I suppose it would be more appropriate to qualify the statement with an "second only to a purpose designed AEW&C", and "offers AEW SA like performance in some areas". Perhaps the real improvement being noted is the F-35s sensor fusion is providing pilots with a level of SA they have only ever experienced when operation with a dedicated AEW capability, that is information they were previously reliant on an external capability to provide is now part of their embedded ISR suite.I had the very fortunate opportunity to work beside a peep who's living was in the back of an AEW&C and they put a lot of asterisk's behind such a claim. Now, noting there is a difference between an E-2, E-7 and E-3...
There are two physical realities that will prevent such a statement being true - physics and accommodation. The first relates to the radar, the E-7 / E-3 aircraft simply have more power and a larger radar. They also have room for other bits and pieces that can me melded into the air picture. Pending a significant, elemental breakthrough, the larger aircraft will always have more quantity and variety of ergatrons to throw at the situation, granting better SA.
The second bit links to the crew. Without significant amounts of AI on the F-35 (and if it has it, the AEW&C has it - see power statement above) it's one person trying to understand the picture, fly the aircraft and fight the system. Compare to an AEW&C that, at worst has 3 people studying the air picture and nothing else. On the bigger aircraft that increases. With more eyes there are more specialisations and more ability to understand the situation.
They described it (broadly - and I'm paraphrasing) as a half-back v a coach. The half-back understands and sees the play on the field at that time and nothing else. The coach see's the whole match and has specialists looking at both teams to detail what happens next, then next, then next.
Then again if the comparison is being drawn to a legacy AEW platform. Perhaps the difference isn't so great. I know the E-7 is world leading, but perhaps there are some things the F-35 automatically does better than an older E-3.