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EDIT: This got away from me a bit, TL;DR at the end.
First, I think this jet is a mess, good at many things but not great at anything, or even necessarily better than other jets, and costs way too much, but I digress. You’re asking someone to indulge and tell you about the jet, and I’m having trouble getting some sleep, so I’ll bite.
First, to overview the Joint Strike Fighter program in general, the role that the F-35 is meant to fill. The advantages here are more a matter of logistics and program criteria than any particular strength or weakness of any given characteristic of the craft itself.
The F-35 is the result of US Military’s desire for a next-generation Joint Strike Fighter. It comes in three main flavors, A (Air Force), B (Marines, SVTOL) and C (Navy, built for Short/Carrier Take off and Landing).It’s meant to be a multi-role, all-weather, swiss army knife jet. It’s a versatile platform that can be deployed at scale, with the three main variants sharing a wide variety of parts. The upside of this – which is all too often underplayed – is that the over 2,000 of these the US military is wanting to purchase and employ across the Marines, Air Force, and Navy, will share many many parts. And I don’t just mean nuts and bolts, but the same fuel, the same armaments, same avionics, etc. Now, there are other people in this thread saying they share up to 90% of the same parts, and this is not true unless you counting by the pound and including fuel and bombs. This shows the structural components that are or aren’t shared between the three primary variants: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/aircraft/f-35-specs.htm. Stil;, this is hugely important, because it gives the US Military a platform that it can deploy at scale (the plan is currently to order and put into service over 2,000 of these), in a variety of situations, while keeping the logistics comparatively simple. And logistics is more important than the capability of any given fighting machine in a military. Additionally, training is vastly simplified and streamlined by using this common platform, not just for the pilots, but for the people who maintain, launch, store, build, repair, move, and otherwise deal with the craft.
Sure, there are specialized craft that can perform specific roles better than the F-35, but the point is that the F-35 is good enough in most cases across a wide variety of deployments, and what one particular F-35 plane lacks in comparison to a competitor, it makes up for in shear force of scale and vastly simplified logistics. It’s not a niche plane that runs on a niche fuel or uses niche weapons. All of that will be built at scale, with supply routes already established for simple maintenance purpose, so if shit does hit the fan, you don’t run out of ammo/fuel/planes, or have plenty but have them on the wrong side of the world.
With regard to the actual merits of the planes design and characteristics itself: The plane is of comparable size to the F-16 it replaces and expands upon, featuring similar wing span, length and height. However, it’s far heavier (half again as heavy as the F-16 when both are empty), but has nearly double the max take off weight. Simply put, it can carry a lot more “stuff” by weight, be it bombs, missiles, fuel, etc with the A and C variants capable of at least 30% greater payload than the F-16. Speaking of stealth, it has substantially reduced radar signature and substantially superior avionics in comparison with the F-16. In fact, the F-35 has a smaller radar signature than even the F-22.
It’s combat range is superior to the F-16 – which is a bit difficult to specify without making this even longer than necessary, but it basically boils down to “given how the military plans to equip this craft, it is able to travel farther and return without refueling than the previous craft.” Granted, the F-16 could be strapped with some large fuel tanks to give it considerable range, but that’s not light, and results in significantly reduced armament payload. The F-35 can also be strapped with fuel tanks, and is capable of carrying an overall larger load, so while I’d take the stated numbers of nearly twice the range of the F-16 with a grain of salt, I do think it’s reasonable to say the F-35 does indeed possess a significantly larger combat range.
They’re specific armaments is honeslty not worth discussing. Yes, they’re different. Yes, the F-35’s are generally better suited to the task(s) it’s meant for. That’s not necessarily a design flaw of the F-16 though so much as it is that the F-16 program as a whole operated with a certain capacity in mind, and had a specific set of weapons to compliment it. Likewise the F-35 has specific goals, and has specific weapons to compliment it, and benefits from being newer and a new platform, thus it’s easier to justify using newer/more modern weaponry (you have to pay to design and build the delivery system and electronics anyway, so the primary cause for retiscence in not updating the F-16 – cost of conversion – is nullified by virtue of it being unavoidable). Generally speaking there’s nothing on/in the F-35 missile/bomb wise that the F-16 couldn’t carry technically speaking, albeit with some conversion. But that brings me to my final point.
The F-35 is an electronics powerhouse. The air combat platform of the future is not about dog fighting, it’s about sensor-sight and communication. The US military could have just “refreshed” the F-16, giving it the modern weapons compliment of the F-35, and hell, for the sake of argument lets say we replace the engines too with something more efficient to give it comparable range as the F-35. I don’t think this would have been a wise course of action, but lets roll with it for arguments sake. This F-16 2.0 would be operationally inferior to the F-35 still, even if it had the same combat range and payload capacity, because it lacks the advanced sensors, avionics, and communications arrays, as well as suffering from a comparably massive radar signature. Swapping those electronics is not as simple as changing the radar detector in your car or the cpu in your computer.
The radars themselves are incredibly complex and expensive apparatuses that are specifically built to fit within the air frame of the air craft. Like wise, that Airframe is built with that radar in mind, along with the massive compliment of other sensors and electronics (missile detection systems, MANY various communications and location systems and their backups, imaging and survaillence systems, etc etc, in addition to the actual shooty and explody and thrusty bits). Getting all of that to fit, fit well, and remain balanced so that the plane can manuever nimbly yet predictably is a monumental challenge when you have free reign to build a whole new airframe and contract each specific puzzle component to fit together properly. Trying to shoe horn all of that into thousands of already built aircraft would, frankly, make the F-35 program look like a streamlined and cheap option by comparison, while still being functionally superior. At the end of the day the F-35 can make FAR more effective use of it’s armament than a F-16 can, because the F-35 is able to see much farther, at much greater detail, both in the air and on the ground, allowing it to deliver it’s ordinance with superior precision from a superior distance, all the while being better able to communicate what information it has with the other elements in the air with it.
At the end of the day, judging the F-35 program by the capabilities of a single F-35 in an isolated environment is akin to judging a Container Ship by the craftsmanship of a single shipping container. The F-35 is a few thousand pieces in the larger puzzle that is the US Military, pieces that are similar enough that most can be freely exchanged with the other and moved around the world if need be without unduly upsetting the support and supply structure that keeps them fueled, armed and flying. Basically, the F-35 incorporates a lot of the “support” elements (such as an AWACS, KC-135 or seperate reconaissance air craft) into it’s own shell, and is able to travel farther from the pack, but still remaining relatively safe and in direct contact with command due to it’s exceptional sensors, survaillence, and countermeasure systems. The F-16 may be able to out dog fight it, but it’s unlikely an F-16 (or any craft, even an F-22) is going to get anywhere close to dogfighting range before the F-35 either GTFO’s, rallies some air superiority support of it’s own, or just blows you out of the sky from a safe distance. Sure, it’s not invulnerable, but it’s highly capable, normalizing the supply requirements and reducing the overall number of craft needed to be in the air to perform the same operations.