In order to maintain its fighter squadrons, the U.S. Air Force needs the entire planned buy of 1,763 Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. That’s in part because the flying branch was allowed to buy fewer than planned F-22 Raptors from Lockheed.
The F-35 will have to complement the F-22. But can the smaller, slower, less nimble F-35 hack it as an air-to-air fighter?
The Air Force has just 186 F-22s, of which only 123 are “combat-coded” and immediately available for war, according to Air Combat Command. The service had originally wanted 750 of the stealthy air-superiority fighters, but eventually settled on a requirement for 381 Raptors before the program was further truncated by then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in the early 2000s.
But even 381 F-22s proved to be an unfulfilled dream. Ultimately, the Raptor program was terminated by Rumsfeld’s successor, Robert Gates. The last F-22 rolled off the assembly line in Georgia in 2011.
In the aftermath of the F-22's cancellation, the Air Force was forced to alter its plans and press-gang the F-35—originally meant as a ground-attack aircraft—into service as an air-to-air fighter. It was the only way for the flying branch to keep enough dogfighters in the air.
“Operationally, we have to have it,” says Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh. “The decision to truncate the F-22 buy has left us in a position where even to provide air superiority [we need the F-35], which was not the original intent of the F-35 development.”
To be clear, the F-35 has always had some air-to-air capability. But that latent dogfighting ability was mostly meant for self-defense—not for aggressively challenging another country’s fighters in the air.
But now the Air Force has no choice but to put the F-35 on the aerial front lines. “You have to have the F-35 to augment the F-22 to do the air superiority fight at the beginning of a high-end conflict to survive against the fifth-generation threats we believe will be in the world at that point in time,” Welsh says.
Both China and Russia are developing these so-called fifth-generation fighters, which feature high speed, maneuverability and radar-evading stealth. The Chinese have their Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang J-31 prototypes. Russia is working on the Sukhoi T-50. Both the Russian and Chinese aircraft might have the potential to match certain aspects of the Raptor’s performance.
By contrast, there are troubling questions as to how well the F-35 would fare against the new foreign fighters. While the F-35 has air-to-air sensors and can carry air-to-air missiles, it does not have the kinematic performance of the F-22. It’s simply sluggish in comparison.
The Raptor was designed from the outset as an air-to-air killer par excellence—the F-35 was not. The Raptor combines a very stealthy airframe with a high altitude ceiling and supersonic cruise. Further, the F-22 possesses excellent maneuverability for close-in visual-range dogfights.
Combined with the integrated avionics, which correlate all of the aircraft’s sensor data into one coherent display, the F-22's stealth and kinematics make it arguably the most lethal fighter ever built.
The F-35 does have integrated avionics—in some ways more advanced than even the Raptor’s—and it has stealth. But the F-35 lacks aerodynamic performance. U.S. military test pilots say the JSF is similar to the Boeing F/A-18C in speed and maneuverability.
Whereas a four-ship flight of Raptors cruising at high supersonic speeds in the rarified atmosphere above 50,000 feet can effectively choose when and where to fight, a flight of slower, lower-flying F-35s might find themselves forced to react to better-performing enemy planes if they are not careful.
Moreover, the F-35 does not have the speed or altitude to impart as much launch energy to the AIM-120 air-to-air missile as the Raptor can, which means the missiles will have less range when fired from a JSF. Nor can the F-35 carry as many air-to-air missiles.
Close in, the F-35 does not have the maneuverability of the Raptor, but it does still have very good low-speed high-angle-of-attack performance. An F-35 pilot should carefully exploit the strengths of his aircraft, using the jet’s stealth and sensors to engage enemy fighters from beyond visual range.
If forced into a dogfight, an F-35 pilot’s best option would likely be to exploit the jet’s high-angle ability, turning quickly to get a first shot against the enemy. That’s how the Navy uses its F/A-18.
But even if the F-35’s aerodynamic performance is roughly comparable to the F-16 or F/A-18, the aircraft’s stealth and sensors make it more survivable against future Chinese- and Russian-built fighters than older aircraft like the F-15. “Our legacy fighters against the new-generation fighters will not survive,” Welsh says. “Operationally, it’s just a fact.”
As such, Welsh argues that the Air Force must continue with the F-35 program despite defense budget cut backs. “I don’t believe this is a good time to talk about truncating the buy, capping it at some number,” Welsh says.