on the engine performance. While the pilot might have no restrictions on throttle movement, the Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) was programmed in a manner that would restrict some of the output.

From Aviation Week:

“…The operational maneuver tests were conducted to see “how it would look like against an F-16 in the airspace,” says Col. Rod “Trash” Cregier, F-35 program director. “It was an early look at any control laws that may need to be tweaked to enable it to fly better in future. You can definitely tweak it—that’s the option.”

Emphasis mine.  The F-35 has already demonstrated a 9 G capability. It’s cleared through a flight envelope up to 50,000 feet, and a speed of Mach 1. 6. It was a deliberate decision to accept a considerably lower top speed than the Mach 2.0 of the F-16, particularly since most air to air engagements take place in the transonic regime, from about Mach 0.8 to maybe Mach 1.1.

Incidentally, the F/A-18 Hornet is really a 7.5G fighter, and yet fought the way it was intended to be fought, it has an excellent reputation against the US Navy’s Aggressor F-16s.

The gang at f-16.net aren’t exactly impressed with Axe’s article.

Nor is SMSgt. Mac at Elements of Power

UK Defense Journal points out that in other exercises more representative of real operations than a canned BFM scenario, the F-35 has performed quite well against the F-16.

Over the last few years there have been occasions where a flight of F-35s have engaged a flight of F-16s in simulated combat scenarios, the F-35s reportedly won each of those encounters because of its sensors and low visibility.

C.W. Lemoine, who has flown both the F/A-18 and the F-16, points out a few reasons why the Axe article is, in his words, garbage.

There are a great number of valid reasons to criticize the F-35 program, from its very inception envisioning one jet operating as a vertical jump jet, a carrier jet, and a conventional runway jet. The costs associated with the avionics and computer programming have been astonishing.  The deliberate spread of subcontracts across every possible Congressional district as a defense against cancellation is another issue worthy of debate.

But taking one small canned scenario, one intended not to see if the F-35 could out fight the F-16, but rather explore the flight envelope, and proclaiming that it invalidates the entire development program, is the type of sensationalistic clickbait reporting that does little to inform the public on the actual state of the program.



*Pierre Sprey is a statistician and a music producer. He also still contends to this day that the F-15 is a failure, in spite of a combat record of something like 105-0 in air to air combat. Take his words with that thought in mind.

37 thoughts on “About that F-35 vs. F-16 dogfight…”

  1. Then why cancel the F-22 Raptor?

    Wasn’t the F-4 Phantom not equipped with a gun and was missile dependent until they had so many malfunctions in Vietnam that they finally had to fit it with a special pod with a gun.

    Just saying.

    1. This isn’t 1970. Missiles and radars are light years ahead of where they were in Vietnam and the vast majority of air-to-air kills made since then have been BVR. The Israelis have engaged in dogfights, but only because up until very recently their ROE’s required visual ID of the target before engaging (as did our own ROE’s in Vietnam.

      The F-35 may well be a piece of crap and a boondoggle, but David Axe and Pierre Sprey are assclowns who are unqualified in air combat and aeronautical engineering and present no compelling evidence to make that argument. David Axe is a nobody, and saying Pierre Sprey co-designed the F-16 is like saying Paul Anka’s accountant co-wrote “My Way”.

      1. To be fair, Sprey’s undergrad degree was in aeronautical engineering, but he never appears to have actually done any.

        And yes, most US engagements in Desert Storm and later were BVR, or at least, in a non-VID regime.


        In fact, even in Vietnam, under “Combat Tree” the US did some pretty nifty non-VID BVR shooting.

    2. Only the Air Force affixed gun pods to the F-4 in Vietnam. The Navy continued to just use missiles. The the Air Force put guns on the aircraft but otherwise just carried like business as usual. Whereas the Navy put fighter pilots through Top Gun fighter weapons school and explored the tactics and utilization of weapon capabilities that played to the F-4’s strengths and avoided it’s weaknesses. The difference was even with the gun pod the Air Force F-4’s only marginally improved in air engagements with Migs while the Navy F-4’s began to go back to kill death ratios that we enjoyed during WWII and Korea.

  2. Going all missile in the era Vietnam was fought was a mistake.Rules of engagement there prevented BVR missiles from being used,Sparrow did very poorly at shorter ranges.Enemy fighters often wound up inside minimum range for Sidewinder and a gun was necessary.Missiles are orders of magnitude better now.A gun is more necessary for ground support(still very popular because it can be used close to friendlies).F-22 is the pure air superiority machine while the 35 is a Fighter-Bomber with emphasis on the bombing as Brad points out.They are different beasts.

    1. Just out of curiosity, do you really think there will be non-VID ROE’s likely to come along any time in the near-ish future? You think we have anyone in a position to set ROE with the stones to set RED / FREE?

    2. Depends on the situation. If we face a near peer and things get ugly for the mudville nine the roe will change instantly.

  3. F-16 costs about 1/4 an F-35. If four F-16s were to engage an F-35, who would win? I bet the F-16s could plan an attack with a high probability of winning.

    1. I would think the Chinese have stolen all the information they need to make their own version of the F16 by now.

      They must be laughing all the way to owning the South China Sea at us.

    2. The Israeli Lavi shared much with the F-16. When we stopped putting money up for its development, the Israelis sold it to the Chinese. Essentially, they already have the F-16.

    3. QM, that wasn’t the only source. Take a look at the JF-17, “co-developed” by China and another F-16 operator that is nominally our ally…

  4. XBradTC – Here’s a problem with your entire article, for the past three years the JSF program has been selling a story that the F-35 is in fact a maneuverable fighter.

    An article in Flight Global in 2013 said: Lockheed Martin is saying that the F-35 will have kinematic performance better than or equal to any fourth generation fighter.

    That is false, yet we’re supposed to take it on faith that the JSF program isn’t misleading us on anything else?

    Finally, if you read the April 2nd Aviation Week article about this dogfight, where they interestingly enough didn’t mention the severe energy deficit, you’d see that the pilot called this a “No Limits” fight. Furthermore, JPO hasn’t said that AF-2 was operating under any software / engine limits at that time. Given that JPO is trying to excuse the results, you’d think they’d include any mitigating factor. All available evidence suggests that the AF-2 had full access to all flight points.

    1. No, it actually doesn’t, should you read the report. Programmed onset rate held Nz (maximum achieved G in the break) to ~6.5G, whereas the airframe is designed for 9. Having the CLAWS provide ~30% less G than the F-35 is capable of achieving is not “full access to all flight points”.

      Now, the programming was in error- that is to say, not an intentional limitation set up to hamper the type. However, that does not also mean it had full access to its capabilities.

      The laws will be updated. The machine will perform.

      As to those going back to the history of the gun and Vietnam, I’d invite you to review the history between the USAF and USN after the resumption of the air campaign; Air Force had a gun, Navy did not. How’d that kill ratio work out?

      It’s not simply the tool- its how you learn to use it.

    2. Fringe – you didn’t read the report, go back and quote from that report a statement that the F-35 was operating under a flight restriction. (Software problems are a separate issue.)

      The aircraft was limited to 6.5 G’s because of:
      A. Insufficient pitch rate (the programmed pitch rate was low, as you said, but wasn’t stated to be restricted.)
      B. Insufficient energy maneuverability to make high G maneuvers, the plane would go to ~6 G’s, then lose energy rapidly. Fixing the pitch rate doesn’t address this.

      In effect, the extra G capability up to 9 G’s and the high AoA proved to be useless, because the plane couldn’t get up there. That is not a statement that the plane was operating under restrictions. We don’t know that the plane could use up to 9 G’s if the pitch limit was removed, because that doesn’t fix the poor energy maneuverability.

      If the F-35 was restricted, why didn’t JPO say that in its explanation of the results?

    3. And Fringe hits it outta da park. When it’s nut-cuttin’ time it don’t matter what the reports, studies, and armchair top-gunistas say.

    4. Even if the F-35 was operating in some kind of restricted flight management software mode it is my understanding that the F-16 was dog fighting with its external drop tanks which also puts flight management into a restricted flight envelope mode. I think this puts the situation into more of a apples to apples comparison that the detractors try to make it seem to be a apples to oranges comparison.

  5. So F35 is a “fighter” just like the F111 is a “fighter”? Let’s call it what it is and throw an A in that designation somewhere.

    1. In 1979 in the Med an AF F-111 scored a genuine hard kill against a VF-41 F-14A. It was a tragedy, and we lost two fine aviators that day, but it illustrates the point that it’s really pretty silly to talk about x airframe being better than y airframe. Too many unknown or undescribed variables. It’s like blind people arguing about favorite colors.

  6. Unless I’m mistaken, the F-35 is being purchased to replace the F-16. At least that’s the stated mission. As the F-16 was to the F-15, the F-35 is being sold as the “lower cost” alternative to the F-22 Raptor.

    That’s what our Air Force is telling our Congress, and that’s what we are paying for – and we are paying a *lot.*

    If the 35 can’t out-fight a Viper in every way, then there is something very wrong here. Very, very wrong. It’s been more than 40 years since the 16 was introduced. The 35 should be thoroughly modern in terms of stealth and avionics, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be every bit as maneuverable as the 16. Nobody says that the F-22 isn’t all of these things, so it can be done. Given that many years have passed since the 22 was designed, it should now be cheaper.

    This is the logic used to justify the Virginia class over the Seawolf SSN’s, and it worked. They are at generally as capable as the Seawolf’s, but cheaper because they are news.

    The only essential things that the F-35 has that the F-16 don’t are stealth and VSTOL. For those two capabilities we are losing all kinds of other things.

    After 40 years of development, is this really the right trade-off? Is this really, for this kind of money, the right aircraft?

  7. Call Sprey an “accountant” all you like, but the F-16 and A-10 have been huge, long term successes. The “do one thing better than anyone” philosophy wins every time against “try and do everything and become a middle-of-the-road piece of suck in 20 years.”

    1. Given that Sprey had nothing to do with either design (and no, I don’t count setting up requirements as “design”), he’s still a twerp.

      You might want to avoid such broad & definite pronouncements. There’s no such thing as “wins every time.” Wanna hear about the P-47 jock who took on a Spitfire in a dogfight and won? Or the time a B-17 outmaneuvered a couple of Bf-110s?

      More broadly I agree that a “one size fits all” approach is not very effective.

  8. I’m confused by the constant references to this having been a “canned scenario” and the only critics being Spey and Axe. Wrong on both counts. The primary critic is the test pilot of the F-35A, a former Strike Eagle driver, and a USAF officer. He’s the critic. As to the first point, this is meat and potatoes fighter guy stuff done almost everytime there is enough fuel to play. Nothing canned about it except the initial setup, which they ran all three standard – offensive, defensive, and neutral. The neutral setup is the most realistic for a US aircraft in the real world today. The real world where visual ID is mandatory, intentions are never truly known until a bad guy weapon is utilized or someone with balls authorizes release at the last moment.

    To say this is a success for the F-35 or that it is irrelevent because missiles! is akin to saying an infantryman doesn’t need to be physically strong because firearms! Both arguments are bullshit and history has shown this so often that only the willfully ignorant keep tilting away at it.

  9. The comparison of the missiles available in the Vietnam-Era to those of today is valid. That being said, the BVR shooting will still remain the problem for the foreseeable future – politics will continue to require “eyes-on” before shooting anything and then only after discussion up and down the chain à la LBJ and the current leadership. Been there, done that with the Iranians in past years – “You are authorized to shoot anything within X miles of your position – No! Wait! Weapons tight! We need to get authorization” while an armed Iranian aircraft was circling us within X. Also the McNamara Era weapon “commonality”-think (remember the F-111B?) remains. And we’ll end up relearning history again at the cost of blood and treasure.

    1. politics will continue to require “eyes-on” before shooting anything
      People keep saying that, but the reality is, most of our shots post-Vietnam have been taken beyond visual range.

    2. “most of our shots post-Vietnam have been taken beyond visual range.”

      And in relatively clearcut situations against at best second rate opposition.

      1. MiG-29s in the Balkans may be second rate opposition, but it was hardly a non-existent threat. The main strength of our way fighting air wars is not any single system, but the integration of so many systems such as intel, airborne early warning, and communications that all provide the actual shooter the ability to best position himself for the kill.

        Yes, there are a lot of lessons to learn from the Vietnam war, but we must also recognize that much has changed since then.

  10. What happens when the Chinese & Russians start using stealth technology? Our radars use the same laws of physics as theirs. I think gunfighting is not quite dead yet.

  11. if the F-35 is supposed to be a “bomb truck” why does it carry such a small payload?

    the A-10 is a bomb truck, the F-35 appears to be an overpriced POS.

    1. It carries a fairly respectable *internal* payload. It can carry a very respectable external payload when the threat environment doesn’t demand as much stealth.

  12. A ton of ink and pixels have been spilled arguing this. But, given the reason for shutting down the Raptor line has been exceeded wildly by the F-35. The energy problem seems to have been something of a criticism for a long time, and one that apparently has not been solved.

    In the end, we are probably going to see the theories behind the F-35 tested in combat. The big problem with that is that it’s then too late to do anything about the problem without pulling out a clean sheet of paper. At a minimum, the cockpit structure of the F-35 causes the pilot to depend on electronics to “check 6.” Compare that to every other fighter aircraft in existence today. Simply saying it’s a bomb truck is no enough.

    The Jug made a good fighter bomber for the same reasons the F-16 is a good one. It reasonable payload and could defend itself after it was “clean.” Group mates could also function as escorts as well. My personal feeling after seeing what has transpired over the last 5 years with the F-35, we are going to regret the money spent on it and probably wish we had the F-16 back. You may not like Sprey, but I think he has a point. Even twits are right on occasion.

  13. Something about the Navy and Vietnam that often gets overlooked is the hard work put in on upgrading the missiles. The AIM-9D and AIM-9G are head and shoulders better against fighters than the AIM-9B was. The better missiles were hitting the fleet at just about the same time as the fruits of TOPGUN were ripening.

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