July 14, 2006:
The F-35 (recently named the Lightning II) is due to enter service soon. While the F-22 is widely seen as the ultimate air-to-air machine, the F-35 is described as a multi-role aircraft. How does the F-35 compare in the air-to-air mission against likely competitors like the French Rafale, the Swedish Gripen, and the multi-national Eurofighter?
The Rafale, Gripen, and Eurofighter are all in service or expected to enter service in 2006. All of them boast some of the best electronics suites ever to appear in combat aircraft. All have top speeds approaching 2,000 kilometers an hour. All three aircraft carry excellent beyond-visual-range missiles (like the Mica, AMRAAM, and Meteor). All are highly maneuverable. But will they be better than the F-35 in a fight?
The answer, surprisingly, is probably not. The F-35 has one big advantage over these three fighters from Europe. Its radar signature is very small – as is the case with the F-117 and F-22. Given that its speed is comparable to the European jets, and its AESA radar is at least as good as the European systems, this "invisibility" is a decisive advantage. The best weapons in the world are useless if they cannot see their targets.
The F-35 will be able to see the Rafale, Gripen, and Eurofighter long before it can be seen itself. The first rule of air combat may be "speed is life", but the second rule is "lose the sight, lose the fight". In the 21st century, sight includes radar. It is very likely that the only warning the F-35 may give of its presence will be when its radar has locked on to one of the European fighters. By that point, the F-35 is already close to launching its AMRAAMs.
This is probably the major reason for the United States Air Force's future dominance of the air. Even its second-best fighter will probably be able to best the front-line designs of other western nations in a "paper" fight based on specifications and capabilities. When the level of training American pilots get is added to the mix, the F-35's advantage becomes staggering. One other factor to consider is that the United States Air Force plans to have 1,763 F-35s on inventory (the Marine Corps and Navy variants would add another 780 F-35s to the mix). If the Rafale is built to a planned force level of 292, and the Saudi order for the Eurofighter goes through, the combined Gripen, Rafale, and Eurofighter production runs will total 1,262, meaning there will be two F-35s for every one of the advanced European fighters. – Harold C. Hutchison (firstname.lastname@example.org)