English Electric Lightning firing an air-to-air missile. In the 1960s, when air-to-air missiles were first used in a large scale, the results in most cases were poor. 

Ever since a report was leaked, revealing that a F-16D had won a dogfight against a F-35A, there has been much debate about the merits of WVR (Within Visual Range) and BVR (Beyond Visual Range) aircraft combat. Here I hope to dispel some of the misconceptions about both and bring some clarity to the matter at hand.

The F-16 is a fourth generation aircraft which dates back to the 1970’s, whereas the F-35 had its genesis in the early 90’s and is a fifth generation aircraft. One would assume that the new aircraft to replace the old would outperform it and in every way by a generous margin, but both aircraft although filling broadly the same place in the USAF, and other military branches, go about fulfilling its role in quite different ways in terms of engagement. The answer simply in part is, is that it isn’t the fight that the F-35 was designed for, ie: if the F-35 pilot finds themselves in a dogfight, or even just WVR, then that pilot has a lot more to worry about than his opponent.

Lockheed Martin F-35A firing an AIM-120 AMRAAM Beyond Visual Range air-to-air missile.

The philosophy behind the F-35, unlike the F-35 is to be lethal at BVR (Beyond Visual Range) via a combination of stealth capability, electronic warfare, and superior information processing and datalinks with AWACS aircraft, and other sources. Also it ought to be mentioned according to the report, the F-35 was performance limited by limits on its software to the point it was effectively handicapped in its dogfight against the F-16D. Indeed the report states at the end of it, that recommendations include increasing the pitch-rate to provide the pilot with more options, consider increasing Alpha onset (related to stall), and consider increasing the pilot yaw control authority. Simply put we actually still do not know the full maneuvering capabilities of the F-35, only what one particular software configuration allowed.
In the face of this information, are these new BVR tactics sound? After all, other nations have developed, or are developing their own fifth generation fighters to counter the Western examples. Surely, they will negate, or reduce the ability for the F-35 to keep its opponents at arms length? Before we enter into this, it’s wise to focus more on the details of this BVR strategy, and how it marries up with t he tactics the F-35 is being deployed with.

Lets use the Chinese as a hypothetical adversary. Current Chinese military doctrine, emphasises attacking an opponents C4ISR systems, that is their Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance capabilities, either from the outset, or perhaps even prior to any conflict. The People’s Liberation Army sees this as an integrated environment, which comprises of both cyber, and electronic warfare, and base their approach to this around the concept of INEW (Integrated Networked Electronic Warfare). Of course, it is C4ISR systems which the F-35 critically relies upon to carry out its BVR reliant activities, so with these disrupted, the F-35 is going to struggle to preserve these conditions of operation, and this might well lead to WVR encounters. Imagine no datalinks between the F-35 and its AWACS; Computer network attacks which jam GPS signals, or AESA radars on an E-7A Wedgetail spoofed? These would be the first shots fired, rather than bullets or missiles. Without the backup of C4ISR systems, the F-35 would be relying on its onboard sensors such as its AESA radar and Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS) to detect, track and engage targets, and of course active radar increases the detectability of an aircraft, potentially bringing it within the detection of adversary WVR weapon systems.

All this is potentially looking bad for the F-35, assuming that those C4ISR systems can be negated and if indeed it is optimised for a long-range BVR role, and if future airpower doctrine is `formulated with this approach in mind, then the effectiveness of the F-35, and of Western airpower is potentially at risk. If the assumption is by the West that WVR engagements simply don’t happen anymore, is in light of this information, is a dangerous one to make.

Written by Admin Cosmos of Military Federation.