Firefox: Would it have been any good in real life?


Jim Smith had significant technical roles in the development of the UK’s leading military aviation programmes. From ASRAAM and Nimrod, to the JSF and Eurofighter Typhoon. He was asked by the British Government to assess the YF-22 and YF-23; we wondered what he would make of a totally fictional aircraft, the titular Firefox from the 1982 Clint Eastwood film.

Hush-Kit editor has asked me for my thoughts about three fictional aircraft: the Firefox; the F-19 and the MiG-37B. Firefox featured in two films, Firefox and Firefox Down. The F-19 was the subject of a famous kit by Testors, and a completely different kit by Monogram. These very different concepts purport to be based around aircraft sighted around Area 51 at the time. The MiG-37B is a concept for a Russian stealth fighter of the F-117 genre, and was the subject of a kit also by Testors. This first study will look at the Firefox. 



Credit: Kurt Beswick 

The Firefox is a splendidly ambitious design, supposed able to achieve Mach 6 and to embody a range of advanced technologies, including thought control of it weapons systems (as long as you can think in Russian). Other claimed characteristics include 2 x 50,000-lb thrust engines, flight at up to 130,000 ft, internal carriage of 6 AA-11 missiles, 2x 23mm cannon and chaff and flare dispensing pods.


Apart from a few obvious blunders, I really quite like the Firefox. If one imagines a strategic air defence aircraft, capable of taking on the XB-70, SR-71, and other high-flyers like the U-2, a configuration which borrows from the Valkyrie makes some sense.


My biggest concern with the Firefox is the propulsion system, but I’ll leave that aside for the moment, and suppose sufficient thrust is available. The highly-swept near delta wing looks to fit inside a Mach 2.9 Mach cone, and it would be plausible to achieve that sort of speed without excessive wave drag and heating, assuming the stated materials for the structure. Mach 6, even for brief periods, does not look likely, particularly given the propulsion system. I like the use of the canard and the fold-down wing tips, both clearly borrowed from the Valkyrie, and the essentially high-speed bomber/transport-like configuration would be well suited for high-speed interception of strategic targets at high altitude. I would, however, expect any kill to be achieved using internally carried long-range air-to-air weapons. There is no need to carry 2 x 23mm cannon, and one cannot readily conceive a situation where this aircraft would be used in WVR combat.

Here are a few other (unsuccessful) aircraft designed with the same sort of performance goals (M 2.5 or thereabouts):   



I particularly like the Douglas one, whose canard and wing resemble the Firefox quite closely, although it has a different propulsion arrangement and a single fin rather than twin fins.

What about propulsion? Well, what we do know about high-flying fast aircraft is that they have large engines, and truly enormous propulsion systems. Managing the intake compression process to bring airflow to the engine front face at stable subsonic speeds requires a very large and complex intake system. Look at Concorde, the XB-70, the MiG-31 (the real one) and the SR-71, and what you will find is huge engines behind bigger intake systems.


The Mach 3 XB-70 had a huge intake system for its six engines.

I used to attend meetings occasionally with Rolls-Royce at Filton. On the wall of their management conference room, occupying the entire length of the room was a fabulous full-scale drawing of the engine installation of the Olympus 593 in Concorde. Truly, engineering as art. But driven by the physics of getting the air to the engine in a usable state – stable in flow, and at the temperature and pressure required.

There is no way Firefox would work with anything that could be described as a high-bypass ratio turbofan. Something I recall being referred to as ‘a leaky turbojet’ would be more likely. But probably installed either like the Concorde in underwing nacelles, or like the Douglas supersonic transport or the XB-70.


The position of the XB-70’s six engines is apparent from the rear quarter.

The two twin-engine aircraft known to have this sort of performance are the remarkable SR-71, where the engines have been described as turbo-ramjet, and the MiG-31. For the SR-71, both the intake and ejector exhaust nozzle are critical to engine performance, and very complex airflow management is required. For the MiG-31, the powerplant is the Soloviev D-30R, which is a ‘leaky turbojet’ with a by-pass ratio of 0.57, but only about 2/3 the proposed thrust of the Firefox engine. In describing the earlier MiG 25, Jane’s stressed that most of the thrust at high speed comes from the intake and nozzle, and these are pretty complex for both the MiG-25 and 31.


Key to the MiG-25’s remarkable performance are its vast intakes.

I regard the splitting of the intake path both by the wing and the fin structure as a concern, given the known complexity and sensitivity of the intake systems for similar aircraft.  I do not believe the system, as drawn, could get the aircraft to Mach 6, and possibly not even to Mach 3.

On the whole, I suggest the aircraft would be suited to two engines installed like Concorde, or indeed like current Sukhoi aircraft essentially in nacelles fed by underwing intakes. If the target performance were to be Mach 3-ish, as suggested by the appearance of the airframe, it does not seem evident that 50,000 lb thrust engines are required, leave alone additional rockets. It’s worth noting that the stated dimensions of the Firefox are significantly smaller than those of the SR-71, supporting the view that 50,000 lb thrust engines would not be required.

But then, all you would have is a sexier MiG-31, not at all what was envisaged by the film script.


What about thought-control? We already have voice control for a number of functions in some advanced aircraft. Thought control might be quite difficult, but programs have existed where there was conceptually a progressive hand-over of autonomy from pilot to system as pilot workload went up, allowing fuel to be managed without intervention, for example.  However, I would think that thought-controlled weapons systems would be among the last to be implemented, because of the need to track ‘who did what’, both for training, and to provide an audit trail for decisions to employ lethal force.


The SR-71’s unique intake system.

I admire the ambition of the Firefox, and the recognition of the importance of advanced systems as well as the right airframe. There’s no way the stated design would achieve Mach 6, and given that, I prefer to view Firefox as a strategic interceptor, operating at a maximum of Mach 3+, heavily armed and with good systems. But no cannon, no auxiliary rockets, and somewhat smaller thrust. Otherwise, I think that the forward part of the aircraft does look somewhat crude, and would probably produce unacceptable high-speed drag.


Vertical take-off Mach 4 Lockheed Skunk Works’ Flying Cigar

ciagr 5.png

A 1957 patent by Skunk Works genius Nathan C. Price envisioned Mach 4 airliners shaped like cigars. Powered by ramjets, capable of vertical take-off and flying in the mid-Stratosphere, the designs almost certainly started as a Black project with a military application in mind. 

The Boeing Model 307 Stratoliner was the first commercial transport aircraft to enter service with a pressurised cabin, thanks to the ingenious cabin pressure regulator created by Nathan C. Price. He also developed the supercharger for the P-38 Lightning fighter without which it would had lacklustre performance at higher altitudes. He was an early champion of the axial-flow jet engine and an important figure in US jet propulsion development.


He was exceptionally far-sighted in his vision: his Lockheed L-133 design (above), work on which started in 1939, was for a blended wing-body canard delta jet fighter capable of 612mph. By the 1950s, as Lockheed’s senior engineer, he was happily designing Mach 4 flying saucers— but even these were conventional compared to his next one. He proposed an airliner with no wing, no control surfaces, no visible cockpit and it was to have a cruising speed between Mach 3-4 and be capable of vertical take-off and landing! ciagr 34.png

The machine was essentially a ramjet-powered missile, albeit full of holiday-makers. Ramjets can only function at high speeds, so in order to reach these speeds it harnessed the power of a clutch of turbojet engines. Vertical takeoff and landing would take place by directing the exhaust gases of the turbojets (using the Coandă effect Effect: the tendency of a fluid jet to stay attached to a convex surface). Without visible control surfaces steering was to be via selective vectored thrust channelled through louvres.

ciagr 3.png

Once the huge ramjet kicked in the machine was expected to reach 100,000ft, and achieve intercontinental ranges. The machine would utilise inertial guidance and have a high degree of automation — but would carry a crew to manage emergencies. It is believed that wind tunnel testing took place, though fascinating concept was never built.

It was filed as a patent in 1957 but it was not listed until late 1964. Though revealed as an airliner it seems highly likely — considering both Skunk Works history and the Cold War context —  that the study begun life as a military aircraft, most likely a nuclear strike platform or reconnaissance aircraft.

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6th Generation Swede: The Saab Gripen E



Is the Gripen E too good to be true? Hushkit met Richard Smith the Head of Marketing & Sales for the Saab Gripen to find out more. 

When I interviewed the widely respected aviation journalist Bill Sweetman in 2013, I pointed out the Typhoon, F-22 and F-35 programmes have all received a great deal of criticism, but could he give an example of a well-run military aircraft project? He replied: “Almost anything from the land of blondes, aquavit and IKEA.”

In an article Sweetman wrote for Aviation Week he argued that there the case for describing the forthcoming Gripen E/F as the first sixth generation fighter. Whereas fifth generation was an old (1980s) concept based on the use of stealth and superior situational awareness to defeat a well-equipped (but easy to find and identify) enemy, Saab’s vision of 6th Gen Gripen E is a new kind of machine that puts kinematics second, and software and ISR capabilities first. What ‘software first’ means is that the all important software in Gripen E should be far easier to upgrade than in rival platforms. This is a big deal, as military aircraft technology currently moves at a glacial pace compared to that of the commercial world, such as the rapid developments in smart phones. The conventional approach would have been to produce a higher performance lower-observable fighter, a programme which would have proved too expensive for Sweden. As Sweetman put it in the Aviation Week article, “The requirements were deliberately constrained because the JAS 39E is intended to cost less to develop, build and operate than the JAS 39C, despite doing almost everything better.”


While the aircraft will not have the stealth and super-cruising abilities of the F-22, the super-manoeuvrability of the Su-35 or impressive weapons-carrying performance of the Rafale, the Gripen E will be an extremely potent aircraft punching well above its weight. Weight and cost often correlate for military aircraft and it is interesting to note that the F-35, intended as the ‘low’ (weight/capability) to the F-22’s ‘high’, has an empty weight of 13154 kg, compared to the Gripen E’s svelte 8000 kg (the respective maximum take-off weights are 27000 kg and 16500 kg). Though the F-35 may, by a combination of manipulation and mass production, eventually have a competitive quoted price tag, the Gripen E will be far cheaper to operate and maintain. The Gripen has a history of punching above its weight class, with the C/D frequently entered in procurement competitions against the middle-weight Typhoon, Gripen and late-life F-16. Indeed when Hush-Kit asked Jim Smith , who had significant technical roles in the development of the  the JSF and Eurofighter Typhoon, to rank modern modern fighter aircraft he put the Meteor-armed Gripen in joint 2nd place (just behind the F-22) as homeland air defence fighter (ranking it higher than the current Typhoon, Rafale, Su-30/ F-18E/F, F-15, Su-35, J-11, F-35 and the J-20). He noted, “Starting with Air Defence, let’s suppose you have a small-ish nation, where the Government does not have global dominance in its agenda. For such a nation, the key aim is deterrence, ensuring that any country wishing to invade or dominate you cannot easily do so. For such a nation, Gripen/Meteor might be the ultimate air defender, especially if you have a well-integrated air defence system and dispersed bases. Never being far from the border or a base, fuel volume and even weapons load don’t matter so much, because you’ll scoot back to your cave and re-arm/refuel. Having a big stick, however, is great, because you can defeat threats while keeping out of their missile range.”

While some of the ‘Christmas tree ‘ loadouts (seven Meteors!) displayed by Saab seem unlikely to be carried operationally, the Gripen will be able to carry significantly more fuel and ordnance than its predecessor.

Intrigued by the Gripen E, I caught up with the Gripen’s Head of Marketing & Sales Richard Smith to find out more.



The Gripen E/F are now in development, what’s new about them? I could write rather a lot on this question alone. Hopefully we will cover a lot in the coming questions. I would like to start by saying why a Brit ended up working at Saab. I came here as part of the original Gripen joint venture between Saab and BAE SYSTEMS, after working for several years on the Hawk programme. But after 6 years, I stayed in Sweden, and joined Saab. Why? Many reasons, but one is that this company is outstanding. It empowers everybody, encourages out of the box thinking, and drives innovative thinking in every area. That way of thinking, that way of working is what makes Gripen such a good product, and many underestimate just how operationally outstanding this fighter system is. Our way of doing things is doing them better and smarter than others. So what have we done that is better and smarter with Gripen E? We have understood that the future of air combat is going to be defined by technology – and we have built a system that truly adapts and embraces new technologies in a way that will keep us ahead of 21st century threats – fast. This is achieved through our deep and long experiences in sensor fusion and a revolutionary avionics system. For me, it means that the talk of generations, I hear so much of from within the industry just no longer means anything at all. The technology we have now, the ideas Saab engineers are working on, ensure that Gripen quite literally transcends all generations.

When it be ready to enter frontline service? Deliveries are scheduled from 2019 to Sweden and Brazil.


Who has ordered Gripen E/F it and in what numbers? Sweden 60, Brazil 36

Its thrust-to-weight ratio seems the lowest of fighters in production, is this true and if not, what is lower? In this context I can say the thrust-to-weight is certainly enough. The design of the aircraft makes it very slick, compare it to a hot knife cutting through butter. This is quite an “old school” question, as the modern warfare is not as dependent on turn and burn fights any longer.


How does it compare in terms of Agility/manoeuvrability with the following platforms: 1.Rafale 2. Typhoon 3. F-35 4. Su-35? Well I can’t or rather we don’t comment on the competition, other than saying these aircraft are all good. But with Gripen E operational capabilities and technological advances – in a “knife-fight” we bring the “gun”.

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Some companies avoid publicly stating the cost of their aircraft, but Saab seems more transparent. The Gripen is touted as a lower cost option, roughly what would a nation buying 24 Gripen E/Fs pay per unit? Well we are very transparent, but won’t give out flyaway prices. I can say that in Brazil the public figures for the total aircraft, support and Industrial package are quite public, and when compared to other public figures, well we deliver value for money.

Approximate cost per flight hour of the E/F? I can say that the cost per flight hours is very good, but the issue to give a figure is that apples are never compared directly with apples, when it comes to this question.

Radar? This (see below) is the current radar performance on the Gripen C with the PS-05 Mk 4 . It has been improved radically to cope with the change of threats and the integration of METEOR. The AESA on the Gripen E will continue the technology improvement path building on an already capable system – check out this link for the Gripen E raven radar.


Manhours per flight hours of E/F? The Gripen E/F has the same stringent standards set on the expected performance as the Gripen C/D.

General cost of replacement parts compared to mass produced F-16? Impossible to answer, but this is incorporated into the Flight Hour cost and I am totally confident that Gripen is significantly less than any competitor. One further thing to note – we develop fighters that use the best equipment available – tapping into economies of scale – a notable example is that we directly connected to the GE F414 engine.

In the leaked Swiss fighter evaluation (see below) Gripen did very poorly, having an far lower overall score than the F/A-18s it was pitching to replace. It did particularly badly in the categories of detection, combat radius and survivability. Has this been rectified in the new Gripens? How would you respond to the each area of weakness reported? I was the Campaign Director for Switzerland and I won’t comment on the report directly but will say the “leaked” documents covered just a small part of much more thorough evaluation – that by the way Gripen clearly won.

According to Lockheed Martin, the F-35 is the only system that could reliably penetrate a modern air defence system on Day 1 of a war – do you agree with this? Not going to comment on their statements.

Gripen was is first fighter to carry Meteor operationally, how capable are Meteor-armed Gripens compared to AMRAAM/R-77 carriers? AMRAAM C7 is a very capable weapon and we work very closely with Raytheon on the global market. METEOR does have a “significant range”, and very high “no escape” zone. It has range, ram-jet propulsion, data-link communication. Gripen E is designed to be able to carry 7 Meteors. 


Note: the Gripen E does not supercruise at Mach 2.

Gripen was the first aircraft in the world to become fully operational with the METEOR. The current Swedish Air Force Chief has described the weapon and new radar performance of the Gripen C as “game-changing”. Gripen C, which is operational in Sweden now, is flying operations with Meteor, and can carry 4 Missiles. The Gripen E can be equipped with 7 Meteors, 4 on the wings and 3 under the centre fuselage.

I think many like to boast, but we prefer not to, perhaps that is Swedish Culture. That said, I attach a pdf of some comments made on our capability by others. (Editor notes: Red Flag quote is from a USAF service person)

 How does Gripen compare in terms of reliability to the F-16 and Typhoon? Gripen was designed from the very outset, day 1 of its design, to be easy to maintain and easy to repair. Context here – full air to air re-arm and re-fuel on a FOB in 10 minutes. Can be maintained by 1 fully qualified maintainer and only 5 conscripts. And a full engine change can be made in one hour.


Few land-based fighters have been successfully converted into carrier aircraft, is a Gripen Maritime plausible? Very much so. Gripen is designed for extremely short take-off and landing already.


Tell me something I don’t know about the Gripen I can see that many of your questions focus on ‘turn and burn‘- and sometimes I see discussions on ‘generations’. The modern warfare jet, like Gripen E is designed to be SMARTER than the threat. Technology moves at such high pace, our philosophy to ensure the platform is equipped with new software/hardware, in line with the high speed of technology enhancements. Technology will win the future fight. Gripen is equipped with many modern sensor systems, but why is it so good? Because, Saab excels at sensor fusion, and information interpretation, ensuring the aircraft, sensors and the pilot work as one, no longer just together. To meet this capability Saab has designed an entirely new, some say revolutionary Avionics architecture.

What is the biggest myth about the aircraft? Its name means half Lion, half Eagle!

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When we interviewed RUSI analyst Justin Bronk he noted: Gripen is a bit of an unknown quantity against modern air superiority machines because it takes a fundamentally different approach to survivability.” What do you think he means by that? 

In terms of the comment by the RUSI analyst – offence is one aspect of warfare, but defence and survivability are equally important as they are the building blocks that ensure the mission is successful. Gripen has a low RCS, a highly advanced AESA<Editor notes: Richard’s answer in this question relate to Gripen E/F which are not yet operational> ,  a passive Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST) sensor system<again this is for future Gripen only) making it difficult to detect, and an improved Electronic Warfare (EW) system for the disruption and detection of threats. All the systems are governed by a new avionics system, where functions that are flight-safety critical are separate from tactical ones.

The improved EW system in Gripen E, MFS-EW (Multi Functional System), is based on the EW product family called Arexis. Arexis is based on wideband digital technology specifically developed for robustness in the very complex signal environment of today. The core technologies in Arexis are ultra-wideband digital receivers and digital radio frequency memory (DRFM) devices, gallium nitride (GaN) solid state active electronically scanned array (AESA) jammer transmitters and interferometric direction finding systems.

The Operational Signal environment for EW systems is becoming more and more complex. Systems developed 20 years ago are not able to handle all these signals, making it difficult to differentiate the threats signals from other signals. MFS-EW is made to handle the signal environment of today and in the future by using ultra wide band digital receivers, advanced signal processing and extensive processing capacity that can distinguish the real threat signals from others. The MFS EW is fully integrated with other tactical mission systems on board the aircraft, and there are also sensor fusion on several layers in the aircraft, combining all tactical sensors in Gripen E such as the AESA Radar, Electro optical sensors, IRST and also the datalink. These sources and sensors are integrated into one high level sensor fusion and situational awareness system for the pilot to enhance the effectiveness of the mission.

Gripen is popularly thought to be the fighter with the greatest ‘connectivity’ – why, and what does that mean exactly? And finally, with years of data-link experiences, that goes as far back as the Draken fighters, Gripen does not just embrace data-links, and connectivity, it has become a world-leader in maximising the benefits of them, and using data links, and connectivity operationally in “wolf pack” tactics.


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Air losses review: Spring 2018

Date: March 12

Type: Edgley EA-7 Optica

Operator: Private

Location: Twannock, Suffolk


Details: Edgley Optica piloted by TV presenter Noel Edmonds destroyed attempting to wing-flip a Dutch V1 Doodlebug. Edmonds escaped in the ejection pod but was killed when the pods collided with a passing Dhruv piloted by actor Pauline Quirke. Pauline Quirke sustained Cat 5 damage.


Pauline Quirke is damaged beyond reasonable repair in accordance with current Ministry of Defence policy. Though no longer airworthy, she will be displayed at Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum wearing a bonnet.

Date: March 22

Type: Fieseler Fi 156 Storch

Operator: Air Uganda

Location: Long Melford. Suffolk


Details: The two pilots baled out from a height of 800ft(244m) after a mechanical failure affecting the onboard milk frother rendered cappuccino creation impossible. According to Uganda media report, one of the crews was a Virgo whose hobbies included ‘going to the theatre’ and ‘butterfly collecting’. The Storch has not been found and is probably still flying over the sea somewhere.


Captain Yoweri Obote (top right) is currently single and looking for a woman (ideally an Aquarius) who shares his interest in butterfly collecting. Captain Obote is competent in Excel and Powerpoint.

Date: April 15

Type: Tupolev Tu-22M3 & Tipsy Nipper

Operator: Russian Air & Space Force

Location: Coddenham, Suffolk

Details: Due to a malfunction, the Tipsy Nipper (piloted by British poet Pam Ayres) made a belly landing on top of a Russian Tu-22M3 flying in support of Ipswich police force’s anti moped thief initiative Operation Banjo. The Tu-22M3 crew ejected but landed on top of a CapriSun sponsored blimp flying at lower altitude; the crew bounced back into their aircraft which then crashed into a bouncy castle at Coddenham Village Fete causing the aircraft’s flamed-out engines to re-light. The Tu-22M3 with the Tipsy Nipper on top, landed safely at its home base, Essex & Suffolk Gliding Club, Colchester. Pam Ayres has been detained by local police after testing positive for ketamine.



Date: April 24

Type: HAL Dhruv (see March 12 incident)

Operator: Hijacked

Location: Garboldisham, Suffolk

Fens Militiamen encircle Garboldisham Cash Convertors following the incident.

Details: After being abandoned outside the village of Twannock, Pauline Quirke’s personal Dhruv was impounded by the self-styled Fens Militia, a local insurgent group, and transported by low-loader to an undisclosed location on the edge of Thetford Forest. Although the helicopter was believed to be beyond repair, a month later it was noted – now in an armed configuration, with improvised drainpipe mortars – taking part in an abortive attempt to ram-raid a jewellers in Garboldisham. The Dhruv is now immovable, wedged between a derelict branch of Maplin’s and a Cash Convertors.


The Fens Militia are armed to the teeth and highly organised. They are based at the Harvester in Ravenswood, Ipswich.

Date: April 26

Type: Aviation Traders ATL-90 Accountant

Operator: Chinese PLAAF/20th Special Missions Division

Location: The Golden Boar pub, Freckenham, Suffolk


The Unbearable Lightness of Being an Aviation Traders ATL-90 Accountant. 

Details: This aircraft was shot down by Basque Separatists led by disgraced former Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Öpik reportedly using a Bloodhound surface-to-air missile. Mr Öpik steered the missile to its target by riding on top of the weapon and manipulating the control surfaces. Just prior to impact Mr Öpik leapt from the missile, held aloft by a paraglider of unknown type. He successfully landed in the car park of the Golden Boar. By this time the crew of the Accountant, who had escaped from their stricken aircraft in three Zorbs were inside the pub having a roast. Mr Öpik and the three PLAAF aircrew were forcefully thrown out of from the pub following an argument with a local poacher. 


Altercation with a poacher: MP Lembit Öpik

Helicopter as warrior, hero and villain: An interview with artist Lad Decker


02-LadDecker_HE-02_2016_crop_1500p.jpgMilitary aircraft in art are all too often presented in a illustrative way with a simplistic, and often patriotic or celebratory, tone.  One exception to this is the work of Lad Decker, we caught up with the Seattle-based artist to find out more about her obsession with helicopters and war. 

What were you trying to capture through this painting series?

“Helicopters are fascinating creatures. The invention of the airplane reflects man’s desire to fly. But it was the helicopter that reflects man’s conflicting desires for power. It’s a defender and rescuer, as well as an attacker and revenger. 

One of the best descriptions of the ambiguous and seductive role of the helicopter is in Michael Herr’s book, “Dispatches”. In the story the photojournalist Tim Page is given an assignment with the purpose of taking the glamour out of war. Page responds, “Take the glamour out of war! I mean, how the bloody hell can you do that? Go and take the glamour out of a Huey, go take the glamour out of a Sheridan.… Can you take the glamour out of a Cobra or getting stoned at China Beach?”






Can you talk a bit about your drawings?

“The helicopters appeared in my drawings first. Drawing is a way to look and think. Because the pencil line hides nothing, the drawing is an honest record of complex feelings. I’m not an engineer and don’t want to look at lifeless facts and dull dimensions. I’m looking for the truth, which is a dangerous thing when others don’t want you to find it. I’m focused on the subjective, first-person point of view, which is an honest way to say here’s what I see. Truth resides in the emotion and feelings we have towards what we create. The things we create reflect what we believe is important. They embody what we want to do and what we wish to become. I’m just an observer. “





What helicopters inspire you the most, and why?

“The Bell UH-1 Iroquois “Huey”, the AH-64 Apache, and the UH-60 Black Hawk are the ones I tend to look at most lately. They are iconic helicopters that embody the duality of man as both protector and villain. The long rotor blades stretch out like arms. The fuselage stands strong, confident, and purposeful. In action, it can switch between the role of protector, warrior, and rescuer to attacker, revenger, and villain. It embodies the best and worst about humanity. It’s a reminder that we are capable of many things and must choose who we want to be. “



What other projects are you working on now?

“Obviously, I’m interested in the Vietnam War, which is most represented by the Huey. It’s easy to recognize those paintings by their dark and lush greens. Other paintings are about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with their khaki dust landscapes, devastated buildings and mountain roads. These War Field painting series often contain elements of helicopters. 

Fixed-wing fighter jets like the MiG-21 and the T-38A Talon are starting to show up in my work. Not only do fighter jets reflect man’s desire for power, but their country of origin reveals the complex international order. It reflects each nation states’ desire to set the global agenda. We’re living during a time of great change and great conflict. Someone recently asked why I was interested in the subject of war when it was an end game. War is about human conflict. There seems to be no end to that.  

I’m currently working on my next show on war and conflict. If anyone is interested in finding out more or would like to get a closer look at work in progress, I encourage them to follow me online at, Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.”


Britain in the wilderness? We ask RUSI think-tank’s Justin Bronk about the future of European combat aircraft


An Airbus concept for the Future Combat Air System. Note the Su-57esque LEVCONs.


As German and France lay the groundwork for the next European combat aircraft, Britain’s BAE Systems, long a major player in European defence, remains uninvited. We caught up with Justin Bronk (Research Fellow at the RUSI  think-tank and Editor of RUSI Defence Systems) to find out more about the future of European combat aircraft. 

HK: I’m confused at the current state of next generation European combat aircraft studies- who is proposing what at the moment? 

The issue is that the three main players, the UK, France and Germany have different conceptual requirements for next generation combat aircraft; and even more crucially completely mismatched timescales for new airframes in service. In simple terms, the UK is looking for a replacement for Typhoon in the 2040 timeframe, France is looking for a replacement for Rafale in the 2030 timeframe and Germany is looking for a replacement for Typhoon in the 2040-50 timeframe but a replacement for Tornado (which may be upgraded Typhoons) in the 2020s timeframe.

Airbus DS FCAS -2-web.jpg

“for France, FCAS encompasses more than this – constituting their larger effort to decide on either a comprehensive upgrade or replacement for Rafale, coupled with possible unmanned systems, enhanced decoys and stand-off munitions.”

The Dassault/Airbus concept is, at this stage, a primarily political undertaking – a statement of intent if you will. For the UK, FCAS means a joint Anglo-French UCAV technology demonstrator programme on the basis of Taranis and the nEUROn. But for France, FCAS encompasses more than this – constituting their larger effort to decide on either a comprehensive upgrade or replacement for Rafale, coupled with possible unmanned systems, enhanced decoys and stand-off munitions.


The pride of French aerospace: the nEUROn technology demonstrator leads a formation with a Rafale fighter and Falcon biz-jet.

Why are Dassault and Airbus Defence not mentioning BAE Systems in their proposal? 

Firstly, because it is based on a political drive by Merkel and Macron to make a clear statement on deepening European defence industrial cooperation. The UK does not fit into this yet, at least until the terms of Brexit become clear. The latter creates not only political difficulties for high level cooperation, but also has the potential to introduce serious difficulties in terms of tariffs, security and technology exchange barriers if there is a ‘hard Brexit’ outcome.

What is the current state of the Anglo-French UCAV- is it likely to happen?

As I said before, the problem is that for the UK, the FCAS programme is narrower in scope than for France. Also, all the current budget headspace for future combat air development and acquisition in the MoD is tied up with F-35. In France, there is an intention to keep producing Rafale up to around 2030 but also to explore other options. A future platform might have resulted from FCAS if the UK downsized their F-35 buy at some point in the 2020s but with Brexit, that is less likely now than a Franco-German aircraft. However, it is worth noting that most in the know see Taranis as a fundamentally more advanced stealth UCAV prototype than the nEUROn so in the case of a specifically UCAV solution in future, France and any other European countries would probably still greatly value BAE Systems’ participation if politically and economically viable.

Could the UK join as a late partner, would this weaken their influence on the design process?

Any late partner in a programme will have far less influence on the design process. The UK is unlikely to be shut out per se from joining a European programme at any point but it is unlikely to be offered the opportunity to tailor any design to RAF specifications if joining at a late stage which would eliminate much of the rationale of not simply buying off the shelf more cheaply from the US.

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Why does the German Government seemed opposed to a F-35 buy? Could Typhoon be a viable replacement for German Tornados in the long term? 

The Luftwaffe wants F-35 because it sees itself as being more relevant in the future if it is ‘part of the club’ and able to (at least theoretically) go downtown into the enemy SAM missile engagement zones on night one of a conflict. However, the German government doesn’t really see the role of the German armed forces as requiring that. Typhoon, especially if upgraded with the much talked about but very late CAPTOR-E AESA radar and increased weapons carriage capability, could be very useful for the Luftwaffe in a supporting role within a NATO coalition. It is a superior choice compared to the F-35 for contributing standoff munitions such as Storm Shadow or Taurus for SEAD from a distance, for combat air patrols and QRA, and for contributing Meteor shots to an air combat team from high and fast. However, it cannot go into modern SAM engagement zones without support in the same way that F-35 is designed to do. So it depends ultimately on what the German government wants from an air force. Valuable but fundamentally supporting forces (mass) or more exquisite stealth fighters but with limited range, payload capacity and sortie generation compared to Typhoon (capability).

Will RAF Typhoons have all they need to replace Tornados next year? Will some capabilities be lost? Will it have a decent tactical recce capability for example.


RAF Typhoons will have all the weapons delivery capabilities to replace Tornado in full. In some cases, the greater kinematics of the aircraft enable delivery options that Tornado could not have performed well, but equally, the loss of a rear-seater will limit some workload dependent functions especially in a complex CAS situation, despite the massively superior HMI and carefree controls in Typhoon.

Typhon .png

A German Eurofighter and the troubled Airbus A400M transport.

Typhoon can carry the Litening targeting and recce pod, and once the CAPTOR-E radar is in service will also be able to perform SAR mapping functions. However, it has not been equipped with the DB-110 stand-off wide area tactical reconnaissance capability which will be lost when the Tornado retires. The RAPTOR pod which currently houses DB-110 on Tornado is too long to fit on the centreline station underneath Typhoon and too large to be cleared for asymmetric carriage on an underwing pylon.

What should BAE Systems do if it wants to maintain or regain the ability to make combat aircraft? 


Turkey’s TAI TFX fighter may be developed in partnership with BAE Systems. 

They need to at least participate in the design and manufacture of a new combat aircraft. This could be a derivative of Typhoon, a UCAV derived from Taranis or something with Turkey or Japan for example. However, all of these options are united by one factor – there is no headspace for supporting them with a funded future UK purchase for the RAF, due for the most part on the costs for the 138 F-35s which we are still slated to eventually buy. If we are to be part of making a new aircraft, the orders have to come from somewhere and foreign orders want domestic manufacturing and workshare. F-35 production will supply BAE Systems will a lot of money over the life of the programme, but no new intellectual property to be traded for future participation in other projects. Furthermore, it will not sustain the vital expertise required to successfully design, test and produce new combat aircraft.

Could Britain return as a manufacturer of combat aircraft? 


Despite its involvement in both the Typhoon and Taranis could the UK be left in the dark? 

Once the industrial capability is lost, history suggests it is almost impossible to regain. The ability to design and manufacture combat aircraft relies not only on having access to a huge range of human talents and expertise but also a massively complex supply chain apparatus. This took a century to build and could be lost in a decade.

What kind of aircraft or system will the Franco-German studies lead to?
If the project remains purely Franco-German then I think it will end up looking something like a Rafale 2.0 with further signature reduction features, upgraded EW suite and the built-in capacity to operate alongside and perform some C2 functions for UCAVs and UAVs. If more partners come in, who knows. Of course, it Europe finds itself in some sort of major conflict in the mean time then it is much more likely to emerge as some sort of UCAV with basic air to air and strike capabilities. Needs must when the Devil drives…

Will it need some British technology, say advanced engines? 


Britain can still offer superior engine technology to that which France can call on SNECMA for thanks to Rolls Royce’s enormous R&D budget and workforce expertise which is sustained by a huge civil turbofan market share. This is (hopefully) unlikely to change, but if the UK is not involved at all in the programme, then SNECMA might be chosen for political reasons.

Should France lead the design process?

France has the more exacting military requirements of the two nations, especially with an enduring requirement to be able to operate across Francophone Africa out of mainland France at short notice and sustain operations from austere bases once there. It is also likely to be the larger technology contributor in terms of airframe design and engines. So in a word, yes – unless something major changes such as Germany achieving 2% GDP spend on defence by 2024… Then economics and order numbers might change the equation.

What should Europe learn from the Eurofighter and Rafale programmes? 

Stick. To. The. Requirements. Once. Set.

Also, don’t over-inflate order numbers to drive estimated costs down, only to find the programme in a death spiral once reality bites.

Finally, when it comes to setting contracts, remember that this is the last chance for Airbus defence and Dassault to stay in the fighter business. The prime customers here have a lot of potential leverage. Just as Sweden manages to do consistently for Saab, Germany and France must ensure that the contracts are set out in such a way as to incentivise sticking to time and budget, with extra costs falling primarily on the original equipment manufacturer.

What should I have asked you? 


Lockheed Martin has proposed a fighter optimised F-22/F-35 hybrid for Japan.

Which fighter programme am I most excited about right now?
Definitely the teaser offer of an F-22/F-35 hybrid design for Japan from Lockheed Martin. Something combining the airframe and engine combination of the F-22 with the electronics, coatings and production/testing lessons learnt so painfully with the F-35 just makes too much sense to ever see the light of day though so I’m hoping rather than expecting it to ever fly.



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Spitfire versus Messerschmitt Bf 109: A comparison of the Spitfire and the Bf 109 in the early years of World War II


This is a question that often comes up in discussions on airpower in World War II: how did the two iconic fighters of the War—The British Supermarine Spitfire and the German Messerschmitt Bf 109—compare? Was either machine demonstrably better? In the following article, I evaluate the two on the basis of six rectally extracted parameters that I think are important in fighter-versus-fighter comparisons. The scope of the assessment has been limited to the period between 1939 and 1941, when these aircraft fought each other on roughly even terms. So we shall mostly stick to the variants that were in service in this timeframe: the Spitfire 1A/B and Spitfire V; the Bf 109E and F.



“…the Me 109F has a slightly superior performance to the Spitfire V”

– Air Vice Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, September 1941.

“I also thought the Bf 109F was slightly superior to the Spitfire V”,

– Squadron Leader Douglas Bader, circa 1941.

The Bf 109, in its initial avatars, was generally regarded as marginally superior to contemporaneous variants of the Spitfire. At low to medium altitudes, where much of the air combat in the early war occurred, the Bf 109 had the upper hand. However, the Spitfire was superior at higher altitudes. This was chiefly because its Rolls Royce Merlin engine had a higher critical altitude (the altitude at which the supercharger is operating at full capacity, and beyond which engine power rapidly decreases) than the Messerschmitt’s Daimler-Benz DB 601.

The Bf 109 employed several advanced technologies that gave it an edge. For instance, its DB 601 engine was equipped with an automatic variable-speed supercharger that ensured better power delivery from the engine. The Bf 109E-3’s supercharger, for instance, gave it a 200 hp advantage over the Spitfire 1A at low altitude. The engine also utilised fuel-injection technology, which allowed the aircraft to pitch forward into a dive; the Merlin’s carburettor would stall the engine if this were attempted in a Spitfire. The Spitfire therefore had to roll over and dive, which cost precious seconds in combat. Yet another example would be automatic leading-edge slats that prevented the Bf 109 from going into a stall at low speeds or in high-G turns.

The Spitfire’s advantages were its tighter turning circle and faster turn rate, which allowed it to outmanoeuvre the Bf 109 in the horizontal plane. But the Bf 109, owing to its higher climb rate, could sustain climbing turns that the Spitfire was unable to keep up with. This gave German pilots more freedom to engage and disengage from dogfights with British fighters. Two quotes illustrate this advantage rather well:


“When it comes to fighter vs. fighter and the struggle for the altitude gauge, we must expect for the time being to be at a disadvantage as compared with the improved Me-109 [this is the Bf 109F, being compared to the Spitfire V] we are now meeting”

– Memo to Air Marshal Sholto Douglas, AOC-in-C Fighter Command, from the Senior Staff Air Officer, April 1941.


“I preferred the 109F because it flew well at any altitude, was fast as most . . . had a superior rate of climb and could dive very well. Most of all, it instilled confidence in its pilot.”

– Franz Stigler, date unknown.

 Top 10 fighters of World War II here

The Bf 109F-3 and F-4 models, introduced around mid-1941, improved on the E models with the help of the more powerful DB-601E engine. The new engine gave the aircraft a 30 km/h speed advantage over the Spitfire V. They also featured improved high-altitude performance; their critical altitude was 1,000 feet higher than that of the Bf 109Es.



Combat ranges were comparable. Both designs were initially designed to defend airbases against enemy bombing, and that was reflected in their range figures on internal fuel—680 km for the Spitfire I A/B and about 660 km for the Bf 109E.


The Bf 109 was the first to be forced into an offensive role: first as a fighter that would provide top cover to an advancing German Army, and later as an escort for Luftwaffe bombers attacking Britain. The lack of range proved to be a major constraint in the second instance. It is well known by now that a Bf 109 taking off from Northern France had about 10 minutes of flying time over London, not nearly enough to battle it out with RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes. What isn’t so well known is that this was when the planes undertook independent fighter sweeps. When tasked with as bomber escorts, the need to fly at sub-optimal altitudes and speeds often increased fuel consumption to the point where the 109s were forced to return to France before the bombers had reached their objectives.


Spitfires tasked to carry out offensive fighter sweeps and raids over Northern France in 1941 faced the same issue. The reason Fighter Command didn’t suffer very heavy losses was that the Luftwaffe was by then fighting over Russia. The few fighters left to defend the western front seldom rose up to meet the RAF’s challenges.



Armament-wise, neither aircraft ever had a clear advantage over the other. But it is still useful to study how the initial designs started off, and how the rapidly changing requirements of a modern air war forced changes to the weapon fit.


Both machines where primarily designed with aerodynamic performance in mind, with armament being a secondary consideration. They therefore made use of thin, tapering wings. These were excellent for speed and turning performance, but bad for firepower. There simply wasn’t any space to mount machine guns (leave alone cannon) in the wings.


The Supermarine Type-300 (an early prototype of what would become the Spitfire) was initially designed to be armed with only two machine guns. The Bf 109 wasn’t very different. The German the aviation ministry (RLM) specified two rifle-calibre (7.92 mm) machine-guns that the biplanes of the mid-30s carried. These were easy enough to concentrate in the nose. Willy Messerschmitt always wanted his fighter to be “a true application of light construction principles”. By mounting the guns in the nose and attaching the cantilever undercarriage to the fuselage rather than the wings, he could make use of a small, simple, low-drag wing that could be detached easily for maintenance and road transport.

However, this relevance on a mere two machine-guns was to change. The RAF’s requirements branch came to believe that two machine guns were inadequate to shoot down modern metal-skinned fighters, and in 1935, the RAF specified that it wanted eight machine guns on all new fighters. It was also asserted that this was an interim requirement. Follow-on designs would have to be armed with cannon. This was easy enough to accommodate in the Hurricane’s thick wings. But the Type-300’s thin, tapering wings had to be abandoned in favour of elliptical wings to house the increased armament. The Germans reached similar conclusions in combat over Spain. The Bf 109 would require cannon armament to damage metal airframes.


But this was easier said than done. The requirement for increased firepower led to persistent teething troubles with the armament of both aircraft well into their service lives. The Spitfire’s machine guns tended to freeze solid from the cold at high altitudes (this issue also affected Hurricanes). Initially, Fighter Command had Spitfires take off with adhesive tape covering the gunports in order to prevent the condensation from entering and icing the gun barrels. This did not always work. Later, a portion of the engine exhaust was ducted into the wing to heat the guns. This system proved to be mechanically complex and unreliable. It wasn’t until electric heating was introduced that the issue was fully resolved. Integrating 20mm cannon was also a great challenge. The belt that fed rounds to the weapon would frequently jam. The technical issues plaguing the Spitfire 1B proved so problematic that the type was withdrawn from service and replaced by the 1A.


Following feedback from pilots of the Condor Legion, Messerschmitt also modified the Bf 109 prototypes with a 20 mm cannon mounted between the engine cylinder banks, firing through the propeller hub. However, the vibration from the cannon was so severe that it proved to be unworkable. This problem was resolved much later in the war. In the meantime, several alternatives were trialled. The Bf 109B utilised an engine-mounted machine gun in place of the cannon. This, too, proved to be problematic. The Bf 109C featured a redesigned wing to accommodate two 7.92 mm machine guns, with ammunition boxes stored in the fuselage. The system worked in tests, but failed under the strain of air combat. The Bf 109D carried four guns – two in the nose and two under the wings. Bf 109E-1s carried the same armament. The E-3 models, though, were equipped with a 20 mm cannon under each wing, installed in two streamlined blisters along with a 60-round ammunition drum. Finally, the issues with the engine-mounted cannon were resolved in the F-4 model, which flew with a 20mm cannon that proved to be very accurate.



In terms of ease of operation, there were advantages and shortcomings to both designs. The Spitfire’s bubble canopy and large mirrors offered excellent views and better situational awareness to the pilot. The Bf 109s angular canopy with its thick frame fell short. On the other hand, the Bf 109’s Revi gunsight was far ahead of the early Spitfire’s ring-and-bead type sight. It eliminated parallax errors and made deflection shots more accurate. The aircraft’s engine and propeller controls were also more automated, which reduced pilot workload.

On the flip side, the Bf 109’s small size made the cockpit very cramped. Not only was it uncomfortable, it also restricted the force that pilots could apply on the controls, with obvious effects on flight performance. Post-war testing by the RAF revealed that under certain conditions, the force that pilots could exert on the Bf 109’s control column was only 40% of what they could apply in the Spitfire. In an era when hydraulically boosted controls were not available, this was a serious deficiency. The Spitfire’s two-step rudder pedals also allowed the pilot to raise his feet high during high-G manoeuvring, delaying the onset of blackout. The Bf 109 had no such pedals.


The Bf 109 also suffered from handling challenges, both in the air as well as on the ground. The most critical one was the issue with its undercarriage. There were two major problems with the landing gear design that caused serious losses of Bf 109s on take-off and landing. One was the tendency to ground loop. The Bf 109’s canted undercarriage often caused aircraft on landing runs to suddenly spin around and suffer serious damage if one wheel lost traction. On rough airstrips that were cobbled together in the later stages of the war, this problem was particularly acute.

Secondly, Willy Messerschmitt wanted his aircraft structures to be as light as possible. That structure lacked the strength to endure hard landings. As the Bf 109’s received more powerful engines and armament, it got heavier, which led to increased wing loading and higher landing speeds. That put additional strains on the landing gear. The result was that quite often, even experienced pilots ended up collapsing the undercarriage. In 1939 alone, the Bf 109 fleet suffered 255 landing accidents that resulted in damage to the airframe. The Spitfire, Hurricane, and Fw-190, with their “vertical” landing gear and heavier structures, fared much better.


The changing nature of the air war over Europe drove a slew of upgrade programmes for both aircraft. But the Spitfire—with its larger airframe, stronger structure, and superior engine—was better able to support the installation of advanced engines, armour, and heavier armament.

The Spitfire IX, often seen as the ultimate evolution of the type, was able to outclass the Bf 109G as well as the newer Focke-Wulf Fw 190A in combat. Its superlative Merlin 61 engine (powered by 100-octane fuel of US origin) gave it a 110 hp advantage over the DB 605-powered Bf 109G at sea level. But it truly came into its own at high altitude: At 30,000 feet, its two-stage supercharger gave it a whopping 300 hp advantage over its German counterpart. Further, its armament of two 20mm cannon and four 0.303 inch machine guns packed a formidable punch against not just aircraft, but also ground targets.


The Bf 109’s simplicity and light weight, however, proved to be its Achilles heel. Accommodating a more powerful engine, increased armament, new radios, and armour plate within the Bf-109G’s tiny airframe was a major challenge. The aircraft’s small cowling was inadequate for heat dissipation, which made the DB 605 engine prone to overheating and catching fire. Its firepower was only about half of what the Spitfire IX carried: two nose-mounted 7.92mm machine guns in the G-1 variant (upgraded to 13mm guns in the G-5) and one 20mm cannon firing through the propeller hub.

With the steady increase in weight, the Bf-109G’s handling qualities suffered. As the wing loading increased, so did the demands on brute muscle power to actuate the controls. Capt. Eric Brown, a Royal Navy test pilot who evaluated a captured Bf-109G, commented that “in a dive at 400 mph, the controls felt as though they had seized!” The addition of a water-methanol tank—whose contents were injected into the engine to provide a short burst of additional power—adversely affected the centre-of-gravity and made handing unpredictable in some portions of the flight envelope. The uparmed BF-109G-6, often equipped with 20mm or 30mm underwing cannon to attack Allied bombers, proved so sluggish in combat, that its pilots nicknamed it the Kanonenboot (Gunboat).

The larger, structurally stronger Spitfire IX suffered no such problems. Indeed, the powerful Merlin 61 and four-bladed propeller allowed it to outrun, out-turn, and out-climb the Bf-109G. The ‘quantum leap’ in performance that the Spitfire IX achieved over the Bf-109G was never reversed.


Ease of manufacture

This is one area where the Bf 109 comes out the clear winner. The Spitfire’s complex design, coupled with Supermarine’s utter lack of experience with modern production line techniques made Spitfire production problematic. Its elliptical wing proved to be difficult to fabricate. Delays in transferring knowledge and drawings to various subcontractors slowed down production. And the fine tolerances demanded by the design team—not something that British industry was used to—led to quality issues. The company faced major schedule slippages in delivering the initial batch of 310 fighters, and the RAF at one point considered cancelling the order outright. The Bf 109’s transition to production, on the other hand, was very smooth. The RLM was able to have it mass-manufactured without much of a hassle.

This disparity is clearly visible when you look at the numbers. In January 1940, it took 15,000 man-hours to build a Spitfire 1A and 9,000 to build a Bf 109E. By 1942, that gap had only widened. The Bf 109F needed only 4,000 man-hours to build whereas the Spitfire Mk V required 13,000.


In a Wehrmacht that had increasingly begun to equip itself with poorly conceived, overly-complicated weapons whose paper performance was never quite realised in the field (*cough* Me-262 *cough*), the Bf 109 stood out as a rare example of German engineering that was cheap, reliable, maintainable, and easy to manufacture—all while delivering superb performance on the battlefield. There’s a reason that more than 34,000 were built despite the Germans’ severe mismanagement of production resources at the strategic level. It remains to this day the third most produced aircraft in the world.

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In the final analysis, it is difficult to declare an overall victor without going into the details of each variant. For the most part, the Bf 109 and Spitfire were both well-matched, with own unique strengths and shortcomings. In the early part of the war, it could be argued that the Bf 109 (E and F variants) held the upper hand over the Spitfire Mk 1A/B and Mk V. But as the war wore on, the Spitfire’s inherently more advanced design, as well as the infusion of US technology (100-octane fuel, Browning machine guns, TR.5043 VHF radios, and so on) gave it a clear advantage over the simpler and lighter Bf 109 that persisted right up to the end.

Mihir Shah is a mechanical engineer and military aviation geek. He has written on Indian military aviation for LiveFist Defence, NewsLaundry, Swarajya Magazine, and others


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China’s other mystery stealth bomber: Our analysis


Jim Smith had significant technical roles in the development of the UK’s leading military aviation programmes. From ASRAAM and Nimrod, to the JSF and Eurofighter Typhoon. We asked him his opinions on the Chinese H-18/JH-XX bomber concept, a mysterious project with an ambiguous designation, and unknown role, size and status. 

Here’s what the article in Popular Mechanics had to say about what they referred to as the:  “While it is no B-2-style flying wing, the JH-XX has plenty of stealth features. The airplane has a flattened appearance, with built-in angles that make the aircraft less susceptible to radar. The air intakes are jagged to reduce their radar signature and placed on top of the aircraft to keep them out of sight to radars operating below the bomber. This suggests the JH-XX is primarily designed as a high-altitude penetrator.

The two engine nozzles are buried inside the tail of the aircraft, reducing its rearward radar aspect, and are shielded horizontally by the large horizontal stabilizers. This lowers the bomber’s odds of being detected by infrared search-and-track sensors and infrared-guided missiles.

The question is, does the JH-XX’s appearance on the cover of Aviation Knowledge mean that the “less stealthy” philosophy has won? If so, why? The flying wing is pretty much the gold standard for stealth warplanes that don’t have to dogfight, providing maximum stealth for penetrating enemy airspace at the expense of maneuverability. It’s possible that despite China’s great strides in military aviation, it still lags behind the United States in so-called “fly by wire” technology, where planes that are, shall we say “less than aerodynamically ideal,” are flyable because of computers capable of making continuous adjustments to the airplane’s control systems.

Another possibility is that China is less confident in stealth as a primary means of aircraft survival and is hedging its bets by picking a bomber with supersonic capability. In 2017, The South China Morning Post reported that Chinese scientists were working on detection systems that used quantum entanglement to locate and track stealthy aircraft, bypassing traditional radars.”

And the pictures:


So, what do I think? 

My initial take on this aircraft was to view it as more of a regional strike aircraft rather than a strategic bomber. This was driven by the impression given by the relatively large size of the cockpit, which suggested something akin to the Su-34.

However, that size of airframe is not really capable of delivering the payload-range expected of a strategic bomber. So, how large is the aircraft? And what is the requirement?

Looking at strategic bombers these days, it’s worth observing that they are an odd bunch. The US has a splendid collection – the old-school B-52, with 8 engines and a signature the size of several barn doors; the variable-sweep supersonic B-1B; and the hugely expensive B-2 flying wing. This field is expected to continue with the B-21, supported by the venerable B-52, but with the retirement of the B-1B. From Russia we have the Tu-160 Blackjack, which looks like a scaled-up B-1B; the Tu-22M Backfire, which looks a bit like a smaller B-1B’s ugly sister; and (in the old school corner) the always imposing Tu-95. Also, and relevant to the discussion, the Chinese have the Xian H-6, developed from the Tu-16 Badger.

It’s worth noting that that some Forces, notably the British and the French, have eschewed the strategic bomber in favour of submarine-based nuclear deterrence and a range of tactical systems.

Looking at what you want from a strategic bomber apart from range and payload, the two obvious (and expensive) other attributes might be stealth and high speed. Looking at the aircraft listed above, we can observe the disparity of view that has been taken so far:

Aircraft    Subsonic     Supersonic    Stealthy


B-52               X                                          Huge signature

B-1B                                        X                 Some treatment

B-2                 X                                          Very

Tu-160                                   X                 Some treatment?

Tu-22M                                  X                 No

Tu-95            X                                           Huge signature

H-6                X                                           No

Looking at the list it is interesting to observe that the US approach has ‘one of each’. Its operating concept is presumably based on B-2 and other systems, such as cruise missiles, taking down most ground-based threats (and F-22 taking down air threats) before B-1B or B-52 would be used. The supersonic capability of the B-1B does offer a rapid response capability which has been used to tactical advantage in Afghanistan.

The Tu-95 has very long range, but its slow speed and large signature mean that its strength has been the delivery of large and capable stand-off weapons, particularly in the maritime environment.

Supersonic capability has been invested in for the B-1B, Tu-22M and B-1B, all of which are variable geometry. I am a little sceptical about the need for, and cost-effectiveness of, supersonic capability. Yes, it can be useful if the aircraft is being used tactically; but these are strategic systems. How effective is dash speed going to be in improving survivability against modern weapons systems? And what price would have to be paid in payload-range if the dash capability were to be used?

Stealth is another issue. Once can see that the H-18 design is intended to be stealthy. But in order to be stealthy, weapons have to be carried internally, and this will inevitable increase the size of weapons bays, and the aircraft as a whole. However, there is some trade off because a really stealthy design should be able to operate closer to its targets than a non-stealthy one.


From Twitter: JH-X. Unsure of the relationship to H-18, but has a higher sweep and aspect ratio and has written dimensions.

Taking all of the above into consideration, I am assuming the aircraft is essentially a broadly Badger or Tu22M-sized H-6 replacement; and is reasonably stealthy. It is interesting that (I understand) the aircraft lost out to the H-20, which has been stated to be a flying wing.

This suggests that in the selection process, stealth characteristics have been emphasised, and that the H-20 may truly be intended as a stealthy penetrating system, capable of threatening the highest value, and most protected, targets, like the B-2. In which case, given the likely high cost, it may be that there is also a requirement for a tactical offensive strike system – perhaps delivered through the J-20. One thing is clear – I do not believe a B-2-like flying wing H-20 could be supersonic as it would not be possible to trim the aircraft.

Taking the overall configuration first, it’s plausible for a supersonic tactical strike aircraft. But one should perhaps expect a strategic bomber to have a higher aspect ratio for more efficient cruise. It’s quite a well packaged shape, with plenty of volume in the fuselage for both fuel and internal weapons bays. The combination of the under-fuselage shaping and the shielding of the exhausts on the upper surface by canted tail fins is a powerful nod to minimising radar signature for at least ground-based radars.


Is the H-18 supersonic or not? In general, I would expect a strategic aircraft to have a somewhat higher aspect-ratio wing, so the planform may be a compromise to deliver a supersonic dash capability. Additionally, the aircraft appears to have a relatively thin wing section, also suggesting, as indicated in the Popular Mechanics article, that it may have a supersonic capability. I do wonder about the utility of the forward fuselage chine and wing strakes, which seem to be aimed at more manoeuvre capability than would be required for a strategic platform.

I am a bit ambivalent on whether the H-18 is supersonic, however. Firstly, I’m not sure that a supersonic speed is essential to deliver a strategic bombing capability. Secondly, the other supersonic bombers – the B-1B, Tu-22M and Tu-160, all use variable geometry to allow take-off at high weights with an unswept wing, and use wing sweep to reduce wave drag when supersonic. With sufficiently powerful engines, the design could be supersonic, but I wonder why this would be considered necessary, and what the impact would be on field performance, range and payload..

Will it be stealthy?  Reasonably so, assuming appropriate treatments are used, but not as stealthy as the state-of-the-art, because the design does not appear to have the same level of edge alignment and geometry management.

Why is this design thought to have lost out to a flying wing? I guess the first consideration would be the view taken on technical risk. The H-18 may have been a lower risk concept that has lost out because Chinese fly-by-wire capability has matured. Also, the operational requirement may have been focussed on penetrating (stealthy) strategic capability and long range, both of which might favour a stealthier flying wing solution, incompatible with supersonic performance.

On the engine installation and intakes – these are pretty unconventional at first sight. And yet, I can’t see anything to reject them out of hand, particularly for a subsonic strategic system. The engine installation looks similar to that of the YF-23, but with the intakes above, rather than below the wing. In normal flight, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t work OK, provided the diverter-less intake bumps ahead of the actual inlet have been well designed to shepherd the boundary layer away. Also, there appears to be adequate room for the inlet duct to be sinuous, dropping down within the fuselage before coming back up to the inlet face, thus screening the front face of the engine. So, with appropriate treatments, they should reduce head-on signature.

What about manoeuvre? Well, in manoeuvring flight, the H-18 should be quite good, as the moderate wing sweep and the aspect ratio should give sustained manoeuvre capability. Looking at the location of the intakes relative to the change in sweep in the chine, strake and leading edge, I’d expect strong leading-edge vortices, but passing well outside the intakes. Mind you, the case for high manoeuvre capability is probably limited for a stealthy strike platform.

What weapons would it carry? Whatever it needs to, I guess, as long as it can be carried internally. These days, precision strike is more what you are looking for than the nuclear solution. A hypersonic long-range ship killer? Conventional precision guided munitions? Stand-off strike capability by air-launched cruise missile? My guess would be all of the above. External weapons could still be carried, either in a permissive environment, or, perhaps, for maritime strike, where large weapons might be launched from below the radar horizon.