F-35’s helmet sights: A key advantage over the F-22 in visual combat

Recently, four U.S. Air Force F-22 fifth-generation fighters were forward deployed to Kunsan Air Base in South Korea. These aircraft made a rare appearance over the peninsula’s inland airspace for simulated close-range air-to-air combat exercises with South Korean F-35As

In today's warfighting environment, the F-35 outperforms the F-22
Photo credit: via Twitter

The Air Force’s 8th Fighter Wing shared that the deployment aims to “test Agile Combat Employment  [ACE] capabilities within the Pacific region.” This comes as the Air Force increasingly emphasizes giving pilots hands-on experience operating against other fifth-generation aircraft. 

This type of training is growing significantly, highlighted by the creation of a dedicated adversary training unit using F-35s within the U.S. Air Force’s 65th Aggressor Squadron. Such training has become crucial as China emerges as a major player in fifth-generation combat aviation, nearing U.S. annual production with its J-20 fighter jets.

F-35's helmet sights: A key advantage over the F-22 in visual combat
Photo by J. Michael Peña

F-22 was built to excel

The J-20’s advanced capabilities have increasingly alarmed U.S. officials, with many experts suggesting  that it could boast some of the most formidable combat abilities globally. Meanwhile, another Chinese fifth-generation fighter, the FC-31, appears to be in the early stages of production. 

When it comes to air-to-air combat, the F-22 was built to excel, offering higher speed, greater altitude, and a superior thrust-to-weight ratio. It can also turn better, is more maneuverable, and can carry more air-to-air missiles compared to the F-35. These characteristics give it a significant edge in close-range dogfights. 

However, under certain conditions in simulated combat scenarios, the F-35 can maintain a considerable advantage. The reason – its advanced technological features. This means the two aircraft could perform differently depending on the circumstances.

F-35 helmet-mounted sights

Although the F-35 was primarily built with a focus on air-to-ground missions and boasts average maneuverability at best, its advanced avionics provide a crucial advantage. This edge is not just seen in long-range engagements, where it can share data with other units, but also in close-quarters combat scenarios like those over Korea. 

The F-35’s sensor fusion and distributed aperture system offer significantly better situational awareness  compared to the F-22’s avionics. It also features a far more advanced radar and an infrared search and tracking system, the latter being something the F-22 lacks entirely. 

F-35's helmet sights: A key advantage over the F-22 in visual combat
Photo credit: Royal Navy

This tracking system enables the F-35 to lock onto the heat signature of the F-22 while staying radar silent, meaning it doesn’t have to use its radar, making it harder to locate. One of the F-35’s most notable benefits in close-range combat is its helmet-mounted sights. These allow the aircraft to lock onto and engage F-22s at extreme angles using AIM-9X visual range missiles.


The F-35’s helmet-mounted display system [HMDS] is a cutting-edge piece of technology that integrates advanced avionics directly into the pilot’s helmet. One of the standout features of the F-35’s helmet sight is its ability to project information directly onto the visor. This includes data such as airspeed, altitude, and heading, as well as targeting reticles and threat indicators. The information is overlaid onto the pilot’s view of the outside world, allowing for a seamless integration of real-time data and visual cues. 

The helmet-sight system is also equipped with night vision capabilities, eliminating the need for separate night vision goggles. This is achieved through an integrated camera system that provides a clear view in low-light conditions, further enhancing the pilot’s ability to operate effectively at any time of day.

‘See through’ the aircraft

In addition to displaying flight and targeting information, the HMDS allows pilots to ‘see through’ the aircraft using the Distributed Aperture System [DAS]. This network of cameras mounted around the aircraft provides a 360-degree view, which is fed directly into the helmet. This capability is particularly useful for identifying and tracking targets, as well as for situational awareness during complex maneuvers. 

The helmet itself is custom-fitted to each pilot to ensure comfort and optimal functionality. It includes a sophisticated tracking system that aligns the displayed information with the pilot’s line of sight. This means that wherever the pilot looks, the relevant data is presented in their field of view, allowing for rapid decision-making and response. 

F-35’s avionics

Although the F-22 also carries the AIM-9X missile, it stands out as the only 21st-century fighter that lacks helmet-mounted sights. This means it needs to be pointed directly at its target to engage. Despite the  F-22’s superior maneuverability, the F-35’s avionics advantages are expected to tip the scales. The combination of these features likely gives the F-35 a significant edge in close-range combat. 

South Korea’s air force is often regarded as the most capable among U.S. allies. Korean F-35 pilots logging some of the highest training hours worldwide. They are well-positioned to achieve significant victories during exercises.


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