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In January, an F-35 stealth fighter was pitted against an F-16 in a simulated “dogfight” at a test range over the Pacific. After the test, the F-35 pilot wrote a confidential report in which he observed the plane was too sluggish to beat the competition. Its flying qualities “were not intuitive or favorable”, leaving it at “a distinct disadvantage for every engagement”. Another problem was that “The helmet was too large for the space inside the canopy to adequately see behind the aircraft”. Not only was “catching the bandit” difficult, reported the F-35 pilot, but the F-16 turned the tables and put the stealth plane in its own gunsight.
When the media got hold of the pilot’s report in June, the reviews were predictable. Typical were: Test pilot admits the F-35 can’t dogfight: New stealth fighter is dead meat in an air battle (War is Boring). Pentagon’s vaunted F-35 earns lousy review (Fox News). F-35 struggles in dogfight with F-16 it will replace (Washington Times). Joint Strike Fighter loses dogfight with aged jet (The Australian). In Canada, the media missed the story entirely.
Days later, it emerged the F-35 was being assessed for its flying qualities not its close-in combat capabilities. According to the Joint Program Office which manages the F-35 program, the test used the F-16 as a reference and was “successful in showing the ability of the F-35 to maneuver to the edge of its limits without exceeding them, and handle in a positive and predictable manner”.
Because of the nature of the test, the F-35 in question wasn’t equipped with the capabilities which make the plane so formidable. The test plane didn’t have the weapons or software allowing the pilot to turn, aim a weapon with the helmet, and fire without having to point the plane at its target. It didn’t have the special stealth coating that makes an F-35 virtually invisible to radar. And it didn’t have the software to use the sensors which can see an enemy aircraft long before it knows an F-35 is in its area. These are the very capabilities, of course, which make the F-35 a fifth generation fighter – one that can spot an enemy long before it is detected itself and can dispose of the enemy before the enemy even knows it is there.
The UK Defense Journal summed up the controversy as follows: “While there are valid complaints about the programme, the latest sensationalist headlines aren’t among them. This seems to be a case of comparing a test aircraft still in trials that has a restricted flight envelope, against a mature dogfighter with no such restrictions. Despite the claims that the F-35 is inferior to a decades old aircraft, previous exercises tell a different story. Over the last few years there have been occasions where a flight of F-35s (has) 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.”
An ailing program?
In an article for Forbes published on July 13, Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute listed “Ten signs the F-35 fighter program is becoming a smashing success”. Herewith the gist:
- Flight tests are over two-thirds complete with no show-stoppers.
- Risks associated with a revolutionary design are being steadily retired.
- The Marines will declare initial operational capability this summer.
- Sea trials of the Navy version were the most successful ever.
- Over 145 F-35s have been built and delivered.
- Estimates of life-cycle costs are falling fast.
- Numerous allies have joined the program.
- Nearly 200 pilots and 2,000 maintainers have been trained.
- There is better understanding of fifth generation fighters.
- The political system has closed ranks behind the program.
If others, why not Canada?
Following are some of the notices released by Department of Defence public affairs offices since the start of 2015:
1/21/2015 – EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif – Two F-35 Lightning IIs of the Royal Netherlands Air Force landed at Edwards Jan 16, after a five-hour flight from Elgin Air Force base, Fla. The Joint Strike Fighters arrived for an operational test and evaluation phase here in the High Desert. The fifth generation fighters belong to the 323rd Squadron, which is participating in the implementation of the operational test and evaluation phase of the Dutch F-35. The Netherlands purchased at least 37 JSFs. About 20 technicians, four pilots and approximately 10 staff are being trained to work with the F-35 in a supporting role at Edwards.
4/16/2015 – FORTH WORTH, Texas – The first F-35 Lightning II for the Norwegian Armed Forces is standing with weight on wheels for the first time, a significant milestone for the jet as it moves down the production line at the mile-long assembly plant in Forth Worth, Texas. Norway’s first F-35A, known as AM-1, is due to roll out of the Lockheed Martin factory later this year, alongside sister ship AM-2, and both aircraft will initially be based at Luke AFB, Arizona as part of the US Air Force’s F-35 training system currently being established. A third F-35 aircraft for Norway is also in its early stages of production and will roll out of the factory next year.
5/14/2015 – LUKE AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz – A pilot with the Royal Australian Air Force made history May 14, by flying the first RAAF F-35A Lightning II sorties at Luke Air Force Base. RAAF Maj. Andrew Jackson, the squadron leader for the 61st Fighter Squadron and the first F-35 senior national representative at Luke, was the first Australian pilot to fly the fifth generation fighter. “Hopefully I can contribute in some way to the work that’s already taken place to help ensure a smooth transition from the F-18 to the F-35A”, Jackson said.
5/26/2015 – USS WASP, AT SEA – As the first operational test (OT-1) of the F-35B Lightning II takes place aboard the USS Wasp (LHD 1) this week, service members from the United Kingdom are working alongside their US Navy and Marine Corps counterparts to assess the integration of the F-35B into amphibious military operations. The Royal Navy’s vision for tactical integration of the F-35B into their current arsenal is similar to the Marine Corps’ plan to integrate the F-35 with legacy aircraft, such as the AV-8B Harrier and the F/A-18 Hornet, and gradually phase out the legacy aircraft over the coming decades. In February, the United Kingdom stood up their first F-35 squadron at Edwards Air Force Base. UK F-35B pilots will begin operating the next generation stealth fighter from home bases in England starting in 2018, and are on track to fly from Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers in 2020.