In his 2019 autobiography Topgun: An American Story, Captain Dan Pedersen, USN (Ret.), the officer who founded the USN’s Topgun school in 1969 takes a few well aimed shots at the F-35 from a variety of angles that are worth reading for anyone concerned about the state of the USN. I always thought that Topgun was a good idea to improve air combat skills among naval aviators, but it didn’t go far enough and it received too much hype that it didn’t really deserve, just like Navy SEALs. For example, in my second book on the USN, pilots from the USAF Fighter Weapons School and the Royal Navy Air Warfare Instructor School made derisive comments about how “fun and easy” Top Gun was, especially when it was just a four week course. (p. 136-137). Topgun is now 12.5 weeks long, which is a considerable improvement, but the USAF course is still significantly longer. But that’s neither here nor there because I want to share Captain Pedersen’s thoughts on the F-35.
Pedersen is a critic of stealth aircraft in general, and the F-35 in particular. As he put it: “…our country has been put at risk by the Pentagon’s fascination with stealth technology. We’ve lost the lessons we learned painfully in the 1960s. We worship at high technology’s altar and are on the verge of selling our souls. Stealth is like a zombie—a very expensive zombie. It’s coming back to life to haunt us.” (p. 277) The Navy version costs $330,000,000 each and he fears “… we’ll end up with a fleet full of beautiful new nuclear-powered supercarriers with partially empty flight decks. There’s simply no way the U.S. Treasury can afford to buy the numbers we’ll need to fill out the air wings. The F-35’s problems are many, from the tail hook, which basically just didn’t work, to the oxygen system for the pilot, to the super-sophisticated helmet, built with advanced sensors, an information-packed visor display, and the ability to aim weapons by line of sight, based on the pilot’s head movements. The unit price for that fancy dome was $400,000, but who knows what it really costs? The total program cost of this aircraft continues to rocket skyward like an F-4 Phantom heading to the top of the Egg. Meanwhile, the nickname for the F-35 among pilots who have lost confidence in it is ’the penguin.’ It flies like one.” (pp. 278-279)
In a previous article, I mentioned that old fashioned low frequency radars can easily detect stealth aircraft, but Captain Pedersen reported that the Russians and Chinese now use “infrared search-and-track devices [that] can detect the friction heat of an aircraft’s skin moving through the atmosphere, as well as disturbances in airflow. Yet the defense contractors’ marketing brochures, and a few pilots too, assure us that the F-35 is ‘transformational.’ According to the Lockheed Martin website, ‘With stealth technology, advanced sensors, weapons capacity and range, the F-35 is the most lethal, survivable and connected fighter aircraft ever built. More than a fighter jet, the F-35’s ability to collect, analyze and share data is a powerful force multiplier enhancing all airborne, surface and ground-based assets in the battlespace and enabling men and women in uniform to execute their mission and come home safe.’ That pitch makes the F-35 sound like an early warning aircraft—transformational indeed. It doesn’t say anything about winning a dogfight. Maybe that’s the point, because the pilots who have a lot of experience flying the ‘penguin’ say it’s no dogfighter.” (pp. 279-280)
Not only that, but the F-35 pilots are not getting anywhere near enough flying hours to be proficient, even if they were not flying a turkey. He observed: “At Topgun in my day, a pilot had to log a minimum of thirty-five to forty flight hours every month to be considered combat-ready. This is no longer possible. As the F-35 continues to swallow up the money available to naval aviation, the low rate of production all but ensures that our pilots will not soon gain the flight hours that they need to get good. For the past few years Super Hornet pilots have been getting just ten to twelve hours per month between deployments—barely enough to learn to fly the jet safely. The F-35 has far less availability. Its pilots have to rely on simulators to make up the deficit. Its cost per flight hour is exorbitant.” (p. 280)
So it is really expensive, detectable, and won’t last long in a dogfight. What does Captain Pedersen think of as the solution? Basically he says simpler aircraft are better than the F-35 and that fighters like the F-5 are what the Navy really needs instead. “At night, sometimes while I lay beside the pool watching the jets and satellites ease by overhead, I use my imagination to design my ultimate fighter aircraft. I’d make it a basic hot rod, a single-seater akin to the old F-5. Light, maneuverable, and compact—hard to see in a fight. I’d want it cheap, easy to mass-produce and replace should we start taking losses in combat over time. The cockpit systems will be engineered to avoid overwhelming the pilot’s senses with data. My pilots will not be emotionally and mentally overloaded by the bells and whistles that characterize the fifth-generation cockpit. The Navy busts its budgets by installing integrated command and control electronics, but most pilots I know don’t touch them. So we’ll get rid of them. My guys won’t need a non-combatant staffer or distant admiral somewhere hearing all their comms and butting in to micromanage. The only conversations they’ll need are with a good radar controller somewhere, their mother carrier, and their squadron mates.” (p.283)
Finally, he said: “Give me a few hundred planes like the F-5N, with a reliable gun, a lead-computing gunsight, four Sidewinders, electronic countermeasures support, and pilots who get forty or fifty flight hours a month, and we’ll beat any air force that’s bankrupting its nation with fifth-generation stealthy penguins. Pilot retention problems will go away. Because the basic truth of fighter combat remains the same: It is not the aircraft that wins a fight, it’s the man [or woman] in the cockpit.” (pp. 283-284)
Truer words have never been said, and with his credentials as a fighter pilot, people in Washington should listen to him. Captain Pedersen, I salute you!
Roger Thompson. Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture. Naval Institute Press. Kindle Edition.
Dan Petersen. Topgun: An American Story. Hachette Books. Kindle Edition.
Roger Thompson “The F-35: Sales to Allied Countries Don’t Mean It’s A Great Airplane” CounterPunch, December 19, 2022.