As of mid-2019, pilots from four air forces (Israel, U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Air Force and British RAF) have flown the F-35 in combat. Most of these missions were flown over Syria and Iraq although marine F-35Bs have served in Afghanistan and Israel has Iranians thinking these stealth aircraft have ventured into Iran. Dozens of pilots have spent hundreds of hours with their F-35s in combat zones. There are some things they all agree on.
All these F-35 combat pilots now believe the main advantage of the F-35 is its ease of operation and much enhanced situational awareness. Stealth is useful but not as much as those first two items. Thus when flying in beast mode (non-stealthy because there are lots of bombs and fuels tanks carried externally), the ease of use and situational awareness enable pilots to operate much more effectively than any other aircraft they have flown. Because of these reviews by American and foreign pilots, export customers have ordered more F-35s and new customers are interested. Other export customers who have just started pilot training are receiving the same reactions from their pilots and many of those nations are increasing their F-35 orders because of it.
The advantages of the F-35 create additional capabilities for pilots. For example, the ease of flying enables F-35 pilots to concentrate on something that does still requires a lot of decision making by the pilot; stealth management and threat management. The stealth characteristics of the F-35 make it more difficult, but not impossible, for radar to detect it. How the pilots fly in a combat zone can improve the effectiveness of stealth. That is done by learning to manage the flood of “threat management” data that F-35 pilots have access to. By being able to concentrate on stealth and threat management F-35 pilots achieve what has been the key element in air combat since 1914; getting in the first shot. From 1914 into the 1940s the key to success in air-to-air combat was knowing how to fly into a position where you would see the enemy first and carry out a surprise attack. The earliest of these tricks was the World War I tactic of trying to have the sun behind you to make it more difficult for the enemy to see you coming. Another tactic was trying to get higher and out of sight (for as long as possible) until you could dive on the enemy aircraft in a high speed, and unexpected, attack. In effect, “stealth” and the resulting surprise was always the key to victory. The F-35 was designed with that in mind. The radar stealth and maneuverability isn’t as good as the F-22, but the F-35 “situational awareness” is much better. Pilots who have flown the F-22 and F-35 always note this and point out that, in the hands of an experienced pilot, it makes the F-35 a more effective aircraft than the older and more expensive F-22.
The F-35 was designed to have “affordable stealth” and much more effective sensors, electronics and software to manage it all. F-35 stealth is much less expensive than that in the F-22's, and initial Israeli combat experience over Lebanon and Syria indicates that the stealth and internal electronic countermeasures more than make up for that. The passive sensors and “sensor fusion” software of the F-35 works as advertised. In the cockpit, the pilot has one large (20 inch diagonal) LCD showing all needed aircraft data with more displayed on the pilots JHMDS helmet visor. That is all very well, but as with the very capable F-22, it wasn’t performance that limited procurement but excessive cost.
What the F-35 flight management software and situational awareness demonstrate is that the usual measures of a superior fighter aircraft (speed, maneuverability) no longer matter as much. An F-35 is more likely to see the other aircraft first, fire first and be more aware of the changing battle situation than enemy pilots in, on paper, faster and more maneuverable aircraft.
Why does the F-35 have these specific and popular capabilities? Mainly because air forces have been trying to build those features into new aircraft for over half a century. A century of research into what makes a fighter pilot successful has turned up all sorts of interesting, and sometimes useful, information. For example, it was found that some 80 percent of pilots killed in combat never knew that they were a target until the attacker opened fire. Interviews with foreign (especially Japanese and German) pilots showed that this was common for them as well and most of the victims were pilots with few combat sorties to their credit. All this led to discovering the concept of maintaining situational awareness (knowing exactly where you are and where everyone else is).
Before the F-35 one of the most valuable tools for maintaining situational awareness was JTIDS (Joint Tactical Information Data System). Development of this system began in the 1980s and mature examples of the technology only began showing up by the late 1990s. JTIDS is a datalink that gives the pilot complete and real-time situation report, showing what other pilots (and planes like the E-3) are seeing. Pilots who tested JTIDS reported drastic increases in their situational awareness. For example, in most tests, pilots with JTIDS had a 4-to-1 kill ratio in their favor against pilots without JTIDS.
And then there's the mystery of what makes an ace. Since World War I (1914-18) researchers have been seeking to discover why some fighter pilots are aces while most (about 95 percent) are not. More recently there were studies that detected unique difference in brain activity among fighter pilots. But little research has been possible on aces themselves because there are no more of them on active duty. Still, the research continues, as success in this area would make it possible to more efficiently recruit superior fighter pilots and train them faster and more effectively.
In some ways, the brain scan studies have confirmed some of the earlier work in this area. For example, studies have long sought to find common factors among aces. For World War I aces it was found that these pilots tended to be very accurate shooters, even if they were sometimes lousy pilots. World War II research found some similarities in eye color and the gender of children and an apparent ability to quickly size up any situation (situational awareness). Further research confirmed that aces were quick thinkers, who were better able to figure out where they were. But it was observed that these qualities were common in all who were more successful in combat, be it as tank crews, infantrymen, commanders on warships, or team athletes (football, basketball, hockey, and so on). But fighter pilots were individuals who fought in a way where it was easier to measure success and recognize those who were superior.
The U.S. found that stealth was useful but was not as important as aircraft ease of use and situational awareness. The F-22 had stealth and ease of use but it was still believed that enhanced situational awareness was the most important of the three and that was what was added to the F-35. This assessment turned out to be correct.