“Aerocaccia II” by Tullio Crali, 1936. The World as seen through the restricting telescopic gun sight. Those Warren “zigzag” strutted biplanes look a lot like a sort of stylized Italian CR.32’s. Spanish Civil War inspired or just training, I guess. If you understand Italian.
Ferdinand I of Bulgaria was the first leader to fly, doing so in 1910. Soon after, the idea of a customised airliner for the transportation of national leaders spread across the globe. Often practicality is as important as a sense of theatre for presidential aircraft, and these sometimes lavishly equipped machines show-off the wealth, sophistication and importance of the nation making a visit. Sam Wise takes us on a brief important flight through ten of his favourite presidential aircraft.
Sadly ten was not enough to include all the aircraft we might have liked to include, and honourable mentions must go to Truman’s C-54 and the West German VFW-Fokker 614.
10. Columbine II (I’d better avoid a pun here)
Air Force One is best known as a 1997 thriller movie starring Harrison Ford as a US president who single-handedly defeats some real bad hombres trying to hijack an aeroplane he’s on. What most don’t know is that the film is actually named after the aeroplane designated as the US President’s personal transport – today a VC-25A (well, a 747 really), but first of all an achingly beautiful Lockheed VC-121 Constellation named Columbine II. Lending its name to all future POTUS transports (yes, we know Air Force One is technically whatever plane he’s on at any time, but whatever), Dwight D Eisenhower’s personal transport was the first to use the AF1 callsign and it stuck ever since, along with the fact of having a dedicated USAF transport aircraft to move the president around.
9. Saudi Comet ‘Aziz carrier’
The Saudi royal family has had an extraordinary range of Royal Flight aircraft across the decades. 747s, MD-11, Convair 340, Tristar, even an L-100 Hercules, but none come more stylish than the de Havilland Comet 4. Although a troubled type, the Saudis have always had a penchant for British aircraft and when they look as stunning as the Comet did it’s no surprise that King Saud bin Abdul Aziz would want to fly on it. That said, he was probably very happy he didn’t on its last day in 1963 – after less than a year in service with the Royal Flight and crewed by de Havilland trained American pilots it crashed into a peak of Italy’s Catena delle Guide while on descent. The King and his family were not on board, but the accident made it the shortest lived presidential aircraft on the list.
8. Argentine FMA IA 50 Guaraní II ‘Guaraní indeed’
Another presidential fleet with quite an eclectic stable, Argentina’s Agrupación Aérea Presidencial’s jewel – or not – has to be the spectacularly ugly but wonderfully indigineous Guarani II. Ok, it’s not a world-beater in any category but the audacity to assign your president an aircraft that looks like this for his personal transport is quite something and instantly pushes it into the cool category – it’s a hell of a flex to turn up on a state visit in a plane that’s part washing machine. Somewhat notable, the type was the first Latin American-designed aircraft to cross the Atlantic and was further flight tested in France, so there’s some distinction for it.
7. North Korean Mil Mi-17 ‘공산주의 땅벌’
The ‘Air Koryo’ Presidential Mi-17 easily falls into our Top Ten because I’ve actually flown on it. Even if I hadn’t – how could you not include a Hip with sofas and a wall-mounted clock on the list?! The helicopter is also used to transport tourists around the country in something resembling comfort, and could well be the only helicopter in the world with a throw rug.
6. Bell Boeing MV-22B Osprey ‘Trump’s Plopter’
Ospreys are cool. Darling of Hollywood and bane of cynical, ill-informed aviation nerds the V-22 family has pushed through the rocky times to become a brilliant transport platform, and what better validation can there be than flying around your head of state? Marine One use the MV-22 in that ridiculously slick dark green scheme to move the President around on short hops, presumably with rock music and eagle screeching blaring out when the propellor mounts rotate.
There’s some rumours that they don’t let the POTUS actually fly on the V-22s themselves out of fear of the safety record – but we don’t believe that, do we? No, it’s much nicer to think of President Trump flying around in something that had four crashes in a ten year testing period…
Interview with an Osprey pilot here.
5. Gambian Ilyushin Il-62 ‘Use your Ilyushin’
There aren’t many Il-62s left flying in the world, and even fewer have been taken on service this side of TaTu’s All the Things She Said hitting number one in the UK charts, but so The Gambia’s presidential classic Classic was in 2005 if you can believe it. The aircraft was first delivered to the Uzbekistan government in 1993 but eventually made its way to The Gambia as the personal steed of the president. It’s probably still flying today. Why Africa’s smallest country and one of its poorest needs such a large and maintenance heavy Soviet airliner is anyone’s guess, but you keep on trucking. Plus, it looks great.
4. Commando, Churchill ‘Going Commando with Winston’
Commando was Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s personal transport in the Second World War. A heavily modified Consolidated Liberator II, and an airframe that would in fact undergo significant modifications itself with a full tail and nose change, it took Churchill to North Africa to put Montgomery in charge of the British forces there, Turkey and even Moscow to speak with Stalin.
The VIP interior included an electric galley and even a bed for the PM for his long flights and the crew was mixed US and Canadian who all received British awards for their flying services after Churchill eventually switched to an Avro York for his transportation needs.
Commando itself met a mysterious end in 1945, disappearing on a flight over the Atlantic to Canada with no trace ever found. A sad end for a notable and historical aircraft.
3. Brazilian Lockheed VC-66 Lodestar ‘FAB 001’
This is a real one-off aircraft. Ish. The world’s only VC-66 Lodestar was also Brazil’s first ever presidential aircraft, taken on strength in 1942. Originally a C-66 (itself unique) which was a military versioning of the Lockheed 18 with a VIP interior, it was eventually redesignated the extraordinarily different VC-66 Lodestar and flew with the Brazilian Air Force as FAB 001 (big Thunderbirds fans, I guess) until the mid 60s
2. French Sud Aviation Caravelle ‘Le Comet’
The Sud Aviation Caravelle is one of a long line of beautiful French aircraft, and served as a suitable mount in VIP fit for President Charles de Gaulle. The President, who took his name from the ghastly Parisian airport, chose the type as his personal aircraft in 1958 and in fact the prototype had been christened by his wife only three years earlier. The aircraft was a delight to fly by all pilot’s accounts and with ovoid windows and engines mounted on rear pods it was a defining look of those early jet years, and with a French roundel and beautiful presidential livery it particularly stands out on this list.
1. Tupolev Tu-114 ‘Cleat intolerant’
The Tu-114 – one of the best looking turboliners ever made – was arguably the first long-range airliner ever built. It was developed specifically for Khrushchev to look baller when arriving in the US, a play in the endless game of US-USSR dickmeasuring that lasted for 40 odd years, the short ranged Il-18 having been deemed too paltry and humiliating for the big man. It blew the Americans away, to the point that when it landed in the US it was so large they had nothing that could get the president out of the aircraft to the ground, and he had to use the escape ladder. Much more successful than its brother the Tu-116, the Cleat was also basically developed from the Bear strategic bomber, which is, you know, a pretty rad thing to say about a presidential plane. One of few aircraft designed specifically for this role, it nevertheless turned into a very successful airliner by all accounts and served Aeroflot for many years. The Tu-114 still holds the world record for fastest propellor-driven aircraft.
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If all things from a certain category look the same to you, then you’re probably an outsider. The exception to this rule being airliners, which all look the same to a lot of insiders too. Airbus is particularly guilty: spewing out a series of uniformly bland designs that leave observers uninspired to even check the identity of the passing plane on the Flight Tracker app. But the skies are alive with secrets my friend, these clones are not clones! The following story will change your life as we, at Hush-Kit, with the help of artist, Maule pilot, air traffic controller and comedian Dorian Crook, can finally share the arcane secret that allow identification of modern airliners. Mesmerise lovers, blow the minds of colleagues and terrify therapists with your new ability to tell an Airbus A320 from an A319. Don your Goretex, leave sexy at the door and prepare for An Idiot’s guide to Identifying Airliners.
Or if you can’t be bothered to memorise this, the identity of a plane is normally written on the side at the front of the aircraft.
NOTE: We know this is by no means comprehensive and a part two may follow.
Squashed engines = Boeing 737
The barrel bit under each wing is an engine, if it’s a bit ‘squashed’ on the bottom like this one, then it’s a Boeing 737. You can see it’s not quite circular, the lower lip is a little flattened. (This wasn’t the case with early 737s, but you’re unlikely to see them).
The nose is a bit pointy too.
Double decker all the way = Airbus A380
Fat. Four engines. Tall tail. Appears to move in slow motion. Really massive with a huge forehead. From the front it looks like the body (or fuselage if you’re feeling fancy) is so heavy it’s bending the wings down.
Frilly engines = Boeing 787 Dreamliner
If the back of the big barrel bits look frilly as if attacked with a pastry cutter, then it’s a Dreamliner. They also have skinny shark-fin wings.
Looks like a Dreamliner without frilly engines, wearing a Zorro mask.
VERY big, with four engines, a face like a dolphin and a bump on the top. The front is double decked. That room the pilots look out of is placed higher than on other aircraft.
The Boeing 747SP was the Special Performance i.e. long-range version. This was achieved by reducing the weight of the aircraft, mainly by shortening the fuselage so it appears to be just that big nose and tail. There was maybe room for 3 passengers in between the cockpit and the toilet. By the way, if you fly, or work on, a Boeing 747, you absolutely HAVE to call it a “Seven-Four”. If you say “Seven-Four-Seven” you’ll look like a fool. On the hill overlooking Seattle…
Boeing 767, 777 or Airbus A330?
All are huge twin-engined sausages. They’re very big. They also all have the same amorphous quality of looking fat* or sleek depending on which angle they’re looked at from. There’s a more serious guide to identifying these types here.
* (We would only fat-shame aircraft, never people. Sleek fat people do exist.)
777: The singing fish
The 777 is the biggest. It’s enormous. But if you’re not in a position to judge its height it does have a scalloped ‘flat’ end to the tail – viewed from the left it looks like a singing fish. . Also 777s don’t have those tiny mini-wings (winglets) at the end of their wings that some A330s have (as do some, but not all, 767s).
Little winglets? And boring straight-bottomed cockpit windows?
Can’t tell it from a 777? Join the club mate, but the winglets should help.
Airbus A340 ‘Heroin heron chic’
Four engines and very long and skinny. Or if it’s a A340-600 it will be COMICALLY long and skinny.
Looks a bit like a small DC8 (younger readers will need to research this)-especially in Alitalia colours-but without the nostrils. It’s Brazilian, so all Embraer destination airports are required to shave the grass either side of the runway.
Fairly rare this, especially as it has now been bought by Airbus and is now the Airbus 220. Visual clue is a little cat-flap at the bottom of the tailplane. Probably with some Swiss Cheese nearby. Or it could be an APU inlet. Despite this being a very new aircraft, it sounds like a 1950 vacuum cleaner when reverse thrust is applied.
Nice curved nose like a dog or de Havilland Comet.
Reminiscent of the 1950s- era Fokker Friendship. Mainly because it is a 1950s Fokker Friendship but the engines are different. And it has two nosewheels instead of one.
Handley-Page HP 42
One of the first successful airliners (cue Twitterstorm), this one knew what it was doing. Flying regularly from Croydon to Paris. There was no HP42 NewGen, Neo, Excel, or other such nonsense. The only modification was that the First Officer had to bring in the flagpole carrying the Ensign, before the aircraft took off. This machine also had a revolutionary Head-Up Display: The pilot’s looked up and checked that they were still following the Reigate-Ashford railway line, and thus pointing the correct way to Paris. Smoked Salmon sandwiches with the Captain. Ok, that doesn’t help you identify it, but there’s none left anyway. Just showing you what we’re missing……..
A lot of the others
If in doubt it’s probably one of the smaller Airbuses or a 737.
Despite the best attempts by scientists no one can really tell an Airbus A318 from an A319, A320 or A320…and there’s even an A321. If you can read and recall just one of the following points you’re ahead of the pack (whether it’s a pack you’d let into your home remains a valid concern) .
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The poem Invictus is about survival and stoicism. It was read by US prisoners of war in North Vietnamese prisons, sometimes written with rat droppings on toilet paper. The 360 Invictus is Bell Helicopter’s proposal for the US Army requirement for an armed scout helicopter. We asked Ron Smith, former Head of Future Projects at Westland Helicopters, for his thoughts on the return of a futuristic, yet familiar, shape.
“Bell has released imagery representing its proposition for the US Army FARA (Future Armed Reconnaissance Aircraft) requirement. Details of the requirement are a little sketchy, but a recent summary in Vertiflite (members’ magazine of the Vertical Flight Society) highlights the specific characteristics, which can be seen at the bottom of this page.
From a general point of view, there is a general similarity to the schemes shown in the past for Comanche. Indeed, the early 1980s work at Westlands, featuring shaped fuselage, internal weapons carriage and close attention to IR signature anticipates some of these features. The Bell version of a canted Fenestron (they will wince at the name), or ‘fan-in-fin’, will be designed with minimisation of external noise in mind. Of equal importance will be preventing the visibility of rotating tail rotor elements to threat radars, at least from a frontal aspect.
The latter consideration also applies to the closely faired rotor head assembly shown in the Bell artist’s impression. One can expect minimisation of corner reflectors, screening of sensors, metallised transparencies and choice of materials and treatments in rotor blade construction. Bell state “This design is based on Bell’s 525 Relentless rotor system which has been tested and proven at speeds in excess of 200 Knots True Air Speed (KTAS).”
The only comment made by Bell that can be related to an optionally manned capability is that “Fly-by-wire flight control system—synthesises technologies, reduces pilot workload and provides a path to autonomous flight”
In terms of the impression, the weapon bay shown looks slightly small – one cannot envisage more than four weapons being carried internally on an aircraft of this size. Bell commented that it could be “Armed with a 20-mm cannon, integrated munitions launcher with ability to integrate air-launched effects, and future weapons, as well as current inventory of munitions”.
The nacelle fairings suggest that the front face of the engines will be shielded from view, but that extreme measures have not been taken in respect of infra-red suppression. This makes me wonder if a variable area nozzle / variable cycle engine approach might be under consideration to provide the required dash speed. Bell talk in terms of a supplemental power unit without defining this further.
Bell claim a speed >185kt (without saying whether this is continuous or a dash capability). For maximum compliance, they would be looking for this as a sustained capability. In terms of mission performance, they state a combat radius: 135nm with >90 minutes of time on station and the ability to hover out of ground effect at 4,000 ft and 95F, which is a pretty standard US Army requirement.
The clean wing surface (devoid of weapons and weapon mounts) is consistent with a degree of unloading the rotor at speed. Bell’s press release confirms this. This also avoids the typical clutter of corner reflectors that would have an adverse impact on radar cross section.
The sketch also leaves one wondering about target acquisition and identification. There is a relatively small nose-mounted sensor, which is low-set and would result in exposing the helicopter above the skyline if it is used for target acquisition. Also, a desire to reach out farther (than Hellfire) implies (to me) non-line of sight operations, or at least third-party targeting and networked operations. The same target acquisition question also surely arises if the aircraft is to be used in an optionally un-manned mode. The Bell statement “Provisioned for enhanced situational awareness and sensor technologies” leaves open the possibility that these are deliberately not shown in the current artist’s impression.
Among Bell’s final statements is that “Bell is committed to providing the U.S. Army with the most affordable, most sustainable, least complex, and lowest risk solution among the potential FARA configurations, while meeting all requirements,” said Keith Flail, vice president of Advanced Vertical Lift Systems at Bell. More questions than answers, but it looks like a very interesting and credible project with strong resonances with work that I was involved in twenty-five years ago. That credibility is consistent with a relatively straightforward approach to addressing the FARA requirements.
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“FARA is one element of FVL (Future Vertical Lift), which seeks to break out of a cycle of military rotorcraft development by incremental upgrade, in particular by focusing on advanced rotorcraft configurations.”
FARA itself is intended to be optionally manned. To me, this is a slightly debatable philosophy. If the vehicle is to be manned at all, it will be constrained by various requirements that would not arise for a purely unmanned platform. These might include:
• Space, volume and protection provision for the crew (when present)
• Provision of external fields of view for human operation
• Design for human crash survival protection
• On-board information display and control systems arranged to suit human anthropometry
• Levels of redundancy to meet acceptable safety (probability of failure) criteria when a human crew is present (and therefore at risk) (whether from accident, or enemy action)
These considerations are likely to be significant cost and weight drivers and will generally have a negative impact on vehicle shape, size and detectable signatures compare with a fully unmanned system.
Similarly, if a vehicle that can fly with human crew is also required to operate unmanned, it will have additional complexity associated with on-board and off-board decision making, particularly in respect of deploying weapons and protecting third parties, be they members of the public, innocent civilians, coalition partners or members of one’s own forces.
Various elements of hardware and software that might not be regarded as safety critical in a manned aircraft may become a concern in unmanned operations.
By being ‘optionally manned’ the system is burdened with two (possibly conflicting) sets of constraints, simply as a result of being neither one thing, nor the other (or both at once, if you prefer).
Moving on to other FARA requirements:
• Ability to leverage deep interoperability across intel, fire and manoeuvre elements (thoroughly sensible, but probably requires doctrinal developments if it is to be effective)
• Able to avoid radar detection
• Ability to operate in tight urban canyons (implies 40ft maximum rotor diameter, but likely also to have comms, datalink and target acquisition / tracking challenges)
• Open avionics systems architecture – pretty much a given nowadays; current terminology is MOSA modular open systems architecture. Bell comment that their MOSA solution is being provided by Collins. There will probably be some emphasis on use of Artificial Intelligence for crew decision support (whether operating manned, or unmanned).
• Able to exercise some level of interoperability with unmanned systems – interesting to speculate whether this means data sharing for mutual situation awareness, or directing unmanned systems to engage targets, or being directed based on information gathered by unmanned systems …
• FVL anticipates air launched effects from platforms such as FARA to degrade or destroy “Area Access and Aerial Denial” structures (which I take to mean (at least) layered air defence systems). Support to ground troops is also mentioned, in conjunction with longer stand-off ranges than are available with Hellfire. (RVS – Target acquisition and positive identification is likely to be a challenge for such non-line of sight systems and will presumably rely on networked intelligence from a range of assets).
• General Rugen, Army Director of FVL is quoted as saying flying should start in November 2022 (to support government-sponsored flight test and evaluation in fiscal year 2023).
• Cruise at 180 kt or more; dash at up to 200 kt or more
• 20mm cannon and integrated munitions launcher
• Gross weight around 14,000lb (RVS comment: similar to Westland Wildcat)
• Single or twin engine
Note: Optionally manned and available turboshaft engine powers probably favour a twin-engine solution. (RVS)
— Ron Smith
Dr Ron Smith joined the British helicopter company Westland in 1975, working in Research Aerodynamics, remotely piloted helicopters, before becoming Head of Future Projects. He had a strong influence on the design of the NH90, and was involved in the assessment of the Apache for Britain.
India has a new light fighter, the indigenous Tejas (which translates as ‘radiance’). Other than its small size, there are two more unusual things about Tejas: large control surfaces where the front of the wing meets the aircraft’s body and a naval variant with a pure delta wing.
“As a supplement to my recent piece on the Tejas programme, Hush-Kit have asked me to contribute an item about leading-edge vortex controllers (LEVCON) on the Tejas, seeking to explain what these are, how they work, and why they might be used on Tejas. As explained in my previous article, this piece is from an outsider’s perspective, but in this case, from the background of an aerodynamicist experienced in combat aircraft performance and configuration design.
I’m going to write about LEVCONs in the context of the Navy variant of Tejas, and seek to explain why they are being used on that aircraft. The picture below shows the Navy version of Tejas in its recent land-based arrested landing trials, and the second picture provides a clearview of the LEVCON behind some of the trials team. Pictures are from the Indian Navy via swarajyamag.com.
To understand LEVCON, and their application to Tejas, it is first necessary to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of delta wing planforms for combat aircraft.
In the context of supersonic aircraft, the delta wing is an attractive design option. The key source of drag in supersonic flight is wave drag. Wave drag arises as a consequence of the pressure distribution on wing and body surfaces in supersonic flows. Wave drag is extremely sensitive to the thickness to chord ratio of the wing, and also to leading edge radius. In aeronautics, the thickness-to-chord ratio, compares the maximum vertical thickness of a wing to its chord (the distance from the front to the back of a wing). A thick wing, with a rounded leading edge, will have a very high wave drag if it experiences transonic or supersonic flows. In addition, wing sweep reduces the local mach number and delays the occurrence of wave drag in transonic flight. This is why fast aircraft tend to have highly swept wings.
From this brief discussion, some of the advantages of a delta wing planform for a supersonic fighter aircraft become apparent. The delta planform offers the possibility of using a low thickness to chord ratio wing, which simultaneously provides good wing area, a highly swept leading edge, and low transonic and supersonic wave drag, while still providing reasonable internal volume for structure and fuel.
The validity of this approach is illustrated by the large number of fighter aircraft using delta, or near delta planforms, some as pure delta wings without additional stabilising or control surfaces, others with either tailplanes or canards. Examples of pure deltas include the Dassault Mirage series and the Convair F-102 and F-106. Examples of canard deltas include Typhoon and Rafale, while the Lockheed Martin F-22 and even the McDonnell F-15 may be considered as tailed near-deltas.
What then might be the downside of using a delta planform? There are two potential issues with the use of a delta wing planform, both arising out of its inherently low aspect ratio. Aspect ratio is defined as ‘span-squared divided by wing area’, and it provides an indication of the efficiency of the wing – its ability to deliver lift with minimum drag. High aspect ratio wings are seen on sailplanes, and the best of these deliver lift to drag ratios of more than 60 to 1. A 60-degree sweep pure delta wing has an aspect ratio of ~2.3, compared to a sailplane which might have an aspect ration of 30, or a typical airliner, which might have an aspect ratio of 9.5.
Low aspect ratio increases lift-dependent drag of the aircraft, and this in turn reduces sustained turn rate performance. The maximum sustained turn rate for a high-performance combat aircraft will generally be limited by structural design limits, except at high altitude or at supersonic speeds, where aerodynamic limitations are more likely. This is because, for much of the flight envelope, a high-performance aircraft might be physically capable of turning at more than 9g, but pilots cannot sustain this loading for sustained periods. Consequently, to save weight, the structure would generally be designed to a 9g limit. Outside the structurally limited region, higher lift-dependent drag will result in the aircraft maximum thrust being reached at a lower sustained turn rate than for a higher aspect ratio configuration.
The other impact of having a low aspect ratio highly swept wing is that the lift curve slope of the aircraft is low. What does this mean? Well, the lift curve slope is the amount of lift generated by the aircraft for a given angle to the airflow. A low lift curve slope means that the aircraft has to fly at a higher angle to produce a given amount of lift than a configuration with a higher lift curve slope. Alternatively, the aircraft might have to fly at a higher approach speed to generate the same lift.
It is easy to see that this latter aspect of a delta wing could pose some issues for a naval fighter. Landing on to a carrier is a high-intensity operation, and even today remains one which is largely dependent on the visual picture presented to the pilot as he approaches the ship; that picture being enhanced by shipboard landing systems and Deck Landing Officer guidance. A high angle of attack for landing raises the nose of the aircraft, making this critical picture more difficult to see. The alternative of landing at a higher speed may simply not be possible as the energy to be absorbed by the arrester system of the aircraft and ship will increase with landing-speed squared, imposing higher loads on the aircraft structure and undercarriage.
High lift devices are systems which increase the lift available to an aircraft, generally in the landing configuration, but occasionally also used to improve sustained turn rate. Higher lift available to the aircraft reduces the approach speed and angle to the airflow of the aircraft. In the context of highly-swept naval aircraft designs, extreme examples may be seen in the variable incidence system used for the F-8 Crusader, and, in a sense, the variable sweep solution for the F-14 Tomcat, transforming a low aspect ratio highly swept wing into a conventional moderate aspect ratio, low sweep configuration.
Many approaches to providing higher lift in the landing configuration have been used. The most traditional approach, seen on almost all commercial aircraft is the use of slats and flaps which extend from the trailing and leading edges of the wing to both increase wing area, and wing camber (the curvature of the lifting surfaces) to increase lift. In some naval aircraft, most notably the Buccaneer, high pressure air from the engine is blown over flap surfaces to further increase lift.
One aspect of these devices is that in addition to producing more lift, they also change the centre of lift on the wing, generally resulting in strong nose-down forces that need to be balanced through a tailplane or canard deflection to provide the required opposing force to balance, or trim, the aircraft. These flap-and-slat high-lift devices are used on aircraft with delta, or near-delta, planforms, examples being the A-4 Skyhawk or F-4 Phantom, both of which use a tailplane to balance the aircraft. Similarly, Rafale and Typhoon use canard control surfaces to trim the aircraft on approach.
Another approach to increase lift is to use a leading-edge strake. This is a sharp-edged, very highly-swept extension to the aircraft leading edge at the fuselage side, introduced to great effect on the F-16 and F-18. This has the effect, at high incidence, of generating a powerful vortex over the inboard portion of the wing, and can increase both instantaneous and sustained turn rate substantially. In the landing configuration, Concorde, which had a slender delta planform, exploited vortex lift generated over its blended wing design, to reduce approach speeds, although the relatively high incidence required led to the need to also droop the nose of the aircraft, to provide visibility on landing.
The leading-edge strake has been widely adopted, with several combat aircraft being fitted with LERX, or leading-edge root extensions, as a simple way of modifying the aircraft to improve instantaneous or sustained turn rate, or both. Examples may be seen on many aircraft, but the Harrier LERX modification is a good example of a modification to an existing design.
The LEVCON uses the idea of a passive strake to generate a powerful vortex over the wing, but does so in an active sense. In other words, it is a device for modifying the vortex flow over the wing which may be used to increase lift, to control the aircraft, or both.
The basic principles are described in US Patent US5094411A:
“The use of vortex flaps as a leading edge device for reducing the lift-dependent drag of highly-swept, thin wing aircraft that are prone to leading edge flow separation and vortex formation, has been extended and adapted for aircraft control, particularly at high angles of attack where conventional trailing edge surfaces lose effectiveness. Down-deflected vortex flaps capture the vortex suction on their upper surfaces to generate an aerodynamic thrust force component that results in drag reduction. Conversely, up-deflection of flaps magnifies the vortex to thereby increase wing lift accompanied by a drag force on the flaps. The present invention combines the advantageous features of up and down deflected vortex flaps to induce thrust and drag forces in order to generate directional control moments. Similarly, the differential operation of the flaps creates unequal lift increments on the wing panels to generate lateral moments. The segmented, differentially actuated flaps of the present invention thereby improve the ability and agility of high-swept thin wing aircraft during manoeuvring at high angles of attack.”
Translated, this shows the concept of deflecting leading edge surfaces down to reduce drag and, for example, improve Sustained Turn Rate, or to deflect them up to generate a stronger vortex and additional lift. An advantage of the latter approach is that upward deflected LEVCON can force the formation of a leading-edge vortex at lower incidences, where a fixed strake would not generate significant lift. The patent also describes the possible use of such devices to provide yaw and roll control.
The pictures shown earlier reveal that in making its recent arrested landing, Tejas was using an upward deflected LEVCON. This innovation makes a lot of sense for Tejas, because, as a pure delta with no balancing tail or canard surface, a conventional slat-and-flap high lift system cannot be used.
Moreover, the large upward deflection of the LEVCON will force the development of the leading-edge vortices, and the associated increase in lift, to occur at low incidence, allowing the view over the nose of the aircraft to be maintained for the approach to landing. Because the additional lift is developed over the whole length of the wing, it is likely that the pitching moment generated is less than would have been seen with a conventional system, and, on the approach, might even require a small droop of the trailing edge surfaces, which would also increase lift.
The only photographs I have seen of Tejas with LEVCON deployed are for the naval variant. The ski jump trials were conducted with the LEVCON more or less in line with the wing, increasing lift slightly, but with little effect on drag, whereas the recent arrested landing with upward deployed LEVCON would have generated significant lift and drag.
Subsequent development of the aircraft may see LEVCON integrated into the control system to improve manoeuvre capability for both variants, but whether this will be implemented remains to be seen.
Tejas is indeed an interesting little aircraft, and, in my view, is the first carrier aircraft to use a pure delta planform. I recognise that some might disagree with this, pointing to the Douglas F4D Skyray as having this distinction. In the Skyray, however, the landing approach speed problem was resolved using slats on the outboard wing, and large triangular trimming tail surfaces, forming the junction between the wing trailing edge and the fuselage, to cope with the slat-induced pitching moment. The Skyray was aerodynamically, in effect, a tailed-delta rather than pure delta.
As indicated in my earlier article there are plenty of developments to watch in this program, some of which may be observed via the official website.
Why the Viggen-like wing?
The wing of Tejas is reminiscent of of the Swedish Viggen, a tactical fighter designed in the 1960s. Both wings have a inner section that sweeps back at a more shallow angle than the outer section – why has Tejas opted for this ‘Viggen-style’ wing?
This is what DelhiDefenceReview has to say about the Tejas planform , written in the context of an article about the Medium Weight Fighter (MWF):
“As mentioned earlier, MWF retains the main wing from MK1 with minor modifications. It has the same iconic double delta wing featuring lower sweep angle for the inboard section. In a pure delta wing, the LE vortex, which constitutes a large portion of the total lift, starts forming right from the apex, the point where the wing LE attaches with the fuselage. The lower sweep on the inboard section results in the wing LE vortex forming slightly downstream of the apex. This pushes the CoL slightly aft-ward and helps bring down the static instability to a manageable range. This wing configuration also allows the designers to have a significantly larger wing area for the same LE sweep angle, length of fuselage and static instability margin. Figure 14 shows the blue outline of a pure delta wing which would need to have its apex downstream to maintain the same level of instability. In addition, the leading edge portion of the inboard section is lifted up a bit to provide the required clearance between the air intakes and the lower surface of the wing.”
Clearly this sort of thinking may have influenced the wing design for Viggen, but one must also bear in mind that Viggen was not designed as an unstable platform. Short take-off and landing (STOL) requirements were, I believe, a strong driver for Viggen, and the canard foreplane is important in this regard. The trailing edge flap on the Viggen provides a nose-up pitch control on rotation for STO which adds to aircraft lift. The alternative of using elevons only at the rear of the delta wing would reduce lift, resulting in a longer take-off run.
The article on Tejas suggests that the planform essentially allows a larger wing area for a given level of stability – again a useful property given STOL requirements for Viggen. However, one must also consider the canard, and particularly how its trailing vortices interact with the flow over the wing. This is likely to be a more complex aerodynamic situation than for Tejas.
You may be interested to read:
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 also Britain’s technical liaison to the British Embassy in Washington, covering several projects including the Advanced Tactical Fighter contest. His latest book is available here.
The Sabre was the best fighter of its generation. Potently armed, agile and a delight to fly, it proved formidable in the Indo-Pakistan War of 1965. It was with the Pakistan Air force that Wg. Cdr. Irfan Masum (Rtd) flew the ‘Jet Spitfire’. Here he shares his dramatic experiences of flying the F-86F Sabre.
What were you first impressions of the aircraft? Which units did were you in and when? “Before I answer the question, it is important to know how yet to be trained fighter pilots of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) got to the stage of flying the F-86F, also known as the ‘Sabre’. Basic training was done on two types of trainers. The majority of the Flight Cadets were trained on the American T-6G (a single-engined piston aircraft) and a few on the American T-37 (a twin-engine jet). The next step was to do full jet conversion on the American T-33 and before being sent to the OCU (Operational Conversion Unit) to be trained for fighter flying on the F-86F. Typically a pilot would have around 220 hours before getting into the cockpit of the F-86F.
My first impression of the aircraft was that it was sleek to the extent of sexy. The plane had already built its reputation in combat in the 1965 Indo-Pak war and I was thrilled to have reached a stage where I too would experience flying it.
I must talk about the reputation of the Sabre. It fared extremely well against the adversary in the 1965 Indo-Pak war. The pilot who forged this reputation was Flt Lt M. M. Alam who shot down five Hawker Hunters in one sortie in under two minutes of combat. The plane which gave birth to the first Pakistani ace was the Sabre. It is fair to say that Alam, the pilot, and Sabre, the fighter – put the Pakistan Air Force on the map of the leading air forces of the world.
It was this awe of the machine which made me really eager to get into its cockpit and feel the thrill of it personally. Having done my conversion on the Sabre, I did not get the opportunity to fly it as an operational pilot, instead I went on to do my MiG conversion (read about Irfan’s MiG-19 adventures here).
How did it differ from the other aircraft you flew?
“The F-86F was different to other fighters I flew in many ways. Firstly, it manoeuvred beautifully and was aerodynamically very friendly, making it an ideal aircraft to learn the facets of fighter flying. Secondly, it was a forgiving aircraft to the extent that it would say ‘sorry’ to the pilot for mishandling it…. or almost. Meaning that the trainee pilot could mishandle it and get away with it. The Sabre, almost, refused to enter a spin. And if you forced it into one and then left the controls, it would recover itself. Thirdly, it was the only aircraft that had automatic ‘speed controlled’ slats.
The PAF’s fighter pilot training program was based on pragmatic ‘building block’ approach. Basic training on American T-37s and advanced training on American T-33s would set the stage for learning fighter flying on the American Sabre. This progression and the commonality of the ‘American’ aircraft, made it easy to fly the Sabre and allowed the budding fighter pilots to make mistakes, mishandle the aircraft and have no fear of touching limits of it’s flight envelope. This wasn’t case with MiGs and Mirages, and herein lies the major difference between them.
Its computing gunsight made it lethally accurate in air battles. It was ideal in close combat, and six guns blazing at a very good rate of fire gave it an edge on all contemporary fighters of the era.
Attributes and Disadvantages:
“The Sabre had really good attributes, starting with ease of flying on one end of its flight spectrum to being a stable platform for strafing, dive and level bombing on the other. Its computing gunsight made it lethally accurate in air battles. It was ideal in close combat, and six guns blazing at a very good rate of fire gave it an edge on all contemporary fighters. The Sabre had almost no disadvantages but for the sake of making an argument, one could say that being sub-sonic was its only disadvantage. Also, it was very easy to over-stress it by pulling more than its max limit of five Gs.”
The Sabre was a versatile fighter and was thus employed in various roles. It was good in air defence interceptor and combat roles, with its agility, accurate guns and Sidewinder missiles. It is in this role that PAF’s MM Alam made history by shooting down five Hunters in one sortie in some two minutes in the 1965 Indo-Pak war. Its ability to carry rockets and bombs allowed it to be employed in strike and ground support roles. It also specialised in carrying napalm Bombs delivered in low level delivery mode. PAF had both versions of the Sabre, the F-86F and F-86E.
Air Combat Training:
“‘Similar’ (1V1) air combat training was the backbone of the initial air combat training escalating to 2 Vs 2 Similar, 4 Vs 2 Similar. ‘Dissimilar’ air combat training was a norm and the F-86 was often pitted against the MiG-19 and Mirage. Sabre tactics against the MiG were simple: strictly confine itself to a turning battle. Stay long enough in combat – without ceding advantage- for the MiG to run scarce on fuel and then make it difficult for him to disengage. Take a gun shot on a disengaging MiG, and a missile shot before the MiG accelerated out of reach.
This brief training narration would be incomplete without the mention of my Instructor, then Flt Lt Farooq Zaman. He was as fearless an instructor as he was a fighter pilot, never missing the opportunity to take me to my limits often forcing me to fly at the very edges of the flight envelope.
His referred to ‘air combat’ as a ‘dog-fight’, and it is exactly that. According to him, the aim of the dogs fighting each other is to turn around faster and bite the other dog first. He demanded that I manipulate the flight controls (ailerons, rudders and elevators – in conjunction with the throttles) howsoever necessary, to turn around and bite him. The essence of his theory stayed with me all my flying years.
Another tip that he gave me – demonstrated practically in the air many a time – would also form the backbone of my combat tactics. His mantra was ‘achieve height advantage on the adversary’ right at the beginning of the combat. How? He would explain – after the initial merge (which is usually head-on) show that you are getting into a tight climbing turn towards the foe, forcing him to, also, get into a tight climbing turn towards you. Then roll wings level and pull up for a loop with no bank on. Once inverted on top of the loop, execute a roll of the top and stay up there looking for the adversary – who will be sighted below the horizon considerably lower than you. The aerodynamics of this manoeuvre were simple – pulling up with wings level allows one to gain more height than the one who is pulling up towards you with a 60-70 bank on. Once you achieve the initial height advantage, make it work for you. Exchange height advantage for speed, when needed, but convert the extra speed back to height advantage so as to maintain an upperhand. Never lose the height advantage throughout the 1V1 combat.
There is another episode that is worth narrating regarding the training and teaching methods of my instructor: Flt Lt Zaman took his fearlessness to a limit during my first night mission on the Sabre. We had not briefed for what he was going to make me do in the air at night.
We are about 15,000 feet merrily going on our night navigation mission. I am the lead aircraft, navigating and he is about 300 feet behind me on my left wing. He makes me call on the radio (we were both on instructor’s manual frequency) saying, “Look at me” – which I did. It was a beautiful sight. Dark night, strobe and navigation lights of his Sabre lighting up parts of his silver aircraft. Just as I was appreciating the sight, he said, “I am pitching out to the left with 60 degrees of bank, you continue straight for ten seconds –then pitch out behind me and join up close formation on my left wing” and, “better join up before I finish a 360 circle”.
The beautiful sight suddenly turned ghostly as he disappeared. Confused, I forgot to count ten seconds.
His next call jolted me— “Ten second – pitch out now!”
I pitched out in a hurry and disparately started looking for him. I had to pick up visual with him first, if I was to get anywhere close to joining up with him. Fortunately, the clear night helped me pick up his blinking navigation and strobe lights. I called ‘visual’ and stated closing in on him. My mind started asking me too many questions, all at once, – and answering them too – like what speed is he holding? Perhaps he is holding our level flight speed of 360 knots. Fine, I will go 390 knots and have an overtake speed of 30 knots on him. After all, I can’t afford to go charging at him, misjudge and overshoot. Misjudge I will, most definitely as I hadn’t done a join-up at night. The darkness would make it difficult to sense the rate of closure. So, what will I do if have to overshoot? Irfan, says my mind, make sure you stay below his level so that you can overshoot from below rather than above him where you will lose visual.
What bank is he holding? Yes, yes, I remember, he said 60 degree bank. Okay, if I hold 70 degrees of bank I will slowly cut into his turn and get closer. With all these scenarios going through my mind, I hear him call, “180 turn to go”. What? I am nowhere close to joining up and just 180 degrees is all that is left.
My mind speaks again – “Don’t panic, take it slow and easy. Better late than never”
So I kept inching closer, focusing on the green navigation light on his left wing as my reference point and trying really hard to sense my rate of closure.
I have closed in to about 500 feet of him – I still can not sense the closure rate. I bring the throttle a bit back to control my overtake speed. Just as I thought I had achieved 90% of the joining.
He is back on the radio, “Are you going to stay there for ever or join up in close formation?” With an almost dry throat, I squeaked, “Coming up close” – a vow that sounded like someone else, not me. I crept forward rather slowly and got close enough to satisfy him. Just as I had breathed a sigh of relief, he pulled up barrelling around me and said, ‘You have the lead, continue the navigation.’
What navigation ? I do not have my bearings aligned after the join up…”
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Joining the fan club of a particular aircraft is a way of proudly declaring your identity, values and sense of style. But with little information online how do you avoid humiliating yourself by rocking up at a club meeting in the wrong outfit? Hush-Kit’s resident stylist and 182G Skylane skeptic Phillipa Elevon shows you how to get the look!
Westland Wyvern Fanclub
Rustic tones and themes are key to the Wyvern look. Herringbones, tweeds and heavy corduroys for him, 70s camper for her. The Westland Wyvern is the only aircraft deemed worthy of a National Trust listing and their rabid overly-sexualised legions of super-fans know it!
Grumman F-14 Tomcat Fanclub
Think pushy single guy in a bar next to Paddington station, or man who parks his yellow Audi in a disabled parking space. Combine bright coloured leather with a huge watch. Despite being an extremely impressive aircraft, the Tomcat topped the poll of ‘Least cool aircraft to love.’
Edgley Optica Fanclub
White cotton, vintage shades and soft hats, olive drab, and old lady shoes are the go-to look of the ‘Bug-Eye’ (nickname of the Optica) guys . The Optica community love flat caps and berets, and frequently liven up club meetings with the free use of M-16s.
BAC TSR.2 Fanclub
‘Turtley’ dominate with roll-neck and M&S casual-wear that says, ‘I cannot stop talking about how much I hate the late 1950s Labour government’. When members tell you it would still be service today if it had entered production, refill their whisky glass and retire to a safe distance. Return in twenty minutes and he’ll be on the homophobic jokes and sherry.
Sukhoi Su-15 Flagon Fanclub
Flagon fans love fags! The first thing you’ll notice at a Flagon meeting is the fug of tobacco smoke, the scent of dried vobla and the free flowing homemade ‘coolant vodka’. Think thick patterned overcoats, scarves and fur-hats. Turtle or polo necks are fine if part of chunky knitwear.
WARNING: Flagon parties are notoriously uproarious, notify a loved one of the location of the party.
Walk into a bar in Stockholm and you’re likely to find at least one Viggen fan. She’ll usually be behind the decks, playing Electroclash under a name like DJ Flygbassystem 90. The Viggen look is actually indistinguishable from the first-wave Electro-clash style of the early 2000s. Sequins, hotpants and a neon thrust-bucket reverser are all de rigueur.
Historically, there’s been lots of accusations of underhand play by European aircraft manufacturers. There’s the oft-cited (and certainly false) claim that Dassault was inspired to create the delta-winged Mirage after seeing the Fairey Delta 2 in the early 1950s, an arrogant British theory that does not seem to make sense chronologically. Going the other way across La Manche is the French assertion that the Harrier was a French concept (which is half-true but generous to Michel Wilbault). There’s also the possibly true claim that Dassault was secretly working on a indigenous swing-wing design while negotiating a part in the AFVG, the failed precursor to the Tornado (which led to the fastest European aircraft ever flown). The accusations go both way however. I was talking to a French aerospace engineer, who has asked to remain nameless, and we got onto the subject of the Typhoon. He grudgingly admired the weapons carriage arrangement, thought the intake design odd, but was most animated when talking about the wing which he claimed was a rip-off of the Mirage 2000s. Intrigued by this possibility I asked Jim Smith to look into this allegation. Here are his thoughts:
“Superficially, there is a resemblance between the wing design of the two aircraft, which is not surprising given the advantages in wave-drag and the ability to have a low thickness to chord, and yet reasonable internal volume for fuel and structure.
In detail, however, there are some significant differences arising from the differing approach taken to stability and control between the Mirage 2000 and the Typhoon.
The table below compares some parameters which define the wing shape – note that the fact that the Typhoon has a bigger wing is not really relevant to the debate. It is a bigger, heavier aircraft and has a bigger wing.
Parameter Eurofighter Typhoon Mirage 2000
Leading edge sweep 53 deg 58 deg
Taper ratio 0.166 0.085
Trailing edge sweep ~4 deg 3.5 deg (both negative sweep)
Leading edge flap/slat Part-span Near full span
Aspect Ratio 2.4 2.0
Stability 35% unstable ‘Relaxed stability’
Configuration Canard-Delta Pure Delta
Structure Spars Aligned with local sweep Spars at right angles to fuselage
While the wings appear similar, the use of the canard configuration for Typhoon, and its highly unstable design, have led to subtle differences in sweep, aspect ratio, taper ratio, section, camber and twist, as well as different leading edge manoeuvre devices.
Knowing, from my past position advising the project on aerodynamics and performance, the intimate connection between wing aerodynamics, aircraft control laws and (in)stability, performance and structural load management, there is, in my view, no probability that the Typhoon wing owes any of its design features to the Mirage 2000.”
Indian air power is a fascinating, and perplexing, subject. We met up with leading Indian defence reporter Shiv Aroor to find out more.
Rafale — what is going on?
“Thanks for having me again, Joe. I love Hush-Kit. To your question, not very much other than flight test of the new IAF airframes over at the Istres base in France. The ferocious political storm over the Rafale deal abruptly died with the end of the elections — and tellingly, there are next to no calls for investigations and such. So politically, it’s all quiet. The Ambala AFB not far from Delhi is all prepped now for the arrival of the first jets next month. There’s a handover of the first airframes in France around mid-September, and then they’ll ferry fly to Ambala.”
How many aircraft have been ordered and delivered?
“The first four Rafales will be commissioned into the IAF in France on October 8, with a total of 36 to be delivered in batches till 2022. That’s about two squadrons worth, with one to based at Ambala and the other at Hasimara AFB in the east, facing the Chinese front. There’s reason to believe the Indian government is weighing a French offer for 36 more, though this could be a while away.”
Was the procurement corrupt? Is it being investigated?
“There were very loud allegations of corruption, and plenty of innuendo of crony capitalism, but there has been no proof (certainly not so far) of dirt. The BJP government saw the allegations as politically driven and rode out the storm in the hope that a complex military procurement wouldn’t find traction with millions of India’s voters. As it turned out, they were right. With no proverbial ‘smoking gun’, the government decided that acceding to an investigation would translate into bending to an adversary when there was no need for it. The ‘scandal’ as such went to India’s Supreme Court, and none of the various levels of recourse exercised by the Congress Party and Opposition ever resulted in either tell-tale proof of corruption, not any compelling directives to investigate. It is unlikely that there will be any investigation in the foreseeable future, but as with all things procurement in India, the foreseeable future is a very short time.”
Was Typhoon actually the cheaper aircraft?
“I don’t think it was ever that simple. On the one hand, India’s national auditor poured limitless scorn on the manner in which the Rafale was selected in the first place by a Congress-led government (the party that went on the accuse its successor of a Rafale scam). As I understand the maze of decisions during that time, the ‘cheaper’ Typhoon offer was on the original number of 126 aircraft — the infamous MMRCA contest that crashed and burned, as it were. That higher number would have offered a lower per-airframe rate when compared to the price per Rafale on a deal for 36 aircraft. If my memory serves me, the Indian government never engaged with Eurofighter on a lower number of jets.”
What is Tejas’ status?
“As you probably know, the Tejas began squadron service a few years ago, and the Flying Daggers squadron that flies it is breaking the jets in quite gamely. For all the anticipation and bad blood over years of delays, the squadron has been very pleasantly surprised with the jet. I spent some time with the squadron pilots when I did a back-seat sortie in a Tejas in February. HAL is currently trying to ramp up production to meet the initial order of 40 on the Mk.1. An order for 83 the improved Mk.1A is in the wings, though an actual specimen will likely only begin being tested next year.”
What still needs fixing?
“The Tejas is a nimble, very capable little jet in its class. The thrust, if you will, of the improved Mk.1A will be vastly better (as will) squadron-level maintainability. Even though the baseline Tejas has proven to be far more serviceable than the IAF suspected, the Mk.1A fully addresses the niggles. Several requirements the IAF needs on the Mk.1A have begun being tested. The Mk.1A will be mid-air refuellable, sport an updated internal Radar Warning Receiver (RWR), an external Self Protection Jammer (SPJ) pod and an AESA radar. The IAF has also stipulated that the Tejas Mk.1A needs to be able to fire different types of BVR and close combat air to air missiles. The Tejas has so far fired Vympel R-73 CCMs and a Derby BVR missile. It’ll need to prove itself using the R-77, Python-5 and DRDO Astra too.”
As it stand, is it any good?
“It’s an excellent jet. Apart from the journey to where it is now, I’d believe the men operating it day and night at the squadron in Sulur, and who’ve been tamely taking them abroad and keeping them almost 100% serviceable away from base. The key now is for larger numbers to be inducted faster. HAL has to ramp its production rate up to at least 18-20 a year.”
What is its likely future?
“The future has had a shape for years, though it isn’t clear if the Indian government or IAF can or will pull the trigger on it. The erstwhile Tejas Mk.2, redesignated recently as the canard-fitted Medium Weight Fighter (MWF), broke cover at Aero India 2019. But that’s still a long way off. Tentatively it’s a beefier canard jet concept, up-engined with an F414 to take care of thrust inadequacies on the baseline Tejas. Plenty stands in the way of a decision to sanction the MWF as a formal requirement, not least the experience with the Tejas (ironic, since developers are literally pitching that lessons learned on the Tejas Mk.1/1A will mean the MWF won’t be beset with pitfalls), but also by a budget stretched ludicrously thin even just on proposed combat aircraft purchases.
India-Pakistan air skirmish 2019
As it stands – what is the difference between the story told by the IAF and PAF, and who should be believed?
“We know for certain that an Indian MiG-21 was shot down. There are two other claims — a Pakistani claim that an IAF Su-30 MKI was also shot down, and an Indian claim that a PAF F-16 was shot down. The former is untrue without any doubt. The latter has been suggested by the IAF with ‘proof’ in the form of AWACS battle imagery and the testimony of the MiG-21 pilot officially credited with the kill. But there is no conclusive proof of this. My personal view is that Pakistan lost an aircraft, though I’m wondering if it could have been a JF-17. With no conclusive proof either way, I’m also open to the theory that both the MiG-21 and the PAF jet were brought down by Pakistani ground fire. It’s far harder for the IAF to hide a loss than it is for the PAF — sentiments and emotions aside, Pakistan has proven in the past to be capable of masking military losses of all kinds, including damage to aircraft. The PAF claim of a Su-30 MKI is therefore preposterous across the board. In a fairly pathetic hunt for ‘proof’ of the Flanker kill, the ISPR even put out a 2015 video of 1965 IAF war hero Air Marshal Denzil Keelor speaking of losses in the 1965 war, purporting it be proof of IAF losses in the Feb 2019 air skirmish.”
Who fired what?
“We know Pakistan fired at least one AMRAAM, very likely more. The IAF says its MiG-21 pilot Abhinandan fired a single R-73, and that none of the other jets in the air fired any weapon.”
What are the repercussions of the incident?
“Other than Pakistan closing down its airspace until very recently, and a very high state of aviation alert at forward bases, the skirmish has ensured that elusive normalcy on the frontier is now a virtual impossibility for the foreseeable future. On the nuts and bolts side, the IAF has fast-tracked purchases of weaponry that would have otherwise taken far longer. For instance, the IAF has pushed through buys of more Spice 2000 PGMs and a sizeable package of AAMs from Vympel.”
It has been reported that the IAF is not happy with Russian missiles and is moving towards Western manufacturers, is this true?
“The IAF isn’t unhappy with Russian missiles, but it is definitely true that it is looking at newer generation missiles and believes there’s better technology in the West. There’s been a misconception in some media that India’s purchase of Russian air-to-air missiles recently was a validation of the post-Balakot skirmish. Not really true — the purchase was a top-up in the pipeline anyway. But as I reported on Livefist earlier this year, there’s are firm plans afoot to standardise the ASRAAM across its tactical fleet. This won’t be without hurdles and resistance from a multiplicity of quarters though. For instance, the ASRAAM faces off with the Python on the Tejas platform, and the R-73 on others.”
Has the Su-30 been tested with ASRAAM?
“Integrations are complete. A first test could happen later this year, but as I reported from Moscow recently on Livefist, the Russians aren’t happy at all. The folks over at MBDA acknowledge that the ball is in the IAF’s court on this front, and they’re prepared to help in any way. It will be for the IAF to navigate any diplomatic friction with Moscow to effect the integration, since it erodes Russia’s own package pitch of improved Vympel missiles.”
When will Jaguars get ASRAAM?
“They’ve got them. First test firings scheduled for this year.”
What is happening with indigenous air-to-air missile programmes?
“The Astra missile is swimming along rather well. The missile is in guided test and has orders from the IAF already. The good news is the missile is flying with an Indian seeker, after being guided by a Russian one for the first part of its development. Officers I know on the test team say they’re very pleased with the weapon and see it entering proper user trials next year. The extended range Astra Mk.2 is also now a formally sanctioned project, which is always an affirmation of the Mk.1.
FGFA — dead as a door nail? Definitely dead. India finally acknowledged that it was basically bankrolling a fully Russian development, and the technology spin-offs simply weren’t there. It would have turned out like another Su-30 MKI type agreement. India has said it would be open to considering the Su-57 as a customer once the platform is ready, but I would be very surprised if that ever happened.”
Will India get F-35s and should they?
“I’m going to say that the possibility of F-35s in Indian service has increased quite dramatically in the last three years. The FGFA flying into the ground and a strong, steady, but strictly subterranean pitch of the F-35 over a decade or more is finding takers in the Indian system. Whether this finally results in a procurement is as unclear as anything else in the Indian armament landscape, but the the appeal of a jet like the F-35, especially in the B and C variants definitely stands amplified.”
How many remain in service?
“A little over a 100 MiG-21s remain in service.”
Has the skirmish incident hastened their retirement?
“If anything, the skirmish has burnished the MiG-21’s credentials. The Bison that was at play in the dogfight is officially acknowledged to have performed admirably. I don’t think the skirmish has hastened or delayed their retirement though. They definitely need to go, and the IAF has a set phase-wise draw-down plan.”
Should they be in service now?
“The Bisons can stay on course for the planned retirement dates, which are in a few years. But all other variants ought to be retired immediately, in my opinion. They’ve got no business being in the air anymore — and this is despite a highly professional maintenance force keeping them available. It must be said that the IAF holds on to its MiG-21s also because the inbound pipeline of jets has stood choked for years, with very little sustained force accretion taking place beyond the Su-30s. The LCA Tejas that was meant to augment and replace the MiG-21s have only now started picking up production pace. It’ll be two years before they’re churned out in meaningful enough numbers to consider hastening the retirement of MiG-21s.”
Which future procurement programmes are currently active?
“There’s the Make-in-India multirole fighter contest that seeks to build 114 fighters in country through the Indian government’s highly ambitious and convoluted Strategic Partnership policy. This is widely seen as an MMRCA 2.0, but with the added benefit of even more complexity and hoops to jump through. I highly doubt the contest will take place on the contours currently set out. Political decision-making will most likely guide a quicker decision on this front.”
Is India moving away from Russia as a supplier? If so, why?
“Not nearly. India continues to source a wealth of kit from Russia. Apart from the five S400 Triumf regiments recently contracted amidst a disapproving scowl from the Trump administration, India has plenty of business that’s keeping its channels with Russia nice and warm. It’s on the threshold of ordering a dozen more Su-30 MKI kits for the Indian production line, will likely conclude an order for 21 upgraded MiG-29s from the Lukhovitsy plant by next year and is awaiting finality on the joint venture Indian facility that will manufacture 200 Ka-226T Sergei light helicopters for the Indian military. On another front, the two countries recently inaugurated a facility in north India that will manufacture over 600,000 AK-203 rifles for the Indian Army. Russia is still upgrading India’s old Kilo-class submarines, has been declared a winner in the hard-fought and very lucrative VSHORADS program (the Igla-S has won amidst protest), and is seen as an aggressive contender in the ambitious P75I submarine build program. So, no, not really!”
What is the biggest problem facing the IAF?
“Well, like every other air force, budget. The IAF stands weighed down by financial commitments that strait-jacket it from fresh capital acquisitions. It’s one of the reasons it has run around in circles for desperately needed new generation mid-air tankers, for instance. It’s one of the reasons why the IAF has asked the government for nearly double its assigned budget for the coming year. ”
What is the current carrier air inventory?
“The Indian Navy’s carrier air arm includes a pair of MiG-29K squadrons and a squadron each of Ka-31 for AEW duties, Sea Kings, Chetaks and Dhruvs.”
What are the biggest problems facing naval aviation?
“The Indian Navy’s problems with its MiG-29Ks –both in terms of performance and availability — has forced them to freeze a long-pending decision on its second indigenous aircraft carrier (the first, under construction, will be a STOBAR like INS Vikramaditya). It has decided that this second aircraft carrier will be a flat-top featuring a CATOBAR/EMALS deck configuration. A requirement for 57 aircraft has been suggested by the navy, and is widely being seen as a future battle between the Rafale and F/A-18. A section within the Indian Navy is also rooting for the F-35C, since it would fit the bill as a fitting future platform that will have ‘settled’ into its role by the time the Indian Navy is in a position to take a decision.”
What does it need and what will it get? Does India need aircraft carriers?
“The Indian Navy believes it needs three aircraft carriers -— two for each sea board, with one in refit/maintenance. Personally, I believe the navy’s dollars would be far better spent on more land attack cruise missile/AIP-armed conventional submarines, with a concurrent accelerated effort on the nuclear-powered attack submarine programme. I’m of the opinion that aircraft carriers don’t serve India’s force projection needs any longer. With China’s long legs in the IOR, the fight is definitely below the waterline.”
What is best and worst about the current government’s policies regarding the following?
“Best? A strong emphasis on Make in India that will for the first time hopefully create real advanced aerospace capacity in the country. Worst? Offsets. It’s a self-defeating mess that isn’t being resolved quickly enough. Indian industry is simply unable to absorb the narrow channels of offset requirements mandated by current policy.”
“Best? The government recently announced the creation of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) post. While the contours of the new position remain unclear, the government has basically implemented a recommendation made after India’s last major confrontation with Pakistan in Kargil in 1999. It will lead to better coordination and joint leadership. Worst? A continuing unwillingness to reform and overhaul India’s defence R&D and state-owned industrial establishments.”
What does the Indian media repeatedly get wrong around the subject of air power?
“Apart from photographs of aircraft in their reports? 😀 The Indian media has come a very long way in its reporting of air power, but sometimes continues to see air power within the framework of a tactical setting with immediate objectives rather than as strategic messaging. I don’t for a moment intend to sound sanctimonious — I’m very much part of the media, and I definitely do fall prey to the temptation to oversimplify stories involving air power. This is likely because there is a relatively small appetite for detailed, nuanced journalism on air power. I must add that this has dramatically changed since India’s airstrikes in Pakistan’s Balakot and the air skirmish the following morning.”
What should I have asked you?
Do you ever miss anything, Joe?
The ‘AMRAAM Age’ is over, once the weapon that separated the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’, the ‘Slammer’ is now outmatched by a new breed of long range air-to-air missiles. The PL-15 in China and the Meteor in Europe have usurped the America weapon’s supremacy, a position only likely to be reversed when the AIM-260 enters service. Has a year passed already since our last BVR top 10? Yes indeed it has, and the latest news, that French Rafales are now carrying the Meteor long-range missile has had a radical effect on our ranking. Meanwhile in China, Flankers and J-10Cs are now flying with the PL-15, but it is believed they are not at a level of maturity that will upset the applecart, for this year anyway. In Russia, development work on the R-77M with its AESA seekerhead offering a larger field of regard than existing technology continues.
To excel in beyond visual range (BVR) air combat a fighter must be well-armed and equipped with capable avionics. It must be able to fly high and fast to impart the maximum range to its missiles, allowing them to hit the enemy before he is even aware of their presence. The aircraft must give its crews sufficient situational awareness not to shoot their friends down, and be easy to operate so it can deploy its weapons quickly and accurately. The black magic of the aircraft’s electronic warfare suite can also come into its own, reducing the opponent’s situational awareness. Situational awareness, weapons capability and combat persistence are probably more important than manoeuvre capability (g), although transonic and supersonic acceleration is helpful in creating opportunities to survive & win multiple engagements.
Hardware is generally less important than training and tactics — removing these human factors from the mix allows us to judge the most deadly long-range fighting machines currently in service. The exact ordering of this list is open to question, but all the types mentioned are extraordinarily potent killers. This list only includes currently active fighters (so no Su-57s etc) and only includes weapons and sensors that are actually in service today.
The process we used to arrive at our conclusion can be seen here.
(Contenders for the number 12 slot included the J-10, FC-1, Iranian F-14, MiG-35, Mirage 2000 and F-2)
11. Lockheed Martin F-16E
OK, so we said ‘top 10’, but the F-16 deserves a mention. A great sensor suite, including a modern AESA (the APG-80) and comprehensive defensive aids systems is combined with advanced weapons and a proven platform; a small radar cross section also helps. However, the type is let down by mediocre ‘high and fast’ performance, and fewer missiles and a smaller detection range than some of its larger rivals. Older F-16s, including some USAF examples are being upgraded with the APG-83 AESA radar. Israeli F-16s also deserve an honourable mention for their advanced jamming and avionics systems, but are largely tasked with ground attack. The next advanced variant of the Viper, the F-16V/Block 70, has been ordered by Slovakia and Bahrain.
The ‘F-21’ (a designation some may say intended to avoid the Pakistani associations the F-16 has to many in the Indian Air Force) offered to India would have a widescreen cockpit and impressively modern systems.
Armament for A2A mission: 4 x AIM-120C-7 (Ds in some cases), 2 x AIM-9X (1 x 20-mm cannon).
10. Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet
The Super Hornet is akin to a luxury sports car without a big enough engine: it has all the ‘bells and whistles’ (a very powerful advanced radar, reduced radar cross section, an excellent cockpit, data-linking capability and good weapons) but lacks the grunt to make the most of its superb systems at higher speed and altitudes. The weapons carriage is also among the draggiest configuration. If the US Navy receives the new generation BVR missile it wants, it is likely that the Super Hornet will be the first to receive.
Though in an actual BVR engagement pilot training levels and the aircraft’s place in a larger system are decisive, we are looking at the aircraft as a weapon system in a like-for-like way — so many of the US Navy’s Super Hornet’s advantages are removed. A planned Block III upgrade will see the addition of conformal fuel tanks to increase reach, further reduced radar conspicuity and the addition of a modern wide display cockpit.
Read an exclusive interview with a Super Hornet pilot here.
This list, which for the sake of brevity (largely) treats aircraft as isolated weapon systems, does not favour the Super Hornet: in reality, with support from E-2Ds and advanced other assets, US Navy Super Hornets would be extremely capable in the BVR arena against most adversaries.
Armament for A2A mission: Super Hornet (high drag ‘Christmas tree’) 12 x AIM-120, realistic = 6 x AIM-120C-7/D+ 2/4 AIM-9X ) (1 x 20-mm cannon)
9. Sukhoi Su-35
The Su-35 is considerably more capable than earlier ‘Flanker’s and would pose a significant challenge to any ‘eurocanard’. Su-35S were deployed in Syria in 2016 to provide air cover for Russian forces engaged in anti-rebel/ISIL attacks. The Su-35 is even more powerful than the Su-30M series and boasts improved avionics and man-machine interface. More on the Su-35 can be found here. Many of the teething problems encountered in Syria have now rectified. One ace the Su-35 has in its sleeve is the inclusion of the R-27T medium range infra-red guided missile (seen on aircraft deployed to Syria) – which is potentially effective against low radar cross section aircraft and has no American equivalent. One Russian analyst we spoke to questioned the effectiveness of the R-77 noting Russia’s lack of investment in modernising the weapon and the glacial pace of development of ultra-long range weapons for the Su-35.
The Su-35’s supremacy as the most potent Flanker variant may be challenged by the Chinese J-11D is some areas, notably the latter’s AESA radar, but its is believed that the J-11D is not yet in full mature operational service. Also some observers, notably in the US Navy, rate the latest Chinese air-to-air missiles as superior to their Russian counterparts.
The Su-35 represents the Flanker series for this list but other high-end T-10 series aircraft include the Su-30, J-11B and J-16. (See Idiot’s guide to Flankers here.)
A2A armament: 6 x R-77 or R-27T, 4 x R-73 (1 x 30-mm cannon)
Location of target
In terms of radars, the Su-35S’s Irbis-E PESA radar provides extremely high power levels allowing target detection beyond 300km (although without weapons which can engage at this range), as well as claimed advances in detecting low-observable threats such as stealth fighters at significantly beyond visual range. However, the downside to this is that the Irbis-E has to operate at extremely high power levels to achieve this performance and so is easily detectable and track-able at ranges beyond those at which it can track. All radars except AESAs with very low probabilities of intercept such as the F-22’s APG-77 suffer from this paradox but it is worse for the Su-35 because of the latter’s very large RCS and IR signature which means it must rely on out-ranging its opponents at BVR rather than trying to sneak up on them whilst relying on passive tracking.
Engage and defeat the target
Su-35 benefits from superb Russian missile design expertise. The multiple seeker-head mix which Russian fighters would fire in missile salvos in combat makes defending against them a very complicated task. At long range, the Su-35 can fire a mix of semi-active radar homing, anti-radiation (home on jam) and IR homing missiles, whilst at short range the ‘Archer’ series remains as deadly as ever. Typhoon has the excellent ASRAAM and IRIS-T short range IR missiles which can equal or surpass their Russian counterparts, but at long range the AMRAAM is showing its age and against Digital Radio Frequency Memory (DRFM) jamming technology which the Su-35S employs, its Pk drops significantly to the point that multiple missiles would likely be required to kill each target.
BVR engagements are all about situational awareness, positioning/energy advantage, and persistence in terms of fuel and missiles. In all but the latter category the Su-35 is hopelessly outclassed by the F-22 (as are all other operational fighter aircraft). Even in terms of missiles, the Su-35 can carry up to twelve to the F-22’s eight but combat practice, especially against stealthy targets, involves firing salvos of six missiles with mixed seekers so the Su-35 only really has two credible shots
Disengage at will
Repeat as necessary
Abundant fuel reserves and a large weapon load.
8. Mikoyan MiG-31BSM ‘Foxhound’
As a defender against bombers the MiG-31 may well be the most potent interceptor in the world. In our article that explained the judging criteria for this top 10, analyst Jim Smith noted ” (The) Air Defence of Russia drives you towards the MiG-31. You have to have a big, fast, aircraft because you can’t avoid the possibility of having to cover a fair distance at high speed to meet the threat. Being big means a big sensor and long-range weapons are available, and both are likely to be needed. You may be less concerned about signature and platform manoeuvrability because your ideal approach will be to stand back and hit bombers rather than engage fighters.”
Interview with a MiG-25 pilot here.
The MiG-31 is designed for maximum BVR performance. Against bombers and cruise missiles it is superbly capable (and would be ranked higher on this list), however as a defensive interceptor it is vulnerable to more agile and stealthier fighter opponents. The fastest modern fighter in the world, with a top speed of Mach 2.83+, the MiG-31 offers some unique capabilities. Until the advent of Meteor-armed Gripens and Typhoons, no operational aircraft had a longer air-to-air weapon than the type’s huge R-33, which can engage targets well over 100 miles away (it may well out-range the AIM-120D). The recent K-74M, which is believed to be in limited operational service (though there is no open source material to support this claim) is even more potent and may even have some advantages over Meteor.
Designed to hunt in packs of four or more aircraft the type can sweep vast swathes of airspace, sharing vital targeting information by data-link with other aircraft. The enormous PESA radar was the first ever fitted to a fighter. The type is marred by a mountainous radar cross section and abysmal agility at lower speeds. More on the MiG-31 here and here.
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7. Chengdu J-20
China is the second nation in the world to put an indigenous stealth fighter into operational service. With a hypothetical really long-range anti-air weapon, this relatively stealthy platform could force essential support assets such as tankers and AEW platforms to stand back, reducing situational awareness and combat persistence for opposition aircraft. Perhaps the J-20 should be thought of as a stealthy MiG-31, aimed at large area airspace denial rather than an air superiority fighter per se, though the J-20 is generally described as an F-22 Raptor-class aircraft. In many ways this is true, but the J-20 is particularly interesting because of its rather different configuration. The J-20 has a canard-delta rather than the (essentially) tailed-delta of both the Raptor and the Su-57 (which has yet to enter service). Additionally, unlike Typhoon, the canard is not closely coupled to the wing. The main benefit to be gained from this arrangement is the carriage of significantly more fuel, coupled with the scope for use of a longer weapons bay. The additional fuel could confer either additional range, or long combat persistence, and this suggests that, if armed with a long-range AAM a role as an anti-AWACS or anti-tanker system. The large weapons bay might also provide sufficient volume for a wide range of weapons. What of the compromises? I would suggest less energy manoeuvrability, as the configuration is likely to have somewhat higher transonic drag. In addition, signature (other than head-on) looks likely to be a bit greater. Head on signature could be comparable to competing systems if appropriate engine installation and airframe treatments are used. The canard, is likely, to be at low deflection for supersonic flight, especially if Su-35-like thrust vectoring is available to trim the aircraft. It is not clear from open source literature if this is the case, but it is likely the PLA are looking into it. It is only the type’s immaturity that keeps it from a higher placing, and it is likely to move up this list next year.
Stealth, supercruise and the modern weapons mean the J-20 is likely to mature into an extremely capable, and unique, aircraft. Achieving this depends on the degree to which China can overcome its historical problems with engine developments.
It is likely that the J-20 is less stealthy than the F-22 and F-35, and at least one member of the F-35 community has stated that he does not believe the J-20 is a low observable in meaningful sense. The perennial issue of immature Chinese engine technology is yet to be solved, and the current status of the Xian WS-15, the powerful definitive service engine, is unclear. The current interim WS-10, and in particular the WS-10G engine, is powerful, but the WS-15 is (or will be) able to make the most of the airframe in terms of acceleration and supercruise.
Location of target
The J-20 carries a modern AESA in a nose large enough to accommodate a set of 2000-2200 transmit/receive modules. Detection abilities are likely to be excellent.
Engage and defeat the target
Assessing the J-20s capability in this sense is hard. Giving the J-20 a very long range weapon would be a logical step and it is believed that this weapon is currently in testing. In 2016 China downed a target drone with a massive air-to-air missile. This could be a very long range air to air missile (VLRAAM) with ranges exceeding 300 km. Far greater than any Western weapon. The long-range PL-15 is mature enough to be worrying the US and is a catalyst for the development of the US AIM-260 which is rumoured to be further down the development path that publicly quoted.
Disengage at will
Supercruise and a degree of stealth (though probably less than the F-22 from most aspects) will give the J-20 options, though it is likely to lack the energy manoeuvrability of the F-22.
Repeat as necessary
Massive fuel reserves (if combined with an efficient engine) and a large weapons bay are likely to make the J-20 one of the best aircraft in this regard.
Armament: 6-8 x new generation PL-12C/PL-15s or new generation BVR missile+ 2 x PL-10
6. McDonnell Douglas F-15C (V) 3/Boeing F-15SG/F-15SE Eagle
US F-15Cs were among the first fighters in the world to receive the AIM-120D AMRAAM, the best Western air-to-air missile after the Meteor.With an estimated 100mile range, new hardware and software systems for improved navigation, an improved HOBS (High-Angle Off-Boresight) capability, the D model offers a significant advantage. Though far from fleet wide, USAF has a number of F-15Cs fitted with both theAPG-63(V)3 radar and the AIM-120D, these Golden Eagles boast a superior radar to any non-US types. With a massive effective radar, good range, combat persistence and a high level of maturity, the Eagle remains extremely potent. Plans to equip it in the future with a new generation US BVR missile could push all the American aircraft in this chart up in our rankings.
Though the famously one-sided score sheet of the F-15 should be taken with a pinch of salt (Israeli air-to-air claims are often questionable to say the least), the F-15 has proved itself a tough, kickass fighter that can be depended on. It lacks the agility (certainly at lower speeds) of its Russian counterparts, but in its most advanced variants has an enormously capable radar in the APG-63(V)3. The F-15 remains the fastest Western fighter to have ever entered service, and is currently the fastest non-Russian frontline aircraft of any kind in the world (though an F-15 pilot we spoke to here said he’d never got a clean eagle over Mach 2.3). The type is cursed by a giant radar cross section, a massive infra-red signature and an inferior high altitude performance to a newer generation of fighters.
Though Saudi F-15SAs are extremely advanced they are not considered mature and rumours hint at problems with the aircraft. The latest F-15s will benefit from the greatest amount of computing power of any aircraft. The F-15X is a suggested variant with the latest technology and ‘missile truck’ mass AMRAAM load-outs (able to act as the ‘muscle’ to the Raptor’s ‘eyes’ in mixed formations). USAF is likely to receive a batch of these new generation Eagles, showing both its faith in the type and demonstrating the current belief that stealth-only air forces are too exquisite and lacking in ‘air mass’ (or ‘wings in the air’ – the aerial equivalent of ‘boots on the ground’). The next Eagles for USAF will be extremely well-equipped, superior even to the F-35 and F-22 in some defensive aids and sensor areas.
A2A armament: 6 x AIM-120C-7 or AIM-120D 2 x AIM-9X
5. Saab Gripen
Some caution could be expressed about the Meteor, as it is far from being a combat proven weapon. But the signs are encouraging, with the order-book stacking up and a large amount of time, money and effort put into the weapon’s development. In our original list from five years ago, the Gripen did not even make the top ten. Its dramatic jump to the number two position in 2016’s list here was due to one reason: the entry into operational service of the MBDA Meteor missile. The Gripen was the first fighter in the world to carry the long-delayed Meteor. The Meteor probably outranges every Western weapon, and thanks to its ramjet propulsion (an innovation for air-to-air missiles) it has a great deal of energy, even at the outer extremes of its flight profile, allowing it to chase manoeuvring targets at extreme ranges. Many air forces have trained for years in tactics to counter AMRAAM, but few know much about how to respond to the vast No Escape Zone of Meteor. This combined with a two-way datalink (allowing assets other than the firer to communicate with the missile), the aircraft’s low radar signature, and the Gripen’s pilot’s superb situational awareness makes the small Swedish fighter a particularly nasty threat to potential enemies. The Gripen is not the fastest nor longest-legged fighter, nor is its radar particularly powerful. It would have to be used carefully, taking advantage of its advanced connectivity and superior Electronic Warfare systems to make the most of its formidable armament.
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.
4 x MBDA Meteor + 2 x IRIS-T (1 x 27-mm cannon)
4. Lockheed Martin F-35A/B Lightning II
The F-35 is perhaps the hardest aircraft to place on this list as its stealth and situational awareness should give it a very high ranking but reports continue to circulate regarding problems with the aircraft’s AMRAAM integration. It is (largely) this lack of a mature AMRAAM capability that stop it taking the number two slot that one might expect given of such a sophisticated system. Its appalling reliability and extremely high-maintenance demands (many shared with the F-22) also count against it. In 2017 the F-35 had a mission capable rate of 54.67%, which is terrible, by 2018 this had dropped by a further 5.1 points to 49.6% percent. To put this into perspective the famously prissy B-1B which is very big, very complicated, old, has swing wings and four engines may now have a superior mission capable rate. It appears that with a ‘fifth generation’ aircraft you get a mission capable rate of around 50% compared to 70% for a thirty year-old fourth generation aircraft (it is likely that the Eurocanards offer even better rates if assessed in the same way). How ever good a fighter is in theory, it has to be ready to fight to be able to fight.
In Location of target the F-35 scores very highly, being arguably the best fighter in terms of sensors and data connectivity. Stealth and unparalleled situational awareness make a potent beyond visual fighter of the F-35A, despite its pedestrian kinematic performance. The F-35A has gained a formidable reputation in large-scale war-games; against conventional opponents the F-35 raking up a reported 17-1 simulated aerial victories. The F-35, if it is to stay in a stealthy configuration, has fewer missiles than its rivals. It also lacks the agility and high altitude performance of the F-22, Rafale or Typhoon. A word of caution about the high ranking we have given the F-35: procurement moves by the US (both F-22s and 6th Gen’ plans), Japan (with the F-3) and Turkey (prior to the 2019 F-35 boycott) with the TF-X show that those who can afford an alternative don’t consider the F-35 a viable air superiority platform. This flies in the face of public announcements by Lockheed Martin, USAF and F-35 pilots regarding the aircraft’s effectiveness in the role, but it is hard to read the facts in any other way.
Smaller BVR missiles now being studied may address the shortcoming in combat persistence which prevents the type from taking full advantage of its stealth and SA advantage.
4 x AIM-120C-5 + 2 AIM-9X (1 x 25-mm cannon)
3. Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.4
Typhoon is still the best armed fighter in the world for beyond visual range combat, bar none. The Typhoon is very fast, high flying and energetic, imbuing its AMRAAMs and Meteor with a longer reach than those launched by lower performance aircraft. RAF Tranche 1 Typhoons are not Meteor compatible but will instead be fitted with AIM-120D in a deal that was signed in July 2018. Saudi Arabia began operations with Meteor-armed Typhoons in late 2019.
Its greatest weakness remains its lack of an AESA radar and its non-stealthiness. Against a stealthy opponent, for example the J-20 (when fully mature), the Typhoon will be at a large disadvantage and without the support of off-board sensors (from friendly F-35s for example) will struggle to get first-look and first-kill. The Typhoon is one only two aircraft on this list (the other is Gripen) with a mechanically scanned radar, a 20th century technology which leaves the sensor “… on the verge of complete obsolescence, with an inherently greater vulnerability to jamming and an inability to fully exploit the performance and capabilities of new weapons” according to some in the RAF Typhoon community. However, the radar is a decent size, with good detection range and is fully mature. Future Typhoons will carry the Captor E ‘Radar Plus One’, a new pivoted wide-view AESA, with the chance of an all new Radar Plus Two further in the future. Upgrades now planned will improve the EW suite, engines and cockpit. Though excellent for its day, the cockpit is a generation behind the large screen F-35 and nascent Gripen E.
A2A armament: Up to six Meteor/AMRAAM AIM-120C5 + 2 or 4 AIM-132 ASRAAM/IRIS-T
2. Dassault Rafale C
The Rafale F3R upgrade standard — introducing Meteor capability— was qualified in late 2018 , but it was not until September 2019 that the new missile was seen on squadron aircraft. Though initial operational capability is yet to be officially declared, it is likely that it the capability is either already in place or extremely close. This puts Rafale ahead of Typhoon for the first time since our BVR top 10 began in 2013. Typhoon still enjoys a thrust-to-weight advantage (giving its Meteors potentially greater range and energy) and two (rather than one-) way data-link with its the new weapon, but these may be mitigated by the Rafale’s more sophisticated radar and defensive aids.
F3R involves major software upgrades, and the full integration of Thales TALIOS long-range airborne targeting pod. Though primarily an air-to-ground sensor the pod will improve target detection and identification.
Other than real stealth, the only disadvantage suffered by the type, which has a good performance, an excellent defensive aids suite and a high level of sensor fusion, was the absence of a helmet-mounted display. This has now been rectified (it is believed that Qatari Rafale are operating with HMD). Rafale has a more advanced radar than the other European and Russian fighters and weapons (Mica and the Meteor) that the Russians and Chinese do not known as well as the elderly and universal AMRAAM, and thus may be less able to counter. Though it should be noted that Meteor has not been tested in combat. The addition of HMD and Meteor has made the already excellent Rafale even more potent, and a strong contender for the best multi-role fighter in the world.
A2A armament: 4 x Meteor + 2 x MICA (or four MICA and two Meteor)
1. Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor
Undisputed king of beyond-visual range air combat remains the F-22 Raptor. Its superbly stealthy design means it is likely to remain undetected to enemy fighters, calmly despatching its hapless opponents. The only potential rivals, the Russian Su-57 and Chinese J-20, remain immature.
The type’s excellent, but ageing, AESA radar is world class, and its ‘low-probability of interception’ operation enables to see without being seen. When high-altitude limitations are not in place (due to safety concerns) the type fights from a higher perch than F-15s and F-16s, and is more frequently supersonic. High and fast missile shots impart the AMRAAMs with greater energy, and so range, and allow the F-22 to stay out of harm’s way. The recent addition of the AIM-120D to the Raptor’s arsenal give it a weapon of improved range and sophistication. Since 2017, the F-22 has carried the AIM-9X , which has a marginal BVR performance useful against stealthy opponents. In the future, the long range AIM-260 Joint Air Tactical Missile (JATM) is set to replace AIM-120 in the US, enabling it to counter the bogeyman of the PL-15 and match the European Meteor.
The F-22 is now proven in combat; though it has not taken part in air-to-air combat, it has performed in the CAS, ISR and Combat Air Patrol missions over Syria, and more recently in Afghanistan.
The F-22 is expensive to operate and maintain, suffers from a poor radius of action for its size and has suffered a high attrition rate for a modern fighter. Issues with parts and software obsolescence have also dogged the aircraft, with recent efforts being made to provide more easily upgradable computer systems. The F-22’s ‘mission capable‘ rate is very poor, it plunged from a FY2014 high of 72.7% to an alarming 60% in 2016 to a lamentable 49.01% in 2017! This compares unfavourably with the 71.24% for the geriatric F-15C fleet in FY2017 (a figure that has stayed largely unchanging for five years). In 2018 it did improve by 2.7% to 51.7 %, which is still a lamentable figure.
Its ability to share information with other aircraft is not first class: the F-22 does not have the ability to transmit on the standard Link-16 network—though it can receive data. The Talon HATE (it is unknown what the acronym stands for, assuming it is one) pod enables the F-15 to connect with the Raptor’s Intra-Flight Data Link (previously a Raptor-to-Raptor only system). The IFDL has a low-probability of intercept and low-probability of detection capability that offers a high resistance to jamming and eavesdropping.
Location of target
The F-22 is likely to detect anything now flying before it detects the F-22, with the possible exception of the F-35.
Engage and defeat the target
High energy, excellent situational awareness and the best US-made made air-to-air missile give the F-22 a high probability of winning a BVR engagement against anything else.
Disengage at will
This is to allow you to either re-position for another engagement, or to withdraw. In this category the Raptor scores highly. Its combination of high energy manoeuvrability, all aspect stealth, AESA radar and its ability to receive information from other aircraft allow it massive liberty in its options.
Repeat as necessary
This requires the ability to carry enough weapons have good combat persistence and, often ignored, have sufficient availability and numbers to deliver a campaign rather than just an engagement. In this category the F-22 has failings, which include a low combat readiness and a small fleet. Six AIM-120s limits the extent to which the F-22 can exploit its relative invisibility, and compromises from its stealthy design mean it does not have the range one would expect of such a large modern platform.
Armament: 6 x AIM-120C-5 or AIM-120D+ 2 x AIM-9X or AIM-9M
Interview with USAF spy pilot here
Top Combat Aircraft of 2030, The Ultimate World War I Fighters, Saab Draken: Swedish Stealth fighter?, Flying and fighting in the MiG-27: Interview with a MiG pilot, Project Tempest: Musings on Britain’s new superfighter project, Top 10 carrier fighters 2018, Ten most important fighter aircraft guns
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