The Top Fighter aircraft of 2019 (within visual range combat)


Many fighter pilots and tacticians will say that if you’ve got into within-visual range air combat then something has gone very wrong. Why not zap the enemy at very long range and run away rather than risk the dogfight with its strong probability of mutual suicide? Unfortunately in the real world, things do not always go wrong: one example being the surprisingly challenging interception of a Syrian Su-22 by a US Navy Super Hornet in 2017.


Almost, but no cigar.

While this specific example does not demonstrate the importance of ‘turn and burn’ performance it does show that reality doesn’t always allow combat aircraft to fight how they’d like to. Despite the importance of the beyond-visual range, it is telling that the next generation of air combat aircraft being designed will still be capable visual range combat performers. In updating this list I consulted with several people, one of whom was Air Marshal Harish Masand, a decorated veteran of the 1971 war, and a pioneer of the MiG-29’s integration into the Indian air force. He is one of the most celebrated Fulcrum pilots of the IAF and his solo MiG-29 displays remain the stuff of IAF legend. He commented: “It seems like a pretty good comparison. My only major observation, perhaps, would be on the excessive emphasis that you seem to place on the thrust vector control (TVC). Most would agree that the TVC is used only at low speeds and high alpha bleeding off energy pretty fast and should truly be used as a last resort against a single opponent to get a quick shot in a stalemate or prolonged sort of situation. That puts the weight penalty of the TVC system in question for most of the likely engagements. Also, WVR combat is unlikely to be a one-on-one situation and to lose your energy in a larger group could be fatal, perhaps not against the opponent immediately engaged with you but certainly against another freewheeling high energy opponent in the same piece of the sky. Looked at in this perspective, the MiG-29, with its ability to hold 9G forever and flown by a group of cool heads, would be stupid to get into a low speed, high alpha fight with any of the other nine aircraft listed in the field. Finally, within most of these aircraft, the outcome in WVR engagements would depend on comparative skills.” He also noted that the upgraded IAF MiG-29s have a great helmet mounted sighting system. On this subject, though it is believed that the Rafale, in Qatari service, is finally operational with a helmet mounted display/sight – they are not yet fully operational. Rafale has superb performance, particularly at lower altitudes, but is let down by a lack of a helmet cueing system — a must have item. Regarding his comments on the hypothetical nature of one-on -one comparisons (something echoed by the Rafale pilot we spoke to) — it remains the a way to compare platforms in isolation, and something that we hope is both informative and entertaining in a ‘top trump’ way. From an enthusiast point of view, the dogfight is rare enough to be freed from some of the troubling associations of the air-to-ground mission, which is only too real. 


The Mitsubishi F-2 is a fearsome dogfighter – with a larger wing than the F-16 — but to avoid duplication is included within the F-16’s ranking.

 I also spoke to Jim Smith who opined, “I think WVR can begin when you are able to identify the threat as Hostile, and able to do something about it. So ASRAAM (one of the fastest and longest ranged infra-red missiles) is a big enabler as you should be able to get the first missile away. Tejas is interesting, as an aircraft in development, with missile capability, radar and EW and other capabilities coming along all the time. I find the whole WVR/dogfight thing difficult. As noted above, kill the opposition in the approach to the merge (if you haven’t already done the preferable thing of shooting him down BVR). If both pilots and aircraft survive the merge, then high off-boresight engagement capability, good turning performance, good energy manoeuvre capability are all going to help. Can’t remember where F-35 is on your list, but with a small number of weapons, and (relative to the best) ordinary agility are not going to help. One problem for most aircraft in WVR these days is going to be the ability to disengage without being shot down. Most studies I have seen suggest WVR is most likely to lead to a mutual kill.”

The final word: Reality does not conform to the top 10 format! Each of these aircraft has advantages and disadvantages, and their exact placing should not be taken as gospel. Pilot skill, tactics and luck remain the deciding factors in the dogfight. 120627-F-QP712-0376.jpg

Honourable mentions:  JF-17, Tejas, Mirage 2000, F-35, J-20. 

Su-57 is in OpEval and not fully operational. 

10.  McDonnell Douglas/Boeing F-15 Eagle


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


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 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 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

Only two days to go….Sadly, this site will pause operations in December if it does not hit its funding targets. If you’ve enjoyed an article you can donate here.


8. Saab JAS-39 Gripen 

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 second 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. The A-Darter short-range missile is soon to be carried by South African Gripens, and is said to be superior to even the IRIS-T in some respects.


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(Top Ten Swedish aeroplanes here)

Helmet Mounted Display/Sight: Yes: Cobra


Visual stealth: Excellent

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Good

High Alpha performance: Good

Sustained turn rates: Excellent

Instantaneous turn rates: Very good


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


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


Visual stealth: Medium

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Good

High alpha performance: Excellent

Sustained turn rates: Good

Instantaneous turn rates: Excellent

6. General Dynamics/Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon ‘Viper’


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, which equips Israeli F-16s, 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. Similarly both the Rafale and Typhoon pilots we spoke to rated the F-16 as the most challenging dissimilar aircraft they had fought in the merge, because of these comments we have bumped it ahead of the Hornet in our ranking.


A tiny energetic fighter with a trusted helmet cueing system, excellent human machine interface and modern missiles, the F-16 remains a nightmare opponent in WVR combat.


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

Visual stealth: Excellent.Thrust-to-weight ratio: GoodH

High alpha performance: Good

Sustained turn rates: Good

Instantaneous turn rates: Very good (26deg/sec


5. Dassault Rafale 


Comparing the French Rafale with the pan-European Typhoon is unavoidable. 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 (a design consideration which affects the land-based variant) 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 one Rafale pilot we spoke to “So I have absolutely no fear of the Typhoons. Both the tactics used by the Typhoons, the agility and the cockpit of the aircraft make it easier for us to take the advantage — basically we have better fusion of the sensors — so we can be way more aggressive in terms of tactics. It’s a great aircraft at high level, but we’re not dumb enough to try to fight Typhoons at 50,000 feet or 45,000 feet.” 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, already worn by Qatari pilots as they work the Rafale up to full operational status, (and something Indian Rafales will carry) will push the aircraft a top three position in this list. In a guns-only fight at low or medium altitude, the Rafale could be expected to hold its own against any other aircraft.


Advanced SRAAMsYes, 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. Eurofighter Typhoon


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 according to one Eurofighter source we spoke to. One thing the Typhoon must keep an eye on is the type’s thirsty fuel consumption, according to a Rafale pilot,“You’re burning less fuel in afterburner <in a Rafale> at high altitudes than Typhoon does without the afterburner.”

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.

Interview with a Typhoon pilot here. 


With the lowest wing loading and one of the highest thrust-to-weight ratios on this list, the Typhoon is a nasty opponent in within visual range combat. Its large wing leaves it a little sluggish at lower altitudes but supremely spritely higher up.

HMD/S: Yes


Visual stealth: Medium

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Excellent

High alpha performance: Poor

Sustained turn rates: Excellent

Instantaneous turn rates: Excellent

The Top 10 BVR fighters for 2019 can be seen here

3. RAC Mikoyan MiG-35 ‘Fulcrum’


The MiG-35 after a ludicrously protracted development is finally in service with the Russian Air Force. The same empty weight as MiG-29 but with 1320Ibs of extra thrust, should give the ‘Super Fulcrum’ an edge; though this advantage would generally be mitigated by higher operating weights, in a lower weight configuration the MiG-35 should proof an absolute beast. Additional edges come from new electro infra-red/ optical sensors, and a lower pilot workload (which includes less pilot muscle being required to affect the same manoeuvres).  If an enemy employs radar-guided missiles in the WVR regime (AMRAAMs have historically been used in this way) then the MSP-418KE Digital Radio Frequency Memory (DRFM) technology jammer pod may prove an excellent counter. The MiG-35 will also enjoy far greater situational awareness than older Fulcrums. In late 2019, Russia revealed a new generation short-range missile designed to counter the Western AIM-9X and IRIS-T — considering Russia’s excellence in the rocket propulsion field this will likely be no slouch. If you consider the limited utility of thrust vectoring (the advantage offered by the Su-35) and the smaller size of the MiG-35 it could be credibly argued that the MiG-35 is actually a strong contender for the no.1 slot. We’ll cautiously hold off on such a judgement until more information comes to light, but as the MiG company continues to fight for its life its likely that the knowledge it has accrued in its long history of producing supreme dogfighters has not been lost in it latest — and quite possibly last —  fighter.

Despite its age the original 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.”


HMD/S: Yes

Advanced SRAAMs: Yes

Visual stealth: Medium

Thrust-to-weight ratio: Good

High alpha performance: Excellent

Sustained turn rates: Excellent

Instantaneous turn rates: Excellent

2. Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor


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.


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


1. Sukhoi Su-35 ‘Flanker’


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 88 in Russian service, benefits from an additional 7,000Ibs of thrust combined with a variety of refinements to an already superb machine. 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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One test pilot we spoke to, Harsh Vardhan Thakur,  who has flown several of these types – ranked them accordingly for WVR:

  1. Typhoon 2. Rafale 3. F-22 3. Su-57 (not fully operational) 4. MiG-35 5. Su-35 6. F-15 7. MiG-29 8. Su-30 9. F-16 10. Gripen-E 11. Mirage 2000 12. F-35 13. Su-27 14. J-10 15. JF-17 16. LCA

He noted that “The Typhoon is very light and agile” and acknowledged the long distance between the canard and main wing were a huge advantage as it gives it a longer ‘moment arm’.

On the Super Hornet he noted  “Super Hornet can’t keep pace. It’s less manoeuvrable. The F-15 is much better.” He spoke in depth to the pilot (Late Air Cmde Sanjai Chauhan. RIP) who evaluated the candidates for MMRCA who said that the F-16 Block 70 had the best human-machine-interface. “The MiG-35 was patchy and the Super Hornet was draggy (“Super Hornet carries almost two tons of extra weight, because it’s a naval aircraft. It can’t match air force variants)  – and the rest were great.” The evaluation pilot also thought the Rafale was the best all-rounder.

Thakur noted that the offered F-21 is remarkable and is a ‘have it all’.

The J-20 likely deserves a place in this list but at the present time there is insufficient information to make an assessment.



  1. Pingback: Eurofighter Typhoon versus Dassault Rafale: A 2020 comparison – My Blog

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