Get a firsthand look at the initial deployment of combat-coded F-35As at Kadena Air Base in Japan. (Jeff Martin/Staff)

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan, and WASHINGTON —The F-35 has caught flack for what critics decry as lack of dogfighting prowess, a reputation that has followed the joint strike fighter for years.

But in the skies above Kadena Air Base in Japan, F-35 operators are getting the chance to prove those detractors wrong.

In October, more than 300 airmen and 12 F-35A conventional takeoff and landing jets from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, arrived in Japan, marking the Air Force’s first-ever F-35 deployment to the Asia-Pacific region. Since then, pilots have focused primarily on the air-to-air fight — a rarity for the F-35, a stealthy fifth-generation jet that is more known for its air-to-ground capability.

Kadena’s location on the island of Okinawa, a small 466-square-mile plot of land surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, offers a prime location for F-35 operators to practice aerial combat, said Capt. Ryan Fantasia, an F-35A pilot with the 34th Fighter Squadron.

“The airspaces are all over the water, so it’s a lot harder to look down and see the ground or anything like that. Plus, the Eagles are here,” he said, referring to the two F-15C/D Eagle fighter jet squadrons based at Kadena.

F-35A pilots train with F-15C/Ds anywhere from a couple times a month to a couple days a week, Fantasia told Defense News in February. Sometimes those exercises include Eagles from the 44th and 67th fighter squadrons at Kadena; while other days, F-35 pilots mix it up with F-15s from the Japan Air Self-Defense Force.

“It’s a blast. I really, really enjoy it,” said Fantasia, a fairly new pilot who graduated in January from the inaugural F-35 basic flight class. Fantasia and the five other “B-course” graduates are the first pilots trained from the start to be F-35 operators. They didn’t have prior experience in another combat aircraft like an F-22 or F-16.

Now, those pilots get to learn not only from the more knowledgeable F-35 operators based at Hill, but the F-15 pilots of Kadena, whose training consists of tactics and techniques that have been passed down and refined over nearly four decades.

“The training itself, we’re really taking advantage of the joint part of the exercise,” Fantasia said. “So the ability to see everybody’s different capabilities and then ultimately put that into one fluid scenario, it really allows for a lot of successes out there and a lot of chances to learn from each other.”

During his last flight, Fantasia faced off in a one-on-one fight that allowed him to practice basic fighter maneuvers — things like high-G turns, high climbs and high angle-of-attack moves that allow a pilot a more advantageous position when in a close-quarters fight.

Fantasia didn’t say whether he went up against another F-35 or an F-15, but the older fourth-generation jet still can pose a challenge in a dogfight.

The F-15C sustained has a long run as the Air Force’s premier air superiority jet, from the time it was introduced in the 1970s to 2005, when the fifth-gen F-22 was fielded. It’s famed for its incredible aerial combat record, with no losses ever recorded.

An F-35A from Hill Air Force Base's 34th Fighter Squadron sits on the ramp at Kadena Air Base, Japan. (Jeff Martin/Staff)
An F-35A from Hill Air Force Base's 34th Fighter Squadron sits on the ramp at Kadena Air Base, Japan. (Jeff Martin/Staff)

The F-35’s record against fourth-generation fighters hasn’t always garnered the jet positive attention. In 2015, War Is Boring obtained a five-page brief authored by an F-35 test pilot, who wrote that the joint strike fighter had been outclassed by the F-16. The pilot dogged the F-35 as too slow and not maneuverable enough to evade the F-16 or to shoot it down, the report stated.

At the time, the Defense Department defended the F-35 by pointing out that the aircraft involved in the test was a very early model with a flight envelope limited to only 5.5 G’s. The jet also did not feature many of the mission systems, stealth coating or helmet display functionality considered by some as the defining features of the F-35, which are now widely available.

In February, the F-35s at Kadena got the latest block 3F software, the full combat capability version that allows the aircraft to fly its entire flight envelope and up to 9 G maneuvers. But even before that, the Joint Strike Fighter’s air-to-air game has shown improvement, achieving a 20-to-1 kill ratio at its first Red Flag event in early 2017.

Capt. Brock McGehee, a pilot from Kadena’s 44th Fighter Squadron who has been flying F-15s for two years, characterized the F-35 as an “extremely capable” air-to-air fighter, during a February interview with Defense News.

“It’s just kind of scary a little bit to fly around in the dark with an invisible airplane that’s around you somewhere,” he said. “Those guys are very good pilots, their situational awareness is very high and they do a good job of keeping us in the loop of where they are when they’re on the same team as us.”

McGehee compared the F-35 to its fifth-generation brother, the F-22 Raptor. Both are stealth aircraft, making them very difficult to detect at long distances. But in close combat, an F-15 will engage an F-22 and F-35 very differently, he said. He declined to discuss specifics that could reveal tactics, techniques and procedures and provide an adversary with hints about how to best either aircraft.

“An F-22, if you’ve ever watched the demo of it, you can turn inside out. It’s ridiculous,” he said. “An F-35, it turns differently. So that’s just [basic fighter maneuver] kind of awareness for us of what to do differently.”

So can the F-15 beat the F-35 in dogfights?

“I mean, sometimes,” McGehee said, adding that all aircraft lose in aerial combat sometimes, and for various reasons.

“Part of it is the aircraft and part of it is the man in the aircraft,” he continued. “We’ve got some really talented pilots here who are able to gain the offensive on a lot of other pilots. A pilot who understands this aircraft very well and is very skilled at it is pretty lethal no matter what he’s flying, so it’s possible.”