The F-35 Lightning 2 Could Revolutionize Air Combat

An excellent picture showing the clean lines of the F-35. Photo courtesy of the Official US Navy Imagery account on Flickr.
An excellent picture showing the clean lines of the F-35. Photo courtesy of the Official US Navy Imagery account on Flickr.

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.

‘Maneuverability’
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[1][2]):
2013-09-16_F-16_vs_F-35

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,[3] paving the way for the formal reunification of East and West Germany in 1990.[4] 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.[5] 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[6]). 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.

A picture of an East German Mig-29 which helped paved the way for the universal adoption of the HMS/HOBM combination. Photo courtesy of Hawkeye thru Flickr.
A picture of an East German Mig-29 which helped paved the way for the universal adoption of the HMS/HOBM combination. Photo courtesy of Hawkeye thru Flickr.

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[7]. 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.

‘Parting Shot’
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.[8][9] 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 …

A nice shot of the F-35's cockpit. Photo courtey of Wikipedia Commons.
A nice shot of the F-35’s cockpit. Photo courtey of Wikipedia Commons.

SOURCES:

[1] Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, http://wiki.scramble.nl/index.php/Lockheed_Martin_F-35_Lightning_II

[2] F-16 Fighting Falcon, General Dynamics, http://www.fighter-planes.com/info/f16.htm

[3] Berlin Wall, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Wall

[4] German Reunification, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/German_reunification

[5] Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile R-73, http://www.enemyforces.net/missiles/r_73.htm

[6] Air-to-air missile non-comparison table, http://www.x-plane.org/home/urf/aviation/text/missiles/aam.html

[7] Helmet-Mounted Display – JHMCS, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helmet-mounted_display#Joint_Helmet-Mounted_Cueing_System_.28JHMCS.29

[8] Su-30M Flanker-H Air-Superiority Fighter, Russian Federation, http://www.airforce-technology.com/projects/su_30mk/

[9] Su-34 (Su-32) Fullback Fighter Bomber, Russian Federation, http://www.airforce-technology.com/projects/su34/

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16 thoughts on “The F-35 Lightning 2 Could Revolutionize Air Combat”

    1. Sure, why not? Cost per aircraft is very high, though, estimated at USD 250-300 million per aircraft. Among the South East Asian countries, only the very rich Singapore has firm orders …

  1. Ah, I will have to disagree with this particular article regarding the F-35s maneuverability.

    With modern fighters, the wings arnt the only things that create lift. Blended body wing designs, LERX or Chines which create Vortex lift and the incorporation of internal weapons bays that eliminate drag induced by weapons carriage ensure that the F-35 will be a superb turning aircraft.

    In fact according to test pilot Billy Flynn, who was a former F-18 HARV and Eurofighter Typhoon Test pilot,

    “If one were to overlay the energy-maneuverability (E-M) diagrams for the F/A-18, F-16 or Typhoon over the F-35’s, “It is better. Comparable or better than every Western fourth-generation fighter out there,” Flynn says. That applies even to the F-35 B and C models with their respective 7g and 7.5g limits. “You’re not going to see any measurable difference between the aircraft,” Flynn says. In terms of instantaneous and sustained turn rates and just about every other performance metric, the F-35 variants match or considerably exceed the capabilities of every fourth-generation fighter”

    This is from a person who actually flew the plane, all the critics who criticize it are simply doing some educated guesses nothing more.

    So if you may, please revise your views about the F-35s maneuvering capabilities as they may mislead people on its true capabilities.

    1. I will gladly revise my blog if there a formula out there that show how an aircraft’s aerodynamics can contribute to its maneuverability, and if that data to run those formulas are also available.

      1. I’m sure there are formulas existing for that. but they might be reserved for people within the industry.

        I can site this however
        an F-16 is suposed to have a higher wing loading than an F-4
        I just did the math and heres what I got.

        F-16
        Empty:18,900 lbs
        Wing area: 300ft
        Load out: 5,000lbs
        Combat Weight:23,900lbs
        Wing Loading: ~79lbs/sq ft

        F-4
        Empty: 30,328
        Wing Area: 530 ft
        Load out: 8,000lbs
        Combat Weight: 38,328
        Wing Loading: ~72lbs/ft

        I tried to give an advantage to the F-16 by loading it lightly but still the advantage in wing loading firmly rest on the Phantom II.

        But even so an F-16, even a heavily loaded one would run circles around the F-4

        Advancements such as blended body and wing design and LERX extensions contribute greatly to an aircraft’s wing loading

        And I expect the F-35 to have the latest advancements in Body lifting charactaristics. Also the F-35C variant has some of the lowest wing loading properties on any aircraft, 668ft of wing compared to a Su-35’s 667 ft,

        The F-35 C is also much lighter than the Flanker E, but according to lockheed, all the F-35 variants perform similarly.

        For now I will simply take the Test pilots word for it. If they lie, they will loose all credibility in the aviation world

        -cheers

      2. An F-16C Block 50/52+ with no armaments/CFTs (or clean configuration) and full internal fuel will have a wing loading of 419 kg/m^2 (source – https://rhk111smilitaryandarmspage.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/the-f-16c-block-5052-viper-versus-the-su-30mkkmk2-flanker-g/). A similarly configured F-4E would have a wing loading of 404 kg/m^2 (source – Wikipedia), so you’re right, an F-4E can turn more tightly than an F-16C in the horizontal plane.

        HOWEVER, an F-4E’s thrust to weight ratio in that configuration would only be 0.81, while an F-16C would be at 0.94 for a 16% difference. Hence, an F-16 would be able to out climb or out dive an F-4E Phantom …

      3. With respect sir I would disagree. the F-16 is the tightest turning aircraft among the teen series fighters. And I seriously doubt that an F-4 would hold any advantage in the horizontal against the Fighting Falcon.

        simply computing the Wing Loading of an aircraft does not give us much detail about the maneuvering performance of modern fighters.

        As I have said, advancements like the incorporation of LERX extensions which provide vortex lift and blended body wing designes that provide the fuselage with lifting capabilities as well, take some of the load away from the wings.

        This has been discussed on F-16.net by pilots and people in the know. some have pictures and ID numbers to legitimize their claim.

        F-35 critics like Pierre Spray like to point out the F-35s wing loading as a disadvantge, without looking at its more advanced features.

        I hope you are not seriously sugesting that an F-4, a plane that was designed with mediocre maneuvering charactaristics can actually beat an F-16, a plane that was designed as pure dogfighter, in a horizontal fight

        Here is a good article on the matter,
        A comparison between the F-4, F-15, F-18 and F-35s turn rates are on Parts 2 and 3,
        http://elementsofpower.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-f-35-and-infamous-sustained-g-spec.html

      4. What you have to realize is the fact that the first operational version of the F-16, the F-16A, is very different from the F-16C. The A version was a lighter aircraft built for air combat, while the C version is a heavier aircraft but with better air to ground capability. The wing loading of a clean F-16A on 100% internal fuel is 367 kg/m^2, hence better than an F-4E’s 404 kg/m^2. (source – http://www.aerospaceweb.org/aircraft/fighter/f16/)

        To summarize:

        – The F-16A is more maneuverable than the F-4E since it is lighter and built for air combat and thus have a lower wing loading

        – The F-16C is heavier and less maneuverable than the F-16A or F-4E, but has better air to ground capability than both

        Thank you for constantly asking how I should change my blog, but I don’t think so at this point.

      5. With respect sir I would have to disagree. All F-16 versions will out turn any variant of an F-4. This has been discussed in detail on F-16.net.

        If you are familiar with the site
        You would know that any wrong claim or post is immediately countered by moderators, pilots and people in the know for correction purposes. I have experienced this first hand on that site.

        Infact here is a reminder on the site:

        F-16 versus XYZ
        Military aviation forum mainly focusing on the F-16, F-35 and F-22 jet fighters. Contains high quality discussions and has a gentle but strict moderation.
        http://www.f-16.net
        http://www.f-16.net/forum/viewforum.php?f=30

        Here is a quote that I took from the site:
        “Any F-16 will severely out turn any F-4!!! That said if the F-4 driver was smart he would fight F-104 style. Throttle up and make a Pass at high speed pop off some missiles and head for the deck balls to the wall.. BTW I have worked on and with F-4S’s at RAF watershiem SP? During a Tiger squadron exchange. The F-4S Does not turn any better then an F-4E. which is only a little better then the D. Any way with the slasher tactics it would negate the 16,s turn ability.. and in a tail chase the F-4 wins!! J-79s VG inlets…. Make a great High speed combo, well great for THAT age!!!…”

        Regarding maneuverability, F-16 pilots even claimed that the F-16 wasn’t always that maneuverable.

        “It wasn’t until the later blocks that had powerful GE F-110 class engines or PW 220 class engines that the F-16 was able to achieve its current state of agility.”

        If you remember Sgt. Mac’s Blog on the link I sent earlier ,“turning ability is either Lift limited or Thrust Limited”.

        An aircraft’s Thrust to Weight ratio has a lot to do with how well it can actually turn, and in that regard the F-16C and the F-35 fares very well.

        The F-35 instead of using LERX surfaces, uses Chines that are more RCS friendly. Chines, just like LERX improve lift.

        According to Wikipedia:

        “The chines may be understood as enhancing the lift generated by the forebody,”

        So as you can see, unlike on previous designs like the F-4, modern designs like the F-16 and F-35 have body lifting characteristics, not solely relying on the wings for lift.

        ~Respects.

      6. Well, that’s your opinion, and perhaps the opinion of others, too. If I see good data that backs up the claim that an F-16C can out turn an F-4E, I’d be happy to change my mind. However, until that happens, I am inclined to stay with what the current data I have says.

        Modern aircraft now don’t rely solely on wings for lift, but remember that majority of an aircraft’s lift is still handled by the wing, and only a minority portion is handled by LERX and blended body designs.

      7. I agree, I’ll try to look for better data also. Just how much lift is generated by the body and other enhancing surfaces like Chines are unclear to me also.

        Perhaps it varries. the F/A-18 has massive LERX extensions compared to the Viper, the difference in wing loading is large in favor of the Viper

        but the difference in turn performance is not that significant

        But Thanks

        I enjoyed our intelligent discussions that dont degrade down to the bashing and amaturish behavior that we often see on exchanges like this

  2. Hello again there sir RHK111.
    Here is the reply I got from one of the senior members of F-16.net
    He is a former pilot.

    “The wing loading argument is laughable at best. The C has vastly improved thrust to help with sustained turns. Oh, and then there is the whole unstable thing. The F-4 Phantom has an effectively higher wing loading than stated due to it’s stable design. using arbitrary numbers, if both planes are in a 6 G turn the Phantom has to fight the induced drag of effectively 8G of lift. 6G for turning, 1G negative tail load to balance the plane (i doubt it would be as low as a 1/6 ratio, 1/4 is more likely), and an additional 1G wing lift to counter the negative 1 G of tail force. When the viper pulls 6G, it faces 6G of drag. Then there is the fact that the Viper is a 9G plane with full internal fuel while the Phantom (E model) is a 7G plane with full fuel if I remember the n-W diagram correctly. The Phantom will also go through its fuel more quickly than the Viper. Then there is the whole argument of Thrust. A 26,000lb aircraft with a nominal 29,000 lb of thrust against a 42,000lb aircraft with a nominal 34,000 lb of thrust. Sorry, but the only hope the Phabulous Phantom has it to not turn at the break, use that 15 seconds the viper is turning to unload and accelerate and let the J79s carry it off beyond M2.
    “Spurts”

    -Pilot
    -Aerospace Engineer

    1. Well, that’s his opinion. My comments, though:

      * “The F-4 Phantom has an effectively higher wing loading than stated due to it’s stable design.”
      – How much higher wing loading? What is the basis for this? How do you quantify this?

      * “using arbitrary numbers, if both planes are in a 6 G turn the Phantom has to fight the induced drag of effectively 8G of lift. 6G for turning, 1G negative tail load to balance the plane (i doubt it would be as low as a 1/6 ratio, 1/4 is more likely), and an additional 1G wing lift to counter the negative 1 G of tail force. When the viper pulls 6G, it faces 6G of drag.”
      – Assumptions again, and he himself says the numbers are arbitrary.

      * “Then there is the fact that the Viper is a 9G plane with full internal fuel while the Phantom (E model) is a 7G plane with full fuel if I remember the n-W diagram correctly. The Phantom will also go through its fuel more quickly than the Viper. ”
      – Tend to agree with this, most older planes tend to be limited to 7G only.

      * Then there is the whole argument of Thrust. A 26,000lb aircraft with a nominal 29,000 lb of thrust against a 42,000lb aircraft with a nominal 34,000 lb of thrust.”
      – Agree. We already know that the F-16C has a higher Thrust to Weight Ratio than the Phantom.

      ******************

      Appreciate your efforts, zero-one. But sometimes we learn from these forums, sometimes we don’t. That is why I have stopped going to them, and just go thru established sources as much as possible.

      Too many OPINIONS in those forums, but not enough hard facts. Sure, I would like to learn more, but I want to get the QUANTIFIABLE facts, not just opinions. If I can’t get the solid, repeatable math about something, then I just ignore it altogether since they are not facts.

    2. Also remember that WVR combat is just ONE aspect where the F-16C is superior to the F-4E, hence even if people can say that the F-4E can turn similar to an F-16C, the F-4E is still inferior in other aspects, like Thrust to Weight Ratio. It is much harder to maintain, not as many access panels, no modular systems, etc. So to me, saying that the F-4E can turn similar to an F-16C doesn’t mean much because overall it still has so many other deficiencies in other areas.

    3. * “If both planes are in a 6 G turn the Phantom has to fight the induced drag of effectively 8G of lift. 6G for turning, 1G negative tail load to balance the plane (i doubt it would be as low as a 1/6 ratio, 1/4 is more likely), and an additional 1G wing lift to counter the negative 1 G of tail force. When the viper pulls 6G, it faces 6G of drag.”

      Going back to this, it does seem interesting, I just don’t know where and how he got the numbers wherein there is an additional 1G wing lift and -1G of tail force for the F-4, while there is none for the Viper. I will try to join in on the discussion to ask about this when I can.

      1. Ok, thats fine. Im also trying to ask for some links to support claims like this. But they are hard to come by, as we are already dweling in the relmbs of opsec information.

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