The new F-35 Lightning may be in trouble

Earlier this year we talked about some of the initial flight testing of the new F-35 Lightning Joint Strike Fighter which was largely completed between January and April. After more than a trillion dollars in development costs and constant questions from critics both inside and outside the aerospace industry, the early look by the military was promising. The testing lined the fighter up against some of the current fleet of similar planes and tested basic operations and “basic fighter maneuvers.” With a few minor exceptions the plane seemed to be getting a thumbs up.

But there was a second, more aggressive phase of testing conducted at the time which apparently wasn’t widely reported. The 21st century wonder was put into real time (albeit without live weapons, obviously) dog fights with the F-16, a plane it is intended to replace. According to at least one report from defense journalist David Axe, a test pilot tasked with putting the F-35 through its paces was not pleased and the F-16 outfought the new plane at every turn. (ECN Magazine)

A test pilot has some very, very bad news about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The pricey new stealth jet can’t turn or climb fast enough to hit an enemy plane during a dogfight or to dodge the enemy’s own gunfire, the pilot reported following a day of mock air battles back in January.

“The F-35 was at a distinct energy disadvantage,” the unnamed pilot wrote in a scathing five-page brief that War Is Boring has obtained. The brief is unclassified but is labeled “for official use only.”

The test pilot’s report is the latest evidence of fundamental problems with the design of the F-35 — which, at a total program cost of more than a trillion dollars, is history’s most expensive weapon.

Axe’s conclusion is grim.

And that means that, within a few decades, American and allied aviators will fly into battle in an inferior fighter — one that could get them killed … and cost the United States control of the air.

The report goes into a lot of technical details which may not be of much interest unless you’re seriously into avionics, but the basics don’t sound great. The F-35 was “flying clean” without excess loading of weapons while the older F-16 had two bulky underwing drop tanks installed, putting it at a disadvantage. Still, even with that perceived leg up, the new fighter was at an Energy Deficit whenever fast maneuvering was required and the pilot was unable to lock on to the older plane for a targeting solution. By comparison, the F-16 was able to maneuver into position and lock on for a shot at the F-35 with comparative ease.

I would note that from everything I can see, this story is single sourced from a test pilot who wished to remain anonymous. (Really? How many test pilots were involved? Seems like the military could figure out who it was, doesn’t it?) But Axe seems to be highly regarded and his report is being cited in multiple publications. And if accurate, this is some seriously bad news. How can the military move forward to a next generation plane that can’t beat its predecessor in a dogfight? And if it can’t what’s to be done about the trillion dollars we already flushed into the program? I suppose they could go back to the drawing board and try to make some design changes to get the Joint Strike Fighter up to snuff, but you can be sure that a lot of members of Congress aren’t going to be happy about that.

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