America has declared war on Iran … you climb into the F-35 stealth fighter with confidence, ready to do battle.
Within minutes, you find yourself over the target, fighting an Iranian air force operating with some of the oldest active fighters in the world.
Now you’re in a dogfight. The most advanced fifth-generation fighter in the world, the so-called “flying computer” capable of entering an airspace without being detected, against a four-decade old jet fighter.
Suddenly, you find out that you’re at a distinct disadvantage. In air-to-air maneuvers, you are being matched, pound for pound. Your heart is beating, because you may die, you may be shot out of the sky. What do you do then?
Recent testing shows that this exact scenario could actually happen. Hard to believe, but an official report explaining the stealth fighter’s limitations with an F-16 fighter, have revealed its limitations, National Interest reported.
The Iranians with their four-decade-old F-4s, F-5s and F-14s might not seem to have a chance against the Americans flying arguably the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft.
For one, the F-35, while new, isn’t necessarily a stellar aerial performer. In 2015 someone associated with the F-35 test effort leaked an official report explaining the stealth fighter’s shortcomings, the National Interest report said.
“The F-35 was at a distinct energy disadvantage,” an unnamed F-35 test pilot wrote in a scathing five-page brief. “Insufficient pitch rate,” he added. “Energy deficit to the bandit would increase over time.”
The complaints continued. “The flying qualities in the blended region (20 to 26 degrees [angle of attack]) were not intuitive or favorable,” the pilot wrote, adding that there’s no point for an F-35 pilot to get into a sustained, close turning battle with an enemy pilot. “There were not compelling reasons to fight in this region.”
The pilot’s revelations underscore what many observers long have suspected about the F-35. While its radar-evading qualities and high-end sensors might allow it to gain a favorable position for long-range missile shots, in a close fight the F-35 hardly excels. Is its air superiority a myth?
If an Iranian pilot can survive a merge with an F-35 and engage the stealth fighter in a turning dogfight, the Iranian might just bag himself a stealth fighter. It’s worth noting that the Iranian air force flies scores of fighters that excel precisely in that regime, the National Interest report said.
American-made F-5 Tigers, for instance. Former US Navy pilot Francesco Chierici who flew F-5s in the adversary role, offered praise in a 2019 article for The War Zone. “The Tiger was clean, just an AIM-9 and a telemetry pod on the wingtips, and occasionally a centerline fuel tank,” Chierici wrote. “She slipped through the ‘number’ (Mach 1) easily. … The F-5 was a pair of engines and wings. It was so simple …”
According to the report, aerodynamically, the F-5 will always be what we call a category-three fighter, where the F-35 and F-22 are now category-five fighters. Compared to modern jets, it is underpowered, slow and bleeds airspeed badly in a sustained turn, not to mention it has no stealth other than its tiny size.
But with just a few modifications, the F-5 is being turned into a threat plane with a legitimate sting. The newest upgrades include an [electronically-scanned] radar, good [radar-warning] gear, chaff and flares, a jamming pod and a helmet-mounted cueing system for a high off-boresight IR (infrared-guided) missiles.
A Tiger so outfitted can provide Super Hornets and F-35s a legitimate threat, especially in the training environment.
In the words of American jet fighter icon and legend Chuck Yeager, it’s not the metal around the pilot, it is indeed, the pilot — who sees who first. Time and time again, this has proven true in air-to-air battle, whether it was Korea or Vietnam.
Iran indeed has been upgrading its F-5 fleet, although the modifications likely will not include the latest sensors.
Still, all things being equal the F-5 despite its age might still possesses the agility to gain the advantage over an F-35. Again, provided the F-5 pilot survives the merge to a close-in fight, the National Interest report said.
That’s a big assumption. F-35 pilots understand the limitations of their aircraft and certainly would do their best to avoid a dogfight. The Iranians might have to ambush the Americans in order to force the fight to close range. It’s unclear how the Iranians might do so, given the Americans’ huge advantage in sensors and situational awareness.