By Taylor Marvin
One of the main criticism of the Pentagon’s massive F-35 fighter acquisition effort is the aircraft’s limited agility. Detractors of the program claim this limitation is a fatal flaw, while supporters dismiss maneuverability as an antiquated consideration with little relevance to modern air warfare.
Limited maneuverability is a fundamental product of the F-35’s joint nature. The F-35 is a product of compromise; most obviously, the decision to benchmark the aircraft’s three variants around the F-35B’s STOVL airframe. The demands of STOVL design mandated that the F-35 feature a single engine, reducing its inherent survivability and contributing to the F-35’s alleged arial combat deficiencies against competing, twin-engined aircraft like the Eurofighter Typhoon. But supporters of the program argue that this isn’t a problem. In modern arial warfare — or at least the warfare they deem most likely, as no one really knows what “modern” air-to-air combat looks like in practice — maneuverability doesn’t matter. Instead, in future conflicts fighters will function primarily as networked sensor platforms and missile trucks, engaging each other at beyond visual range (BVR). If maneuverability contributes little to survivability, F-35 advocates argue, it isn’t worth pursuing at the cost of more practical traits like low observability or airframe jointness.
But there’s a key fault in this assumption: just because BVR combat is technically possibile doesn’t mean politically-mandated Rules of Engagement (ROEs) will allow it. At The Diplomat Robert Farley highlights this possibility:
“Perhaps more importantly, rules of engagement are inherently political. Civilian leaders, and their politically attuned senior military counterparts, will draw up guidelines for combat in context of political, not military, necessity. If the F-35 can only operate successfully in BVR context (and to be sure the networking capability of the F-35 make ‘BVR’ a different proposition than with past aircraft), and if the civilians restrict the ability of the aircraft to operate under such conditions, then the utility of the fighter comes into grave question. This question is hardly academic, as potential peer competitors of the U.S. (including Russia and China) will undoubtedly take political steps to limit the ability of the F-35 to fight at full capability.”
I’d take this farther. The most famous instance of restrictive rules of engagement limiting BVR air-to-air combat is the Vietnam War. These restrictions, combined with the early-sixties belief that BVR missiles would dominate future air-to-air combat (early versions of the legendary American F-4 featured no gun, only missiles), frustrated US airmen and empowered North Vietnamese pilots flying maneuverable, gun-armed fighters that excelled in visual range combat. But officials had good reason for requiring American pilots to visually identify their targets before firing. The overwhelming majority of aircraft over Vietnam were American. Restrictive ROEs aided the North Vietnamese, but letting American airmen fire visually confirming targets were actually hostile likely would have resulted in far more friendly fire incidents. Given the primitive identification friend of foe (IFF) technology of the era, it’s difficult to argue that these restrictions were unjustified.
Quickly achieving air superiority is a lynchpin of all American war planning. In any future conflict with a peer or near-peer adversary, the US Air Force and Navy will seek deny the sky to opposing forces — resulting in an airspace that, while contested, is saturated with friendly aircraft. This means that the exact same conditions that justified restricting BVR combat over Vietnam are an inherent product of the total air dominance US forces take for granted. Yes, IFF technology has massively improved since Vietnam. But in a situation where the vast majority of aircraft in theater are friendly, it’s unreasonable to imagine that BVR engagement won’t be limited by self, as well as adversary, imposed political restrictions.
These two preferences — for air dominance and BVR air-to-air combat — are inherently conflicting. This makes benchmarking the F-35 around BVR combat problematic. Sure, US war planners would prefer to fight under BVR conditions, which favor highly networked American forces. But these same strategists should recognize that total air dominance — a fixture of US military planning since World War II — practically insures restrictive ROEs.