F-35 is intended to replace the F-16 and is promoted as F-16s successor. However, closer look reveals that this is not true. While the F-16 was designed as daytime visual-range dogfighter, F-35 was always intended to be a multirole aircraft with primary focus on air-to-ground missions and limited air-to-air performance. This did not stop Lockheed Martin from advertising the F-35 as a dogfighter, before its obvious inability to actually achieve high maneuverability forced them to change rhetorics.
This comparison will use both F-16A and F-16C for comparison, where applicable. When not noted otherwise, data will be assumed to apply to either both versions or only F-16C. F-35 used for comparison will be F-35A, since it is a standard model and is intended to replace the F-16 (F-35B being a replacement for AV-8 and F-35C being a replacement for F-18).
Impact on pilot’s skill
Most important factors in fighter design are ones that directly affect pilot: sortie rate / maintenance downtime, operating cost, user interface and reliability. Good enough pilot will compensate for aircraft’s weaknesses and focus on strengths, and even if aircraft is inferior across the board, he will be able to beat the opponent through tactics. How important training is was shown clearly in Vietnam: early on, USAFs F-4s achieved negative 2:1 exchange ratios against NVAF MiG-19 and MiG-21. Once USAF put some effort into pilot training, they started regularly achieving positive 2:1 exchange ratios. This is despite the fact that in dogfight, angles fighter (MiG) has no inherent advantage over the energy fighter (F-4) – or the opposite. In fact, MiGs had advantage in Vietnam due to smaller size and less smoky engines.
F-16 can fly 1,2 hours each day. Fuel consumption is 1.208 kg/h at Mach 0,85 cruise. F-16A has fuel consumption of 22.699 kg/h at full afterburner. F-16C Block 50 has fuel consumption of 5.797 kg/h ar full dry thrust and 25.570 kg/h at full afterburner. Direct operating cost per hour of flight is 7.000 USD. F-35A can fly one hour every two days. Fuel consumption is 2.721 kg/h cruise, 8.890 kg/h at maximum dry thrust and 39.000 kg/h with afterburner. Direct operating cost per hour of flight is 30.000 USD.
It is necessary for pilots to fly at least 30 hours per month. While F-16 allows up to 36 hours per month, F-35 only allows clearly insufficient 15 hours per month. Despite that disparity, direct operating costs will be 252.000 USD for the F-16 and 450.000 USD for the F-35. With 30 hours per month, F-16 will cost 210.000 USD per aircraft, allowing two aircraft to be operated for price of single F-35 while flying twice as much per aircraft.
F-16C has AN/APG-68 radar with 70 km vs 1m2 target and 120* coverage, and no IRST. Its RWR typically covers only frontal sector, but MAWS provides 360* coverage. F-16 has 360* horizontal and 195* vertical visibility, including 15* over the nose, 0* over the tail and 30* over the side visibility.
F-35 has a single IRST sensor under the nose. It is a staring midwave (or dual-band) sensor covering low frontal sector. Additionally, its IR missile warning system (DAS) can be used as IRST. This system provides spherical coverage, with a caveat that it is short-ranged when compared to full-blown IRST systems. Lastly, it has radar; this however is primarily air-to-ground sensor and will typically stay offline during air-to-air combat to avoid providing the enemy with crucial data. Radar has 120* coverage and 160 km range vs 1 m2 target. F-35 has a sunk, framed canopy providing 340* horizontal and 188,5* vertical visibility, including 16* over the nose, -7,5* over the tail and 26* over the sides, with a maximum of 40* over the side visibility. F-35 may have spherical coverage with DAS providing optical feed to the pilot, assuming that helmet issues are solved. However, pilots still prefer not to use the helmet, as that way they can see with far more clarity and depth perception than what helmet allows. DAS also gives lower detection range against fighter aircraft than pilot’s own unassisted eyes do.
F-35 has overall situational awareness advantage, especially at beyond visual range, but it is significantly disadvantaged in visual-range dogfight by its lacking cockpit visibility. F-16 can compensate for its disadvantage by using external Sniper XR pod, which is equal in capabilities to EOTS.
Stealth can be divided into several areas: visual, radar and IR. Visual stealth refers to how easy is to to see the aircraft with Mk.I eyeball. Radar stealth can refer to two things: aircraft’s radar cross section (RCS), and aircraft’s radar emissions (EMCON). IR stealth refers to aircraft’s IR signature.
In terms of visual signature, F-16 is harder to detect due to slimmer, more aerodynamic body. This is despite similar overall dimensions (F-16: 15,06 m L, 9,96 m W, 4,88 m H; F-35A: 15,7 m L, 10,7 m W, 4,6 m H).
In terms of radar signature, F-16 will have RCS of 1,2 m2 without missiles and 2,2 m2 with missiles. As AN/APG-81 has 160 km range vs 1m2 targe, F-35 will detect it from 195 km with radar, or 60-80 km (est.) with IRST. If no jamming is present, F-35 will be able to attack the F-16 from 145-150 km with radar, or 2-29 km if F-16 is using jamming. In either case, it will be able to attack the F-16 with IRST from ~50-70 km. F-35 has RCS of 0,00143 m2. F-16s AN/APG-68 has a range of 105 km vs 5 m2 target. Consequently, F-16 will detect the F-35 from 13,65 km. With jamming, it will be able to attack the F-35 only once it cannot present its nose any longer; without jamming, it will be able to attack the F-35 from 0,2-2,6 km. However, any aircraft actually using radar will be detected from several times the radar’s own detection distance.
When it comes to IR signature, standard F-16 does not have IRST which gives the F-35 huge advantage of being able to attack the F-16 not only from large distance, but also completely passively, preventing the F-16 from detecting its radar emissions. F-16A is capable of M 1,1 supercruise with two wingtip missiles and 50% fuel at 40.000 ft; when combined with smaller size, this gives it significantly lower IR signature than the F-35s. However, supercruise is not sustainable due to low fuel fraction, and allows the F-16 only two missiles versus four on the F-35.
F-16 can cruise at Mach 1,1 with two wingtip missiles, or Mach 0,9 with 6 missiles, compared to the F-35s Mach 0,95 with 4 missiles. Using 30% (952 kg) of the onboard fuel would allow F-16C 9,85 minutes at maximum dry thrust.
F-35 is supposed to supercruise for 150 nautic miles at Mach 1,2 with 4 missiles. 150 miles at 40.000 ft and Mach 1,2 would take 13,08 minutes. At test bench and full dry thrust, F135 consumes 11.089 kg per hour, while the F-35 has 8.280 kg of internal fuel. 2.417 kg theoretically spent for “supercruise” (real value would be less) is 29% of the F-35s onboard fuel. F-22 can cover a maximum of 0,04 miles per pound of fuel at 45.000 ft and Mach 1,5. Its combat radius is 400 nm with 100 nm supercruise; this means that it uses 5.000 lbs of fuel for supercruise and 8.600 lbs for subsonic cruise. As the F-22 has 18.000 lbs of internal fuel, 13.600 lbs of fuel would equalize 76% of the onboard fuel, with just supercruise requirement accounting for 28% of the onboard fuel. Since F-35s supercruise is done without extended subsonic leg, it means that either F-35 has to burn off a portion of fuel to supercruise, or else it can only achieve Mach 1,2 at low afterburner. Following quote suggests the latter, as does the fact that the F-35 can achieve top speed of only Mach 1,67, due to drag issues but also due to using divrterless intakes, which are unfit for supercruise.
“What we can do in our airplane is get above the Mach with afterburner, and once you get it going … you can definitely pull the throttle back quite a bit and still maintain supersonic, so technically you’re pretty much at very, very min[imum] afterburner while you’re cruising,” Griffiths said. “So it really does have very good acceleration capabilities up in the air.”
F-35A also has combat radius of 1.082 km with 4 missiles, compared to 925 km with 6 missiles for F-16A and 900 km with 6 missiles for the F-16C. This is despite the higher fuel fraction (0,385 vs 0,31 for F-16A and 0,27 for F-16C), higher internal fuel load (8.280 kg vs 3.160/3.175 kg) and the fact that the F-35 is flying clean while F-16 has only 2 conformal (wingtip) missile stations. F-35 is limited to maximum cruise speed of Mach 0,95, which gets reduced to cca Mach 0,8 with external fuel tanks, compared to Mach 1,1 with 2 wingtip missiles for F-16A.
F-16A has instantaneous turn rate of 28.1 deg/s (9 g at 350 kts), and sustained turn rate of 14,3 deg/s. F-16C has instantaneous turn rate of 26 deg/s and sustained turn rate of 18 deg/s. F-35A should have instantaneous turn corner speed of 26,6 deg/s (9 g @ 370 kts and 15.000 ft) and sustained turn corner speed of 10,03 deg/s (4,6 g @ M 0,8). In terms of transonic acceleration, F-35A takes 63 seconds to accelerate from M 0,8 to 1,2 @ 30.000 ft, compared to 40 seconds for F-16A and 43 seconds for F-16C. F-16s acceleration is comparable to that of clean F-35A only if the F-16 is carrying two supersonic fuel tanks (~60 s w/ 2 EFT + 4 AMRAAM). [Note here; according to Stevenson, 2006, F-16s acceleration values given above are achieved at 40.000 ft; at 30.000 ft F-16C would need 28 seconds, which is less than half of time that the F-35A needs.] Initial climb rate is 259 m/s for F-35, 315 m/s for F-16A and 254 m/s for F-16C.
It can be seen that the F-35 is outmatched in air-to-air combat against both F-16 variants. F-16A outmatches the F-35 in all listed parameters, while F-16C is comparable in terms of instantaneous turn rate but has superior energy management capabilities. Roll performance should be better for the F-16 due to smaller wing span and superior mass distribution (smaller engine, slimmer body), though the F-35 can achieve higher maximum roll rate. F-16 is aerodynamically clean with two wingtip missiles, compared to F-35s clean configuration of four internal missiles.
(Note that the best way to escape either missile or gun shot is instantaneous turn in order to put the attacker at 3/9 o’clock followed by acceleration, and if necessary another turn. Sustained turns do not have much place in dogfight. In a multi-ship dogfight, no turn should be followed for more than 90 degrees).
F-16 does not have good post-stall maneuverability capabilities; this may not be a problem normally, but deep stall issues caused a 26 degree angle of attack limit to be instituted. This led to significant reduction in the F-16s instantaneous turn rate, as it achieves maximum lift coefficient at 32 degrees AoA. Main reason for this is excessive lift forward of Cg due to large amount of vortex lift from LERX and forebody, moving Cl forward and preventing elevators from pitching aircraft down. Both F-35 and F-16 have similar wing sweep (35* and 40*, respectivelly), being optimized for transonic maneuverability. Still, F-35s lower wing sweep results in extended transonic region and somewhat faster supersonic drag rise with Mach number.
Both aircraft use AIM-9 for within visual range combat and AIM-120 for beyond visual range combat. AIM-120 is an active radar missile; consequently, it will give itself away with its own radar, quite possibly long before enemy MAWS notices it. Once it does so, its limited maneuverability and usage of easily jammed or decoyed RF seeker head means that any enemy fighters will easily avoid it (even Pentagon is getting worried about that). AIM-9X is an IR missile with 26 km range; 40 km range BVR version was cancelled, and as a result F-35 cannot take full advantage of its IRST, unless it is using British ASRAAM (50 km range).
F-16 has a standard loadout of 4 RF BVRAAM, 2 IR WVRAAM and 4,7 gun bursts. F-35 has a standard loadout of 4 RF BVRAAM and 2,6 gun bursts. Total number of onboard kills is 1,84 for the F-16 and 0,996 for the F-35. “Heavy” loadout for the F-35 is 8 RF BVRAAM, 2 IR WVRAAM and 2,6 gun bursts, translating into a total of 1,62 onboard kills. As it can be seen, in both cases F-16 has advantage in number of onboard kills, and F-35 has to give up much of its RCS advantage in order to come close to equalizing F-16s number of onboard kills. Further, F-35 cannot utilize AIM-9 in “stealth” configuration, and thus has to choose between being radar-stealthy but hopeless in a dogfight, or being not stealthy even to radar but capable of some limited self-defense in visual-range combat. This however does not hold true for UK F-35s, which can carry dual role BVR/WVR IR ASRAAM in their internal weapons bays.
Numbers in the air
F-16 allows 36 hours per month in the air, compared to 15 hours per month for the F-35. Direct operating cost per hour will be 252.000 USD per month for the F-16 and and 450.000 USD for the F-35. Two F-16s would allow 64 hours per month for 448.000 USD per month, a 4,3:1 advantage over the F-35. Total (direct + indirect) cost per flight hour is 22.500 USD for F-16C and likely cca 52.000 USD for F-35, a 2,3:1 advantage for the F-16.
If initial costs are compared, F-16A costs 30 million USD vs 70 million USD for F-16C and 120 million USD at the very least for the F-35, giving a 4:1 advantage to F-16A and 1,7:1 to F-16C. Further, each F-16 can sustain 1,2 sorties per day, while F-35 can sustain one sortie every 2 days. Therefore, F-16 can provide either 9,6 or 4,1 sorties for each F-35 sortie flown.
Response to attacks
Both aircraft typically require full-blown air bases for operation due to lack of STOL capability. Neither aircraft is capable of supercruise with standard air-to-air load; F-16A can achieve Mach 1,1 supercruise with two wingtip missiles only. This Mach 0,15 advantage over the F-35 may slightly improve response time, but it will not exist with a typical air-to-air load and comes at major penalty to combat radius – which is already lower than the F-35s.
Engagement kill chain performance
Kill chain consists of following steps:
- detection capability
- identification capability
- cruise speed
- maximum speed / mach on entry
- altitude on entry
- lock on / firing solution range
- missile seeker diversity
- endgame countermeasures (inbuilt, towed, disposable; jammers, decoys, chaff, flares)
- defeat the missile / disengage
- airframe agility
- sensors coverage
- mach on egress / fuel reserves on afterburner
- BVR missile seeker diversity
- BVR missile agility
- BVR missile warhead lethality
- WVR missile agility
- WVR missile warhead lethality
- gun lethality
As shown before, F-35 will detect F-16 from 195 km with radar, or 80-100 km with IRST. F-16 will detect the F-35 from 13,65 km with radar, and some 5-7 km visually. Since both F-16s and F-35s radars will be detected at 200+ km by any competent radar warners*, F-35s IRST gives it a major “first look, first shot” advantage over the F-16. This is especially important as only reliable identification is visual; F-16 will have to come within 400-800 meters to establish positive VID while F-35 will be able to use IRST to ID aircraft at several tens of kilometers. F-16 can use IR pod to compensate for this disadvantage, at the expense of increased RCS, IR signature and drag. NCTR works at longer ranges, but is very unreliable (30% identification reliability at best) and can be disabled by jamming or by target maneuvering. Consequently, 82% of the enemy aircraft engaged during Desert Storm had to be identified with help of AWACS, which will not be avaliable against a competent opponents as comlinks will be jammed, and AWACS aircraft will not survive for long against serious opposition.
* Even assuming that target is a flat plate and that entirety of the signal reaches it, radar will get back 1/16th of the signal – at best. However, RCS comparison shows automobile to have an RCS of 100 m2 (likely from the side; from the front, 25-50 m2 value can be expected).F-16 has an RCS of 5 m2, meaning that the F-35 will get 1/80th of a signal that it sent out.
Both F-16 and F-35 have standard cruise speeds of Mach 0,95, though F-16 can achieve Mach 1,1 with two wingtip missiles. Top speed is Mach 2,0 for F-16 and Mach 1,67 for F-35. As it can be seen, F-16 has excess power for maneuvering when compared to the F-35. However, lower fuel fraction results in lower combat endurance. F-16 has service ceiling of 50.000 ft, which is limited by pilot’s suit; aircraft itself can achieve considerably higher service ceiling (likely 55.000 – 60.000 ft). F-35 similarly has service ceiling of 50.000 ft but is likely capable of higher service ceiling without flight suit restriction; some data show 60.000 ft.
As shown before, F-16 can only attack the F-35 from within visual range, while F-35 can engage F-16 from beyond visual range distances regardless of jamming and IFF issues due to its possession of IRST. Still, a properly-equipped F-16 will be able to jam AIM-120, but not ASRAAM.
Defeat the missile / disengage
Once warned of a missile launch, first reaction is to properly position the aircraft for evasion. At beyond visual range, it is oftentimes enough to turn the aircraft away from the missile. At shorter ranges (near-visual and visual range), pilot has to quickly position the missile to the aircraft’s 3 or 9 o’clock and then turn into the missile once close enough. Both of these require high instantaneous turn capability, as well as acceleration / climb to recover lost energy. F-16A has instantaneous turn rate of 28,1 deg/s, acceleration time from M 0,8 to M 1,2 of 40 s and maximum climb rate of 315 m/s. F-16C has instantaneous turn rate of 26 deg/s, acceleration time from M 0,8 to M 1,2 of 43 s and maximum climb rate of 254 m/s. F-35 has instantaneous turn rate of 26,6 deg/s, acceleration time from M 0,8 to M 1,2 of 63 s and maximum climb rate of 259 m/s. This means that F-16 will have major advantage when evading missiles, especially the F-16A variant.
F-16 has RWR as a standard, but MAWS may or may not be present, depending on exact air force specifications. F-35 has 360* coverage with IR MAWS as a standard, giving it a significant superiority in survivability against more dangerous IR missiles. AESA radar will provide some 120-140* coverage in front of the aircraft, compared to 120* for the F-35; F-35s EOTS also only covers the frontal sector. Consequently, both aircraft will have to choose wether to keep track of the target and risk getting shot in the face or initiate defensive maneuvers. F-16 will be disadvantaged compared to the F-35 due to its lack of IRST forcing it to use the easily jammed radar, which is also highly limited against LO platforms. This will force it to come close to its targets, significantly increasing danger from enemy missiles. While it can use targeting pod to alleviate this deficiency, it will add drag and increase IR signature and RCS.
Fuel reserves for afterburner are also important. Assuming that both aircraft have 40% of the fuel avaliable for maneuvers, F-16A/C will have 1.264 kg of fuel and F-35 will have 3.312 kg of fuel. F100-PW-200 used in the F-16A has 10.809 kgf of afterburning thrust and SFC of 2,10 kg/kgf/h, giving a fuel flow of 22.699 kg/h. F110-GE-100 used in the F-16C has 12.700 kgf of afterburning thrust and SFC of 1,971 kg/kgf/h, giving a fuel flow of 25.032 kg/h. F135 used in the F-35A has 19.512 kgf of afterburning thrust and fuel flow of 36.739 kg/h. Consequently, time in afterburner will be 3,34 minutes for the F-16A, 3,03 minutes for the F-16C and 5,41 minutes for the F-35A. However, this is not a good indicator of combat endurance as higher-performance aircraft can throttle back to preserve fuel while still outmaneuvering lower-performance aircraf. Combat endurance should thus be measured solely by a number of maneuvers that can be done. For comparison, I will use two sets of maneuvers. First comparison will assume 360* corner-speed sustained turn (or, rather, four 90* turns) followed by acceleration equivalent in time to M 0,8 – 1,2 acceleration. F-16A will use 25,17 seconds for turn and 40 seconds for acceleration, for a total of 65 seconds of maximum aferburner and 3 maneuvers. F-16C will use 20 seconds for turn and 43 seconds for acceleration, for a total of 63 seconds of maximum afterburner and 2,89 maneuvers. F-35 will use 33,33 seconds of maximum afterburner for turn and 63 seconds of maximum afterburner for acceleration. This gives 96 seconds of maximum afterburner and a total of 3,37 maneuvers. Second set will assume four 90* instantaneous turns instead of a sustained turn. F-16A will need ~13 seconds for turns and 40 seconds for acceleration, for a total of ~53 seconds and ~3,7 maneuvers. F-16C will need ~14 seconds for turns and 43 seconds for acceleration, for a total of ~57 seconds and ~3,2 maneuvers. F-35A will need ~14 seconds for turns and 63 seconds for acceleration, for a total of 77 seconds and ~4,2 maneuvers. As it can be seen, F-35 has superior combat andurance when compared to the F-16, mostly due to its higher fuel fraction (fuel fraction is more important for combat endurance than total fuel capacity). (Note here that this is based on sea-level figures; at 30.000 ft, actual thrust and fuel consumption will be closer to 1/3rd of those used, which will extend endurance. However, relative figures should stay similar, or slightly change in the F-16s favor).
In terms of countermeasures, both aircraft have chaff and flares. Some versions of F-16 have internal DRFM jammers. This gives it an advantage over F-35, as latter uses its own radar for jamming – this means that it can only jam four targets within 120* cone to front of the aircraft. Both aircraft can also carry disposable jammers. That being said, F-35s low radar crossection makes usage of onboard jammer less beneficial than for the F-16, and in some cases counterproductive. F-35 will likely have disposable RF decoys, which would give it an option to use jammers, as well as provide immunity to home-on-jam weapons; their effectiveness is improved by F-35s low RCS. F-16s DRFM jammer is more-or-less immune to home-on-jam mode of modern missiles, but not entirely so.
F-16 and F-35 use same air-to-air missiles. AIM-120D has maximum range of 180 km, but is easily jammed due to being a RF missile. AIM-9X is a WVR missile, and Block III with maximum range of 42 km was cancelled, negating F-16 (and likely US F-35s) an IR BVRAAM. F-35 has a major advantage in being able to mount IR ASRAAM and MBDA Meteor in its internal weapons bays. ASRAAM has advantage over other missiles in that it is a IR BVR missile with 50 km range. However, Meteor has significant advantage in both range and lethality over AIM-120D due to its ramjet engine – it has maximum range of 315 km and straight-line range of 100 km, allowing the F-35 to use it passively with IRST, giving minimum advantage to target (Meteor’s radar seeker will give it away). For completely passive engagement, F-35 can use ASRAAM. F-16 has to use its radar for targeting even when using IR missiles, giving itself away and allowing the enemy to jam its radar.
In terms of agility, AIM-120D and Meteor can both pull 40 g at Mach 4, ASRAAM can pull 50 g at Mach 3. This means that maximum turn rate is 18,54 deg/s for AIM-120 and Meteor, and 30,9 deg/s for ASRAAM. Comparing this to respective aircraft turn rates (28,1/26 deg/s ITR for F-16A/C and 26,6 deg/s ITR for F-35), it can be seen that both aircraft are capable of outmaneuvering AIM-120 and Meteor, but are in trouble if shot at by ASRAAM.
When it comes to WVR missiles, F-16 carries AIM-9X while F-35 carries no WVR missiles as they have to be mounted on external hardpoints; UK version may be capable of carrying ASRAAM in internal bays. AIM-9X can pull 60 g at Mach 2,7, for 41 deg/s ITR, which the F-35 does not have good chance of evading, though it is not an impossibility (missile may need to have at least as much as twice the aircraft’s turn rate to hit in some conditions). Similarly, 30,9 deg/s ITR of ASRAAM is superior to the F-16s instantaneous turn rate, though by far smaller margin.
If both aircraft are flying at Mach 0,9, 9 g limit results in 18,55 deg/s turn rate. Consequently, neither aircraft will be capable of defeating any of the missiles within their no-escape zones, barring less-than-ideal launch parameters for missiles.
In terms of gun lethality, both aircraft use rotary guns – M61A1 for F-16 and GAU-22/A for F-35. M61A1 fires 98 g projectile with 11% HEI content at 1.036 m/s muzzle velocity. GAU-22/A fires 184 g projectile with 16,7% HEI content (~31 g) at 1.040 m/s muzzle velocity. M61 projectiles have crossectional density of 31,2 g/cm2 compared to 37,48 g/cm2 for GAU-22, leading to more rapid loss of speed. Combination of these factors gives GAU-22 significantly higher per-projectile effectiveness. Further, F-35 has to open up gun trap doors to use the gun, which adds 0,5 second delay. If gun doors are opened beforehand, M61 will fire 30 projectiles in first 0,5 seconds, compared to 16 projectiles for GAU-22/A. This gives a total throw weight of 2,94 kg for M61, with 0,32 kg of HEI. GAU-22 has total throw weight of 2,94 kg with 0,49 kg of HEI. As it can be seen, GAU-22/A is more lethal than M61A1.
F-16 vs F-35 test report
While the test was intended to test F-35s high-AoA control laws, it was operationally representative. There were offensive, defensive and neutral BFM setups at 10.000 – 30.000 ft; offensive setup was at 22.000 ft, while others were at 18.000 – 22.000 ft. Test pilot had experience in F-15E, F-16 Blk 30/40/42/50 and F-18F; he has also fought dissimilar combat against all listed types, as well as F-15C. F-35 fought 17 engagements against F-16.
F-35s energy maneuverability was inferior to the F-15E due to higher wing loading, lower TWR and similar weight. Consequently, usage of high-AoA maneuvers resulted in significant loss of speed which could not be retained quickly enough; despite flying with external fuel tanks, F-16 remained at an energy advantage. Effectiveness of such maneuvers was also reduced by insufficient pitch rate, allowing the F-16 to relatively easily evade F-35s gun shots. All of this meant that F-35s high angle of attack capability (50 degree operational limity, 110 degree aerodynamic maximum) was useless in combat. While lack in pitch rate could be somewhat compensated by using yawing maneuvers, inability to recover the energy lost during high-AoA maneuvers meant that any such maneuvering was a last-ditch effort, as failling to gain a kill immediately after committing to high AoA meant loosing the fight.
Best flying qualities in the blended region (20-26* AoA) were achieved at the lower end of the region, but were still unfavorable. Lateral/directional response was confusing and aircraft often failed to achieve expected roll rate. F-35 demonstrated significant delay in response to rudder inputs.
F-35 demonstrated a complete inability to mount an effective guns defense despite various approaches tried. Slow pitch rate and lack of motion response to floor/slow-speed jinks meant that the aircraft was easy to track. Buffett and transonic roll off were not a problem, but aircraft demonstrated major issues regarding situational awareness. Helmet was too large for space inside the canopy and impeded ability to see rearward. In multiple situations bandit was not blocked by either the seat or the airframe yet helmet still prevented getting into position to see him. Seat blocked the visibility as well, and helmet could jam against the canopy. These problems will not be solved even if LockMart’s promises about HMD making the aircraft “transparent” are ever realized, meaning that there is no solution for the F-35s lack of rearward visibility.
It should also be noted that the F-16 in question was a two-seater D variant and was carrying two 370 gallon external fuel tanks. F-35 variant was A, the most maneuverable of the lot, was flying clean with empty weapons bays, and did not have stealth coating, saving a small amount of weight and reducing drag. Despite this, it was noted that F-35 demonstrated inferior maneuverability and that energy deficit to the bandit would increase over time – indicating that F-35s energy management is inferior compared to that of the F-16 carrying two external tanks (which is in line with figures I have provided previously, showing that acceleration of a clean F-35 is comparable or inferior to that of F-16 lugging external fuel tanks, but energy management involves more than just acceleration capability). F-16s advantages will be far greater if it is not encumbered with fuel tanks, especially regarding acceleration and transient performance.
Overall, report indicates that F-35 is most similar to F-18E when it comes to flying qualities, except that it is a 9-g capable aircraft. F-18 similarly struggles in energy fight, loosing energy fast and being unable to regain it. Its only winning move against the F-16 is to get slow and use AoA advantage to point a nose at the F-16. However, F-18 has excellent nose (especially pitch) authority, a quality that the F-35 lacks despite its high AoA capabilties. F-35 also had insufficient situational awareness, in good part for causes that even integrating DAS video feed into helmet will not solve – assuming it ever happens. And even if helmet issues are solved, and F-35 gains full HOBS capability, it is only capable of carrying IR WVRAAM externally, sacrificing its radar stealth. If it wants to be RF-stealthy, it has to limit itself to internal AIM-120 missiles, which means that it still has to point its nose at the adversary in order to shoot.
Of course, Pentagon did not like this, and in its proud tradition of half-truths, lies and “from certain point of view” tactcs it immediately engaged in reality denial. They pointed out “the AF-2 test aircraft did not have the mission systems software designed to utilize the aircraft’s next-generation sensors.” They also pointed out that the F-35 in question did not have RAM coating, and did not have helmet-cueing systems.
Pentagon’s defense ignores some things and misrepresents others. Test was designed to assess the F-35s capability to fight in a maneuvering visual-range combat. In such situation, F-35s extensive sensor suite is of limited value and would not have changed the outcome, as Mk.I eyeball is always a primary and most intuitive sensor during WVR fight. RAM coating is ineffective in preventing gun or missile lock at visual distances, especially since externally carried IR missiles do not have to rely on aircraft’s onboard sensors to lock onto a target. While HMD would have helped, it would have been of a more limited value than in an e.g. F-16 due to the F-35s limited maneuverability and already noted limitations in pilot’s ability to actually turn his head.
F-35 program office also falls back on their favorite “argument”, stating that simulated combat scenarios have shown that four F-35s have won encounters when pitted against a four-ship of F-16s. But such scenarios are useless for evaluating aircraft’s capability in air-to-air combat as long as assumptions used in them are unknown. Scenarios also ignore the fact that F-35, being more expensive and harder to maintain than F-16 (resulting in lower sortie rate), would have been in a position of numerical disadvantage when flying against F-16s. This disadvantage could potentially be as great as 10:1 against F-16A, or “only” 4:1 against F-16C.
While typical counterpoint is that the F-35 is designed to defeat the enemy at beyond visual range, and not engage in a dogfight, that also tells only part of the story. Other countries have capable ECM/EW systems which can prevent radar lock at long ranges while cueing IRST sensors to achieve long-range lock-on and launch IR BVR missiles. Further, energy maneuverability is just as relevant at beyond visual range combat scenarios as it is within visual range: aircraft with higher cruise speed will be able to choose when and where to engage. Greater acceleration, top speed and service ceilling increase effective missile range, while better turn rate, acceleration and cruise/top speeds allow aircraft to more quickly engage and disengage, enabling hit-and-run attacks while reducing enemy’s effective missile range.
Sensor fusion was also pointed out as F-35s advantage, and rightfully so since it makes interpretation of data easier and thus gives pilot early advantage in OODA loop. However, F-35s advances in sensors and other electrical systems could be retroactively incorporated into older-type aircraft such as F-16s, improving situational awareness of pilots flying aircraft that actually can shoot down enemy fighters in combat. USAF F-16s have no internal IRST system, despite its passive surveillance and engagement capability which has a potential to significantly improve pilot’s OODA loop against an adversary. Giving F-16s sensor fusion capabilities would also improve their effectiveness, at lower cost than procuring new F-35s. But that is the key: at lower cost, which means less profit for military industry and less advancement opportunities for generals. Hence the need to defend the F-35 at any cost.
F-16 was designed after Vietnam War has clearly shown that dogfighting is not a thing of the past. F-35, an aircraft designed to replace the F-16, ignores these lessons, going for the same BVR missile truck combat dream that was pursued by F-105 and F-4 bomber interceptors. While F-4 did prove itself able to fight MiGs at close to even footing, this was solely due to its massive energy advantage over MiGs, allowing it to use vertical maneuverability in order to compensate for its deficiency in horizontal maneuverability, and superior USAF pilot training. But even when compared against F-16A/C, F-35 is disadvantaged in both vertical and horizontal maneuverability, having inferior acceleration, climb, instantaneous turn and sustained turn capabilities. Against newer fighters, situation is far worse.
Lexington Institute has pointed out that the last time a US aircraft has fired its gun against aerial target was during the Vietnam war. But all wars since the Vietnam have followed a pattern of outnumbered, underequipped and less than competent opponent, close basing and persistent AWACS presence.
F-35s standard payload of internal fuel, 2 AIM-120 and 2 bombs + EOTS is intended to match F-16Cs standard payload of 2 external fuel tanks, 2 AIM-120 and 2 bombs + targeting pod (EOTS is primarily an air-to-ground sensor with limited air-to-air performance). This automatically means that the F-35 will have superior lift-to-drag and thrust-to-drag ratios.
To be more specific, F-35 has wing loading of 434,3 kg/m2 and TWR of 1,05 at combat weight in stated configuration (18.543 kg), or wing loading of 531,7 kg/m2 and TWR of 0,86 at takeoff weight (22.703 kg), while F-16C has wing loading of 448,4 kg/m2 and TWR of 1,02 in stated configuration at combat weight with tanks present (12.498 kg) or wing loading of 586,8 kg/m2 and TWR of 0,78 at takeoff weight (16.354 kg).
F-35 carries everything inside it, which is not so important with low-drag air-to-air missiles but makes a major difference with external fuel tanks and bombs. Bomb-loaded F-16 is limited to subsonic speeds, while F-35 can fly supersonically, improving weapons range and survivability. Further, with air-to-ground load, F-35 cruises some 10.000-15.000 ft higher than the F-16 in military power with 50-80 kts higher cruise speed. When combined with F-35s passive sensors suite, superior maneuverability and agility in air-to-ground configuration as well as RCS reduction, this will provide the F-35 with likely significant survivability advantage in air-to-ground missions.
If stealth is not an issue, F-35 can add two missiles, two bombs and two external fuel tanks. This will allow it to achieve longer range than the F-16 while carrying twice as many munitions.
When finding targets, both F-16 and F-35 will likely have similar performance, though the F-16 will need external pod to match the F-35s EOTS. On the other hand, F-16s superior cockpit visibility may prove advantageous during low-level flight.
In deep strike, F-35 has range and performance advantage. Further, F-16 will likely fly at low altitude, making it vulnerable to AAA and MANPADS. F-35 will at the same time only have to contend with long-range VHF SAMs. While both aircraft are capable of SEAD/DEAD, F-35 again has advantage due to integrated FLIR and IR MAWS; on the other hand, if F-16 only carries anti-radiation missiles based on AAMs, it will have agility advantage.
Vostok-E manufacturer claims 72 km detection range against F-117A in a jammed environment or 352 km in unjammed environment; these ranges will likely be same or higher against F-35, unless it is flying below radar horizon (65 km at 500 m altitude). F-16 will be detected at 100-200 km in jammed environment. F-35 at Mach 1,6 will cover 72 km in 2,5 minutes, or 4,2 minutes at Mach 0,95. F-16 at low altitude will cover 65 km in 2,7 minutes at speed of 1440 kph. As it can be seen, SA-6 is vulnerable to both F-35 and F-16, despite its new versions being one of the most mobile SAMs in existence. However, F-35 will need jammer support to achieve this performance, whereas F-16 can do it on its own, but will have to utilize nap-of-the-earth flying and expose itself to AAA and MANPADS. Consequently, package price is at minimum one F-16C (70 million USD) vs 1 F-35 + 1 F-18G (a total of >198 million USD), allowing F-16s larger force presence and higher lethality (better ability to find and hit mobile SAMs) but at a price of greater vulnerability and reduced situational awareness. More data on SAM mobility (and other technical data) can be found here. It should be noted that S-400 has instantaneous turn rate of 22 deg/s at sea level, compared to 26 deg/s at unknown altitude for F-16C and 26,6 deg/s at 15.000 ft for F-35; consequently, both aircraft can easily evade it but only if they eject air-to-ground weapons and external tanks.
Ground survivability includes possibility of camouflage and ability to operate from road bases. Latter includes STOL capability, wingspan limits, fuel consumption and ease of maintenance considerations. Wingspan should not be greater than 8,74 meters.
F-16A requires 535 m takeoff distance and 810 m landing distance with 1.815 kg external load. F-16C requires 457 m takeoff distance and 914 m landing distance. Wingspan is 9,96 m. Fuel consumption is 1.208 kg/h cruise. F-16A has fuel consumption 22.699 kg/h at full afterburner. F-16C has fuel consumption of 5.797 kg/h at maximum dry thrust and 25.570 at full afterburner.
F-35A requires 2.400 m runway for safe operations, which indicates 1.200 meter takeoff requirement. F-35B can take off in 173 meters (with 2 JDAM, 2 AMRAAM and fuel to fly 450 nm; rolling takeoff) and land vertically; this performance likely requires jump ramp. Wingspan is 10,7 meters for the F-35A and B variants. Fuel consumption is 2.721 kg/h cruise, 8.890 kg/h at maximum dry thrust and 39.000 kg/h with afterburner.
As it can be seen, there is a difference in aircraft on-ground survivability in F-16s favor. F-16 also requires smaller maintenance support and far less fuel for operations, leading to reduced logistical footprint.
F-16 will detect the F-35 at 13,65 km with radar
Acquisition will start at 11 km without jamming and will take 10 seconds
Acquisition will start at 2-4 km with jamming and will take estimated 30 seconds
Mach 0,95 + Mach 0,95 = Mach 1,9 closing speed = 560,32 m/s at 40.000 ft
Mach 2,0 + Mach 1,67 = Mach 3,67 closing speed = 1.082,28 m/s at 40.000 ft
Attack range without jamming: 0,2-5,4 km
Attack range with jamming: 0 km
F-35 will detect the F-16 at 195 km with radar
Acquisition will start at 156 km without jamming and will take 10 seconds
Acquisition will start at 34-51 km with jamming and will take 30 seconds
Mach 0,95 + Mach 0,95 = Mach 1,9 closing speed = 560,32 m/s at 40.000 ft
Mach 2,0 + Mach 1,67 = Mach 3,67 closing speed = 1.082,28 m/s at 40.000 ft
Attack range without jamming: 145-150 km
Attack range with jamming: 1,6-34 km
F-35 will detect the F-16 at 60 km with IRST
Acquisition will start at 48 km and will take 5 seconds
Mach 0,95 + Mach 0,95 = Mach 1,9 closing speed = 560,32 m/s at 40.000 ft
Attack range: 45 km
When it comes to air-to-air combat, things are decidedly mixed. F-35 has advantage in situational awareness, stealth and weapons whereas F-16 has advantage in cruise performance, maneuverability, numbers and response to attacks. Overall, combat could go either way depending on conditions, with F-35 having advantage in BVR combat and F-16 having an edge in WVR combat. Still, F-16s greater sortie rate and lower cost, enabling better training, can compensate for its disadvantages, and its superior on-ground survivability is a significant strategic advatage.
F-35 is a superior ground attack platform, especially in contested environment. This advantage is reduced by lower numbers, making F-35 more suitable as a surgical strike specialst as opposed to the F-16s role as a general strike aircraft.