This is again a follow-up on the post about the Belgian replacement of the F-16. In that post, I proposed that the Belgian military choose an upgrade of the F-16 as a stopgap until the drone technology is ready rather than go for the latest 4.5 or 5th generation jet fighters. I will say a bit more about why I believe the F-16V would be up for this task by delivering a short comparison between the F-16, Super Gripen, Rafale, Typhoon and JSF.
Performance. This mainly relates to speed, agility, payload and range. The twin-engined Rafale and Typhoon have an advantage in terms of engine power. Although two engines and its fuel requirements add more weight to the aircraft, the advantage still lies with them. It results in a good power-to-weight comparison, which in turn results in good climb rate and the ability to supercruise, which is going faster than Mach 1 without using the fuel guzzling afterburners. Apparently also the new Gripen E (or Super Gripen) has this ability. On the other this ability should not be granted more importance than it deserves. The jet can travel at higher speed without burning too much fuel, but in most scenarios this will not be essential. A similar story about maximum speed and climb rate. This might be important in a close range dogfight, but again the question remains if it matters. The vast majority of air-to-air kills in the last 30 years happened beyond visual range (BVR), which means that missiles shot down the airplanes without the pilots visually seeing the enemy. Given the development of the newest air-to-air missiles (from MICA to Meteor) it is likely this will continue. What does matter is range. More jet engines require more fuel which in turns requires a bigger aircraft which eventually requires … more powerful engines. As such, a balance need to be found in terms of fuel versus engine power. On the other hand, the availability of aerial refuel tankers largely mitigates fast draining fuel tanks. Finally, payload is important for only one reason. It means that less jets will be needed to destroy a range of targets. In general, one jet is sufficient for one target. If however, a jet carries several precision guided missiles or bombs it can, if fuel permits it, engage several targets. All jet fighters carry a substantial load of close to a dozen missiles and bombs of a total of between 10,000 and 20,000 pounds worth of payload. The only exception is the JSF which carries a much smaller load albeit internally. The reason why it carries this smaller load internally is because of stealth. Bombs and missiles tend to light up on enemy radar screens. Nevertheless the JSF with two guided bombs and two air-to-air missiles has sufficient weaponry to engage more than one enemy aircraft and ground installation.
Stealth. Undeniably an important element of air combat now and in the future. Although the modern jets are less visible to radar compared to the previous generation, they will normally be detected by the radar of a modern jet fighter beyond the range of its missiles. Knowing that air combat is dominated by the notion that he who shoots first has the biggest chance of winning the fight, it means the stealth aspect of all new jet fighters is limited. The exception here is the JSF (as well as the American F-22 Raptor which is not cleared for export) which are much harder to detect. Depending on several circumstances they may well be detected only when within visual range (WVR) long after the JSF has already fired its missiles. While the importance of this advantage cannot be overestimated, it is also clear that this a temporary even ethereal advantage. Already now JSFs can be detected more easily from angles other than dead ahead. More advanced radars with more powerful computing capabilities will eventually erode the stealth capabilities of the JSF. While there is no doubt that there will also be improvements in stealth technology it will be difficult to incorporate them on existing air frames. The idea that the JSF will remain competitive for another 40 years is very unlikely. Unfortunately for its competitors, they will lose the fight against all future radars no matter what upgrades are included.
Cost. Not only the cost of purchase but also the costs of maintenance. There the picture is – finally – clear. The twin engined fighters have added complexity. The JSF is renowned for its complexity so it will be very expensive in acquisition as in maintenance. The opposite goes for the F-16 but even more so for the Gripen, which has been designed with easy maintenance in mind. However, an upgraded F-16 will still be the cheapest option, at least for a country already operating F-16s.
So to sum up (from best to worst)…
- Cost of acquisition: F-16V, Gripen, Rafale, Typhoon, JSF
- Cost of maintenance: Gripen, F-16V, Rafale, Typhoon, JSF
- Radar: JSF, Typhoon (with AESA, project only) Rafale, F-16V, Gripen, Typhoon
- Weapons: all can carry the best weapons, except the JSF
- Infra red detector: all included, though the F-16V has an external IR detector
- Stealth: JSF and at longer distance the Gripen, Rafale, Typhoon and F-16V
- Payload: JSF (with external), Rafale, Typhoon, F-16V, Gripen and JSF (only internal)
- Range: Typhoon, F-16V, Gripen, Rafale and JSF
- Maneuverability: Rafale, Gripen, Typhoon, F-16V and Rafale
- Power to weight ratio: Typhoon, Gripen, F-16V, Rafale and JSF
- Speed without afterburner: Typhoon, Rafale, Gripen, F-16V and JSF
I will not be coming up with an average calculation, because I feel these variables are not of equal weight. For instance, maximum speed is not as important as range. But two things should be obvious. First, the JSF is only superior when it comes to its radar and stealth abilities. The F-16V definitely holds its own against the ‘newer’ competitors.
Some interesting links: