A B-52 pilot’s guide to modern fighters

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 Keith Shiban flew the B-52 in the nuclear deterrent role, and in combat missions over Iraq. We asked for his assessment of a bomber pilot’s nightmare, the latest generation of fighter aircraft. His conclusion? He’s glad he’s retired! Over to Keith: 

“As an old bomber guy, I write about fighter planes the same way I would about grizzly bears, biker gangs, and mafia hit-men. I’m no expert on any of them. I just know I wouldn’t want one coming after me. So here is one aviation geek’s look at what’s out there today and what’s coming in the near future.”

Fifth Generation

“What sets these apart is that they all use some degree of “low observable” technology to enhance survivability. Other features include advanced engines with vectored thrust, the ability to cruise at supersonic speeds without afterburner, advanced radars that are hard to detect and advanced sensors and electronics to improve the pilot’s situational awareness. By this criteria, the only operational 5th Generation fighter is the F-22 Raptor.”

F-22 Raptor

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“This thing’s been in service for 11 years now? Damn, I’m getting old.

I’ll admit I was at first a bit skeptical of the F-22. Having talked to people that worked on the programme as well as people who have actually flown it has brought me around. Apparently it really is as good as they say it is.

I am told that four F-22s, if they are fully data-linked, can take on as many F-15s as you care to throw at them until they simply run out of missiles and go home. Yeah, it’s that good. It will see you long before you see it and your first indication that it’s in the neighborhood might be an AMRAAM missile in your face. Nasty.

F-22 tactics seem to involve flying at high speed at high altitude, which adds a lot of extra oomph to its missiles when they’re launched. The technical term is “kinematic advantage”. Think of it as giving the missile a big head-start on its way to the target. For example, the AMRAAM missile gets about a 40% range bonus when launched in this manner.

Ironically, this is how we thought air combat would be back in the 50s and 60s with supersonic jets firing radar-guided missiles from beyond visual range. It just took technology a while to catch up. Mind you the F-22 can still dogfight, but I would venture that if a Raptor finds itself in a visual dogfight something has gone very wrong.”

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It is only today that fighters can reliably carry out the kind of beyond-visual range missile combat that has been promised since the 1950s- this is the Douglas F6D Missileer, a ’50s concept for a missile fighter . Though fighters have been described as supersonic since the late ’50s it is only the latest generation of fighters that are capable of any kind of sustained supersonic flight.

 

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“The only drawbacks that I know of are that the F-22 is expensive to operate and it is limited by how many missiles it can carry internally. To correct the second issue, there is talk of having other platforms carry missiles that the F-22 could target and launch remotely. That’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Today everything is data linked together and newer missiles can be fired first and then locked on to a target.”

Other weaknesses of the Raptor include: a poor range for its weight, absence of a helmet-cueing system and the use of rare and obsolete electronic components. Though cutting edge at the time, the man-machine is inferior to the F-35 and the Gripen E/F.

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One of the F-22’s few Achilles’ heels is that despite a huge amount of internal fuel it has a relatively short range in ‘fighter configuration’. External tanks are problematic for stealth aircraft. (source of graph: John Stillion- Trends in air-to-air combat)

Sukhoi T-50/PAK FA

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Gone are the days when Russia cranked out relatively cheap fighters like the MiG-21 in huge numbers. Today the T-50 is every  bit as complex and expensive as its Western counterparts.

So expensive, in fact, that Russia is jointly developing it with India to defray some of the costs. This is similar to how Western fighters like the Typhoon have been developed.

The T-50 has some cool features. The engines will have vectored nozzles, similar to the F-22, but which can move in both axis. This will let them use vectored thrust for yaw and roll, unlike the on the F-22 which can only affect pitch axis.

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On paper the T-50/PAK FA looks impressive but it’s still not an F-22. It has a radar cross section several orders of magnitude larger than the F-22. It’s stealthier than a 4th Generation fighter, but calling it a true 5th Generation fighter might be a stretch.

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The engines, always a problem in fighter development, are apparently giving them some difficulty. The T-50 will initially fly with a variation of the Su-35’s engine, which is itself a derivative of the Su-27’s engine that has been around for a long time.

The Russian economy being what it is these days, they now plan on only building an even dozen of these between now and 2020. That’s way down from the initial plan of 52.

In summary, it’s a very expensive aircraft that may not live up to expectations. Where have I heard that before? Still, the fact that they’re even building something like this shows just how far they’ve come.

Chengdu J-20

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“Gone are the days when China could only build copies of Soviet designs. They’re now building some pretty cutting-edge stuff of their own. The J-20 is one of them and could be operational around 2018.

The J-20 “Black Eagle” is a bit of an enigma. We’re not exactly sure what its intended role is. Or if we do we’re not saying. China certainly isn’t.

It’s big, stealthy and appears to have been built with range and payload in mind. That leads some to think that it’s primarily a long-range strike aircraft. However, it also appears to be built for maneuverability due to the canards and vectored nozzles. So perhaps it’s more of a heavy air-superiority fighter.  Or maybe it’s both.

The big question seems to be, will the Chinese be able to develop a suitable engine for it? Currently it is powered by the WS-10 engine, derived from the commercial CFM-56. The production model is supposed to get the much more powerful WS-15 engine, assuming they get it working. In order to compete as an air-superiority fighter it will need the more powerful engine.

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I’ll go out on a limb here and say that the “Black Eagle” (cool name) probably won’t be a match for the F-22, but would definitely be a threat to US and allied fourth generation fighters in the Pacific Rim.

Its combination of range, speed and stealth would also make it a major threat to high value assets like tankers and AWACS. Without tankers, short-ranged fighters like the F-22 and F-35 would have a tough time operating over the vast distances of the Pacific.

Lockheed F-35 Lightning II

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The F-35, depending on who you ask, is either the latest and greatest in fighter technology or an overweight, over cost, poorly performing testament to a bloated defence industry. If you’re looking for the definitive answer I’m afraid I don’t have it. One thing that everyone can agree on is that it’s expensive, behind schedule and very controversial.

I can safely say that it’s trying to do an awful lot with one aircraft. The F-35 will be built in three flavours to replace the Air Force F-16 and A-10, the Navy’s F/A-18 and the Marine’s AV-8B Harrier. That’s a pretty tall order.

Why are we doing this? The main reason is that air defences are getting to be really good. So good, that anything without stealth may be tactically obsolete in a few years, at least in a high-intensity conflict.

I would say that the most important feature of the F-35 is the electronics. Sensor integration on the F-35 is said to be even more advanced than the F-22.

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The F-35: are all new guys doubted?

F-35 detractors say it’s too expensive, too slow and can’t beat a ‘legacy’ fighter in a visual dogfight. An F-35 proponent would say that if an F-35 ever finds itself in a dogfight something has gone horribly wrong.

Keep in mind that the F-35 is not meant to be an air superiority fighter. It’s a multi-role aircraft. Perhaps a better description would be a strike aircraft that can protect itself if need be.

I can remember being told back in the 1980s that the F-15 and F-16 ‘wouldn’t work’ because they were too expensive and too complicated. That obviously hasn’t been the case. I think the same may someday be said of the F-35, but only time will tell.”

 Generation 4.5

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Fourth Generation fighters like the teen series are now giving way to the 4.5 Generation, non-stealthy aircraft that took their first flights after 1988 .

“Sometimes these are described as Generation 4.5 or ‘Fourth Generation Plus’ aircraft. That means they have most of the cool features of the Fifth Generation aircraft minus the stealth.

Depending on your point of view, that makes these either a more cost effective choice than the expensive stealth aircraft or they’ll just have really great situational awareness of the thing that kills them.

Dassault Rafale

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“I admit I’m a bit of a Francophile, so that’s reason enough for me to like the Rafale. Plus it’s also a good looking jet and that’s got to count for something.

The Rafale came to be when the French pulled out of the Eurofighter programme and decided to go their own way. That sounds very French.

The Rafale frequently gets compared to the Eurofighter Typhoon, especially since both are heavily competing for export sales. Which one is better? I guess that’s kind of like asking which is the best car. It depends on what you want it to do.

From what I can gather, the Rafale is better than the Typhoon at the air-to-ground mission. It reportedly has a very good ECM package that lets it operate in places that might otherwise require stealth or a SEAD (suppression of enemy air defences) package.

Conversely the Typhoon is reportedly better in the air-to-air role due to its superior radar (editor notes: probably not true of AESA-equipped Rafales) and data-link capabilities. The Typhoon currently has better air-to-air missiles, but the French will soon equip the Rafale with the same missile (MBDA Meteor). For now the Rafale has to get by with the relatively short-ranged MICA.”

Eurofighter Typhoon

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Not as pretty as a Rafale but not too shabby. (copyright Eurofighter)

“The Typhoon is a joint venture between the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain. This shows just how expensive modern jet fighters are. It would have been prohibitively expensive for any one European country to develop this aircraft on their own.

I don’t think the Typhoon is a pretty as the Rafale but it has a very futuristic look to it. Something about those squared off intakes and the downward canted canards.

I’m surprised that Germany bought off on the name ‘Typhoon’, since that was a British WWII fighter.(Ed: They haven’t really for just that reason, in Luftwaffe service it’s known as the Eurofighter). 

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The only German Typhoon: the Messerschmitt Bf 108 Taifun.

Obviously I haven’t flown one of these, however if anyone wants to give me a ride in one I’m available. I’ll try not to throw up in it, honest.

The Typhoon’s list of features reads like an F-22 minus the stealth. Supercruise capability, extremely maneuverable, advanced radar (it is effective even though it is mechanically scanning) and sensors, advanced data-link. It even has voice recognition, like my phone, except I don’t use it because I’m old. Other than being expensive (and what isn’t these days) it sounds very impressive.

Certainly a number of countries have decided to purchase these. If you’re into the whole Anglo-French rivalry that’s been going on since the beginning of time, the Typhoon is outselling the Rafale by a sizeable margin.

Sukhoi Su-35 

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“It used to be that Russia built cheap, relatively unsophisticated fighters in large numbers. ‘Quantity has its own quality’ as the saying goes.

Today they are building very advanced (and expensive) aircraft that are close in capability to their Western counterparts.

The Su-35 is the latest variation on the tried and proven Su-27 Flanker. When the Russians build something that works they like to stick with it. Performance wise it stacks up very well against aircraft like the Typhoon and Rafale. Its avionics, while an improvement over older Russian aircraft, probably aren’t a match for the latest Western systems.

“The Su-35 makes me makes me glad I retired.”

While it boasts exceptional maneuverability, especially at low speeds, what really impresses me about the Su-35 is the number of missiles it carries. With a load of up to 12 (count ‘em) air to air missiles of various types, it can present a serious threat.

One probable Su-35 tactic would be to send a salvo of missiles at you with different seeker heads. Light your afterburners to manoeuvre against the radar-guided missile? Guess what, there’s a heat-seeker right there with it. Turn on a jammer? Here comes the anti-radiation missile to home in your signal. Makes me glad I retired.

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The other drawback to the Su-35 is that Russian aircraft really aren’t as reliable as you think they are. That at least has been the experience of the Indian Air Force, which operates both Russian and Western aircraft.”

Saab JAS-39 Gripen

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“Sweden may be officially neutral, but don’t confuse that with weakness. It’s more the ‘poke your nose in here and we’ll bite it off’ kind of neutrality. As such they’ve always maintained a very capable air force.

Saab has built some impressive fighters over the years and the Gripen is certainly impressive. Think of it as the “poor man’s Typhoon”. It can do most of what the Typhoon or Rafale can do for about half the cost. It’s cheaper to operate than even the ‘low-cost’ F-16.

It also has the advantage of being able to operate from roads and austere airfields.

In a ‘bang for the buck’ competition the Gripen seems to be the clear winner. Would you rather have three Gripens or a single Typhoon or Rafale?”

Chengdu J-10

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The ‘Vigorous Dragon’ (sounds like a superhero) is China’s first home-grown fourth generation fighter.

Just how home-grown it is depends on who you ask. Some claim it has its roots in the Israeli Lavi and US F-16. The Chinese claim it grew out of their own cancelled J-9 project. Who knows? It does look a bit like the Lavi, but different countries often reach the same conclusion on their own. It’s not like we’re the only smart people in the world.

It’s hard to guess just how capable the J-10 is since the Chinese are pretty secretive about their systems. On paper it seems to be in roughly the same class as an F-16C.”

The Legacy Fighters

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“The F-15/16/18 and A-10 have been around a long time, yet continuous upgrades have kept them relevant. It’s amazing just how good the F-15 has been for such a long time. We’re talking about a plane that first flew in 1972!

The question is, can these aircraft be kept relevant against the threats we’re likely to face? It all comes down to what you think we’ll be doing in the next ten years or so.

The stated case for the F-22 and F-35 is that something like an F-16, as good as it is, just won’t be able to operate in a future high-intensity conflict. Even if it was fully upgraded with the latest electronics, the argument goes, the lack of stealth would still render it vulnerable to modern air defences.

The opposing case would be: we’re not fighting a high-intensity conflict today, we’re bombing terrorists in the Middle East. An F-16 or an A-10 is almost overkill for that scenario.

Even in a future conflict the legacy fighters might be able to operate behind a “wall” of Fifth Generation aircraft. Once the defenses are neutralized an F-16 or F/A-18 is still a perfectly good strike aircraft.”

Summary

“These comparisons tend to leave out one very important factor. It’s not just a battle between Fighter A and Fighter B, it’s a fight between two forces. You might read that Fighter A once beat Fighter B in some exercise but that doesn’t tell the whole tale.

Who has the better training? Who has the better tactics? How many hours a month do their pilots get to train? Who has the better Command-Control and Intelligence? What about AWACS and tanker support? Who has the better logistics? The best jet in the world won’t do much without spare parts to keep it flying. None of that is as sexy as dogfighting but it’s very important.”

Creating Hush-Kit takes time and resources, if you would like to help us continue please hit the donate button on this page (we are unfortunately well behind on our fundraising efforts). 

You may also enjoy 11 Cancelled French aircraft or the 10 worst British military aircraftSu-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II , Su-35 versus Typhoontop WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Flying and fighting in the Tornado. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? Try Sigmund Freud’s Guide to Spyplanes. The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 10 great aircraft stymied by the US

You may also enjoy top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story of The Planet SatelliteFashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. 

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6 comments

  1. myplane150

    Vigorous Dragon was the stage name of the first successful Eastern porn star. You guys really should know this.

  2. Jon Lake

    “Conversely the Typhoon is reportedly better in the air-to-air role due to its superior radar (editor notes: probably not true of AESA-equipped Rafales) and data-link capabilities.”

    I think he had it right the first time, Ed. The Rafale’s tiny AESA is great for multi-role, but there are very few of them in service, but in any case, for air-to-air, the M-Scan Captor is pretty impressive.

    • Hush Kit

      Hi Jon, I always enjoy your comments. What’s your source for the ‘very few in service’? I know that 25 were delivered as of September 2014, considering the small size of the fleet it seems likely that a decent percentage would be carrying AESA now. I’ll check in with Thales and Dassault and see if I can get a figure. Regarding the relative air-to-air capabilities of the RBE2 AESA and Captor-M, I would not be so keen to write the French set of as inferior. The only publicly available reviews on this, the Swiss evaluation, put the Rafale significantly ahead of Typhoon for ‘detection’, ‘identification’ and ‘acquisition’- and that was with the PESA RBE2, which by all accounts is significantly inferior to the AESA set. I do acknowledge that the Captor-M is larger and more powerful. Thanks, HK

  3. Francesco Ganzetti

    Pak fa rcs is much higher even then eurocanards in air to air role:(0,1 clean for eurocanrds, 0,3-0,4 in air to air configuration) indians report tha an rcs of 0,5 for its FGFA could be reached if properly assembled, while pak-fa has hgher rcs ( not only for use of titanium where composites were scheduled, but mainly for those huge air intakes with no S-ducts tecnology); in every other aspect pak-fa is more obsolete then eurocanards, engines and missiles included, so if eurocanards are 4,5 pak fa and su-35 are for sure no more then 4,0 to me…Ma y be somebody here should remember the current ej200 has 2 steps software increas ein power: step 1 +10% dry thrust, step +25 % more, always available in real war scenario…even without planned upgrades ej200 is easily more efficent engine here, both for fuel consumption, thermal signature and lifespan, not considering trusth to weight ratio….So what?

  4. Francesco Ganzetti

    Sorry for post number 2: f22 pilots say that is way better not to use vectoring thrust with high energy fighters like typhoon (and raphale I presume): vectoring thrust is an old concept …It could be useful only for ship based fighters.

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