Some claim that Super Bug is a better solution than F-35 is… some claim that it is not. So I have decided to carry out point-by-point comparision between F-18E and F-35, throwing in Tranche 2 Eurofighter Typhoon and Rafale C as examples of modern Western fighter, as well as possible alternatives.
What makes this comparision even more important is the fact that United States, Canada and Australia all have similar operational requirements and as such have very similar requirements for a fighter aircraft – for example, long range, twin engines and reliability.
Source for F-35 data is here.
|Aircraft||F-18E||F-35A||F-35B||F-35C||EF-2000 T2||Rafale C|
|Length||18,31 m||15,7 m||15,6 m||15,7 m||15,96 m||15,27 m|
|Wing span||13,62 m||10,7 m||10,7 m||13,1 m||10,95 m||10,8 m|
|Height||4,88 m||4,6 m||?||?||5,28 m||5,34 m|
|Wing area||46,5 m2||42,7 m2||42,7 m2||62,1 m2||51,2 m2||45,7 m2|
|Weight with 50% fuel, 2 Sidewinder, 4 AMRAAM||18 721 kg||18 208 kg||18 491 kg||21 043 kg||14 427 kg||11 850 kg|
|– loaded||458,5 kg/m2||526 kg/m2||506 kg/m2||410 kg/m2||312 kg/m2||307 kg/m2|
|– 50% fuel, 2 Sidewinder, 4 AMRAAM||402,6 kg/m2||427,9 kg/m2||434,2 kg/m2||338 kg/m2||284 kg/m2||259,3 kg/m2|
|– 50% fuel, 2 Sidewinder, 4 AMRAAM||1,07||1,07||1,05||0,93||1,28||1,3|
|– dash||M 1,8||M 1,6||M 1,6||M 1,6||M 2||M 2|
|– combat configuration dash||?||M 1,6||M 1,6||M 1,6||M 1,8||M 1,8|
|– cruise||M 1||M 0,95||M 0,9+||M 0,9+||M 1,8||M 1,8|
|– combat configuration standard cruise||?||M 0,9||?||?||M 1,6 (est)||M 1,6 (est)|
|– combat configuration supercruise||N/A||N/A||N/A||N/A||M 1,3||M 1,4|
|Combat radius||722 km||1 082 km||868 km||1 139 km||1 389 km||1 852 km|
|Max G (standard)||7,6||9||7||7,5||9||9|
|Max G (override)*||–||–||–||–||11||11|
|Max G (airframe)||11,4||13,5||>=10,5||11||12,6 – 13,5||16,7|
|Max G reached in tests or use||?||9,9||?||?||10,6||11|
|Instanteneous turn rate (max)||24 deg/s||<14 deg/s||?||?||30-35 deg/s||32-35 deg/s|
|Sustained turn rate (max)||15-18 deg/s||<12 deg/s||?||?||20-25 deg/s||24 deg/s|
|Roll rate (max)||120 deg/s||300 deg/s||?||?||240-250 deg/s||270 deg/s|
|Flyaway cost||60 000 000||197 000 000||237 700 000||236 800 000||118 600 000||82 300 000|
*can be exceeded through changes to FCS
Maneuverability is a sum of several factors: lift, thrust, drag, and inertia. Lift, thrust and inertia can be compared through wing loading, thrust-to-weight ratio, and weight; drag can be compared by comparing airframes’ physical size.
Turn is executed when aircraft uses control surfaces to change wing’s position relative to the air flow; thus, direction in which lift pulls aircraft is changed, producing excess lift (one not used on keeping aircraft in the air), which then pulls aircraft around the turn. Aircraft with lower wing loading have more excess lift on disposition, and as such can pull faster and tighter turns. Aircraft pulling tighter turn at corner speed has better chance to evade missile fire and can pull inside opponent’s turn diameter.
Roll is when aircraft rotates around longitudinal axis. Aircraft with faster roll can transit from one maneuver to another faster.
Thrust-to-weight ratio is important for overcoming drag during the turn, allowing aircraft to maintain energy and turn rate for longer time.
Drag bleeds off energy, thus reducing time during which turn rate can be maintained.
Inertia is a product of weight and speed. When entering or exiting a turn, aircraft has to use lift and thrust to counter inertia. Thus, heavier aircraft are, assuming identical wing loading and thrust loading values, more sluggish in maneuvering combat.
G-load is required so that aircraft does not fall apart during the turn. What it means is that, even if (aerodynamically) aircraft could turn faster at certain speed, it is limited by what its structure can take.
As we can see from the table, Super Bug is superior in both wing loading and G factor to two out of three F-35 variants. It also has superior thrust-to-weight ratio to all F-35 variants when loaded for air combat, and only F-35A has comparable thrust-to-weight when at 50% fuel. It is, however, slightly heavier than most F-35 variants, which means more inertia and thus worse response time.
Eurocanards, meanwhile, are superior to both Super Bug and F-35 in all listed areas. Rafale fares better in wing loading and thrust-to-weight ratio areas than Typhoon does, mainly by virtue of its higher fuel fraction, and its close-coupled canards allow it to achieve highest AoA value of all compared aircraft, which greatly benefits its low-speed agility. Only characteristic where F-35 is superior to Eurocanards is roll rate, mainly due to its shorter wing span.
Here, Super Bug is convincingly the worst of the compared aircraft, as it lacks IRST. As such, it has to use its radar to detect the enemy, immediately betraying its location at far longer range than it itself can detect the opponent. All three other aircraft have IRSTs of, apparently, roughly comparable characteristics.
Here, Super Bug takes last place again. Rafale has the best range, owing to its good aerodynamics and high fuel fraction. Whereas some F-35 variants have comparable or better fuel fraction, their low speed and large aerodynamic compromises required by stealth mean that range is lowered considerably, and is worse than that for Eurofighter Typhoon, which itself has low fuel fraction.
Standard weapons loadout for all listed aircraft is 2 Sidewinders and 2-6 AMRAAM. However, F-35 has no option of carrying more without compromising its already questionable X-band radar stealth, whereas other aircraft don’t go to such legth to achieve LO characteristics, relying instead on other approaches (maneuverability + countermeasures + passive sensors). Thus, F-35 is limited to 4 missiles if it doesn’t want to loose radar stealth, whereas Super Hornet can carry 6, Eurofighter Typhoon 12 and Dassault Rafale 8-10 AtA missiles. In non-LO configuration, F-35 can carry 10 missiles.
In bombing missions, F-35 can carry 2 AtA and 2 AtG weapons in LO and 4 AtA and 8 AtG weapons in non-LO configuration. Super Hornet can carry 4 AtA and 7 AtG weapons. Typhoon can carry 7-9 AtG weapons, assuming all stations are cleared for use. Rafale can carry 4 AtA and 5-16 AtG weapons.
As F-35 has to rely on LO, its AtA and AtG weapons loadouts are the worst. If LO requirement is ignored, weapons loadout improves considerably, but only to the point of being barely comarable to that of far lighter Eurocanards in AtA configuration; in AtG configuration, assuming one weapon = one pylon, it is the best of compared aircraft, in keeping with its design role of a bomber.
Cost and battlespace presence
As it is obvious, situation is not good for F-35: for a cost of the 12-aircraft squadron, one can buy 19 Typhoons, 28 Rafales, or 39 Super Hornets. All three aircraft, especially Eurocanards, are likely to be less maintenance-intensive than F-35, and can thus generate more sorties per aircraft, thus increasing numerical disparity even more.
Per-aircraft, Super Hornet requires 10 maintenance hours per flight hour, Typhoon requires 9 and Rafale 8 (? Typhoon and Rafale figures have to be confirmed), meaning that bought aircraft will generate 85 1-hour sorties per day for Super Hornet, 45 for Typhoon and 74 for Rafale. Aforementioned 12-ship F-35 squadron will most likely be able to generate 7 to 8 1-hour sorties per day. However, Rafales and Typhoons will have better survivability when facing both VHF-radar SAMs and IRST-equipped enemy aircraft than either Super Hornets or F-35s.
Neither F-35 or Super Hornet are good choices for Australia; former is too expensive, too maintenance-intensive, too short-ranged and lacking in maneuverability, whereas latter is far cheaper to buy and operate, and easier to maintain, but is also lacking in range and maneuverability. All options considered, Dassault Rafale would be the best choice, followed by the Eurofighter Typhoon. However, with Dassault having secured contract in India, it is questionable wether acquirement schedule for Australia could be accomodated, in which case Typhoon becomes the strategically better choice.