The top BVR fighters of 2016
Since we assembled our assessment of the top ten fighters in the beyond-visual range regime in 2013, a great deal has changed. Most significantly, the Su-35 has entered frontline service with the Russian air force- and the MBDA Meteor missile is now fitted to operational Saab Gripens. With this news in mind, and access to more information we have adjusted our top ten- there’s at least big surprise in the re-ordering. I hope you enjoy this article.
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).
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10. Lockheed Martin F-16E/F
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
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. Sukhoi Su-30MK and Shenyang J-11B
Until the arrival of the Su-35, the most capable official members of Sukhoi’s ‘Flanker’ family were 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)
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)
7. Mikoyan MiG-31BM
The Russian air force is currently updating its MiG-31 fleet to BM standard. The new model features an updated avionics suite further sharpening the teeth of this unique machine. The fastest modern fighter in the world, with a top speed of Mach 2.83, the MiG-31 offers some unique capabilities. Until the arrival of the Meteor missile in April 2016, no fighter had a longer air-to-air weapon than the type’s huge R-33S, 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)
6. McDonnell Douglas F-15C (V) 3 Eagle/Boeing F-15SG Eagle
That the Eagle has jumped two places in our rating is not due to any improvements in the design since 2013, but the fact that we have greater knowledge of how well it has been performing in international exercises. 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 (the often quoted M2.54 speed is exaggerated, but it will get up to M2.3), 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. Typhoon pilots who have fought it describe it as a challenging threat, Hornet pilots have noted that it is almost impossible to defeat at long ranges.
A2A armament: 6 x AIM-120C-7, 2 x AIM-9X (1 x 20-mm cannon)
5. Sukhoi Su-35S
Russia’s latest operational fighter was not in service at the time of our last list – today it very much is and is an impressive machine. The 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.
A2A armament: 6 x R-77, 4 x R-73 (1 x 30-mm cannon)
4. Dassault Rafale
The Rafale has leapt from position 7 to position 3 thanks to the new RBE2 AESA radar. The Rafale 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.
A2A armament: 6 x MICA (possibly 8 if required, though this has not been seen operationally) (one 30-mm cannon)
3. 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 with extremely impressive detection ranges. 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 considerable BVR capability.
A2A armament (RAF): 6 x AIM-120C-5, 2 x AIM-132 (1 x 27-mm cannon)
2. Saab Gripen C/D
In our original list from three years ago, the Gripen did not even make the top ten. Its dramatic jump to the number two position is due to one reason: the entry into operational service (in April 2016) of the MBDA Meteor missile. The Gripen is the first fighter in the world to carry the long-delayed Meteor. The Meteor 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 maneuvering 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.
4 x MBDA Meteor + 2 x IRIS-T (1 x 27-mm cannon)
The ten best-looking Swedish aeroplanes here
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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This article is a joke.. and the best fighter at BVR is the tomcat with the AIM-54 Phenix..and it’s equivalent in the russian side the Mig-31 BM .. this two are the greatest interceptors of all time.. for the others they are only launchers for AMRAAM its the vector that is the most important than the launcher..and its easy to make commercial videos showing occidental fighters hitting flankers without resistance and same in the other way.. but there is tactics and jamming and counter measures to avoid them.. and at some measure the fighter that can take more missiles has more chance to live in a BVR battle.
Dear Hilal, thanks for your comment. As you can see this is for aircraft operational in 2016- it is doubtful that the Iranian air force, the only F-14 operator, still has any AIM-54 missiles- though they may have the Fakour 90. Iranian F-14s would certainly be at a disadvantage against the F-22 and Typhoon on almost every metric. Likewise though the MiG-31BM is an excellent interceptor to take on bombers and cruise missiles, it is a defensive- not offensive- fighter and with its poor agility and massive RCS would be very vulnerable to opposing fighters. Large missiles like the Fakour 90 and R-33 are both designed to destroy large targets – they are also very old conceptually- and it is questionable as to how useful they would be against a modern fighter. Thanks again for your well-reasoned and courteous feedback, HK.
Thank you hushkit for your work: in my opinion Sukhois are massively overrated if you do not exclude BVR engagements: they are very bad at energy conservation, (at he opposed to euro-canards which are the best energy savers) are very draggy and most of all- have horrendous supersonic sustained turn rates: the supersonic flight envelope is a forbidden field for them in a air-to-air scenario: even the F-15 has less punitive airframe in supersonic and is amore balanced fighter: an F-15 with AESA is at least on par with Su-35 in my opinion.
Agreed that Meteor is a game changer; considering an official no escape zone of more then 100km (we don’t know exactly how much more), I think that if launched by a Typhoon at the Mach 1,6 it could easily reach 150km, and I don’t think Sukhois can detect Typhoon in air-to-air configuration (0.3 M2 RCS, 0.1 clean, 0,8-0,9 with 2 external tanks and full air-to-ground configuration) : that means that Meteor + Typhoon or Meteor + Rafale (fighter that can sustain Mach 1.5 speed for medium ranges) could effectively ambush boogies: possibility of ambush with Meteor missile is, in my opinion, 100% guaranteed if launched from a F-35, even subsonically, considering that the ultimate tests indicate an F-35 frontal RCS at least on a par with the F-22.
R-33S cannot engage fighters, so MiG-31 could be easily be in the 30th position for me…
Just last thing to take into account: IRIS-T is certified to be effective versus very agile WVR missile and even cruise missiles, so should easy for it to intercept and destroy bigger and less agile BVR missiles…Have you ever taken this into consideration? I don’t think a Typhoon will ever engage any fighter in wvr, having the high ceiling speed, agility and sensors to dictate BVR engagements on its own terms, so the unique IRIS-T will be the first effective defensive missile in the world.
To summarise: Su-35 is no more effective then the F-15s that have AESA radar (and we know from multiple trainings that Typhoons have literally joked with F-15s…), and recent batches of F/A-18 and f16, considering defensive aids on F/A-18 especially, vastly more effective than the MiG-29…
The best comment I ever saw mate.. Its refreshing to see someone commenting with brain …Yes the good old F-14D with AN/APG-71 radar and AIM-54 was the best BVR fighter ever created and would be today …Only the future Eurofighter Typhoon with fully functional Captor-E and Meteor comes close..
If the F-14 was so great, even after being re engined, why did the USN drop them. The F15 , designed in the same era are still going strong.
First F14 deployment Sept 1974 USS Enterprise, First F15 combat squadron 1976.
aim-54 was not capable of intercepting manouvring fighters, btw huge dimaensions and weight let me thin only 2 could be isntalled per fighter, while typhoon can have up to 6 meteors, 4 in semirecessed positions; f14 aerodinamic are very poor in supersonic regime.
duker: All of the F-14 airframes, even the newest ones from 1992, were over 15 years old when they were finally retired; the F-14, for all of it’s strengths, was apparently a maintenance hog. Yes, the F-14D, with the F-110-GE-400 engines, was the ultimate F-14, what it probably should’ve been to begin with; but it was becoming prohibitively expensive to deploy and maintain as early as 1995.
Francesco: The F-14 (all variants) were capable of carrying six AIM-54A/C’s, but rarely did so (at least not operationally; only during tests out at the Point Magu Sea Range off the southern coast of California); the usual FAD load-out was four AIM-54’s, two AIM-7 Sparrows, and two AIM-9 Sidewinders. And, yes, the big, heavy AIM-54 wasn’t a very good missile for shooting down fighters (it usually missed); it was originally designed to shoot-down larger, slower, less maneuverable Soviet bombers and AWACS.
The French Institute for Strategic Research is doing a series on Asian 5th generation fighter projects, and the photo of the Japanese X-2 is awesome: http://ultimaratio-blog.org/fr/archives/7662
A nice article although I would put the F-22 further down the list. The old AIM-120 series of missiles have a very low chance to hit even non maneuvering modern targets and its solid fuel components make its performance drop dramatically at higher altitudes. That combined with the fact that advanced aircraft such as the ones in this list would have ECM, decoys, chaff/flare and passive detection of launch capabilities and the F-22 will not only light itself up upon launch of a missile but will almost certainly not get the kill.
The F-22 sacrifices almost everything for its stealth, it is larger, slower to climb than some aircraft especially the Euro and is limited to its internal bay for ordinance if it wants to maintain stealth although with so much technology coming out with ever larger radar ranges, more types of scan and infrared search being relatively common now I can only see it as the battleship of the skies. It relies on technologies that were effective (to a degree) decades ago.
At the moment, I would swap out the F-22 with the Euro-fighter. The latter being smaller, agile, covered n defensive and offensive aids and very soon, Captor-E and meteor which will essentially make any non-typhoon equipped air-force obsolete. Progress, money and technology developments are still pouring into the Euro while the F-22 is unlikely to ever be able to catch up.
Thanks for your interesting comment. I have to disagree with the idea of moving the F-22 to a lower slot. 1. You dismiss the AMRAAM, yet highly regard the other aircraft on this list. All of the American & European types use the AMRAAM. (other than the some Gripens, though the vast majority still use AMRAAM- and the Meteor capability is in its infancy). 2. How many customers have ordered Captor-E for Typhoon? One- Kuwait. The Captor-E development has been glacial in pace. Typhoon does not yet have Meteor in operational service- nor is it imminent 3. I’m not sure where your figures of for the PK of the AIM-120 against a well-defended target come from. Though it is probably lower than it was, zero seems highly unlikely. 4. F-22’s climb rate is phenomenal – according to Eurofighter, the F-22 may be the only a/c that climbs faster than Typhoon. 5. I have read no analysis of the F-22’s capabilities that do not rate it as vastly more effective than any other fighter. Thanks again for your food for thought, HK
1. Yes all the planes use AMRAAM but the point I was making is that due to its low PK, performance at altitude among other factors its a dinosaur of a missile and the F-22 has no replacement in the pipeline, meanwhile the Meteor has actually been successfully equipped and tested by several aircraft. When you have a missile with a low PK, like the AIM, having more of them is a necessity, the F-22 cannot have more without ruining its stealth and putting them on its outer pylons.
2. Define glacial? Its been fitted and tested on aircraft, its another capability enhancement much like the meteor that will make previous air-forces obsolete, and is another point to consider when
3. The numbers are not againt a well defended target
“Since its introduction, the AMRAAM has demonstrated a Pk of about 46% when fired beyond visual range. In all of these cases, the targets were not equipped with radar warning receivers (RWRs), were not performing evasive maneuvers, or even engaging their attacker. One of these “kills” was a friendly fire incident on a Black Hawk helicopter.”
4. I actually took that from your article. You said a German squadron member said the Euro can out-climb the F-22.
5. I cannot comment on what information and analysis you have covered but the F-22 in general is a flawed program based on the facts. Its design is based on BVR stealth yet it does not have a missile that it can rely on in this role, its stealth is compromised if it attempts to enjoy other benefits (pylons) all other planes on this list have and has no future enhancements in the pipeline to change this.
It has a lot of other problems but they are not relevant to your article here which considers their BVR performance. Just bear in mind for future articles on aircraft that “stealth” is only effective against nations who do not field large scale radar arrays, modern jet aircraft with infrared track and do not cover their planes in ESM and countermeasures. Against lesser aircraft, for example if it found itself fighting old era aircraft like those in the arsenal of North Korea it may prosper.