The F-35 Lightning II will excel at air interdiction, but was not created to engage in visual dogfights, according to Gen. Hawk Carlisle, the head of Air Combat Command.
The general's comments at the annual Air Force Association's Air and Space Conference came in response to a series of reports that have criticized the F-35's inability to win dogfights with current fourth-generation aircraft.
"I know there was a lot of press about the F-16 versus F-35," Carlisle said, referencing an internal document from Lockheed Martin that was leaked earlier this year. The memo, written by a test pilot, found the F-35 appeared to be at a serious disadvantage when engaging in a dogfight with a Falcon.
"That's not what the airplane was designed to do," Carlisle said. "It's designed to do that incredible multirole capability with its sensor suite and the integration and the [situational awareness] it provides the pilot, its electronic warfare piece, it's all those things that make the airplane what it is."
Other than direct dogfighting, the general said he believes the F-35 will be able to take down anything else in the sky.
"Probably other than a close-in maneuvering fight, it's going to do exceedingly well," he said. "Its capabilities to detect adversaries when they don't even know it's there, its weapon capability … it's going to be a great airplane."
The direct, visual aerial engagements will be handled by F-22s, Carlisle said, and he lamented the decision to stop purchasing the aircraft.
"We don't have enough F-22s," he said. "If you look at the way we're using them today in the current fight we're in, if you look at what we would do in a future fight, we flat don't have enough F-22s. But we have what we have, and they're doing incredible work, and what the airmen flying those things are doing is phenomenal."
Any major kinetic engagements will require both aircraft, Carlisle said, with the F-22s handling the air-to-air combat.
"You're going to need the Raptors to be able to do some of those things against the high-end fight, to take some things down, to allow the rest of the force — which will include leading-edge F-35s — to penetrate denied airspace," he said. "You're still going to have to do that, and we're going to do it with the 180 or so F-22s that we have … but it's going to be a combination of F-22s and F-35s."
Carlisle emphasized that air power is critical for any current and future conflicts.
"We have not lost anybody to an aerial attack from an enemy since April 15, 1953," he said. "The foundation of the joint fight is you've got to have air superiority. If you don't have that, you're not going to win that fight. You're going to put too many people in peril. You're going to lose too many lives, going to lose too much equipment, going to lose too much supplies, so you have to have that capability."