Back in 2015, a report emerged about a series of dogfight trials between America’s newest stealth fighter, the F-35, and the nation’s workhorse 4th generation platform, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, and the results were damning. The F-35, according to the report, was no match for its own predecessor, losing scrap after scrap between the two jets. But, as we’ve come to find out since—that report was missing some significant context… and the F-35 isn’t nearly the slouch it’s been made out to be.
Today, fighter pilots frequently dismiss the importance of things like Air Combat Maneuvering (the technical term for dogfighting) when asked, highlighting modern sensor reach and extremely effective long-range air-to-air weapons as reasons you won’t see theatrics like Maverick’s in a real cockpit any time soon. But make no mistake, modern fighters have to be able to win fights in the air… and the truth is, most pilots heading into such a fight would pick the F-35 every time over the nimble, but much older, F-16.
Related: Are the days of dogfights over? An in-depth air combat analysis
The F-35 is slower and less maneuverable than many 4th generation fighters
Platforms like the F-35 lean heavily into the prevailing wisdom that dogfights are a thing of the past, prizing data fusion and low observability over hot-rod performance. In fact, the F-35B and C, specialized for service aboard amphibious assault ships and aircraft carriers, are limited to short supersonic sprints of just 60 seconds or less in order to protect the delicate radar-absorbent coating layered over the airframes. Meanwhile, Cold War speedsters like the F-16 can creep up toward Mach 2 when flying without ordnance, and the legendary air superiority F-15 can do better than Mach 2.5 when it needs to hustle.
This shift in approach has led many to question just how effective America’s newest fighters would be in a near-peer conflict against highly capable, but older fighters. Russia’s 5th generation Su-57 may not be all that impressive, but the nation’s 4th generation fighters, like the highly capable Su-35, are something to behold. Their thrust vectoring aerobatics make for a much more dynamic show than the F-35’s “speak softly and carry a big stick” design, but what does that really mean for air combat?
Related: Is Russia’s Su-57 the worst stealth fighter on the planet?
The details of the infamous 2015 F-35 vs F-16 report
In 2015, David Axe over at War is Boring published the details of a report he obtained outlining how the F-35 got its tail kicked over and over again by the F-16. The exercises reportedly took place on January 14, 2015, over the Sea Test Range, which is a stretch of the Pacific Ocean near Edwards Air Force Base, California.
The fight was between a modern F-16D Block 40 and an Air Force F-35A. The F-35A requires a full-length runway for take-offs and landings (unlike its STOVL and carrier-capable siblings). The F-35A is also the only one of the three Joint Strike Fighter iterations to carry an onboard 25mm GAU-22/A four-barrel Gatling gun, making it best suited for the close-quarters dogfights these exercises were meant to replicate.
“The evaluation focused on the overall effectiveness of the aircraft in performing various specified maneuvers in a dynamic environment,” An unnamed F-35 test pilot wrote in the report.
“This consisted of traditional Basic Fighter Maneuvers in offensive, defensive and neutral setups at altitudes ranging from 10,000 to 30,000 feet.”
The F-35 carried no external munitions or fuel tanks, as it wouldn’t in combat in order to maintain its stealth profile, while the F-16 was carrying external tanks. In Axe’s report, he identifies this as an advantage the F-35 took with it into the test, though the truth is, it’s an advantage the platform would almost certainly carry with it into any fight with a 4th generation aircraft, as all fighters of that era carry their weapons externally.
Once the fighting kicked off, the F-35 seemed to immediately struggle, proving unable to line the Viper up in its sights for notional gun runs due to its “sluggish” performance.
“Even with the limited F-16 target configuration, the F-35A remained at a distinct energy disadvantage for every engagement,” the unnamed test pilot reported after the exercise.
In offensive and defensive duals, the F-35 was consistently found wanting due in large part to its inability to get its nose pointed at its opponent.
“Instead of catching the bandit off-guard by rapidly pull aft to achieve lead, the nose rate was slow, allowing him to easily time his jink prior to a gun solution,” the JSF pilot wrote, effectively saying the F-35’s slow nose rate allowed the F-16 to remain elusive.
That same nose rate issue came back to haunt the F-35 when the tides were turned, allowing the F-16 to quickly gain a firing solution while the Joint Strike Fighter struggled to get itself out of the way of the Viper’s cannon.
The only way the F-35 could win a dual with the Viper, the report suggested, was by putting itself into an extreme maneuver that gave it the chance to point its nose at the opponent to deliver a missile shot, but doing so, the report explained, robbed the F-35 of airspeed, leaving it vulnerable to follow-on attack.
“The technique required a commitment to lose energy and was a temporary opportunity prior to needing to regain energy … and ultimately end up defensive again,” the pilot wrote.
The report, and accompanying context from Axe, seem to suggest the F-35 is seriously inferior to older jets. But it wasn’t until later that the real details about this series of exercises emerged, and it dramatically changed the way these fights should be characterized.
Related: What went wrong? How the F-35 got to be so expensive
People who hate on the F-35 ate the report up… but there was already evidence that the test wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be
The report seemed to confirm what many already believed about Lockheed Martin’s new Joint Strike Fighter, playing into the increasingly popular narrative that the trillion-dollar (plus) F-35 program has resulted in an unimpressive aircraft that fails to live up to expectations.
The truth is, the report was indeed real and the F-35 really did fail to provide a worthy opponent in those very specific trials… But that doesn’t mean the report and ensuing press coverage didn’t seriously mislead the public about the F-35’s actual capabilities, let alone how it would really fare in a fight with the nearly 50-year-old F-16.
The first sign that something was amiss came about halfway through the original article, where Axe explains how the F-35 was able to use that specific maneuver to orient its nose as the F-16 to engage it with missiles and score its only win. It sounds like the pilot was working hard to get the aircraft to find its target… but the F-35 notably doesn’t need to orient its nose at a target in order to lock onto it with missiles.
In fact, the F-35 can famously shoot “off-boresight,” meaning it can target and fire at enemy aircraft even when they’re flying behind it.
So what gives? Why would an aircraft with such advanced sensor fusion capabilities that it can literally let the pilot look through it when targeting opponents practically anywhere struggle to aim its nose at an F-16 at all?
Related: What it’s really like to push 9Gs in a dogfight flying the F-16
The F-16 was squaring off against an F-35 with both wings digitally tied behind its back
The report’s damning representation of the F-35 wasn’t based on the jet’s actual capabilities at all, as it would turn out.
The F-35 airframe used in the exercise, AF-2, was among the earliest F-35s delivered to the Air Force—and it carried software limitations specifically intended to prevent the pilot from pushing the jet anywhere near its structural limits. The F-16D it was flying against, of course, had no such restrictions. But that’s not all.
In a subsequent piece penned by Kris Osborn for the National Interest, the reasons for the F-35’s poor dogfighting performance began to take shape.
“The F-35 involved was AF-2, which is an F-35 designed for flight sciences testing, or flying qualities, of the aircraft. It is not equipped with a number of items that make today’s production F-35s 5th Generation fighters,” F-35 JPO office said in a written statement.
So why wasn’t the F-35 able to aim and fire notional missiles at its F-16 opponent without pointing the nose of the fight directly at it? The answer is simple—the F-35 that participated in these drills didn’t have all of the systems it needed to leverage its own capabilities.
The AF-2 was “not equipped with the weapons or software that allow the F-35 pilot to turn, aim a weapon with the helmet, and fire at an enemy without having to point the airplane at its target.”
The AF-2 F-35 used in these dogfights also lacked the radar-absorbent coating that’s essential for the stealth profile of these jets. In fact, current radar-absorbing materials (RAM) are rated to absorb upwards of 70-80% of inbound electromagnetic energy (of radar waves), making it much more difficult for the F-16 to track the F-35 on radar.
In other words, the F-35 that fought in these exercises was flying to only a percentage of its full capabilities in terms of aerobatics, targeting, and situational awareness.
Related: An F-35 pilot explains why the jet’s bad press misses the point
So, who would really win a fight between the F-16 and F-35 in combat today?
If an F-35 and an F-16 found themselves on opposing sides of a conflict and suddenly within visual range of one another, the tight-turning Viper might have a chance at scoring a kill on the F-35, but that’s not the same thing as saying the F-16 is better. In combat, anything can happen, and things like pilot error or something as simple as position on approach can give less advanced jets an advantage they can press…
But in actual combat conditions, it’s far more likely that the F-35 would down any F-16 on the playing field before the Viper pilot even knew it was there. It’s hard to win at air combat when your parachute is open before you even realize the fight’s on.
Don Lemon says
We all know that Big Jake is a homo.
Good show Kent. So 4 F-35 Beasts come in BVR and fire off 8 shots, then com in to dogfight range to observe the debris raining down or can knock down 16 more bandits while staying in full stealth mode. The latest block 4 engine and the 9G software give it a huge advantage.
Even if the F35 sees other aircraft, it still needs to fire a missle at it and would alert the air craft of the incoming missle.
Missile launches do not necessarily alerted the target aircraft.
F-35 can track and targets enemy plane with DAS, without need to turned on its APG81 radar.
The F-35 Beast comes in from over forty miles away without alerting, fires 2 AIM-260s that turn on their radar at the last minute doing Mach 3.5 and KILL him. Beastie looks around with 4 more AIM-260s and a wingman or 3.
You cant change the test completely and then claim the F-35 would have won your fictional scenario because BVR and Stealth wasnt what was being tested here.
they were testing the dogfighting capabilities of an f-35 that basically couldn’t do the fighter part of fighter jet because of software limitations
In later tests testing the same thing the actual F-35s beat the f-16s and f-15s in dogfighting.
My thinkin’ on this is they are mute, The F35 or other will be the player, for they will never enter combat. The drone flyin’ alongside will be so nibble and can pull more G’s than any human can stand and the age of the dogfighter will be over. You’ll have gamers that will fly’em with a joystick way behind the line or way above them. Just look at the Ukraine drones and those are useless crap and then think about the drones of the USA, which few have ever seen!!!!
Eagle Keeper says
The F-35’s payload is its Achilles heel, it can’t carry nearly enough Air to Air missiles and that can leave it very vulnerable AFTER a successful engagement. The pipe dream of using trailing F-15’s as flying weapons platforms for it, shows just how desperate the military is to force the F-35 to be useful.
Clifford Williams says
The F-35 is a fine aircraft, that can literally enter the combat arena undetected and take out targets with missiles before they even know they are in a fight!
But take way the missiles and left with just the guns, there is no more capable fighter than the F-16. The F-16 can bring guns on target faster than anything in the air today!
Is the era of dog fighting over? We thought that was true once before in the late 1950’s. That resulted in the lumbering gun-less F-4 Phantom that was devastated by more maneuverable MIGs, with guns in Vietnam.
Once the F-35 has expended its missiles it is effectively out of the fight and should leave the engagement. Especially if there are other more effective fighter in the area. While the F-16 can re-engage targets with its guns and be highly effective.
But we may never know the answers to these questions. Unless we get into a fight with the Chinese. The Russians have show their ineffectiveness even with highly capable aircraft!
“I feel the need, the need for speed!”
Emmanuel Costume says
Big Jake says
The word is DUEL.
Yes Big Jake, It seems there are too many to’s and dual/duels by 3rd grade editors.
Jim O'Brasky says
Please note that the US vs NVN aircraft exchange rate in 1965 to 1968 was 2.5 :1 over North Viet Nam – when the opposition aircraft were Mig-17’s and Mig -21’s flown by veteran Russian pilots under ground radar intercept control – the successful attacks against A-4, F-8 , F-4, F-100, and older USAF aircraft were conducted by gun engagements from astern. The Navy Fighter Weapons School was established in 1969. The USN vs NVN exchange rate in 1970-1973 was 12.5 :1 while the USAF Vs NVN exchange rate was less than 2:1. The major difference was that the NFWS emphasized really competent air combat maneuvering tactics as a confidence builder but placed special emphasis on EW to eliminate ground radar control and exploitation of Sparrow Missiles operating off bore-sight.
In 1974-1978, the ACEVAL -AIMVAL test program was originally intended to emphasize F-16 and F-15 aircraft armed with Sidewinder Missiles and a Dog-Fight emphasis. There were very few USAF competent air combat maneuvering pilots so Navy Fight Weapons School instructor pilots were added to the test. These TOP Gun pilots brought F-14A aircraft armed with AIM-54A Phoenix Missiles. In every engagement, these highly competent experts in beyond visual range tactics won every engagements – even when one aircraft had to engage six f-16/F-15 aircraft simultaneously. The result was that the US adopted the AIM-120 beyond visual range missile – this 300 pound missile had the performance of the 1000 pound AIM-54 Phoenix and its seeker but two technical generations later.
Since 1986, over 250 air-to-air combat engagements have occurred – ALL BEYOND VISUAL RANGE Engagements without a single successful dog-fight
TheKaiser vHohels says
Good writeup. One minor “point” few may know or perhaps care about: it’s “TOPGUN.” As Ward Carroll or some other actual Naval Aviator put it: one word, don’t ask. 😁
David always grinding his Axe against the F-35–he has a long history of it.
The AIM-9X when coupled with the Gen III HMDS helmet can destroy any F-16 or other aircraft off-boresight. Since the original AF-2 F-35 was made, the flight envelope has relentlessly expanded for the F-35 Block 3 and 4–and the flight logic controllers allow greater latitude to the pilot–especially with a ridiculously high angle of attack which the F-16 does not have anything close to the AoA of the F-35. Translated, that means the pilot can be more aggressive in combat maneuvers now, than when the test occurred.
Keep in mind what a fully loaded F-16 looks like, with fuel tanks, missiles, IR pod–all hanging off its wings. When the F-16 is ‘clean’ it can approach Mach 2, but fully loaded, it cannot even exceed Mach 1. When the F-35 is in stealth mode, it carries all of its weapons internally. So carrying a full weapons load has little affect upon the F-35 flight kinematics, and the F-35 A, unlike the B and C models can fly supersonic for longer periods.
The Red Flag exercises in Nevada, and the Northern Edge mass combat simulations show the F-35 is downing legacy F-16s and F-15s at a 15-1 and 20-1 exchange rate. Almost all of those shot down by the F-35 never saw it–no matter how much experience a pilot has, if he cannot see his enemy aircraft–his experience is useless.
The block 4 F-35 will see a long list of improvements and hopefully, an engine upgrade in thrust and range. The F-16 was a bare-bones day fighter when it started out, but over time, it became the fighter jet we all know and love. The same with the F-35–it continues to improve–and the production line is hot, and already 800 have been built.
A number of F-35 pilots have flown other platforms, and pretty much every single one, when asked which aircraft they would like to fly into combat choose the F-35.
I should also point out that few people except the pilots understand how modern air warfare works today. The F-35 will never be alone–it will be deployed in 4 ship battle configurations. Each F-35 can not only make its own kills, but also, it can ‘quarterback’ for legacy aircraft following behind. The capabilities of the platform have revolutionized air warfare. Most people only think of a pilot and an air frame–but the F-35 is a collection of advanced components all connected to a super-computer and and huge MDF. F-35s can ‘see’ targets with its synthetic aperture radar at great distances and drop an SDB II or Stormbreaker bomb from 70 miles to 45 miles for a moving target. The combination of the F-35 radar and its IR suite imparts unparalleled situational awareness not only to the pilot, but is networked to fellow pilots and to a battle management system.
There are many other advanced features about the F-35 which make it the most lethal aircraft ever built–but still, commenters with little knowledge continue to perceive air combat as ‘dogfights’. If it has to, the F-35 can match or exceed the F-16 in dog-fighting with a representative combat load, however, this will and should be a last resort–rarely happening in combat.
Big Jake says
The Joint Strike Failure: World’s Most Expensive “Fifth Generation” A-7
TheKaiser vHohenfels says
Is your name “Rip Van Winkle?” Apparently you’ve been asleep since 2015.
The F-35, F-22 are really overkill when it comes to going up against our potential enemies. The current war in Ukraine showcases how western media has over hyped Russian kit and personal for decades. Most if not all Russian kit is performing at the level of U.S. Vietnam era weapons and no where near what American and it’s top allies have today. Even the vaunted Russian SAM systems haven’t shot down much of anything except some drones and a few old Mig-29s and 27s. And the pre war doom and gloom regarding Russia’s ECM capabilities were just more of the hype that proved false.
What is your point?
There is no such thing as overkill when it comes to having better tech.
Just having better weapons and systems prevents war.
Why should we fight at the level of the Russians, 10 Generals dead and hundreds of their tanks with the turrets blow off, how dumb not to learn the lessons from the first gulf war in the 90’s.
They said the same thing about the F4 and didn’t put a cannon on the initial series. Guess what got added later to the missile shooter?
And the thousands of the F-35As will have a 25 mm cannon.
The B’s and C’s can have a cannon in a pod as was the requirements from the Navy.
You do realize that you are talking about over SIXTY years ago.
Longbows were amazing once, even better than crossbows. Would you want to carry a longbow into combat rather than a modern rifle?
TheKaiser vHohenfels says
True, but there’s way more to that story, the answer to which is Navy TOPGUN school, not so much the gun.
Larry Jones says
The Navy needs a new tanker. Stealth, with the capacity, and range, of the A-6 tanker, or the A-3 tanker.
Can you really use “Block 40” and ‘modern’ in the same sentence? Isn’t that a strike oriented version that came out when Reagan was president? Did the F16 drop its tanks for the fight?
Oh, the F35 would win because of 9X and off bore helmet targeting. Too bad the F16 doesn’t have that… oh, wait…
The F35 is a ‘weapons system’ and probably that is the kind of tool that will win wars in the future for large organizations like the USAF with integrated air ops. Unless highly integrated into US ops and systems, I don’t know why a second tier power would buy a smattering of these over more numerous legacy aircraft. Hell, you better not get caught over the Persian Gulf in and F35 on a clear day with an Iranian F4 around…
Australia, Finland, Switzerland, Belgium, Poland, Denmark, Italy, Israel, Japan, Norway, the UK, South Korea, Canada, Romanian and the Netherlands also operate one or more F-35 variants or are awaiting delivery of the aircraft.
Oh are they all “large organizations like the USAF” – NOPE! Looks the the world does not agree with you.
Greece, Spain and others has also expressed interest in the F-35.
And canada also does
North Eastern says
I knew at the time that 9 g turn enabling software was just beginning to be tested, so I never worried about its miserable performance against the F-16. The testing of the software and structural resiliency began on September 29 2016.
The F35 does not carry the AIM9 internally. The AiM9X wasn’t among the weapons Fat Amy could carry at that time. The F35 was G limited to 6 G with wingtip missiles, the C model anyway. If Fat Amy doesn’t win the BVR fight, it is too slow to run and too fat fight.
Johnny Thornton says
Sorta reminds one of an A-4 with an afterburner, and fancy paint job for 1000x the cost of an A-4! Cal Worthington would be proud!
The article did not mention AIM9, the internally carried AMRAMM missiles can be fired off boresight.
“The F35 was G limited to 6 G with wingtip missiles,” Nope
How does the external tanks and missiles g limit the 4 generation planes?
Doesn’t matter – While we still have some of the best aircraft, it will always boil down to the pilot. If he is aggressive and smart, we win. If he isn’t well he ends up in the drink. However, from my experience in the CAOC and downrange, the AF doesn’t like to drop bombs below 30k and is too risk averse to allow a pilot to engage in a traditional dogfight, hence the need for long range air to air missiles.
How is that dropping dumb bombs low and slow working out for the Russians in Ukraine?
The Air Force’s vast majority of missions are support of the ground troops.
Ground troops want the target destroyed, they don’t care about the altitude of the attacking plane.
The US uses precision guided weapons! They are more accurate from 30K than using the old Mark 1 eyeball at treetop height.
Don Thompson says
So many times in History where aircraft designers turned out to be wrong about how they would be used in fights.
Every advantage you can build into an aircraft will end up being negated by new tactics.
Really, yet somehow we build pretty kick ass fighters.
Is that why the F-16 and F-15 have a combined 187-1 kill ratio against Russian fighter jets?
Guy White says
Duel, not “dual[sic]”.
Brian Foley says
two duels ?
The use of long range Air To Air Missiles has been around as long as Air To Air Missiles were loaded onto aircraft.
The apex was the Phoenix which the Tomcat was designed to carry.
THE only problem is the politicians and the lawyers get involved in war and devise Rules of Engagement (ROE) REQUIRING Visual IDentification (VID) before shooting for us, REQUIRING our aircraft to get well within ALL aircraft involved weapons engagement zones. At that point long range weapons are worthless and now air combat maneuvering is required to stay alive.
VID is essential to not shooting down a good guy who may be a straggler from a previous sortie and has an inoperative IFF transponder as 1 example.
Unlike in Clancy’s Red Storm Rising where the Tomcats unload on the incoming deception raid (Clancy used a lot of editorial license on much of the war fighting capability and tactics), this type of engagement is not going to be as clear in the real world since WE use the Rules of War unlike the scumbags.
Simple Horn says
The F35 wasn’t designed to be a better F16. It was designed to replace the F117, AV8B, A6, and legacy Hornets, as well as pick up the CAS role from F16s.
That being said, the old David Axe article misses all sorts of things. That specific early model F35 would itself be significantly better today with the current software base. The early software grossly limited the G it could pull, literally not allowing the plane to pull more than 5G. That’s a severe limitation against even some 3rd gen fighters. Current F35As are at 9G. Huge difference.
The old article also had an F35 with no RAM. The F16 had no problems getting radar lock early. In reality, the F35 could get close enough to shoot AMRAAM inside 99% kill ranges and probably AIM9X-2 as well. They just recently tested the new sidewinder on the F35, so that wasn’t even an option.
The USAF pilots don’t call the F35 the lighting or the derogatory (and misogynist) “Fat Amy”. Air Force pilots call it “Panther”, cause it is always watching you but you can’t see it. It will strike and kill you before you know it’s there. Realistic exercises with combat coded F35s support this, decisively.
Big Jake says
Panther my ass.
This blow torch will light up every IRST around and get swarmed.
It’s a glorified A-7.
Mark Frieberger says
Rules of war is just BS that some communist lawyer thought up to hamstring the U.S. military. There are only two actual rules.
1. Good guys go home safe, at the end of the day.
2. There are no rules.
When was the last time you heard of a lawyer, or politician, being involved in actual combat?
One of the more curious locations fought over during Vietnam was Michelin’s rubber tree plantation. This plantation was a major headache for US troops, as they were forbidden from calling in artillery on enemies inside of it.
Michelin continued to use the plantation throughout the war, and it made large amounts of money. The trees were not to be damaged by the fighting, and any damages to the plantation had to be repaid to Michelin by the US. Naturally, artillery was not an option in the forest and the North Vietnamese quickly realized this. They started setting up positions in the plantation as they were safe from artillery.
These positions then had to be cleared by US forces by hand.
Frank James says
Informational mis direct! The F-35 carries 4 missiles. So if the opfor sent 4 aircraft, the F-35 would be out of missiles in two tgt engagements. Once the F-35 is out of missiles, it’s time for home. If the F-35 has to turn and burn, it’s time/temp limited. Again, in reality, the F-35 is limited to using it’s burner to bug out. Additionally, the F-35 is such short range that the opfor just has to run the F-35’s fuel load down, and the F-35 has to run for home.
Do you really think that after firing 4 missiles at 4 targets, or 2 targeted at 2, that the F-35 (somehow by itself) should even consider going into visual range in a 2:1 fight? Would anyone else do such a thing? With any platform, you eventually go Winchester and, when you do, you go home…you don’t keep boring in to attack!
Even after firing the missiles, the F-35 wouldn’t have been detected by the OPFOR fighters, firing beyond their detection range, and their warning would come when the incoming missiles start terminal homing. As to range, there are…well…aerial refueling options…been using them for a while now.
Again the canard about “limited high mach speeds” due to the coating is repeated. It is not TRUE. This happened in ONE test and has never been seen again or replicated in testing!
Lou Schultz says
Not limited by high mach speeds- limited by engine temp constraints. After Winchester, or bingo, he heads for home. Then the real fighters just chasem down.
Well, actually in two tests, once on a flight science F-35B and once on a flight science F-35C, both after supersonic envelope expansion and high angle of attack testing where the F-35s in question used afterburner for, literally, more than most aircraft would use in a dozen lifetimes. Which is why said restrictions only apply to F-35B/Cs. And, there is only a restriction on the current aircraft because they could neither find a cause or duplicate it in practice after repeated tests. Nor have there been any incidences on any fleet aircraft. So, since you can’t fix something that doesn’t exist, they put in peacetime restrictions, which of course, don’t apply in wartime.
But hey, the likelihood of a commenter actually doing research or logically analyzing anything on an INTERNET post approaches zero, especially as related to he F-35. I mean consider, so you are flying your little 4 ship formation and suddenly two of your wingmen are blotted out of existence by an aircraft(s) you can’t see. Do you continue to mill about smartly?, run for home hoping you don’t end up like your two buddies? Go to burner in some direction hoping you guessed right?
Sidekick will allow the F-35 to carry 6 missiles internally. F-35 fly in groups of 4.
That is 24 A-A missiles. So you are going to have to send more than 16 fighters to have just 4 survive to the merge. And you neglect the fact that the F-35s will have the drop on them due to their stealth.
In beast mode the F-35 can carry 16 A-A missiles. These can be fired and guided by other F-35s in stealth mode.
So a flight of 4 with 2 in beast mode would carry