In the past few weeks I have started hearing arguments that the F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter will be poor at best when it comes to dogfighting. Presumabely, though, Lockheed knows how to build a fighter plane than can dogfight, and there is nothing revolutionary about the F-35 outside of the short take off and landing (STOVAL) characteristics of the B variant being produced for the Marines. The F-35 is still in testing and, as usually happens, some issues have arisen, and some fixes have also been tested. For example, there was a problem with the tail hook system for the C variant, but the fix has been tested and appears to have done the job.
When F-35 proponents have touted the promises of the new aircraft, the critics have said the claims have not yet been proven. But this begs the question, if the positives haven't been proven yet, how can we say that the negatives have been proven? I'm guessing that the arguments from the critics are just as unproven. So, will the F-35 be able to dogfight, or will it be a bomb carrier in need of fighter escort (as some critics suggest)? Like the F-22, the F-35's big brother, the Lightning II is expected to be good at beyond visual range (BVR) engagements. The F-22 will kill you before you even know its in the neighborhood, but the Raptor can also dogfight if it has too. The ability to fight inside visual range may be important because rules of engagement may require it, as they did in Vietnam.
In Vietnam the military struggled in air combat against North Vietnamese MiGs. The services were relying primarily on the McDonnell F-4 Phantom II, which did not have a gun, until later versions of Air Force Phantoms were modified to include one. The Phantom had to rely on radar guided and heat seeking air-to-air missiles, as it was designed to do, but the ROE's required visual identification of the target before the missiles could be fired, and the early versions of the Phantom's missiles had relatively narrow parameters for targeting and shooting. After a particularly notable failure of the Phantom in air-to-air combat, the Navy established its fighter weapons school, also know as Top Gun, to teach pilots how best to use the Phantom's missiles. Graduates of Top Gun improved the Phantom's scores in the air over North Vietnam, even with the Navy version which still did not have a gun.
The F-4 Phantom has since been described as an excellent dogfighter -- proponents of the F/A-18 Hornet argued that this aircraft had the same dogfighting ability when they were selling it to the Navy in the 1970s and 80s. But others have called the Phantom a "fast bus," suggesting that the aircraft wasn't that maneuverable. Certainly the Phantom was not as nimble as the MiGs it faced in the skies over North Vietnam. At Top Gun, the Navy faced Phantom pilots off against disimilar aircraft that had similar nimble qualities as the MiGs, a practice continued after the F-14 Tomcat entered service, and continuing today. The Air Force has also used this method in training at its equivalent fighter combat school. The lesson here is not about how well a U.S. fighter can maneuver in aerial combat, but how that fighter can use its strengths to cancel out the strengths of the enemy aircraft.
So the real question, then, may be whether the F-35 will be able to counter an opponent's strengths with its own strengths.