In the late 1950’s, the US Air Force (and Naval Aviation) and the companies designing their planes decided that the new technology coming out at the time was the solution for the future. The designed a common plane that was to be a platform for firing long range radar guided missiles that would destroy enemy aircraft well before coming into visual range. This was the F-4 Phantom program.
Then it actually had to fight enemy aircraft over Vietnam. The radar guided missiles didn’t work out the way they were supposed to. Less than 10% of kills were with them. Luckily the Air Force and Navy also had a short range infrared guided missile (that cost a fraction of the radar guided ones) that did most of the work. Our pilots were also disadvantaged by the bulkiness of the F-4, which could not turn with enemy planes (a basic need in dogfighting). This was exacerbated by the reduction in dogfight training, and by the fact that the F-4 was built without a gun, so it couldn’t shoot at the enemy at close range.
After the experiences of Vietnam, the Air Force demanded that its newly developed planes could dogfight. The result was the excellent F-16, developed in the late 1970’s, which has been the backbone of the Air Force since the 1980s. This plane has served long and well, but is now outclassed by newer Russian aircraft like the Su-27 and Mig-29 (and now the improved Su-35 and Mig-35).
Unfortunately, the Air Force (along with Naval and Marine Aviation) has reverted to the pre-Vietnam thinking. The F-16 (and Naval F-18) replacement is the F-35. It is very high tech. It is supposed to shoot down enemy planes with its two missiles, while being next to invisible on radar. The big problem is that it can’t dogfight at all, plus the pilot can’t see to the rear. This will be deadly, to our own pilots, when they actually have to fight enemy aircraft, something the US hasn’t really had to do since Vietnam.
There are a host of other issues. Enemy aircraft carry 8 missiles, not just two like the F-35. The F-35 has a very short range, and therefore is incredibly dependent on air-air refueling. It is a maintenance nightmare and can only fly once every couple of days, unlike F-16s that can fly a couple of combat missions each day.
The value of stealth technology is questionable, and that is the F-35s main feature. Today, turning on a radar system is like turning on a flashlight in a dark arena. You can see a few feet ahead of you with the flashlight, but EVERYONE can see you (and shoot at you). Anti-radar missiles lock onto radar emissions, so turning on radar is VERY dangerous. So you leave them off when facing competent foes. So paying a fortune for stealth capability is rather pointless.
This “fortune” is the main point. The F-35 program has cost more than a Trillion dollars. To develop a plane that is worse than what it is supposed to replace. And each F-35 will cost $90 Million. The F-35 is so bad, that when we fight competent foes with it, our military will lose Air Superiority. This means losing the war in the Air, and that will be an unmitigated DISASTER. The last time we were in that situation was in the Pacific in early World War Two when the Japanese Zero ruled the skies.
What to Do
The money spent developing the F-35 is lost. We can’t get it back. But we need to NOT throw good money after bad. Cancel the program. Stop building these flying gold-plated turkeys. Keep the F-16s flying until we have a viable replacement (something like the Swedish JAS-39; they cost about $30 Million apiece). We need to start the development of something that can actually dogfight NOW.
If we want to help our military, we need to stop wasting money on failures like the F-35. We need to develop weapons that will actually work on the battlefield or in the skies above it. The defense industry is no help here. They want to develop costly “state of the art technology” that won’t work in real combat conditions. This is because they want us to pay them the most they can get out of us. And this is why President Eisenhower railed against them (the military-industrial complex) in his final speech.