Jack of All Trades, Master Of None: Lockheed F-35 Lightning II Clobbered By 70s Era F-16 In Dogfight

Jack of all trades, master of none. That phrase could be easily applied to the the most expensive weapons project in the Department of Defense’s history with total costs of over over one trillion dollars. The F-35 Lightning II, which is the result of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program that originated in the early 1990s (the program pitted Lockheed Martin’s X-35 against Boeing’s X-32), has become a boondoggle with escalating programs costs, numerous glitches, and delays. Nearly 14 years after Lockheed Martin was awarded the JSF contract over Boeing, the F-35 has yet to reach Initial Operational Capability (IOC), let alone Full Operational Capability (FOC).

With so much negativity surrounding the long gestation period of the F-35, American taxpayers won’t be too delighted to hear that recent findings show that America’s fifth generation multi-role fighter can’t even hang with a plane that it was designed to replace, the F-16 Viper, which was originally designed in the early 1970s.

The F-16 is probably best known to 80s children for its starring role in the 1986 flick Iron Eagle and the HBO movie Afterburn, but the aircraft is known in military circles for its excellent maneuverability, relatively low production costs, and overall competent performance which had made it a popular aircraft for export to ally nations. According to David Axe, however, it’s the F-16’s maneuverability that has caused the biggest headache for its successor in mock air battles. According to an unclassified brief obtained by Axe, the single-seat F-35A was simply outclassed by a two-seat, Block 40 F-16D.

Lockheed Martin F-16C and F-35A Lightning II
Lockheed Martin F-16C Viper (foreground) and F-35A Lightning II (background) Source: USAF

The F-35A pilot wrote in the brief that his plane was “at a distinct energy disadvantage” to the older F-16, making it harder to climb or turn fast enough to engage its target or evade fire from a pursuing enemy. The mock air battles were performed at altitudes ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 feet, with the older F-16D coming out on top in nearly every situation.

When the F-35A pilot attempted to lock up the F-16D using the aircraft’s internal cannon, “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.” And when the F-35A was being pursued by the more lithe F-16D, a distinct “lack of nose rate” left the plane a sitting duck, unable to maneuver quickly enough to avoid being lit up by the pursuer’s weapons.

But the hits don’t stop there; there’s even more bad news. The F-35A used in the mock dogfight was flying in a clean configuration, meaning that it had no external pylons attached (for external fuel tanks or weapons), and even its internal weapons bay was empty. The F-16D, on the other hand, had two underwing fuel drop tanks installed. Think about that for second; the F-16D was at a distinct disadvantage with the fuel tanks attached, a configuration in which the aircraft’s computer limits maneuverability to ensure that the pilot doesn’t pull high enough Gs to damage or sheer off the external stores. And yet it was still able to embarrass the F-35A. Now imagine if the F-16D was flying in a clean configuration; it would have been an even more embarrassing slaughter.

Lockheed Martin F-35 Helmet
The F-35 Lightning II's advanced Helmet Mounted Display System

Yet another concern was the bulky, expensive, and problematic helmet, with the F-35A pilot indicating that it “was too large for the space inside the canopy to adequately see behind the aircraft.” ¡Ay, caramba!

Three distinct variants of the F-35 are destined to replace four aircraft currently in service with the U.S. military. The F-35A is a conventional airframe that will be use by the Air Force, and will replace both the F-16 Viper and the A-10 Warthog. Given the amount of battle damage that the A-10 can sustain while still allowing the pilot to make a safe return to base, the F-35A’s ability to fill this role is specious at best. The F-35B is the short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the airframe, and will replace the AV-8B Harrier IIs and the F/A-18 Hornets used by the United States Marine Corps. The F-35C, with its larger wing area and tailhook, will replace the Navy’s F/A-18 Hornets and will serve as complements to the Super Hornet.

Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II
(Source: Lockheed Martin)

In the areas where the F-35 comes up short compared to its predecessors, the U.S. military is counting on the aircraft’s stealth to level the playing field (or in most cases, give the aircraft the advantage). For example, the F-35 is designed to use stealth to evade enemy radar, identify enemy aircraft from long range and engage them using “lethal action from a stand-off distance” according to Lockheed Martin. However, as the U.S. learned during Vietnam with the F-4 Phantom II, the ability to engage targets from a long distance with missiles should not be be pursued to the detriment of all-out maneuverability.