The F-35s Fatal Flaw: It Might Need to Win a Dogfight (But Can’t)

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David Axe  July 8, 2016

The aerial dogfight was not supposed to happen. On May 20, 1967, eight U.S. Air Force F-4C fighters were patrolling over North Vietnam when they spotted as many as 15 enemy MiG-17 fighters a short distance away.

Fog and the MiGs’ low altitude had prevented the F-4s from detecting the North Vietnamese jets from farther away.

Diving to attack, the twin-engine F-4s fired a staggering 24 Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles, shooting down just four of the single-engine MiGs. The North Vietnamese jets reacted quickly, forming into a tight-turning “wagon wheel,” with each pilot watching the tail of the man in front of him.

As the heavy, twin-engine F-4s tried to out-turn the nimble, single-engine MiGs, a North Vietnamese pilot peppered one of the American planes with cannon fire, igniting it and forcing the two crewmen to eject.

“The turning ability of the MiG-17 is fantastic,” one F-4 flier recalled later. “It must be seen to be believed.”

But the Air Force had assumed that wouldn’t be a problem — that its then-brand-new twin-seat F-4s would never even get into a close-range dogfight. Instead, the F-4s — and other Air Force and Navy fighters — would always destroy their enemies from long range, using the Sparrow and other air-to-air missiles.

It was a flawed and dangerous assumption that got scores of American aviators shot down over Vietnam. But many years later, the Air Force is assuming the same thing … with regards to its new F-35 stealth fighter.

In January 2015, the flying branch pitted a radar-evading F-35A against a 25-year-old F-16D in mock air combat. The F-35 proved too slow and sluggish to defeat the F-16 in a turning fight, according to the official test report that War Is Boring obtained.

But the Air Force says not to worry. “The F-35’s technology is designed to engage, shoot and kill its enemy from long distances, not necessarily in visual ‘dogfighting’ situations.”

Sounds familiar.

The Air Force’s faith in long-range aerial warfare proved disastrous in Vietnam. There are good reasons to believe it will prove equally disastrous the first time squadrons of new F-35s fly into battle against a determined foe.

For the first four decades of air-to-air fighting, opposing planes mostly shot at each other with guns. Then in 1946, Navy engineer William Burdette McLean began work on a heat-seeking rocket — the Sidewinder, the first effective air-to-air missile.

Twelve years later, Washington outfitted Taiwanese F-86 fighters with the first combat-ready Sidewinders. In aerial battles over the Taiwan Strait, the F-86s shot down Communist Chinese MiG-17s — and seemingly changed air warfare forever. Soon, new and better missiles — some with radar guidance — were rolling out of laboratories all over the world.

The Air Force and its sister branches enthusiastically embraced the missile age, even dropping guns from many of its new warplane designs, including the early F-4Cs.

The new missile technology coincided with a shift in doctrine. The Pentagon decided that in future wars, jet fighters would climb high and fly fast to target Soviet long-range bombers, striving to hit them from far away before they could drop their atomic bombs.

American jets of the era were powerful but lacked agility. “Our tactical fighters were designed primarily for nuclear war where penetration was more important than maneuverability,” Air Force Gen. Bruce Holloway wrote in a 1968 issue of Air University Review.

But the next war America fought wasn’t global Armageddon with the Soviets. Instead, U.S. troops joined the South Vietnamese military battling a communist insurgency backed by North Vietnam’s own army and air force.

American military planners had bet on a high-tech war of atoms, electrons, rockets and high Mach numbers during straight-line flights. What they got were slow, twisting dogfights low over the forest canopy. It didn’t take long for the Air Force and Navy to realize their technology and tactics just didn’t work very well against Hanoi’s MiGs.

Between 1965 and 1968, American fighters launched 321 radar-guided missiles over Vietnam. Slightly more than eight percent hit their targets, according to a 2005 analysis by Air Force Lt. Col. Patrick Higby.

The Navy scrambled to analyze the terrible hit rate. “A primary reason for less-than-desired combat performance of air-to-air missile systems in Southeast Asia is their design optimization for a high-altitude engagement against a non-maneuvering, large (bomber) target,” the sailing branch concluded in a 1968 report.

With a little bit of warning, a MiG-17 could out-turn a missile — and then use that same maneuverability to get on the American jet’s tail.

The Pentagon upgraded the Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles and added a gun to the new “E” version of the F-4. Pilots got training for turning fights. Soon, kill-loss ratios improved for U.S. aircrews. But what America really needed was a brand-new fighter — one that didn’t just excel at a narrow sort of high and fast, long-range fighting.

America needed a dogfighter.

“A tremendously improved thrust-to-weight ratio, which, coupled with a low wing loading, will produce high Mach and ceiling along with superior climb, acceleration and turn ability throughout the flight envelope,” is how Holloway described the new jet’s characteristics in 1968.

“Advanced avionics and armament, which will provide the necessary ability to defeat any foreseen adversary with a wide variety of weapons, including missiles and guns,” Holloway added.

The result was the twin-engine F-15, which debuted in 1972 and 43 years later is still the Air Force’s most numerous air-superiority fighter. The smaller, single-engine F-16 followed a few years later. It, too, could fight high or low, fly fast and turn tight, launch missiles and fire guns.

The F-15 and F-16’s designers didn’t optimize them for fanciful, idealized war scenarios. They optimized them for our own imperfect planning, for uncertain circumstances and for an enemy that gets his own vote — in other words, for the real world.

Which has only become more important as Russian fighter design has progressed. MiG-17s gave way to speedy MiG-21s and, later, highly maneuverable MiG-29s and Su-27s. Today’s Su-35 — a heavily redesigned Su-27—can fly faster and turn better than an F-15 and carries more and arguably better weapons.

Less and less, America gets to dictate the terms in aerial warfare. More and more, the Pentagon needs fighters that can fight.

But America’s new F-35, which is set to become the Air Force’s main warplane, is “substantially inferior” in a turning battle even to an F-15, according to the pilot in the January 2015 mock dogfight. The Air Force insists that’s no problem because the stealthy F-35 will avoid detection and hit enemy planes from long range.

In other words, the Air Force insists it can dictate the terms of the F-35’s engagements.

Maybe that’s partially true. Maybe the F-35’s stealth properties will actually work somewhat. Maybe its missiles won’t miss all the time. Maybe Russia won’t export the Su-35 to every interested buyer. Maybe the United States won’t ever wage a full-scale war against a high-tech foe that can negate the few advantages the F-35 possesses.

But what if the government’s rosy projections turn out to be even slightly off-target? What if something doesn’t work perfectly and F-35 pilots find themselves in dogfights with aerodynamically superior Sukhois or MiGs or Chinese-made planes? What if we send a fighter that can’t turn into battle with fighters that can?

It’s happened before to Air Force fighter jets that weren’t ever supposed to fight close. And a bunch of F-4 crews paid for the government’s blind faith in long-range, straight-line aerial warfare with their freedom … or their lives.

This first appeared in WarIsBoring here


F-4 Phantom II



F-4 Phantom II – Operational History:

Setting several aviation records just prior to and in the years after introduction, the F-4 became operational on December 30, 1960, with VF-121. As the US Navy transitioned to the aircraft in the early 1960s, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara pushed to create a single fighter for all branches of the military. Following an F-4B’s victory over the F-106 Delta Dart in Operation Highspeed, the US Air Force requested two of the aircraft, dubbing them the F-110A Spectre. Evaluating the aircraft, the USAF developed requirements for their own version with an emphasis on the fighter-bomber role.

Adopted by the USAF in 1963, their initial variant was dubbed the F-4C. With the US entry in the Vietnam War, the F-4 became one of the most identifiable aircraft of the conflict. US Navy F-4s flew their first combat sortie as part of Operation Pierce Arrow on August 5, 1964. The F-4’s first air-to-air victory occurred the following April when Lieutenant (j.g.) Terence M. Murphy and his RIO, Ensign Ronald Fegan, downed a Chinese MiG-17. Flying primarily in the fighter/inceptor role, US Navy F-4s downed 40 enemy aircraft to a loss of five of their own. An additional 66 were lost to missiles and ground fire.

Also flown by the US Marine Corps, the F-4 saw service from both carriers and land bases during the conflict. Flying ground support missions, USMC F-4s claimed three kills while losing 75 aircraft, mostly to ground fire. Though the latest adopter of the F-4, the USAF became its largest user. During Vietnam, USAF F-4s fulfilled both air superiority and ground support roles. As F-105 Thunderchief losses grew, the F-4 carried more and more of the ground support burden and by the end of the war was the USAF’s primary all-around aircraft.

To support this change in mission, specially equipped and trained F-4 Wild Weasel squadrons were formed with the first deploying in late 1972. In addition, a photo reconnaissance variant, the RF-4C, was used by four squadrons. During the Vietnam War, the USAF lost a total of 528 F-4s (of all types) to enemy action with the majority being down by anti-aircraft fire or surface-to-air missiles. In exchange, USAF F-4s downed 107.5 enemy aircraft. The five aviators (2 US Navy, 3 USAF) credited with ace status during the Vietnam War all flew the F-4.



Following Vietnam, the F-4 remained the principal aircraft for both the US Navy and USAF. Through the 1970s, the US Navy began replacing the F-4 with the new F-14 Tomcat. By 1986, all F-4s had been retired from frontline units. The aircraft remained in service with the USMC until 1992, when the last airframe was replaced by the F/A-18 Hornet. Through the 1970s and 1980s, the USAF transitioned to the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon. During this time, the F-4 was retained in its Wild Weasel and reconnaissance role.

These two latter types, the F-4G Wild Weasel V and RF-4C, deployed to the Middle Eastin 1990, as part of Operation Desert Shield/Storm. During operations, the F-4G played a key role in suppressing Iraqi air defenses, while the RF-4C collected valuable intelligence. One of each type was lost during the conflict, one to damage from ground fire and the other to an accident. The final USAF F-4 was retired in 1996, however several are still in use as target drones.


F-4 Phantom II – Issues

As the F-4 was initially intended as an interceptor, it was not equipped with a gun as planners believed that air-to-air combat at supersonic speeds would be fought exclusively with missiles. The fighting over Vietnam soon showed that engagements quickly became subsonic, turning battles which often precluded the use of air-to-air missiles. In 1967, USAF pilots began mounting external gunpods on their aircraft, however the lack of a leading gunsight in the cockpit made them highly inaccurate. This issue was addressed with the addition of an integrated 20 mm M61 Vulcan gun to the F-4E model in the late 1960s.

Another problem that frequently arose with the aircraft was the production of black smoke when the engines were run at military power. This smoke trail made the aircraft easy to spot. Many pilots found ways to avoid producing the smoke by running one engine on afterburner and the other at reduced power. This provided an equivalent amount of thrust, without the telltale smoke trail. This issue was addressed with the Block 53 group of the F-4E which included smokeless J79-GE-17C (or -17E) engines.


F-4 Phantom II – Other Users

The second-most produced Western jet fighter in history with 5,195 units, the F-4 was extensively exported. Nations that have flown the aircraft include Israel, Great Britain, Australia, and Spain. While many have since retired the F-4, the aircraft has been modernized and is still use (as of 2008) by Japan, Germany, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Iran, and South Korea.

American Aces

American Aces




Updated May 12, 2015.

F-4E Phantom II – Specifications:


  • Length: 63 ft.
  • Wingspan: 38 ft. 4.5 in.
  • Height: 16 ft. 6 in.
  • Wing Area: 530 sq. ft.
  • Empty Weight: 30,328 lbs.
  • Loaded Weight: 41,500 lbs.
  • Crew: 2


  • Power Plant: 2 × General Electric J79-GE-17A axial compressor turbojets
  • Combat Radius: 367 nautical miles
  • Max. Speed: 1,472 mph (Mach 2.23)
  • Ceiling: 60,000 ft.


  • 1 x M61 Vulcan 20 mm Gatling cannon
  • Up to 18,650 lbs. of weapons on nine external hardpoints, including air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground missiles, and most types of bombs




The zenith of the MiG-17’s combat career was Southeast Asia. When the US began the air war against North Vietnam in 1964, ramping it up considerably in 1965, the North Vietnamese had an integrated air defense system that they continuously refined and improved. The backbone of the defense system were SA-2 SAMs and a range of anti-aircraft artillery (AAA), ranging from light weapons to heavy guns, directed by a radar network. The network also employed interceptors, with the North Vietnamese heavily relying on the MiG-17 and, later, the MiG-21. As per Soviet doctrine, the fighters were tightly integrated into the air defense network, remaining under very strict ground control. They were not allowed to enter air-defense zones covered by SAM and AAA sites, being engaged without hesitation if they did.

Although the Americans never found North Vietnamese fighters to be as big a threat as SAMs and AAA, at first the US suffered startlingly large losses to all elements of the air defense system. US tactics and procedures were poor, and air combat training had been neglected. In time, matters were improved, and American pilots got “MiG fever” — the urge to score air combat kills. However, the Americans never had it easy; the North Vietnamese were learning, too.

A subsonic MiG-17 might not seem like much of a match for a supersonic F-105 or F-4 Phantom, but few aircraft fly at supersonic speeds when they are loaded down with bombs or other external stores; and though American fighters were as a rule much more powerful than the MiG-17, they lacked its agility, the F-105 in particular being regarded as a “lead sled”. While the North Vietnamese had the advantage of planning attacks as they pleased, in compensation the American aircraft had the speed to make or break contact at will; any American pilot dumb enough to get suckered into a turning fight with a MiG-17 was likely to learn about the little Red fighter’s heavy cannon armament the hard way. Many US pilots regarded the MiG-17 as a much more dangerous foe than the less-maneuverable supersonic MiG-21.

The easy way or the hard way, the Americans learned and gradually got the best of toe-to-toe fights; to screen out the MiGs, strike packages were protected by “combat air patrols (CAPs)”, including escorting “barrier CAPS (BARCAPs)” and free-ranging “MIGCAPs”. The North Vietnamese still had plenty of tricks up their sleeve. They like “ambush” tactics, loitering at low altitude, hidden against the jungle canopy by their disruptive camouflage colors, and then dashing up into an American strike package, making a single firing pass, and then running away again. Even if the MiGs didn’t score a kill, they forced the intruders to dump their bombs, frustrating the air strike. Another trick was to fly a natural-metal MiG at low altitude, where it was likely to be “bounced” by American fighters — which would then be led into a trap in the form or other MiGs, SAM or AAA sites, or both.


MiG-17 Cockpit – Image

Early in the war, due to US President Lyndon Johnson’s fear of escalating the conflict, North Vietnamese air bases were off-limits for attacks. Of course eventually the air bases were put on the target list. The North Vietnamese had been expecting them to be attacked sooner or later, and came up with an ingenious means of aircraft dispersal, using Mil Mi-6 “Hook” heavy-lift helicopters to simply carry the camouflage-painted aircraft on a sling to dispersal sites in the jungle vegetation. They would be transferred back to an airfield when needed.

In the end, most of the losses inflicted on American aircraft were from SAMs and particularly AAA; the air combat war was always something of a sideshow. Not surprisingly, the number of kills claimed by the two sides differ widely, with American sources insisting the kill ratio was in their favor, and North Vietnamese sources insisting exactly the reverse. Most North Vietnamese pilots were not “hot dogs”, being trained Soviet-style to follow orders and display little initiative, but there were a few stars among them. Oddly, the most famous North Vietnamese pilot, Colonel Tomb, exists in a state between fact and legend. No details are known about him, and though he does seem to have been based on one or more MiG pilots, he appears to have either been a propaganda fabrication of the North Vietnamese or an “urban legend” created by American pilots.

North Vietnamese Aces

MiG-17), 1 F-105D




North Vietnamese MiG-17 – Image @

Nicknames: Fresco (NATO Codename); Silver Swallow (North Vietnamese AF designation)



Specifications (MiG-17F):

    Engine: One 7,452-pound thrust Klimov VK-1F turbojet

    Weight: Empty 8,664 lbs., Max Takeoff 13,393 lbs.

    Wing Span: 31ft. 7.25in.

    Length: 36ft. 11.25in.

    Height: 12ft. 5.5in.


        Maximum Speed at 10,000 ft: 711 mph

        Ceiling: 54,460 ft.

        Range: 1,230 miles


        One 37-mm N-37 cannon

        Two or three 23-mm NR-23 cannon

        Up to 1,100 pounds of mixed stores on underwing hard-points

Number Built: 9,000+ (6,000+ in the USSR alone)

Number Still Airworthy: Approximately 12

Specification data



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