The ten best BVR fighters of 2013

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To excel in Beyond Visual Range 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 good enough 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 in to its own, reducing the opponent’s situation awareness.

Hardware is generally less important than training and tactics, but 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 PAK FAs etc) and only includes weapons and sensors that are actually in service today (so no Meteor missiles etc).

10. Lockheed Martin F-16E/F

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A great sensor suite, including a modern AESA 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, fewer missiles than its rivals and a smaller detection range than some of its larger rivals. With Conformal Fuel Tanks its agility is severely limited.

Armament for A2A mission: 4 x AIM-120C-7, 2 x AIM-9X (1 x 20-mm cannon.).

9. Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

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Well equipped with a great defensive system and excellent weapons the Super Hornet  has much to offer. It is happiest at lower speeds and altitudes  making it a fearsome dogfighter, but is less capable at the BVR mission; a mediocre high-speed high-altitude performance let it down, as does a pedestrian climb rate and acceleration at higher speeds. The touch screen cockpit has disadvantages, as switches and buttons  can be felt ‘blind’ and do not require ‘heads-down’ use. The much-touted AN/APG-79 AESA radars introduced on Block II aircraft has proved unreliable and has enormous development problems. One scathing report said ‘ …operational testing does not demonstrate a statistically significant difference in mission accomplishment between F/A-18E/F aircraft equipped with AESA and those equipped with the legacy radar.’ Read an exclusive interview with a Super Hornet pilot here.

Armament for A2A mission: Super Hornet (high drag ‘Christmas tree’) 12 x AIM-120, realistic = 6 x AIM-120C-7  + 2/4 AIM-9X ) (1 x 20-mm cannon)

8. Grumman F-14 Tomcat (IIRAF)

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The star of ‘Top Gun’ remains active with the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Air Force. Though an aged design it probably retains an impressive ultra-long range engagement capability. As one source said to Hush-Kit ‘Against a US Navy F/A-18, the Tomcat’s radar and AIM-54 are still going to cause a real headache.’

A2A armament:  4 x AIM-54 (remanufactured), 2 x Fatter (local AIM-9P version) (one 20-mm cannon)

Top Ten fictional aircraft here

7. Dassault Rafale

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In many ways the Dassault Rafale deserves a higher ranking in this top ten. It has great agility, one of the lowest radar cross sections of a ‘conventional’ aircraft and its defensive systems are generally considered superior to those of its arch-rival, the Typhoon. It falls down in its main armament, the MICA, which is generally considered to have a lower maximum range than later model AMRAAMs. It has a little less poke than the Typhoon in terms of  thrust-to-weight ratio leading some potential customers in hot countries to demand an engine upgrade. It has yet to be integrated with a helmet cueing system in operational service and the recent fitment of an AESA, though a publicity coup, is very far from being fleetwide, leaving the vast majority of aircraft with a PESA squeezed into an unfortunately petite nose, a technological cul-de-sac lacking the flexibility of the pure AESA of its US rivals (though it is still a highly regarded sensor).

A2A armament: 6 x MICA (possibly 8 if required, though this has not been seen operationally)  (one 30-mm cannon)

6. McDonnell Douglas F-15C (V) 3 Eagle/Boeing F-15SG

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. The type is let down by a giant radar cross section, a massive infra-red signature and an inferior high altitude performance to a newer generation of fighters.

A2A armament: 6 x AIM-120C-7, 2 x AIM-9X (1 x 20-mm cannon)

Republic of Singapore Air Force F-15SG lands Oct. 3, 2012, at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The aircraft is assigned to the 428th Fighter Squadron Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho Alaska for the RedFlag-Alaska exercis (1

5. Sukhoi Su-30MK

The most capable official members of Sukhoi’s ‘Flanker’ family are the export Su-30MKs. Agile and well-armed they are formidable opponents. Armed with ten missiles the Su-30 has an impressive combat persistence and is able to fly impressively long distance missions. The radar is a large, long-ranged PESA (featuring some elements of an AESA) and Indian aircraft carry particularly good Israeli jamming pods. The type has proved itself superior to both the RAF’s Tornado F.Mk 3 and USAF’s F-15C in exercises, though the degree of dominance over the F-15C is marginal to the point that superior training, tactics and C3 saw the US lord over the type in later exercises. The pilot workload is higher than in later Western designs, the engines demanding  to maintain and the vast airframe has a large radar cross section.

A2A armament: 6 x R-77, 4 x R-73 (1 x 30-mm cannon)

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4. Shenyang J-11B

The Chinese pirate version of the ‘Flanker’ features a reduced radar cross section and improved weapons and avionics. With the latest Type 1474 radar (with a 100 miles + range) and the highly-regarded PL-12 active radar AAM, it is an impressive fighter.

6 x PL-12, 4 x PL-10 (or R-73E) + ( 1 x 30-mm cannon)

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3. Mikoyan MiG-31

The fastest modern fighter in the world, with a top speed of Mach 2.83, the MiG-31 offers some unique capabilities. No aircraft has a longer air-to-air weapon than the type’s huge R-33, which can engage targets well over 100 miles away. 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 poor agility at lower speeds. More on the MiG-31 here and here.

 4 x R-33, 2 x R-40TD (1 x 23-mm cannon)

mig-31

2. Eurofighter Typhoon

A high power-to-weight ratio, a large wing and a well designed cockpit put the Typhoon pilot in an advantageous position in a BVR engagement. Acceleration rates, climb rates (according to a German squadron leader it can out-climb a F-22) and agility at high speeds are exceptionally good. Pilot workload is very low compared to most rivals and the aircraft has proved reliable. The type will be the ‘last swinging disc in town’ as it will be among the last modern fighters to feature a mechanically scanned radar; the Captor radar may use an old fashioned technology but it still a highly-rated piece of kit. It has a smaller radar cross section than both the F-15 and Su-30 and superior high altitude performance to Rafale. Combat persistence is good and the AIM-132 ASRAAM of RAF aircraft are reported to have a notable BVR capability.

A2A armament (RAF): 6 x AIM-120C-5, 2 x AIM-132 (1 x 27-mm cannon)

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1. Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor

Undisputed king of beyond-visual range air combat is the F-22 Raptor. Its superbly stealthy design means it is likely to remain undetected to enemy fighters, calmly despatching its hapless opponents. The type’s excellent 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 give its AMRAAMs far greater reach and allow the type to stay out harm’s way. The F-22 is expensive, suffers from a poor radius of action for its size and has suffered a high attrition rate for a modern fighter.

6 x AIM-120C-5 + 2 x AIM-9M (1 x 20-mm cannon)

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Let’s get in to the merge, Top Ten Dogfighters here

By Joe Coles &  Thomas Newdick

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38 comments

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  3. Glen Towler (@NZAircraftFan)

    I think the F15SE is still a far better fighter than the MIG 31 which I am sure has never shot down anything seems me only good at straight line speed the Foxbat not sure how good those R33s would be in a modern electronic warfare attack

  4. syntaxerror9

    AESA radar of the Rafale can track targets at more than 100 nautical miles.
    In addition to the METEOR, it makes the Rafale the best airplane in BVR!

    • Kemijoen Rantarosvo

      I think not 🙂

      Rafale and Typhoon are excellent planes at their own right, but no match to SAAB JAS-39 Gripen – bear in mind that Meteor is first and foremost developed by SAAB Technologies alongside NG Gripen radar and datalink.
      And neither will (JS)F-35 be, whenever she enters service, let alone international markets..
      F-22 might be a tough contender, but only if not detected.
      Sukhoi and MiG are remarkably agile, considering the sheer size and weight, but that’s also why I would not place my bet on either one of them.

      And the abovementioned applies pretty much for dogfight too.. 🙂

  5. Aditya

    What would you say about the reliability of both the remanufactured Phoenixes and the R-33s on the Foxhounds? I’d be wary of putting these two fighters in the top 10 just on the basis of that. In the end those missiles are from the 70s and are likely to be very susceptible to modern jammers.

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  7. Bassasoldier

    Verry interesting article, well written and with exelent analysis.
    I now in light of yore recent article on WVR would revise this article and add the 39 Griphen? If you would have written this article today.

    • Hush Kit

      Thank you, when the NG is in operational service it will certainly deserve a place at the table. This list treats aircraft as if they exist in isolation, in reality one would imagine that the legacy Gripen’s data-link would give it a good chance in the BVR scenario.

      • Bassasoldier

        Well sorry i saw the prerequisite after i posted sorry (got caught up in reading from my phone).
        When answering I was thinking about the Meteor and the fact as you mention the Gripen uses data-link. And also the fact that SAAB started early on a data-link as early as the sixties. And have been working on it and refining it and it’s tactics during the past four decades.

      • Sorotai Darksky

        Hmm.. I’d still say if you find room for the F-16 E/F in your listing, you should have Gripen C/D in aswell.. while the Gripen radar might not have the reach of the F-16’s AESA, it doesn’t doesn’t have it’s signature either.. 😉 & multiple Gripens, allowed to use their datalinks… well that’s pretty bad new for any opposition as I understand things. I think an early lesson on that was given when Gripens participated in Red Flag in Alaska in 2006… On top of it, the “not yet in service” tag on METEOR just barely apply still when referring to the Gripen. But sure, the Gripen NG/E will be eaven better.. 😛

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  10. Caughtlurking

    Seriously? The mig-31 and j-11 barely deserve an honorable mention.

    First and foremost the 31 is an interceptor and not a fighter. Interceptors are meant to reach out and hit bomber formations like the b-52 used to fly. It’s useless in any dogfight because it can barely pull 6Gs. It also can’t be pushed to 100% thrust without needing an engine rebuild. This is the dumbest choice on your list.

    The j-11 is built in China. Shall I continue? It uses imported Russian engine designs(rumors are any Chinese built copies are even worse) that are found in all the 27 derivitaves(al-31) that are maintenance intensive. It’s avionics are garbage, radar questionable, and it’s airframe is considered to be of inferior manufacture quality to a Russian built aircraft. The old adage about crap being made in China still applies to crap being made in China.

    This list fails. The super hornet and falcon should be higher because they’re both lightweight fighters designed to fight larger eastern aircraft. The Iranian f-14 has terrible sortie rates because spare parts don’t exist. Also the f-35 is now combat odes and should be ranked 2 behind the 22 because guess what, when you see the 22 or 35(which you probably won’t) it’s already fired 2 kill shots.

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