In June 2015 the mass media had a flurry of stories about a practice dogfight between an F-35 and F-16s in which the more recent aircraft, the F-35, lost. What was lost in all the grandstanding and pontificating about terrible this was the fact that the incident in question was not a test of the F-35s air-to-air combat capabilities but rather using an older development (pre-production) version of the F-35 (lacking many of its sensors and stealth capabilities) to simply see what its maneuver capabilities were compared to a recent model of the F-16. The F-35 pilot had less than a hundred hours experience in the F-35 while the F-16 pilots had more than ten times as many hours in the F-16. Also left out of the news reports is that the F-35 was not designed to engage in classic dogfighting, although it could do that if forced to.
Moreover this is not the first time the media has made this mistake. Back in 2008 media reports that the F-35 was regularly defeated in computer simulated combats with the latest Russian fighters, prompted the U.S. Air Force to release a lot of its own data on F-35 effectiveness. Overall, the air force simulations and studies have shown the F-35 to be four times as effective against any current fighter (the best of them known as "fourth generation" aircraft.) The major advantages of the F-35 are engine power (the one engine generates more power than the two engines used in the Eurofighter or F-18), stealth and the fact that it can fight "clean" (without any pods or missiles hung from its wings, and interfering with maximum maneuverability). While it's true that the F-35 would have problems in a dogfight with some aircraft (notably the Su-27/30 series), the F-35 was designed to spot the enemy first, get the first shot in, and stay out of range of an old-fashioned dog fight.
These BVR (Beyond Visual Range) tactics are untried in large scale combat, while dog fighting has been around since 1914. But everyone agrees that BVR (using superior sensors and long range missiles) tactics are the future. Not everyone agrees that the future is here yet. The 27 ton F-35 is armed with an internal 25mm cannon and four internal air-to-air missiles (or two missiles and two smart bombs). Plus four external smart bombs and two missiles. All sensors are carried internally, and max weapon load is 6.8 tons. There F-35 does have lots of problems, mainly overly ambitious technical goals, too much political involvement and poor management. These are all characteristic of American weapons development during the Cold War. By the 1980s one defense industry executive (Norman Augustine) looked at the trends and calculated that by 2015 electronics would occupy 100 percent of the internal space of new warplanes and that by 2054 the entire defense budget would pay for one new warplane. It didn’t turn out that bad but it isn’t good either. The B-2, F-22 and F-35 are proof of that. Nevertheless aircraft that get through this overpriced and overly long process are superb. But as Augustine foresaw, you can’t afford many of them and they always arrive late and with lots of expensive problems that have to be fixed.
Another issue the mass media in general does not appear to have grasped has been the changes in air-to-air combat over the last few decades. The classic aerial dogfight has been on the way out and most of journalists haven't really noticed. For the first half century of air-to-air combat, chasing enemy fighters, maneuvering to get a good shot with machine-guns or cannon was the most effective form of combat. This was the classic style of air warfare. But starting in the 1960s, missiles entered the picture. At first, most of the missiles were used much like the earlier weapons; get on the enemy's tail and put a missile up his butt. The first, and most successful, of these "tail chasing" missiles was the U.S. Sidewinder. After half a century of upgrades, the Sidewinder is still one of the most widely used and successful missiles. But the modern Sidewinder is far more capable and is now capable of being very effective without the classic dogfight tactics.
The missile of the future, he AtIM-9 Sparrow appeared the same time as the AIM-7 Sidewinder. The Sparrow was a longer range missile that was radar controlled. The pilot picked up a target on his radar and fired the Sparrow in the general direction of the target, guiding it most of the way. When within a few thousand meters of the target, a sensor in the Sparrow takes over, closing in for the kill. One shortcoming of this was the need for the attacking aircraft to keep the enemy aircraft on his radar screen until the Sparrow finally connected with the target. The Sparrow worked, but not as well nor as often as expected, at least initially. The first aircraft brought down by the Sparrow was in 1965, over Vietnam. But for the next two decades, long range missiles were unable to overcome had one major problem; pilots didn't trust their ability to identify an enemy aircraft at BVR (Beyond Visual Range.) Fear of hitting a friendly aircraft caused pilots to prefer going in close, confirming the identity of the target and using machine-guns or Sidewinders to attack.
Pilots fears were finally addressed in the 1980s with the introduction of the AWACS aircraft. The large, four engine AWACS carried a radar that could keep an eye on all aircraft for several hundred kilometers around. While not perfect, it added enough clarity to the situation to make pilots confident that their BVR attacks were not going to bring down friendly aircraft. At this point Sparrow was much improved and there was a new generation of BVR missiles appearing.
During the 1991 Gulf War the change was clearly underway. There were 39 U.S. air-to-air kills. The Sidewinder got 25 of them, the Sparrow 11. The traditional air-to-air weapon, machine-gun, got none. The A-10 ground attack aircraft nailed two helicopters with its 30mm anti-tank cannon, and one Iraqi aircraft was maneuvered into the ground (a not unusual method over the history of air warfare.) While only 12.6 percent of the Sidewinders fired scored a hit, 28 percent of the Sparrows did.
After the Gulf War, the Sparrow was replaced by the AMRAAM, a missile that was essentially "fire and forget" (during the final few kilometers the attacking aircraft did not have to keep a radar lock on the target.) A new generation of pilots were flying who fully expected to do most of air combat at BVR. This was becoming U.S. Air Force doctrine. But the dogfight isn't dead yet. Most modern fighters (including the new F-22 and F-35) still carry cannon and Sidewinders. This is not the result of excessive caution, but knowledge of how hairy air combat can get. The Wild Blue Yonder is a big place and no radar is perfect. Enemy aircraft can sneak in from behind mountains, hills, forests or radar jamming. The chance of finding yourself within visual (and Sidewinder) range of enemy aircraft is still a very likely possibility. Moreover, short range missiles like the Sidewinder have acquired new abilities. Until the 1980s, you had to be in a narrow arc behind an enemy aircraft before the heat sensing seeker on the Sidewinder spotted the hot exhaust of the target aircraft. But that arc has gotten wider and wider as better heat sensors were developed. Now you can be flying past an enemy aircraft and your missile will pick up not just the jet exhaust, but the warmed up surfaces on the aircraft. Launch your missile and it will do a 180 and take off after the target. New fire control equipment includes a helmet mounted sight that will let the missile know what you are looking at. Hit the fire button and your Sidewinder-on-Steroids goes wherever you were looking and chases after the target.
Naturally, it's not as simple as that. As missiles became smarter and more capable, devices were developed to give the target a better chance of survival. For the short range heat seekers, flares have been a popular, and often effective, antidote. If you are being chased by a Sidewinder, pop a few flares and the missile will go after the hotter heat source (the flare.) Some missiles now have microcomputers in them and a library of various heat sources. This will cause the missile to ignore most flares and continue after the aircraft. This, in turn, has produced more types of flares. Bottom line is that there is no perfect weapon, there are always countermeasures. Even without flares, pilots can sometimes outmaneuver a heat seeker. Electronic countermeasures are also effective against BVR missiles, as is violent maneuvering. As with the heat seekers, there's a constant tug of war between the seeker technology and countermeasures.
Victory will still go to the better trained, not the better armed pilots. Even BVR missiles require a pilot who knows how to best use his radar and get into a position to fire the most effective shot. This is even more the case with close range heat seekers. But well trained and well equipped pilots have a tremendous edge. While not all air forces agree with the USAF on the dominance of BVR missiles, it takes skilled and lucky pilots to get close enough to American aircraft to dogfight. And the better trained American pilots still have an edge in that department. They simply spend more time in the air practicing, and this is an edge that can only be matched by equally diligent training.
Dogfighting isn't quite dead yet and it probably never will be. But more and more, victory goes to the side that can reach out BVR and touch the enemy first with an AMRAAM. The F-35 was optimized for BVR combat because that has been the future of air-to-air warfare for some time now.