The F-35C pilot was all too aware of the reason for this mission. The latest Hawkeye shootdown had been just like the others. The Chinese VLRAAM (Very Long Range Air to Air Missile) had used the American E-2D Hawkeye’s radar transmissions for detection and guidance and made its approach at Mach 6+ from well over 200 miles away. The 350 kt Hawkeye had attempted to evade but the Hawkeye’s utter lack of stealth and slow speed made escape impossible. For the Chinese, it was like shooting a turtle with a rifle – escape just wasn’t an option.
The Chinese had shot down two of the carrier group’s Hawkeyes, so far, and forced the remainder to operate 50-100 miles behind the group instead of out in front and offset to the sides where they should be to provide early warning and long distance situational awareness. The Chinese VLRAAM had effectively blinded the carrier group or, at the very least, substantially degraded their “vision” and shifted the operational and tactical advantages from the Americans to the Chinese.
carrier groups were not used to
operating from a tactical disadvantage and it had unsettled the group and
blunted its operational usefulness. U.S.
That was about to change. The analysts on board the carrier had calculated the range of the Chinese VLRAAM and, combined with the location of known Chinese air bases, had predicted the launch point for the J-16 strike-fighter that carried the VLRAAM. The point was above a somewhat sizable island that neither side had bothered to occupy. Now, a
F-35C had been tasked with ambushing
the J-16. U.S.
The F-35C carried two AIM-120 AMRAAM and two AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles in its internal weapon bays. The small combat load was one of the weaknesses of the F-35 but, for this mission, it shouldn’t matter. A simple ambush against an unsuspecting J-16 carrying a very large missile, which rendered the aircraft not very maneuverable, ought to be a straightforward affair.
The J-16 was
’s version of the Sukhoi Su-35,
itself an advanced and upgraded version of the venerable Su-27. To be sure, the base Su-35/J-16 was a very
capable strike fighter with excellent maneuverability but it wasn’t terribly
stealthy and, saddled with the VLRAAM, it wouldn’t be very fast or nimble. China
As the F-35C closed to within 100 nm of the anticipated location, the pilot opted for a quick scan with the APG-81 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar in LPI (Low Probability of Intercept) mode. The pilot was only expecting a single enemy aircraft but it didn’t hurt to be safe and sure. The LPI mode ought to prevent detection with limited use. As expected, the radar found its target and not more than 20 nm from the anticipated location. The pilot smiled. This was going to be a classic ambush. The J-16 would never know what hit it.
The F-35C carried the AIM-120D AMRAAM with a claimed range approaching 100 nm but the pilot knew that was under ideal conditions. Realistically, the probability of a hit increased with every mile closer to the target. The pilot continued to close. There was no need to rush the shot. The pilot knew that his Chinese counterpart couldn’t see the F-35 at this range so the F-35 was in no danger. As the range closed, the F-35 pilot attempted to establish an infrared track but was having trouble. Several times he thought he had the J-16 but he couldn’t hold track.
At 45 nm, the pilot opted for one more quick radar scan. Sure enough, the J-16 was still there but it appeared that the aircraft had turned and was headed away at high speed. Well, the pilot thought, this was why he hadn’t fired sooner. At this range, the J-16 couldn’t outrun the F-35’s AMRAAM even though he was already headed away. As the pilot readied the shot, alarm lights and audible missile warnings startled him out of his calm routine. Frantically glancing at his threat warning screen, the pilot saw that a missile was approaching from ahead and to the left, at the position. The pilot was momentarily frozen with surprise. There had been no aircraft there and yet a missile was rapidly approaching. It wasn’t possible. Shaking off the surprise, the pilot yanked the F-35’s nose into the threat to present the aircraft’s best stealth aspect, the front, waited a few more seconds to allow the missile to approach close enough, and began ejecting chaff and flares. Having received no radar warning, he assumed the missile was an infrared heat seeker but he wasn’t going to take chances and, besides, he had chaff and flares to spare.
As the chaff and flares bloomed, the pilot rolled inverted, pulled maximum G’s, and dove down to get out of the flight path of the incoming missile and its sensor’s field of view. He tried to twist his head back to look behind and see if the missile had been fooled but the F-35’s high fuselage and low canopy provided very poor rearward visibility – the F-35 was an aerial sniper not a dogfighter.
After a couple of seconds that seemed to last forever, the pilot realized that the missile must have missed since he was still alive. The frontal stealth and decoys had done their job.
Unfortunately, he still had no idea who or what had shot at him.
Recovering from the dive, he pulled level and quickly initiated a radar scan. There was still no target to be seen. Glancing at the IR display, he noted a target indicator marker ahead and below him but the indicator was not updating continuously. He knew from experience that kind of intermittent target was likely due to an aircraft with infrared suppression and a reduced heat signature. The intermittent contact occurred as the enemy aircraft maneuvered and changed aspect.
A sickening awareness quickly crept over the pilot. The only time he had encountered this type of situation had been during a series of training exercises against friendly F-22 Raptors. Then, he hadn’t been able to get usable radar returns and only intermittent IR indications. With a start, the pilot realized that he was likely facing a Chinese stealth aircraft.
The F-35 pilot was correct. Ahead and below him, a Chinese J-20 was maneuvering for a second shot on the F-35. In recognition of the F-35’s front aspect stealth, the J-20 had not even attempted to obtain a radar lock but had, instead, used its all aspect infrared search and track capability to find and track the F-35. Low on the deck, the J-20’s own heat and visual signature had been lost in the ground clutter while the F-35, high above, had been highlighted against the cold and clear sky.
The entire encounter had been a setup. The VLRAAM toting J-16 was actually a J-16D electronic warfare version mimicking a J-16 VLRAAM shooter and was now broadcasting both specific APG-81 jamming signals and broadband electronic noise to render the F-35’s radar ineffective. The Chinese had anticipated an American ambush and turned the tables. The stealthy J-20 had waited, low on the deck, watching for the F-35.
Having evaded the first missile shot from the J-20, the engagement was rapidly developing into a close range, turning encounter. The F-35’s radar couldn’t track the J-20 but neither could the J-20 track the F-35. Both aircraft were now depending on their IRST tracking and, again, neither could maintain a track long enough to generate a high probability kill shot.
The F-35 dove for the deck to negate the Chinese aircraft’s infrared advantage. As he did, he got a momentary IR indication and launched one of his two Sidewinders. Even as he launched, he saw the IR track fade as the enemy aircraft maneuvered and knew that the Sidewinder would miss as, indeed, it did.
The F-35 had catapulted from the carrier with its maximum stealth air-to-air load of 2 AMRAAMs and 2 Sidewinders. With radar useless against the J-20 stealth aircraft, that left the F-35 with only 2 Sidewinders and the pilot had just wasted one. In contrast, the J-20 had a large central belly bay which held 4x PL-21 medium range radar guided missiles, comparable to the US AIM-120 AMRAAM, and two smaller side weapon bays which held a total of 4x PL-10 short range, infrared, heat seeking, high off-boresight missiles. At this point, the Chinese aircraft had three heat seekers left to the F-35’s one.
By now, the engagement had closed to gun range and devolved into a turning and maneuvering dogfight – exactly the kind of engagement that the US Air Force had bet would never happen again in aerial combat. Unfortunately, for the US F-35’s, when two stealth aircraft meet, neither can effectively use their radar guided missiles and infrared missiles are unlikely to be able to track reliably enough to get a clean, high percentage shot from any aspect but the rear – the classic 6 o’clock position. This mandates the classic maneuvering dogfight in order to obtain the required position. This should have been easily predictable but the US Air Force had chosen to ignore the possibility. Now, the lightly armed and poorly maneuverable F-35 was paying the price.
With the F-35 now down on the deck and neither pilot wanting to go vertical and highlight their infrared signature against the cold upper atmosphere, the fight became a one dimensional, level turning contest just like the ancient WWI dogfights. Unfortunately, it was a dogfight the F-35 was ill-suited for with its poor turning performance, low g-limits, and poor maneuverability. The F-35 had been designed with maneuverability on par with the legacy F-16/18 and now was facing a stealth fighter equivalent to an F-22. Worse, the F-35C didn’t have an internal gun! If the pilot couldn’t get the firing position for his missile, he had no other option and with only one missile remaining, even that was only a one-time option!
As the dogfight wore on with ever tighter turns, the F-35’s airspeed bled off faster than the J-20’s and the F-35 reached a point where it had no choice but to break out of the turn and go vertical or else get outturned and become a sitting duck. Getting another momentary IR lock, the F-35 pilot fired off his second and last Sidewinder and yanked back on his stick with full throttle to climb out of the turn – it was time to run for home! The pilot could only hope that the Sidewinder would occupy the Chinese pilot just long enough to allow a clean break from the engagement.
However, thanks to extensive pre-war intel obtained through cyberespionage, the Chinese pilot knew the F-35 almost as well as the
pilot did. He knew that the F-35’s Sidewinder couldn’t
reliably track his fighter from this aspect.
He ejected a series of flares but otherwise ignored the Sidewinder. Seeing the F-35 go vertical, he waited a heartbeat
to allow the F-35 to establish its direction and then turned his nose across
the F-35’s path. With better
maneuverability, the J-20 was lined up and waiting as the F-35 momentarily
settled on its hoped for escape path.
The J-20, with an internal 30 mm autocannon, fired a three second burst
which shredded the F-35 and sent it cartwheeling toward the ground. US
Leveling off, the Chinese pilot released a breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding and released the stick to shake the cramps out of his hand which had been maintaining a death grip. The fight really hadn’t been a fair one given the F-35’s small weapons load and poor maneuverability but the pilot would gladly accept any advantage he could get.
The Americans would have to come up with another way to negate the Chinese VLRAAM advantage. In the meantime, the carriers would have to be pulled back, out of range of the deadly Hawkeye-killing missile.
The VLRAAM is real.
Launched by J-16, a multi-role strike-fighter that is roughly equivalent to the Russian Su-35. The Very Long Range Air to Air Missile (VLRAAM) is 19 ft long and 13 in. diameter with a range of 250-300 miles. Missile speed is Mach 6+.
“… large active electronically scanned (AESA) radar, which is used in the terminal phase of flight to lock onto the target. The AESA radar's large size—about 300-400% larger than that of most long range air-to-air missiles—and digital adaptability makes it highly effective against distant and stealthy targets, and resilient against electronic countermeasures like jamming and spoofing.” (1)
|VLRAAM Mounted Underwing|
The J-20 stealth fighter is real, however, its performance is somewhat speculative.
|J-20 Stealth Fighter|
The point of the story was to explore air to air combat between two stealth fighters and what I see as the inevitable degeneration of the combat to traditional dogfighting.
(1)Popular Science, “
is testing a new long-range,
air-to-air missile that could thwart China plans for air warfare”, Jeffrey Lin
and P.W. Singer, U.S. November 22, 2016,
(2)Air Force Technology website, “Chengdu J-20 Multirole Stealth Fighter Aircraft”,