When word got out last week that Lockheed's uber-costly F-35 Joint Strike Fighter got its tail waxed by a 30-year old F-16 in air combat flight tests, it was a serious blow to the already troubled stealth light bomber.
Lockheed's American customers - the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps - probably weren't happy with the F-35s poor showing or that the information had leaked out but that's probably not Lockheed's real concern.
The timing of the leak couldn't be worse for Lockheed. It comes just when the pressure is on for the manufacturer to firm up its foreign orders into confirmed sales.
Lockheed needs those foreign sales if it is going to meet American demands to get the unit cost of the F-35 under control. Foreign orders are the key to lowering costs and that could make or break the Joint Strike Fighter programme.
The problem is that a lot of the countries that Lockheed and the Pentagon are counting on to buy this warplane are expecting it to replace their current aging fighters. Smaller air forces can't afford to buy several different types of warplanes so they depend on getting what's called a multi-role fighter that can be called upon to do the gamut of missions - close support, tactical bombing, air defence and air to air combat. That was what they had in their now aging fleets of F-16s and F-18s. That's what's on offer in today's Eurofighter, Rafale or Griffen fighters.
However, if the F-35 can't best an aging F-16, those foreign customers are going to think twice about whether this F-35 is a multi-role fighter after all. Lockheed's assurances that it is have now been thrown into doubt. That's the sort of thing that makes people sit up and start asking hard questions.
Lockheed will say that there never was a realistic scenario where the F-35 would have to dogfight anyway. If the F-16 was a threat, the F-35 would have used its sensor wizardry to launch an air to air missile to eliminate it before the F-16 even knew it was there. That might even be true... if...
If the F-35 had a sophisticated electronic warfare aircraft trailing some 50-miles behind it picking out targets and feeding the data to the JSF, then the first strike missile scenario is plausible. However in these smaller countries, those F-35s are going to have to go commando, using their own onboard radars to detect, track and attack their adversaries. Stealth is right out the window and, with it, this fantasy about killing the enemy before he even knows you're there. This is where you get into old fashioned dogfighting country and, as we now know, that's where the F-35 goes to die.
Just when Lockheed needs to get these allied air forces to sign on the bottom line, those potential customers are getting an eyeful of the F-35's limitations that, until now, has been carefully kept under wraps.
All it's going to take is for some country, like Canada, to decide that a real, head to head, fighter competition is necessary to force Lockheed to put its warplane here its mouth is. I'm not sure Lockheed would even accept the challenge of a fly-off.