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:
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.
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.)
During the journey, the F-35Bs were assisted by two U.S. Air Force KC-10 tankers that refueled the Lightining II 5th Generation aircraft 15 times over the Atlantic (note: this *should* be the total aerial refueling operations, meaning that each stealth plane plugged the In-Flight Refueling probe 5 times into the tanker’s hose).
The following B-roll shows the aircraft during the AAR (Air-to-Air Refueling) ops.
The three STOVL variants were followed by three F-35A of the U.S. Air Force Heritage flight on the following day: this was the first time USAF F-35s crossed the Pond.
Interestingly, AW&ST’s James Drew was aboard one of the KC-10s and filmed the refueling operations of the F-35As. You will notice that the A model is refueled by means of the USAF’s standard flying boom system, as opposed to the F-35B that instead of the fuel receptacle use the on-board IFR probe required by the hose and drogue system, the Navy/Marines standard. Noteworthy, according to Drew, the F-35As required 4 aerial refueling operations each: the F-35A has a max range of 1,200 miles, while the F-35B has a max range of 900 miles (thus the need for an additional AAR).
Here are some cool photographs of the first British F-35B welcomed by the RAF Typhoons and escorted to the first landing in UK.
On Jun. 29, the first British F-35B Lightning II, piloted by RAF pilot Squadron Leader Hugh Nichols and accompanied by two U.S. Marine Corps airframes and by a pair of U.S. Air Force KC-10 tankers and USMC KC-130Js, landed at RAF Fairford airbase, UK, at the end of the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) variant’s first transatlantic crossing that marked the first landing of an F-35 in the UK.
An event that was broadcast live by the U.S. Marine Corps on their Facebook page.
Using callsign “Tabor 01,” the flight flew to the UK from MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina, to attend the Royal International Air Tattoo 2016 and Farnborough International Airshow in the next few weeks.
Interestingly, the formation was welcomed into the British airspace by three RAF Typhoons.In this post, some cool photographs released by the British MoD of the formation heading to Fairford along with the escort fighters.
Among the activities carried out in the past weeks, a simulated deployment provided important feedbacks about the goal of demonstrating the F-35’s ability to “penetrate areas with developed air defenses, provide close air support to ground troops and be readily deployable to conflict theaters.”
Seven F-35s deployed from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, to Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, to carry out a series of operational tests which involved local-based 4th Generation F-15E Strike Eagles belonging to the 366th Fighter Wing.
In a Q&A posted on the USAF website, Col. David Chace, the F-35 systems management office chief and lead for F-35 operational requirements at ACC, provided some insights about the activities carried out during the second simulated deployment to Mountain Home (the first was in February this year):
“The F-35 recently deployed from Hill to Mountain Home where crews, maintenance and support personnel conducted a number of missions. During that deployment, crews attained a 100 percent sortie generation rate with 88 of 88 planned sorties and a 94 percent hit rate with 15 of 16 bombs on target.
These numbers provide a positive indication of where we are when it comes to stability and component performance.”
“Feedback from the events at Mountain Home will feed into the overall evaluation of F-35 capabilities. The second evaluation will take place in the operational test environment with F-35 mission sets the Air Force intends to execute after IOC. All reports will be delivered in July and feed into the overall F-35 capabilities report. The ultimate goal is to provide a needed capability to the warfighter to execute the mission. It is not calendar-based or event-based.”
“The feedback from unit operators in place today has been very positive for the F-35, not just concerning performance but the ability the aircraft has with other platforms. In particular at Hill, integration with the F-15E (Strike Eagle) has gone very well. We’ve also been demonstrating the ability to put bombs on target. All of that information will be provided to us in the formal IOC readiness assessments.”
The following interesting chart accompanies the Q&A.
It shows some stats about the deployment.
The fourth column shows something interesting: during the exercise, the F-35s were challenged by some F-15Es and suffered no losses.
Even though the graphic does not say whether the F-35s did shoot back at the F-15Es some analysts (noticing also the “pew pew pew” in the chart….) have suggested the JSFs achieved stunning 8:0 kill rate against the Strike Eagle.
However, the “zero losses” may simply mean that the F-35s were able to complete their assigned strikes without being shot down by the aggressors of the Red Air: considered that the F-15Es were probably equipped with the AN/APG-82 AESA radar and the Sniper ATP (Advanced Targeting Pod), the fact that the Strike Eagles performing DCA (Defensive Counter Air) were not able to “find” and/or “engage” the almost-IOC F-35s can be considered a huge achievement for the pricey, troubled 5th generation multirole combat plane.
Actually, this is not the first time the F-35 proves itself able to fly unscathed through a fighter-defended area: not a single Lightning II was shot down during Green Flag 15-08, the first major exercise conducted, more or less one year ago, on the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, during which the F-35 flew as main CAS (Close Air Support) provider.
At that time, several analysts claimed the participation of two test aircraft in the exercise was just a PR stunt, since the aircraft was still quite far from achieving a combat readiness required to really support the troops at war.