According to an official test pilot report, published by War is Boring, the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter which is added to the US military isn’t fast enough to beat a much older F-16 in mock air combat. The question is how is the F-35 going to survive against the nimble Russian and Chinese air force? Moreover, the F-35 is intended to be produced and used in high numbers.
To find the answer to that question, we need to look to the past. Fifty years ago, the United States Air Force was in the similar position. They threatened to defeat their enemies with the F-105 Thunderchief, which was a heavy, high-tech, ground-attacker which had the same goal as the F-35.
However, the same problem plagues both of these jets. They cannot turn too quickly to beat the enemy aircraft, such as the Russian-made MiG-21, which was the Thunderchief’s main rival back in the day. In order not to discontinue the production of the F-105, the US Air Force worked out special tactics to make things work, keeping the plane in the fleet. It is important to notice that the same thing needs to be done with the F-35.
The similarities between the two airplanes are striking, despite the age difference. Carlo Kopp, an Australian aerospace analyst, wrote in 2004: “Both the F-105 and JSF are large, single-seat, single-engine strike fighters, using the most powerful engine of the era … [and] with empty weights in the 27,000-pound class, and wingspans almost identical at 35 feet.”
“Both carry internal weapon bays and multiple external hardpoints for drop tanks and weapons,” Kopp continued. “Both were intended to achieve combat radii in the 400-nautical-mile class. Neither have by the standards of their respective period’s high thrust-weight ratio or energy maneuver capability favored for air superiority fighters and interceptors.”
Out of the 833 F-105 units the US Air Force acquired, 334 were lost in the war versus Vietnam between 1965 and 1970. MiGs North Vietnam army used, managed to take down 22 Thunderchiefs while the F-105s shot down at least 27 MiGs, as Kopp puts it.
However, this wasn’t enough for the Pentagon, and they wanted to improve its tactics. In 1969, the Air Force conducted mock air battles between an ex-Iraqi MiG-21 and an F-105 which was a part of the program called “Have Doughnut.” The experiment could have gone better for the American steel bird. The testers advised the F-105 crew to flee should they encounter the MiG-21. But if the F-105 was behind the MiG-21, and the crew didn’t notice them, the Thunderchief could attempt a high-speed ambush. This was the only scenario where the Thunderchief had an advantage.
In case they started out as equals, the American plane wouldn’t survive for a long time. The Air Force reported: “If the F-105 attacker attempts a prolonged maneuvering engagement, it becomes vulnerable to follow-up attacks as the offensive situation deteriorates due to loss of energy and maneuvering potential.”
The F-35 pilot in the JSF-on-F-16 test reported the similar issue: “Insufficient pitch rate.” During a turning fight “energy deficit to the bandit would increase over time.”
At least the F-105 had a straight-line advantage over the enemy jets, but that is not the case with the F-35. It is slower than today’s Sukhoi, Shenyang, and Chengdu fighters. Kopp says that the F-35 can survive in future wars but only if the Air Force is to create tactics which will give this plane an advantage. “The decisive factor for the JSF in this game will be its limited stealth performance,” says Kopp.