Can the F-35 handle a dog fight?

In order to maintain its fighter squadrons, the U.S. Air Force needs the entire planned buy of 1,763 Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. That’s in part because the flying branch was allowed to buy fewer than planned F-22 Raptors from Lockheed.

The F-35 will have to complement the F-22. But can the smaller, slower, less nimble F-35 hack it as an air-to-air fighter?

The Air Force has just 186 F-22s, of which only 123 are “combat-coded” and immediately available for war, according to Air Combat Command. The service had originally wanted 750 of the stealthy air-superiority fighters, but eventually settled on a requirement for 381 Raptors before the program was further truncated by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the early 2000s.

But even 381 F-22s proved to be an unfulfilled dream. Ultimately, the Raptor program was terminated by Rumsfeld’s successor, Robert Gates. The last F-22 rolled off the assembly line in Georgia in 2011.

In the aftermath of the F-22's cancellation, the Air Force was forced to alter its plans and press-gang the F-35—originally meant as a ground-attack aircraft—into service as an air-to-air fighter. It was the only way for the flying branch to keep enough dogfighters in the air.

“Operationally, we have to have it,” says Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh. “The decision to truncate the F-22 buy has left us in a position where even to provide air superiority [we need the F-35], which was not the original intent of the F-35 development.”

To be clear, the F-35 has always had some air-to-air capability. But that latent dogfighting ability was mostly meant for self-defense—not for aggressively challenging another country’s fighters in the air.
Air Force photo
But now the Air Force has no choice but to put the F-35 on the aerial front lines. “You have to have the F-35 to augment the F-22 to do the air superiority fight at the beginning of a high-end conflict to survive against the fifth-generation threats we believe will be in the world at that point in time,” Welsh says.

By contrast, there are troubling questions as to how well the F-35 would fare against the new foreign fighters. While the F-35 has air-to-air sensors and can carry air-to-air missiles, it does not have the kinematic performance of the F-22. It’s simply sluggish in comparison.

The Raptor was designed from the outset as an air-to-air killer par excellence—the F-35 was not. The Raptor combines a very stealthy airframe with a high altitude ceiling and supersonic cruise. Further, the F-22 possesses excellent maneuverability for close-in visual-range dogfights.
There is more.

The F-22 is clearly the superior fighter aircraft, when it is cleared for flight.  It has been troubled by problems with everything from oxygen for the pilots to the high maintenance costs of keeping it stealthy.  The F-35 has some stealthy advantage over most conventional fighter aircraft, but the jury is still out on its ability to compete with the Russian and Chinese fifth generation stealth fighters.   The Air Force is hampered by the high cost of its equipment and also the cost of keeping it operational.


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