F-35: Highway to the Danger Zone

July 16, 2015

Editor’s Note: This piece on the War on the Rocks Hasty Ambush blog is published in partnership with the Hoover Institution’s new Military History in the News, a weekly column from the Hoover Institution that reflects on how the study of the past alone allows us to make sense of the often baffling daily violence, not by offering exact parallels from history, but rather by providing contexts of similarity and difference that foster perspective and insight—and reassurance that nothing is ever quite new.


There is something about weapons “testing” that excites all of mankind’s most irrational emotions. The worst example has been the Pentagon’s official test agency, which is—most of the time—dedicated to the proposition that anything can be blown up. A missile designed to destroy heavy tanks can also cripple lighter-weight fighting vehicles. If a big mine is detonated underneath a small ship, the ship doesn’t work quite so well. And so on; you get the idea.

The latest weapons-test-buzz to enflame the passions of defense reporters and reformers was a recent “dogfighting” encounter between the very expensive F-35 strike fighter and a lowly, old F-16. As the headline writers at the War Is Boring blog put it, the test supposedly demonstrated that “the F-35 can’t dogfight” and “the new stealth fighter is dead meat in an air battle.” Others in the press jumped into the fray: the F-35 has always been a lousy airplane, a horse designed by a three-service committee, gold-plated and too complex to work.

But stories that are too good to be true usually aren’t, and this is no exception. The test in question was a test of maneuverability; pitting the F-35 against the F-16 is sort of like asking a minivan to go up against a Porsche in a cornering test. The minivan may be brand new and the Porsche a mid-1970s relic, but when it comes to coming ‘round the bend, it’s no contest. But what this has to do with air-to-air combat is quite another question.

Modern aerial combat is less like Top Gun than a video game. “Jinking” and “pulling Gs” are things that pilots do just before their planes explode, not the tricks of the ace. The contest is mostly an electronic one: who has the best sensors, the best command-and-control networks, and the most capable missiles. Oh, yes: “stealth” still matters. A lot. While stealth features don’t amount to a Star-Trek-style “cloaking device,” confusing adversaries’ radars and other sensors gives U.S. aircraft a big advantage. In the game of aerial quick-draw, they get to shoot first. In the real world, “Maverick” never sees the bullet that kills him.

And it won’t be a bullet, but a missile: since Vietnam, the only time a U.S. Air Force pilot has used his cannon against another aircraft was in 1991, when an A-10 pilot used his Gatling gun to shoot down an Iraqi helicopter. In the old days, about 60 percent of air-to-air kills were with guns. That’s declined to about 5 percent.

The guys with the silk scarves and the Raybans still look hot. But in the true air-combat danger zone, it’s the geeky guy with the heavy helmet and the squat looking airplane, flying straight and smooth and talking to his computer rather than his wingman who’s going to come home alive. Dogfighting is, well, for the dogs.


Thomas Donnelly, a defense and security policy analyst, is the codirector of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. 

Image: U.S. Air Force