There has been a lot of web chatter over the last few months about whether the F-35 Lightning II is an ace maker or a total grape. Most of the discussion has centered around a 1v1 test hop that pitted an F-35 against an F-16, and the outcome of that event varies by URL.
One thing is true: In spite of the fact the post-9/11 wars haven’t featured anything in the way of air-to-air engagements (Google “Aces of the Taliban” and see what you get), dogfights aren’t necessarily dead. If the F-35 ever goes up against an enemy with a real air force, eventually it will be forced into the visual arena. And regardless of how much stealth and other high-tech gee-wizzery the program hangs on the airframe, the airplane will always be subject to the laws of physics. (Okay, that’s two true things.)
In spite of the variety of opinions, several common themes have emerged that suggest the best way to fight the F-35 in the event stealth and BVR weapons don’t do the trick.
1. You’re going to be pulling Gs, so make sure your helmet fits
The F-35 is designed with a super-Gucci helmet (that costs $500,000) that’s supposed to do all kinds of cool stuff that basically makes a heads-up display old news. But it won’t work right if it doesn’t fit. Reports indicate that the F-35 pilot in the 1v1 with the F-16 was wearing a helmet that was so big that his head spun freely inside of it, which probably didn’t help with the accuracy of the symbology or, for that matter, just keeping sight.
Also remember the F-35 helmet works with cameras throughout the airframe to give the pilot the ability to see through the fuselage (like Space Ghost), although if you’re looking at your opponent through the bottom of your jet you’re probably getting your ass handed to you.
2. Drive your opponent ‘one-circle’ and get him slow
Web wisdom indicates that the F-35 is a ‘bleeder,’ which means it dissipates airspeed in a hurry when in a hard turn, so it would be a bad idea to try a two-circle power fight against an airplane that doesn’t have that problem — like a well-managed F-16. After the merge the F-35 pilot should mirror the direction the opponent turns and work hard to keep the ranges close. The ultimate goal is to get the opponent beat down so the fight turns into one where the guy who can maintain the highest alpha wins — because that guy on paper is the F-35.
Word on the streets is the F-35 has great pitch authority at low airspeed, and this makes sense when you consider the shape of the airplane and how much the horizontal stabs deflect at full throw.
If you complete the previous steps well, you will be the first guy to get nose on. Don’t pass up a valid shot.
4. Be careful when you try to bug out
The F-35’s energy addition rate is average, and it’s top end speed is below average, so bugging out can’t be an afterthought. Remember: you only have one engine, and old fighter pilots have a saying about stealth technology — it doesn’t work against bullets.