As far back as 2013 there were whispers that the F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter would 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.
Some articles and blog posts about the F-35 dogfighting controversy
F-35 Flight Performance According to Test Pilots:
An article arging the F-22 can't dogfight, either:
An article that says the F-35 will never be able to match a Eurofighter Typhoon in a dogfight:
All of that was before a report was leaked which reported that an F-35 failed to defeat an F-16 in an air-to-air combat test
A January 14, 2015, report, titled "F-35A High Angle of Attack Operational Maneuvers," said the aircraft lacked the "energy maneuverability" to succeed in air-to-air test dogfighting scenarios against the older aircraft. "Overall, the most noticeable characteristic of the F-35A in a visual engagement was its lack of energy maneuverability," the report states. "Even with the limited F-16 target configuration, the F-35A remained at a distinct energy disadvantage for every engagement."
The Pentagon's defense of the F-35 is to argue that its Electro-Optical Target System will make it unnecessary to engage in a visual range dogfight. The EOTS, is an infra-red sensor able to assist pilots with air and ground targeting at increased standoff ranges while also performing laser designation, laser range-finding and other tasks. There is also the aircraft's Distributed Aperture System, or DAS, is a series of six electro-optical sensors also which is able to give information to the pilot. The DAS includes precision tracking, fire control capabilities and the ability to warn the pilot of an approaching threat or missile. Finally, the F-35 possesses an Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar, which is able to track a host of electromagnetic signals, including returns from Synthetic Aperture Radar, or SAR. This paints a picture of the contours of the ground or surrounding terrain and, along with Ground Moving Target Indicator, or GMTI, locates something on the move on the ground and airborne objects or threats.
That's all well and good, but what if something goes wrong, or what if the Rules of Engagement get in the way and force a closer-in fight than what Lockheed or the Air Force had in mind? Is the Air Force and the Navy repeating a mistake made in the 1950s when a fighter aircraft was designed to rely solely on air-to-air missiles and did not have a gun? In the skies over Vietnam, the pilots of that aircraft, the F-4 Phantom, found themselves in situations where a gun would have been a rather handy weapon to have. More than once since the end of the Second World War, there have been people to argue that the age of the dogfight is over, and each time, so far, they ended up being wrong.
But there is also no question that tactical stealth aircraft will have a significant impact on air-to-air combat. Will it really matter if an F-35 cannot out maneuver a Eurofighter if the Lightning can identify, fire and kill the Typhoon before the latter even knows the former is in the neighborhood? If the JSF can do that, does it really matter if the earliest generation F-35 can’t outmaneuver an advanced model of the F-16 in an early test?
If you talk with Air Force and Marine pilots who’ve flown the Harrier, the F-18 and the F-16, every one of them will say that the F-35 is a superior aircraft. They’ve said it on the USS Wasp. They’ve said it on the USS Enterprise and they’ve said it in the halls of the Pentagon and at Fort Worth, where the F-35 and the F-16 are made. Why do they say this if an F-35 carrying no external weapons can’t out perform an F-16D loaded with heavy fuel pylons? You might well ask. Basically, it’s because the F-35’s stealth and sensors allow it to spot enemy aircraft long before they are spotted. The result? The F-35 gets a weapon lock and kills the enemy before the enemy knows the F-35 is there.
Retired Air Force General Mike Hostage has argued that, “In the first moments of a conflict I’m not sending Growlers or F-16s or F-15Es anywhere close to that environment, so now I’m going to have to put my fifth gen [aircraft] in there and that’s where that radar cross-section and the exchange of the kill chain is so critical.” Hostage has also said that the F-35 is not the plane to send in for hot dogfights. It is, instead, the first US aircraft built specifically for taking out advanced Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS) such as the Russian S-300 and S-400. The plane that would lead the way to take out enemy fighters in close-up battles would be the F-22.
Another retired Air Force general, David Deptula, has argued that, because of the F-35's sensors, a close-in, visual range dogfight should not ever be necessary. Deptula called the test pilot's report on the mock dogfight between the F-35 A-2 aircraft and an F-16D "“interesting, but not relevant to the issue of campaign level utility of the other very significant advantages the F-35 possesses in the areas of low observability, sensor capability, and information integration that provide the F-35 an enormous advantage relative to legacy aircraft. If one can target and kill your adversaries prior to the merge, what they can do at the merge really doesn’t matter now, does it?”
According to the F-35’s Joint Program Office, “The F-35’s technology is designed to engage, shoot, and kill its enemy from long distances, not necessarily in visual 'dogfighting' situations. There have been numerous occasions where a four-ship of F-35s has engaged a four-ship of F-16s in simulated combat scenarios and the F-35s won each of those encounters because of its sensors, weapons, and stealth technology.”
There's more in the article linked below:
As I noted above, when air-to-air missiles were introduced in the 1950s, some argued that the age of the dogfight was over. It was presumed that the missiles would allow aircraft to kill each other from outside visual range, all that was needed was a radar or heat signature lock on the target. But then the U.S. found itself in another war and the Rules of Engagement mandated visual identification before a pilot could attempt to shoot down the target. Getting in closer for that visual identification caused unforeseen problems with the radar missile. Also, these air-to-air missiles were still relatively new and had some problems; essentially, the missiles were not as capable as advertised.
In the intervening decades, the missiles have gotten better. The AIM-9 Sidewinder, a heat-seeker, originally could only lock on a target from behind, as the engine exhaust of an aircraft provided the only lockable heat source. By the early 1980s, when British Harriers carried the Sidewinder into combat over the Falklands, the AIM-9 had become an all-aspect heat-seeker, which meant it could lock onto to any aircraft regardless of the angle of approach. As for the radar missile, the AIM-7 Sparrow, it initially had very narrow targeting envelopes, get in too close, and the missile won't work. The Sparrow also needed the pilot to maintain his radar lock on the target after he fired the missile, not always an easy thing to do in air combat. The Sparrow has since been replaced by the AIM-120 AMRAAM, which is classified as a fire-and-forget radar missile; this means that the pilot no longer has to maintain his radar lock after firing the missile.
The missile improvements are all well and good, but again the question regarding the F-35 is, what if the Rules of Engagement require visual identification before the pilot can attack? The answer may very well lie in the sensors of the Lightning II. If the sensors can allow the pilot to visually identify the target -- without the necessity of closing the range to allow visual sighting with his Mark II eyeballs -- then the Joint Strike Fighter may be able to deliver on its promise.
In the immortal words of the late Col. John Boyd, machines don’t fight wars. People do. This is the real heart of the story. Let’s be clear: an F-16 did not beat an F-35 in a dogfight. Instead, an experienced pilot in an F-16 beat a less experienced pilot in an F-35. The only way to prevent such outcomes in the future is to produce experienced F-35 pilots who can create and master new tactics, but the current trajectory makes this tremendously difficult.
So forget the question of whether the F-35 should expect to engage in close-in aerial combat or whether this specific test report should carry any weight. If the Joint Strike Fighter is ever going to be good at anything, dogfighting or otherwise, it will require a cadre of professionals who are “proficient in developed tactics.” That means the pilots need experience in the cockpit, but given the enormous costs, continual delays and tremendous complexity involved, experienced pilots is one thing the F-35 isn’t going to have any time soon.
We always seem to forget about the pilots, yet over and over throughout the history of air combat, better pilots have defeated better aircraft because of experience and tactics. Also, throughout history, Navy and Air Force pilots have faced more nimble aircraft in combat and come out the victors due to tactics taught at each services Fighter Weapons Schools, which have focused on training against dis-similar (read: more maneuverable) aircraft since the Vietnam War.