The top fighter aircraft of 2017 (WVR combat)

F-18_HUD_gun_symbology Tactics, training and luck are the determining factors in who survives within visual range aerial combat. Despite the modern emphasis on beyond-visual-range combat, the vast majority of fighter versus fighter engagements have taken place at close ranges. The following ten are the best fighters for this mission. The order is more or less arbitrary, with different aircraft having the advantage at different altitudes and air speeds. By its nature, any top ten is simplistic and should serve as the basis for discussion rather than as a conclusion. 

(This list is WVR only, for BVR the list is here)

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10. McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F-15 Eagle

Aggressor at Red Flag Alaska

Once considered top dog, the F-15 is now making room for younger aircraft. In exercises, the type still does well, but this says more about the pilot quality than any inherent advantage of this platform in the WVR arena.  Well-armed, well-equipped and powerful, it is still an aircraft to be respected. In later exercises against India, it is reported to have been able to use superior tactics to defeat Su-30s, despite the Russian aircraft enjoying greater manoeuvrability at low speeds. Powerful and reliable, and flown by some of the best fighter pilots in the world (in USAF service), it remains an adversary worthy of great respect, especially at medium altitudes.

Interview with F-15 pilot here

HMD/S: Yes

Advanced SRAAMs: Yes, AIM-9X, Python 4/5

Visual stealth: Poor

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Very good

High alpha performance: Poor

Sustained turn rates: Good (16 degree/sec)

Instantaneous turn rates: Good (21 deg/sec)

9. Chengdu J-10/B/C

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Rumours from China describe the J-10 performing well in DACT exercises against the far bigger Su-27/J-11. If these rumours are to be believed then the J-10 would prove a handful for any Western or Asian fighter types that had to face it in a turning fight.
With a maximum G-rating of +9 / -3 and a maximum sustained turn load of 8.9g, the type has demonstrated impressive performance at several public airshows. It scores highly on turn radius, low visual signature, low-speed capabilities and also has excellent pilot vision. The recent addition of the PL-10 advanced short range missile dramatically improves the aircraft’s within visual range potency. The aircraft is powered by the by a single Saturn AL-31 (as used on the ‘Flanker’ series’), a trusted engine that is extremely resultant to extreme manoeuvring. It is perhaps caution, due to a paucity of information, that places this aircraft so low in the list. The new J-10C variant is may benefit, even in the WVR regime, from its new AESA radar and refined avionics.
 HMD/S: Yes

Advanced SRAAMs: Yes, PL10

Visual stealth: Excellent

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Good

High alpha performance: Good

Sustained turn rates: Good

Instantaneous turn rates: Very good

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The recent addition of the PL-10 advanced short range missile dramatically improves the aircraft’s within visual range potency.

8. General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin F-16

IDF Israeli Air Force American F-16

The Viper remains potent at the mission it was designed for: the close-in dogfight. The Viper has grown fatter with age, so the early Block aircraft are the most spritely, this combined with JHMCS and modern missiles, like the AIM-9X, Python 5 and  IRIS-T keep it a foe to respect. It is small and hard for its opponents to keep visual tabs on, it has an impressive turn rate and has better retention of energy than larger-winged peers like the Mirage 2000. Below 10K feet the F-16 is similar in performance to the Typhoon. Most F-16 models have a better thrust to weight ratio than the Super Hornet (when similarly equipped). The Python 5 is regarded as one of the best air-to-air missiles, it has a very large weapon engagement zone (WEZ) and a high resistance to countermeasures. According to one defence writer close to the UK Typhoon force, RAF pilots had greater respect for the F-16s than the Gripens that they have encountered in wargames.

HMD/S: Yes, JHMCS

Advanced SRAAMs: AIM-9X, Python 4/5 and IRIS-T

Visual stealth: Excellent.

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Good

High alpha performance: Good

Sustained turn rates: Good

Instantaneous turn rates: Very good (26deg/sec)

(If all this is too modern for you, have a look at the Top Ten World II fighters)

Was the Spitfire overrated? Full story here. A Lightning pilot’s guide to flying and fighting here. Find out the most effective modern fighter aircraft in beyond-visual range combat. The greatest fictional aircraft here. An interview with stealth guru Bill Sweetman here. The fashion of aircraft camo here. Interview with a Super Hornet pilot here. Most importantly, a pacifist’s guide to warplanes here. F-35 expose here

 

7. RAC MiG MiG-29

Image

Despite its age the MiG-29 remains a fiercely capable dogfighter, sharing many of the weapon systems of the ‘Flanker’.  The Indian MiG-29K/KUB with the TopOwl helmet-mounted and R-73E is the best-equipped variant in the WVR scenario, but is normally limited to 7G, whereas land-based ’29s are 9G capable. The tough structure offers a degree of battlefield protection according to MiG who have assessed the type’s performance in actual wars. According to at least one MiG-29 pilot, the type enjoys a small, but significant advantage over the F-16 in the merge. One USAF F-16C pilot (Mike McCoy of the 510th) who flew BFM against MiG-29s noted, “In a low-speed fight, fighting the ‘Fulcrum’ is similar to fighting an F-18 Hornet…But the ‘Fulcrum’ has a thrust advantage over the Hornet. An F-18 can really crank its nose around if you get into a slow-speed fight, but it has to lose altitude to regain the energy, which allows us to get on top of them. The MiG has about the same nose authority at slow speeds, but it can regain energy much faster. Plus the MiG pilots have that forty-five-degree cone in front of them into which they can fire an Archer and eat you up.” Luftwaffe MiG-29 Oberstleutenant Johann Koeck who flew against F-15s, F/A-18s and F-16s in extensive training exercises noted,” Inside ten nautical miles I’m hard to defeat, and with the IRST, helmet sight and ‘Archer’ I can’t be beaten. Period.”

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HMD/S: Yes

Advanced SRAAMsNo, but R-73 is still highly regarded. R-74 in the pipeline.

Visual stealth: Medium (poor in early versions due to smoky engines)

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Excellent

High alpha performance: Excellent

Sustained turn rates: Good

Instantaneous turn rates: Excellent (28deg/sec)

6. Saab Gripen

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Lose sight, lose the fight‘ is an old dogfighting adage and it is very easy to lose sight of the tiny Gripen. Though not the most powerful fighter, it is agile, well-armed and gives its pilot good situational awareness. Some Gripen operators employ an advanced helmet-mounted sight in conjunction with IRIS-T missiles, a sobering prospect for potential adversaries. The IRIS-T is a highly regarded weapon, with excellent agility and target discrimination. The helmet-sight is an adaptation of the Typhoon helmet, the most advanced helmet in operational service. The Gripen preserves energy very well, is hard to spot and has the smallest IR signature of the fighters on this list.

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(Top Ten Swedish aeroplanes here)

Helmet Mounted Display/Sight: Yes: Cobra

Advanced SRAAMs: IRIS-T

Visual stealth: Excellent

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Good

High Alpha performance: Good

Sustained turn rates: Excellent

Instantaneous turn rates: Very good

5. Dassault Rafale

Image

The Rafale can maintain higher Alpha manoeuvres than the Typhoon.  It is very agile, with an excellent man machine interface and the most advanced aircraft cannon. Like most carrier fighters it is docile in the low speed ranges that most within-visual-range fights take place at. Whereas The Typhoon excels at high speed high-altitude manoeuvrability, the Rafale excels at low speed and low altitude, though its high altitude performance has also impressed French pilots. At sea level, the Rafale is reported to have a superior instantaneous turn rate to Typhoon. According to RUSI’s Justin Bronk, “In terms of horizontal manoeuvrability, Rafale has the better instantaneous turn rate allowing it to reverse its turns more quickly but Typhoon can sustain higher g’s for longer without bleeding speed. High alpha performance is similar, with both aircraft limited by their air intake placement and lack of thrust vectoring although Typhoon’s intakes can at least ‘gape’ slightly to increase airflow at high Alpha and low speeds”. Peter Collins who flew Rafale, and is knowledgeable of the Typhoon’s performance, claims that below 10,000 ft it would ‘eat Typhoon’. The Rafale lacks a helmet-mounted sight and its high alpha performance is inferior to that of the Hornet family. The Rafale has reportedly done well in DACT exercises against the F-22. The Rafale is an extremely tough opponent in the WVR regime. MICA has an LOAL capability allowing targets in the ‘six o’clock’ to be engaged. The addition of a helmet-mounted sight, something Indian Rafales will carry, would push the Rafale into a top three position in this list.

 

HMD/S: No

Advanced SRAAMs: Yes, MICA

Visual stealth: Medium

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Very good

High alpha performance: Very good

Sustained turn rates: Very good

Instantaneous turn rates: Excellent (especially at low level)

 

4. McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F/A-18 Hornet/Super Hornet

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The Bug family have excellent nose authority, JHMCS  and good missiles in the form of AIM-9X (or ASRAAM for RAAF legacy birds).  At low level they are the equal of any operational fighter, but at higher altitudes (and higher speeds) they are at a disadvantage against more modern aircraft like the Typhoon, Rafale and F-22. The legacy Hornet is 9G rated as opposed to the larger Super Hornet which is stressed up to 7G for normal operations (it is really the legacy F/A-18 that deserves this high ranking but the Super Hornet is also highly regarded in the ‘merge’).  It has been noted by F-16 pilots that Super Hornets lose energy quicker than Vipers at higher altitudes. In a slow fight, no Western fighters can match either the Bug or the Rhino. One pilot who has flown the Super Hornet recommended that I mention the ‘Turbo Nose down’, a manoeuvre which utilises the aircraft’s excess power to rapidly push the aircraft out of high alpha flight. Australian Hornets have demonstrated an 180° missile shot with the AIM-132, firing the missile at a target in the firing aircraft’s 6’o’ clock in the lock-on after launch mode. The so-called ‘Parthian Shot‘ is a defensive boon, but demands a wingman with nerves of steel and faith in the technology!

Read more about flying the Super Hornet here and here.

(For the sake of brevity the two F/A-18 family members share one entry.)

HMD/S: Yes

Advanced SRAAMs: ASRAAM, AIM-9X

Visual stealth: Medium

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Good

High alpha performance: Excellent

Sustained turn rates: Good

Instantaneous turn rates: Excellent

3. Eurofighter Typhoon

Eurofighter Typhoon performing during the Airpower in Zeltweg, Austria

Wild turn rates, a true 9G performance and enormous excess power make the Typhoon a hell of a dogfighter; the highly regarded G-suits worn by Typhoon pilots increase tolerance to the high forces generated by the energetic Typhoon. It also features the most advanced helmet mounted sight in service (and the newer Striker 2 is, according to one independent tester, ‘superb’), a powerful cannon and the excellent IRIS-T and ASRAAM missiles. The combination of advanced missile and helmet imbue the Typhoon with a terrifying off-boresight missile shot capability. Testing of the Aerodynamic Modification Kit, which includes modified strakes, extended flaperons and mini-leading edge root extensions may go some way to rectifying Typhoon’s main limitation – a pedestrian high alpha performance. But the Typhoon is not an ‘angles fighter’ like the F/A-18 which relies on risky (as they drain energy quickly) but startling attacks in the merge; the Typhoon is an ‘energy fighter’ using its phenomenal ability to preserve energy in a dogfight to wear its opponents out. In short, if an opponent doesn’t get a Typhoon on his first attack he is in a very dangerous position as a large amount of excess thrust makes the aircraft a very energetic adversary.

In exercises against Indian Air Force, RAF Typhoons used their superior energy and acceleration to ‘reliably’ trounce Su-30MKIs.

F-22 pilots who ‘fought’ the Typhoon in DACT were impressed by its energy levels (especially in the first turn) and several Luftwaffe aircraft proudly displayed Raptor ‘kill’ silhouettes beneath their cockpits.  Like the Raptor, the Typhoon has such a formidable reputation that any ‘victories’ against it in training exercises make excellent boasts. At medium to high altitudes, the type is generally superior to the teen fighters in the WVR regime. According to one Typhoon pilot, its dog-fighting abilities are a close match to the Raptor’s, but Typhoon benefits from being smaller and better armed.

HMD/S: Yes

Advanced SRAAMs: ASRAAM, IRIS-T

Visual stealth: Medium

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Excellent

High alpha performance: Poor

Sustained turn rates: Excellent

Instantaneous turn rates: Excellent

2. Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor

Image

The Raptor’s excellent power-to-weight ratio, low wing-loading and 2D thrust-vectoring make it a fierce opponent in the visual range dogfight. The F-22 was the first fighter to be designed from the start to use vectored thrust for control. The rather poetic sounding  ‘Carefree abandon‘ is built into the flight control system, allowing the pilot an awe-inspiring Alpha envelope without fear of departing controlled flight (it is also immune to deep stalls). The F-22 was designed to match or exceed fourth generation fighters, like the F-15 and F-16, in basic manoeuvring “..for instance from a high-g turn to straight-line acceleration..*”; it also had to move more swiftly between different manoeuvre states. The thrust vectoring is vital for this but comes at a cost. According to Typhoon pilots who ‘fought’ against it, the Raptor loses energy very quickly when employing thrust vectoring.It is also let down by its lack of helmet-mounted sight and its large size. The F-22 also lacks an infra-red search and track sensor. Until 2016 it was armed with the geriatric AIM-9M, but it now carries the AIM-9X. The internal carriage of its AIM-9X limits the way they can be used, and it only carries two. The F-22 has never been seriously challenged in wargames or DACT exercises, and though the WVR regime is not its strongest card (BVR combat is) it is still extremely hard to beat, to the point that any ‘kills’ scored by pilots against the Raptor become newsworthy. Its pilots are, outside of adversary units, probably the best in the world.

HMD/S: No

Advanced SRAAMs: Yes, AIM-9X

Visual stealth: Poor

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Excellent

High Alpha performance: Excellent

Sustained turn rates: Excellent  (28 deg/sec at 20K ft)

Instantaneous turn rates: Excellent

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1. Sukhoi Su-35 

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The Sukhoi Su-27 is no slouch in the dogfight, and this advanced derivative is even more potent; the fighter, of which there are currently 58 in Russian service, benefits from an additional 7,000Ibs of thrust combined with a variety of refinements. The Su-35’s engines, at maximum reheat, generate a staggering 62,000Ibs of thrust, which when combined with the ‘Flanker’ series superb aerodynamic configuration and vectored thrust nozzles, create an aircraft unparalleled in low-speed manoeuvrability. Whereas the F-22 relies on two-dimensional thrust vectoring, the Su-35 utilises 3D nozzles and a robust flight control system that have been perfected over the last thirty years.  A Su-35 (ably demonstrated by Sergei Bogdan) held the crowds of Paris 2013 spellbound with its demonstration of dramatic post-stall manoeuvring.

According to RUSI’s Justin Bronk in his Hush-Kit article Su-35 versus Typhoon, “The Su-35 can probably out-turn an F-22 in a horizontal fight at medium and low altitudes, but the need to carry missiles and tanks externally to be effective, as well as the brute size of the Sukhoi will ensure it remains at a distinct energy disadvantage to the Raptor in terms of energy retention and acceleration at all speeds. The F-22 also will not get into an angles fight with an Sukhoi – there is simply no need for it to do so.” . 

Against Typhoon, “WVR, however, the Su-35 is extremely dangerous due to its phenomenal supermanoeuvrability due to its thrust vectoring engines and huge lifting body. Both in the horizontal and vertical planes, Typhoon would likely be outmatched by the Su-35 WVR, unless a Typhoon pilot could find space to accelerate vertically to gain an energy advantage without being shot down in the process. In reality, of course, whilst in a WVR dogfight situation the Su-35 does have a kinematic advantage, both aircraft are equipped with helmet-mounted sights to cue off-boresight missile shots and carry extremely manoeuvrable IR missiles with excellent countermeasure resistance. Neither is likely to survive a WVR ‘merge’ against the other…WVR combat, especially at lower altitudes and speeds favour the Su-35.” 

A combat deployment to Syria revealed the types lack of maturity, but also fast tracked a modification programme to rectify the aircraft’s glitches. The type has been ordered by the Chinese air force who have received their first examples.

The Su-35 unique abilities will require unique tactics – if flown by well-trained pilots, the Su-35 will prove a worthy adversary to any in-service fighter in the vicious world of the low-speed furball.

HMD/S: Yes

Advanced SRAAMsR-73E/M

Visual stealth: Poor

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Excellent

High alpha performance: Excellent

Sustained turn rates: Excellent

Instantaneous turn rates: Excellent

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So there we have it, or do we?

I asked a fighter pilot (with experience of flying most of the ‘4.5 generation’ fighter aircraft) his opinion on my top ten selection; he was keen to dismiss such a crude approach:

“It is complicated to discuss this issue in just a few words, but in order to produce a new look analysis on WVR, you should think about gyroscopic vs needle ‘driving styles’ (and the capabilities needed to play this or that, of course). So, you will pass through power-to-weight ratio, rudder surfaces, flying characteristics across different flight levels, etc. Until you get to the crucial area of energy management (that sifts the ace from the targets). It is all a question of control of the part of the egg you want to keep the fight, and well-trained pilots with good tactics will always try to keep the fight in a corner where they have some advantage. We’re not talking about an UFC card! It is team work.

The tactical egg is an imaginary bubble that represents all possible motions of an aircraft in a dogfight, showing the effects of gravity on the aircraft’s manoeuvring. Of course, new weapons (with the ability to lock-on after launch), helmet mounted sight, etc. are making the job much more complex.

Conclusion: This question requests hours of conversation and a dozen beers! ;)”

 

If this article infuriated you, try our top ten BVR fighters here

follow my vapour trail on Twitter@Hush_kit

(I won’t bore you with the standard disclaimers regarding reading too much into leaked DACT gossip).

Thank you for reading Hush-Kit. This site is in peril as it is well below its funding targets. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here.

 

Have a look at How to kill a RaptorAn Idiot’s Guide to Chinese Flankers, the 10 worst British military aircraftThe 10 worst French aircraft,  Su-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes. Was the Spitfire overrated? Want something more bizarre? 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. 

*Bill Sweetman, WAPJ volume 38 (1999)

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2 comments

  1. Binayak Choudhury

    Excellent analysis and lo-down on the top ten WVR fighters today. Kind of funny how many times you mentioned India specific mods that the original planes don’t carry (Rafale and MiG-29K). Any chance of adding the Su-30MKI/MKK/MKM variants into the list, or as a side note?

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