At a total cost of more than a trillion dollars, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is the most expensive weapons program in history. The U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps — not to mention the air forces and navies of more than a dozen U.S. allies — are counting on the Lockheed Martin plane to replace aircraft currently in service and take over a number of missions to include close air support and air superiority. The plane is supposed to be able to do it all. But last week, as David Axe reported in War Is Boring, a leaked report from a test pilot who recently flew an F-35 against an F-16 – a plane that first saw service in the 70s – in a series of mock aerial engagements called the JSF an inferior dogfighter.
According to the pilot’s report, among several other shortcomings, the F-35:
… can’t turn or climb fast enough to hit an enemy plane during a dogfight or to dodge the enemy’s own gunfire ...
So, Axe concludes:
within a few decades, American and allied aviators will fly into battle in an inferior fighter — one that could get them killed … and cost the United States control of the air.
The plane’s defenders were quick with a rebuttal, as Christian Davenport reported in the Washington Post:
… after years of media beating up the most expensive weapons program in the history of the U.S. military, the Pentagon’s joint program office and Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor, have well-oiled media response teams that are quick to rush to the plane’s defense. And they wasted no time as the War is Boring report gained traction in military circles.
Pentagon officials pointed out, in an e-mail defense of the plane, that:
… the particular plane the test pilot flew did not have its special stealth coating, a Harry Potter-like “invisible cloak” that renders it invisible to radar. It was also lacking the sensors that allow “the F-35 to see its enemy long before it knows the F-35 is in the area,”
F-35 defenders also pointed to the fact that:
Last month, the Marine Corps tested its version of the fighter on an amphibious assault ship and said that it performed flawlessly [and] The Marines are now on the verge of declaring it combat ready, a huge milestone that could come later this month.
And, also, that:
Maneuverability was never going to be the F-35’s main attribute, anyway. It was designed only to be “comparable to current tactical fighters in terms of maneuverability,” Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian said in the Pentagon’s statement. Its main advantage is its stealth, he said, the ability “to operate in threat environments where the F-16 could not survive.”
But, as Joseph Trevithick of War Is Boring, writes in a rebuttal, the F-35 was designed to win dogfights and this was a selling point with:
John Kent, a senior communications specialist with the Lockheed Martin Joint Strike Fighter Program, [writing] in the Spring 2003 edition of the Air Force’s Air & Space Power Journal [that] the plane would be “a single-pilot, survivable, first-day-of-the-war combat fighter with a precision, all-weather strike capability that uses a wide variety of air-to-surface and air-to-air weapons—and that defends itself in a dogfight.”
Trevithick concludes, pointedly, that:
If the plane’s shape means an experienced pilot cannot win a one-on-one engagement at short range, the Pentagon should assume its enemies will do everything they can to exploit this weakness. Pilots cannot — and should not — put their faith in their opponents playing to the F-35’s strengths. Lockheed and the Pentagon both seem to be forgetting the basic military maxim that the enemy gets a vote. And they keep moving the performance goalposts to make the cumbersome F-35 look like a success, apparently assuming that there will never be a real aerial shooting war — and lots of destroyed JSFs and dead pilots—to reveal their obfuscation.