F-35 pilot explains how he dominated dogfights against multiple A-4 aggressors. Every time.

Jul 11 2016 - 151 Comments

Air Combat in the F-35, a new chapter in the saga.

In March 2016, we published an article written by Major Morten “Dolby” Hanche, a Royal Norwegian Air Force experienced pilot with more than 2,200 hours in the F-16, a U.S. Navy Test Pilot School graduate and the first to fly the F-35.

In that post “Dolby” provided a first-hand account of what dogfighting in the controversial F-35 looked like to a pilot who had a significant experience with the F-16.

Here below, reposted under permission, you can read the latest story “Dolby” has written for Kampflybloggen (The Combat Aircraft Blog), the official blog of the Norwegian F-35 Program Office within the Norwegian Ministry of Defence.

Although it’s written by someone with a bias for the plane (he flies the F-35 as the Assistant Weapons Officer with the 62nd Fighter Squadron at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona), once again it’s worth a read as it provides some interesting details about the way the Lightning II performs during mock air combat against several adversaries.

Someone may argue the A-4 Skyhawks are quite obsolete aircraft and not even comparable with modern 4th generation enemies. True, but these are the same aggressors that train many modern combat planes (don’t forget the F-22s practice their air-to-air skills against the T-38s) and take part in Red Flag exercises.

To summarize what has been written about the F-35 dogfighting capabilities in the past:

  1. we debunked some theories about the alleged capabilities of all the F-35 variants to match or considerably exceed the maneuvering performance of some of the most famous fourth-generation fighter, and explained that there is probably no way a JSF will ever match a Eurofighter Typhoon in aerial combat
  2. at the same time we also highlighted that the simulated dogfight mentioned in the unclassified report obtained by War Is Boring according to which the JSF was outclassed by a two-seat F-16D Block 40 (one of the aircraft the U.S. Air Force intends to replace with the Lightning II) in mock aerial combat involved one of the very first test aircraft that lacked some cool and useful features.
  3. more recently, we reported that the F-35 were not shot down by the F-15E aggressors in 8 engagements during recent joint drills, and that it was not the first time the F-35 proved itself able to fly unscathed through a fighter-defended area because not a single Lightning II was shot down during Green Flag 15-08, the first major exercise during which the F-35 flew as main CAS (Close Air Support) provider in 2015.

Needless to say, each of the above news stories caused much debate, with many analysts suggesting the exercises where the F-35 performed fairly well were just PR stunts arranged in such a way the JSF could not be downed, and others claiming more or less the opposite.

Whatever you think, here’s the new story by “Dolby.”

Air Combat in the F-35 – an update

In this post I’m giving a brief overview of my impressions after having flown several sorties over the past few weeks against A-4 Skyhawks. This post is intended as a supplement to my previous posts on modern air combat and stealth.

First thing first – is it relevant to train air combat against an old A-4? Can we draw any relevant lessons from this at all? After all, this is an aircraft that served during the Vietnam war!

I believe this kind of training is relevant for several reasons:

  • The F-35’s sensors and “fusion” provides me as a pilot with good situational awareness. For an F-35 to simulate an opponent against another F-35, it has to restrict the effects of fusion and the various sensors. Even then it is difficult to “dumb down” the aircraft enough. It requires discipline to not be tempted to using information that an opponent in reality would not have access to.
  • The A-4s we faced in these exercises had sensor performance along the lines of our own upgraded F-16s. They also carried jammers intended to disturb our radar.
  • The pilots we faced were very experienced. We are talking 2000 hours plus in aircraft like the F-16, F-15E, F-15C and the F-22, with detailed knowledge of “fifth generation” tactics and weapons. When also cooperating closely with intercept controllers on the ground (GCI) they could adapt the training and offer us a reactive and challenging opponent. Note the word “reactive.”
  • The A-4 is a small aircraft with a corresponding signature. Many potential opponents in the air are bigger and easier to find than the tiny A-4.

So what did I experience in my encounters with the A-4? I got to try out several different sets. (Everything from one-on-one “Basic Fighter Maneuvers” to one F-35 against two A-4s, two F-35s against two A-4s, two F-35s against four A-4s and three F-35s against four A-4s). I am left with some main impressions.

  • The individual sensors of the F-35, one for one, are good. I flew one sortie alone against two A-4s, and limited myself to using only the radar during these sets (no support from ground controllers, no Link-16, no data sharing from other formation members, no support from passive radar warning systems or IFF – Identification Friend or Foe). Nonetheless my radar detected the targets in time for me to optimize my intercept, deliver weapons at range, and if necessary, arrive undetected to the visual arena.
  • “Fusion” means both automatic control of the various sensors, and the combination of all different sensor data into one unified tactical picture. I believe “fusion” to be one of the most important aspects of the F-35. “Fusion” allows me to focus on the tactics, rather than detailed management of my sensors. In my encounters with the A-4s, “fusion” worked better than I have seen it before. It was reassuring to see how well it worked. The good «situational picture» that I saw provides us with several advantages; we can make smarter tactical decisions, and it takes less time before we can gain full “tactical value” from fresh pilots. (I had to smile a little when two of us in the F-35s effortlessly kept tabs on four opponents. That is no trivial thing in the F-16.)
  • The most important lesson for me personally was to see just how hard it was for the A-4s to find us, even with GCI support. We deliberately made high-risk tactical decisions to see just how far we could stretch our luck, and still remain undetected. At least for my part, this reinforced my confidence in the effectiveness of our tactics. I hope all my colleagues in the F-35 get to have the same experience as I have.

(BFM – F-35 against A-4, might not be fair. Still, the A-4 started as the offensive part every time. At the end of each set, I was pointing at the A-4. Every time.)

Image credit: RoNAF via Lockheed Martin

 

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  • Richard Neal Price

    All you Haters, All y’all have 5 more days til IOC. Get your hate in now while it still has some relevance. AIR FORCE

  • Liberal Smiter

    Aircraft in the old days were practically tubes with wings and analog dials. Massive engineering feats require much more time.

  • Liberal Smiter

    The F-35 haters on this site remind me of the same imbeciles in the 80’s attacking the F-16’s single engine design and fly by wire system. Today these same imbeciles are F-16 fans.

  • James W McCarthy

    What orders have been canceled

  • GeorgeHanshaw1

    You think Boeing is a country???

  • SOEJINN

    The Australians paid about $95 million dollars a piece for their F/A-18s. People need to stop trying to make it seem they are that much cheaper than the newer technology F-35s.

  • Deuce_2112

    “Hornet-like manueverablity”?

    Please provide your source for this info.

  • GeorgeHanshaw1

    I have 23 years experience in the USAF and have flown the T-37, T/AT-38, A-7, F-4, F-15, and block 25 and block 30 F-16s. I also have years of experience in an Air Logistics Center. I suppose it’s POSSIBLE you know more about the flying, care, and feeding of tactical aircraft than I do, but I doubt it.

  • GeorgeHanshaw1

    That’s a damn stupid gotcha. Yes, The Taliban in Afghanistan indeed have nothing like the F-35. So what? If you are buying aircraft for the war in Afghanistan, you certainly don’t need stealth F-35s – at all. B-29s would work. Nor does the fact that pilots WHINE about not having a gun mean that one is really needed, especially one that carries only token amounts of ammo, currently doesn’t have the software to fire it, and eventually when (and if) it does get operational will have a 0.3 second delay to open up the stealth material door it is hidden behind and then get the Gatling cannon up to speed. So that it may then fire it’s 3.8 seconds worth of ammunition.

    As for our allies, you ever been assigned in NATO? Except for the Brits, all of the other NATO air forces are useless as the proverbial teats on a boar hog, and the Brits simply don’t have ENOUGH tactical aircraft, and definitely cannot SUSTAIN enough of the ones they do have to be much help. The others are simply a logistics burden on us, when they deploy to “assist” us.

    But judging real adversaries, or even aircraft built by real adversaries, by the results that we get when we fly against ragheads is deceiving ourselves. And Libya? Seriously? Not only were they weakened by decades of restrictions – that even the Russians largely honored – you would have to be instant to call what happened there a US victory. I shed no tears for old Moammar, but the place is now a failed state and a haven for ISIS.

    FOr that matter so are Afganistan and Iraq. Those aren’t victories, my friend, nor does it appear they ever will be. A victory looks something like WWII. From Dec 7 1941 to the Japanese surrender in Sept 1945 was LESS THAN FOUR YEARS. We are coming up on what? Fifteen years for Afghanistan? And our guys are still dying there while we try to negotiate a face-saving withdrawal. That’s not a war and it damn sure ain’t a victory. It’s a waste and a shame, but certainly no reason to feel good about overpriced and over rated f-35s.

  • GeorgeHanshaw1

    A U.S. Air Force F-35 caught fire during surface-to-air training at an Air Force base in Idaho, causing “substantial” damage to the aircraft. According to Aviation Week, the working theory is that a fire was started after strong tailwinds redirected heat from the fighter’s engine during startup procedures. The pilot got out unharmed.

    The incident, involving an aircraft assigned to the 56h Fighter Wing, took place on September 23 at Mountain Home Air Force Base. According to AvWeek, the plane catch fire if there’s an aborted engine start and excess fuel is left in the aircraft exhaust duct. Wind speeds were from 35 to 47 miles an hour that day, adding credence to the redirected heat theory.

    The F-35 involved in the incident reportedly has “substantial” damage to its exterior skin. Internal damage, however, will be much more expensive and difficult to repair. It is unknown until technicians begin to disassemble the aircraft.

    The F-35 is powered by a Pratt & Whitney F135 afterburning turbofan engine, which was developed from the engine that powers the F-22 Raptor. The F-35 can create a maximum 41,000 pounds of thrust. At $18 million each, one F-35 engine accounts for approximately one-sixth of the Joint Strike Fighter’s $120 million price tag.

    This is not the first time for the F-35. In 2014, an Air Force F-35 caught fire on takeoff. A test pilot repeatedly flew a F-35 in a way the engine’s titanium fan blades were heated to nearly double normal operating temperatures. During the incident the engine fan blades cracked and shot through the aircraft’s left fuel tank, instantly starting a fire.

    The root problems behind the 2014 accident were fixed by Pratt and Whitney, with an engineering solution retrofitted through the entire F-35 fleet. We’ll see whether the problem behind the latest accident can be fixed. The F-35 will have to learn to live with high winds, especially—as one Internet commenter pointed out—on the deck of an aircraft carrier at sea.

  • GeorgeHanshaw1

    It’s called career diversification. After so much time in a single career field, they like to get you more broadly experienced. So yeah, I did a tour at the Ogden Air Logistics Center at Hill, which was the logistics base for the F-16. That’s scarcely uncommon. I must assume from your attempt at a snarkish comment that you have little or no personal military experience.

    • Reels Rihard

      I can vouch for this too. They wanted us to learn weather maintenance profession. The radars, FPQ21, later on Nexxrad, windbirds etc. They then combine Navaids and Weather. Later iirc, the added in the radar ATCs used a little after I was discharged. Guess it’s called Airnav now. Been so long since I talked about this. I know the USAF always encouraged career diversification when I served.

  • GeorgeHanshaw1

    No. The QUOTE comes from Wiki, because it was simpler to cut and paste than to type it out. The experience comes from being an Air Force retiree who has flown F-15s, albeit not the E model. The only f-15E air to air victory that I have personal knowledge about was the Iraqi helicopter taken out with a laser guided bomb.

    But if you – anyone else – knows of more F-15E aerial victories than that one and the drone shootdown’s, I’d certainly be interested in hearing about them. I know that early in the first gulf war the f-15Es fired a bevy of missiles early in the war with no confirmed kills.

    • Reels Rihard

      So instead of showing reading comprehension, you’ve asserted something, I didn’t. I’m just the messenger. I made no comments as to the F15 E getting air kills. All your information to my knowledge is correct. I too, served at Hill AFB. Loved the place because it was depot maintenance for F16s. I used to get our shop tours from pilots of all the different planes that used to stop over. My favorites where the B1B/AC 130 gunship tours. I worked on runway navaids, as a pilot you know what I refer to. I have a question. I noticed in the winter time, fighters planes sounded more efficient, especially F4s. Not that they, WERE more efficient but they sounded more efficient. Is what I heard the truth?

      I didn’t want to really comment but anyone actually thinking a modern day JSF like the F35 dominating older aircraft is an acomplishment isn’t thinking clearly. It’s like comparing old F1 cars from the A4s time to to the present. You’re correct in your assertions about the F35 vs A4s no matter what kind they are. The F35 is unproven right now. Untill it goes completely live and builds a track record, no one knows the outcome.

    • Reels Rihard

      The other thing I saw you try to explain is the mission. Which I noticed, wasn’t taken well. What the people are saying to you is, if you put a fighter pilot into an F15 E, they’d be as capable as an F15 C in ACM only. How this isn’t clear, I don’t know.

      On the flipside some definitely missed the way you explained mission priority which is also correct. F15 crews are trained in ground pounding and fighter pilots are trained in ACM. Thus, the two are not swappable for the best results. How this isn’t clear, again, I don’t know.

  • Reels Rihard

    So I was correct, in general. Man, those F4s sounded sweet in the cold air.

    Funny thing George, the people should be cautiously optimistic with the F35s reaching their targets in the referenced exercise and I do mean cautiously. As you’ve stated the mission is what’s important. If they had been F15C pilots trained in looking for bogies ala ACM, things may not have turned out the way they did for the F35s. Certainly may have been different with Raptors prowling around.

  • Reels Rihard

    George at the time, what’s your take on the F20 Tigershark?

  • Ashigaru

    I’m not an expert in electronics, but i’m sure everybody agree with the idea that complex systems are more prone to fail. That mean operational issues and high maintenance costs, the F-14 is an exemple. In war you need your units fully operational, is not a bussiness having a significant % of the units landed in repairs or maintenance. That is not a problem against 3th world air forces, but a threat against large nations like Russia.

    In the other hand, by the time the F-35 become fully operational, 2020-2025, maybe other nations had yet developed and implemented proper AA systems to counter it, of course at a fraction of the JSF program cost. If it become possible shut down this plane, what is the sustainable replenishment rate?

    Sorry for my english…

  • bryceheat

    I couldn’t care less how much the F-35 program costs.
    With each new technology the costs go up
    Did anybody expect it to be cheaper?
    Not to mention what they’re learning from this tech, good and bad.

    Hard to put a price tag on that.
    Not to mention the unknown that tends to keep a potential enemy second guessing their decision.
    I believe we have great and very capable fighters that can deal with just about any threat but we still can not stand still and wait while Russia and China are hard at work . . .
    Had the Germans got started on the M.E. 262 a little bit earlier WWII may have ended a little bit different than it did
    Mr. Hanshaw seems to know a lot about a lot and just by what I am reading and how it is worded , it is very unlikely he is full of crap, he don’t like the F-35, not a big deal.

    I like the whole platform and it’s potential which in my opinion is basically limitless.
    Cheap ? definitely not but if we wanted to fight with cheap and unreliable parts , we could just buy China’s planes :)

    Want to save money , lets bring back the F-4 and the P-51 Mustang and use them