Since 2001, Lockheed Martin and US military planners have been putting together the F-35, a new aircraft that promises to revolutionise aerial combat so thoroughly as to leave it unrecognizable to the general public.
Throughout its development, detractors of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter have knocked the program for taking too long and costing too much, though overruns commonly occur when developing massive, first-in-class projects like the F-35.
But perhaps the most damning criticism of the F-35 came from a 2015 assessment that alleged that F-16s, first fielded in the 1970s, had handily defeated a group of F-35s in mock dogfight tests.
According to Lt. Col. David “Chip” Berke, the only US Marine to ever fly the F-22 and the F-35, the public has a lot of learning to do when assessing a jet’s capability in warfare.
“The whole concept of dogfighting is so misunderstood and taken out of context,” Berke said in an interview with Business Insider.
“There is some idea that when we talk about dogfighting it’s one aeroplane’s ability to get another aeroplanes 6 and shoot it with a gun … that hasn’t happened with American planes in maybe 40 years,” Berke said.
“Everybody that’s flown a fighter in the last 25 years — we all watched ‘Top Gun’,” said Berke, nodding to the 1986 smash hit where US Navy pilots jockey for position against Russian-made MiGs, point their nose at them, and blast the planes away.
However, planes don’t fight like that anymore, and comparing different planes statistics on paper and trying to calculate or simulate which plane can get behind the other is “kind of an arcane way of looking at it,” Berke said.
Unlike older planes immortalised in films, the F-35 doesn’t need to face its adversary to destroy it. The F-35 can fire “off boresight,” virtually eliminating the need to jockey for position behind an enemy.
While US Air Force pilots do train for classic, World War II-era dogfights, and while the F-35 holds its own and can manoeuvre just as well as fourth-generation planes, dogfights just aren’t that important anymore.
Berke said that dogfighting teaches pilots “great skill sets, but WVR (within visual range) conflict doesn’t always mean a turning fight within 100 feet of the other guy manoeuvring for each other’s 6 O’clock.” Berke also made an important distinction that all conflicts WVR do not always become dogfights.
Also, “within visual range” is a tricky term.
“You could not see a guy who’s a mile away, or you could see a guy at 50 miles if you got lucky,” said Berke of WVR conflicts. The fact is, that with today’s all-aspect weapons systems, a plane can “be effective in a visual fight from offensive, defensive, and neutral positions.”
“We need to stop judging a fighter’s ability based on wing loading and G’s,” said Berke of lifelong analysts who prize specifications on paper over pilot’s insights.
Furthermore, Berke, who has several thousand flying hours in four different aeroplanes, both fourth and fifth generation, stressed that pilots train to negate or avoid WVR conflicts — and no plane does that better than the F-35.
Even in the F-22 Raptor, the world’s most lethal combat plane in WVR conflicts and beyond, Berke said he’d avoid a close up, turning fight.
“Just because I knew I could outmaneuver an enemy, my objective wouldn’t be to get in a turning fight and kill him,” said Berke.
Unfortunately for “Top Gun” fans, and fans of the gritty, Star Wars-style air-to-air combat depicted in TV and films, the idea of a “dogfight” long ago faded from relevance in the world of aerial combat.
A newer, less sexy term has risen to take its place: Situational awareness. And the F-35 has it in spades.
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