Every now and then, you will see articles of how “poor” the F-35 Lightning 2 is in terms of Air-to-Air Combat, and how it will be easily defeated by other current fighters like Russia’s Super Sukhois, or the European 4th Generation fighters. Here are some examples of such articles:
– The F-35’s Air-to-Air Capability Controversy, http://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/the-f-35s-air-to-air-capability-controversy-05089/
– F-35 Air Combat Skills Analyzed, http://www.military.com/features/0,15240,186349,00.html
– New Pentagon super fighter will get pilots shot down, warns report, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/mar/6/report-super-fighter-will-get-pilots-shot-down/
The criticism against the F-35 air combat capability stems from observations like, “it’s cockpit doesn’t have a good view”, or that it “isn’t maneuverable enough”, blah-blah-blah. And the surprising thing is, ALL of it are TRUE.
First, let’s have a quick look at the F-35’s maneuverability in terms of WING LOADING and THRUST TO WEIGHT RATIO compared to, say, a current generation fighter like the F-16C Block 52+ Viper aircraft. Below are the statistics for both planes (data for both aircrafts taken from these sources):
As you can see, in terms of maneuverability, the F-35 fares badly against the Viper. The Viper has 21% lower Wing Loading, and 37% better Thrust to Weight Ratio soundly beating the Lighting 2 soundly. The reasoning then is that if it fares badly against a Viper, how much more against even more maneuverable aircrafts like the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale and the Super Sukhois? HOWEVER, I think there is one critical factor that most observers have overlooked with regards to the F-35 that will sufficiently tip the balance of air combat in its favor, and that it’s AVIONICS and MISSILES, specifically its Digital Aperture System (DAS) and Lock On After Launch Missiles (LOALM).
‘DAS and LOALM Combination’
The DAS in simplest terms compose of several fixed Infra-Red Electro-Optical Sensors (in the case of the F-35, six sensors) placed strategically around the aircraft. The DAS then seamlessly stitches together the visual inputs from these sensors to provide a full, 360 degree SPHERICAL view of the aircraft’s surroundings to the pilot. This provides UNPRECEDENTED Situational Awareness for the pilot such that when he moves his head around to look behind him, he can literally see thru the outline of his own aircraft, thereby eliminating blind spots of the wings or the aircraft’s body.
One benefit of this is that since the images are produced from sensors, then the pilot can lock on to any target and have the DAS track it, providing targeting information to his weapons. So not only can a pilot see behind thru his own aircraft, he can also target it for attack. Once a target is tracked, then the next important technology comes to play: The Lock On After Launch Missile.
As its name implies, the LOAL means a missile can be launched off its rails without the missile needing to lock on to a specific target. In the case of the F-35, it can be launched and directed via Data Link by the DAS to the general direction of the target where the missile can find it AND THEN lock on to it.
What does this all mean, then? It means the F-35 can shoot down any aircraft anywhere with the range of its DAS and LOALM. If an aircraft is behind it, the pilot can simply look around, lock on to it, and then fire his LOALM. The missile will then make a 180 degree turn from its initial heading, find the designated enemy, and destroy it. All of these is shown on this dramatic video on Youtube:
‘The HMS/HOBM Revolution’
I think the DAS/LOALM combination will be revolutionary based on a similar system that occurred relatively recently, specifically with the Helmet Mounted Sights (HMS) and High Off-Boresight Missile (HOBM) combination. The Soviet Union was the first one to incorporate this combination into their MIG-29 aircrafts, but western air forces were slow to adopt these technologies, perhaps largely dismissing these as merely “gimmicks” or a “fad”. However, things changed in the 1990s.
What happened in the 1990s? Well, for one, the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, paving the way for the formal reunification of East and West Germany in 1990. Along with this reunification, and in the chaos that followed the fall of the Soviet Union, a couple of MIG-29s ended up in the new, unified German Air Force, and because of this, western air forces were able to get a microscopic look at the then very new Fulcrums. While the MIG-29 were eventually found to have quite a number of shortcomings, it did have one important quality that came as a surprise to the western pilots: The MIG-29 was very hard to beat in Within Visual Range (WVR) combat, and one main reason for this was its HMS and HOB missiles (specifically the Vympel R-73 or AA-11 Archer missile).
A HOBM means a missile that can lock on to a target at a high angle away from the direction it is pointing. Together with the HMS, this allows an HOBM like the AA-11 to lock on to targets up to 60 degrees away from the ‘boresight’ or direction of the aircraft/missile is pointing or travelling to. The HMS/HOBM combination allowed the Fulcrum pilots a much wider angle to which to lock on and fire their missiles as opposed to western fighters, which had a significantly narrower field of view to do the same thing (only about half at around 27 degrees off boresight field of view before launch for the AIM-9L Sidewinder). One account of this is detailed in an article published way back in 1995 entitled, “Schlemming with the Fulcrum“, http://www.510fs.org/squadron/code-one-magazine/item/78-schlemming-with-the-fulcrum.
It still took awhile for western air forces to adopt the HMS/HOBM combination, it wasn’t until 2003 when the United States Air Force (USAF) finally issued an HMS thru their Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) on their fighter aircrafts. This is partly because of the end of the Cold War in the 1990s, but if you look at the situation now, ALL major fighters around the world are using the HMS/HOBM combination now, from the F-16/F-15/F-18 fighters of the USAF, to the Eurofighters, Rafales, Sukhois, etc. It has become sort of a MANDATORY requirement for WVR air combat.
The DAS/LOALM sytem is an EXTENSION of the HMS/HOBM system. Instead of just locking in on targets within 45-60 degrees from boresight, the DAS/LOALM will do it in a whole 360 degree spherical field of view. The Russians did put rear-facing radars on their SU-30M/34 aircrafts, but these serve as warning systems rather than on that can be used for offensive purposes. They have also experimented with rear-facing missiles, but none are planned to be put on service as of now, and at any rate the DAS/LOALM is a more streamlined solution to detecting and shooting down opponents behind you.
So the F-35 isn’t really that maneuverable, but that’s because IT DOESN’T HAVE TO BE. It will rely on its sensors and missiles to do the WVR Air Combat for it. IF the DAS/LOALM works as advertised, and once the F-35 finally goes in service in 2015 and everyone starts to see how good it really is, then other manufacturers will TRY to start incorporating it into their own aircrafts, and it will eventually become the NEW standard for WVR Air Combat in the decade or so to come. I for one am excited to see the F-35 go into service of this, but we will have to wait another 2 years to see it happen …
 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, http://wiki.scramble.nl/index.php/Lockheed_Martin_F-35_Lightning_II
 F-16 Fighting Falcon, General Dynamics, http://www.fighter-planes.com/info/f16.htm
 Berlin Wall, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Wall
 German Reunification, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_reunification
 Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile R-73, http://www.enemyforces.net/missiles/r_73.htm
 Air-to-air missile non-comparison table, http://www.x-plane.org/home/urf/aviation/text/missiles/aam.html
 Helmet-Mounted Display – JHMCS, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helmet-mounted_display#Joint_Helmet-Mounted_Cueing_System_.28JHMCS.29
 Su-30M Flanker-H Air-Superiority Fighter, Russian Federation, http://www.airforce-technology.com/projects/su_30mk/
 Su-34 (Su-32) Fullback Fighter Bomber, Russian Federation, http://www.airforce-technology.com/projects/su34/