Less than a thousand days separated the service entry of the French Rafale M and the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. These two extremely potent fighter-bombers are that rare breed, a fast jet able to operate in the punishing environment of the aircraft carrier. One represents the centrepiece of US naval air power build by the biggest aeronautical company in the world, the other a proudly independent France’s first true carrier fighter — let’s find out how they stack up.
We asked Justin Bronk, Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)’s Research Fellow for Airpower and Technology, to compare the latest operational variants of the Rafale M and Super Hornet.
Rafale M versus Super Hornet
For this article, I will be comparing the latest variants of each type – so an F/A-18E Super Hornet Block II and an F3R-standard Rafale M.
Both the Block II Super Hornet and the F3R-standard Rafale M are equipped with Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars as their primary sensor. The Super Hornet Block II is equipped with the APG-79 while the F3R-standard Rafale M is equipped with the RBE2-AA. As AESA radars, they are both able to perform simultaneous scan and track functions of air, maritime and ground targets simultaneously. They are also able to track a large number of targets at once and at least theoretically perform more simultaneous engagements than pilot workload or missile carriage would allow in practice.
Interestingly, both the Rafale and the Super Hornet are limited by similarly small nose apertures. This restricts the number of transmit and receive (T/R) modules that can be mounted in a fixed radar array, as well as making options to increase scan width such as rotating mountings more complex compared to AESA-equipped fighters with larger noses such as the F-15 and F-22. However, both beat many competing types to the milestone of fielding an operational AESA radar.
Detailed performance figures for AESA radars are highly classified but there are some things we do know, such as the fact that the Rafale’s RBE2-AA can perform more simultaneous scan and track functions but at a slightly reduced maximum range compared to the Super Hornet’s APG-79. The APG-79 has also been notable for a litany of poor test and evaluation reports, from both the dedicated department of test and evaluation (DOT&E) and the US Navy’s own Operational Test and Evaluation Force. It has suffered from numerous reliability and operational suitability deficiencies since introduction in the late 2010s, and fixes and improvements such as built-in electronic attack options have been repeatedly deferred. Competitive evaluation and mission analysis in the early 2010s found that there was no significant difference in mission effectiveness between Super Hornets with the APG-79, and those with legacy mechanically scanned radars. Dassault has also proven capable of excellent mission system and sensor integration in the Rafale within the bounds of what the design is capable of mounting. Combat trials over Iraq and Syria with the land-based Rafale variants with the same radar and software fit produced very favourable results according to the Rafale pilots I have spoken with. Therefore, it is probably reasonable to conclude that the Rafale M in F3R configuration has the superior radar in most multirole scenarios compared to the Block II Super Hornet.
The Rafale M also carries the OSF (optronique secteur frontal) electro-optical and infra-red search and track, and video imaging sensor suite in a permanent mount on the nose ahead of the canopy. This system comprises a pair of sensors. The first is an IRST* designed for BVR scan and tracking of air targets at medium ranges without emitting any detectable radiation, which also has a secondary capability to scan for land or maritime targets at much shorter ranges and can function as a FLIR for the pilot in low-visibility conditions. The second part is an electro-optical/IR video imaging sensor for use within around 35-40km, and which includes a laser range finding capability. The Damocles targeting pod is also regularly carried for multirole or strike missions, which includes full IR/EO imaging and laser designation and spot track capabilities, as well as datalink relay node for transferring ISR data to tanker and AWACS assets in flight. However, the Damocles lags behind the AN/ASQ-228 Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) pod carried by the Super Hornet in terms of resolution and multi-spectral imaging capabilities. On the other hand, the Rafale’s OSF is a core part of the aircraft’s sensor suite and has been since early development due to the fact that the Armée de l’Air and Aéronavale maintained a medium-range IR seeker missile in the form of the MICA-IR to allow fully passive BVR engagements. By contrast, the podded IRST and sensor pod options for Super Hornet are all external additions to date, and the aircraft as a whole does not have a flawless reputation for integrating new sensors with high mission availability and reliability.
Interview with a Super Hornet pilot here.
In all, I would assess the Rafale M F3R-standard as having a significantly more capable fused situational awareness picture against aerial, ground and maritime targets than a Super Hornet Block II, if operating alone. In reality, however, the Super Bug routinely draws on situational awareness from a range of other fleet assets – most notably the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye (which France has also purchased but not yet received), and AEGIS-equipped vessels in the battlegroup, and integrates them seamlessly into both its RWR and main radar displays for the pilot.
F3R standard does not include IRST, though it should be return on the future F4 standard. The removal of the IRST came with the upgrade of the OSF to OSF-IT standard. This improved the TV sensor, but deleted the IRST section. Any new F3R won’t have IRST capability, unless it is taken from older Rafales.
In 2013 standard F3-04T saw the removal of the IR channel in favour of an improved TV sensor the OSF-IT. There is currently a plastic placeholder in its position.
Within visual range combat
Within visual range, the Rafale M would be in a very dominant position against a Super Hornet in almost all circumstances. The Super Hornet has pedestrian energy retention and acceleration capabilities, and its performance falls off dramatically with external loads and at altitudes above 25,000ft. The Rafale M itself is most at home at altitudes below 35,000ft and can best the Super Hornet in instantaneous and sustained turn rate at all comparable loadings at all altitudes. The Super Hornet has superior high-alpha ‘nose pointing’ capabilities in the initial merge, but if the pilot fails to kill the Rafale M during that one initial manoeuvre then they will find themselves with almost no energy and struggling to sustain manoeuvres or accelerate away, while the Rafale M generates massive lift and has much better thrust-to-weight at combat loadings and superior acceleration too. The Mica and AIM-9X are both lethal WVR weapons with significant off-boresight capabilities, including ‘Parthian shot’ capability in the case of the Mica. Mica also has greater kinematic energy compared to the AIM-9X, being faster off the rail and with a longer burn, and able to pull 50g. However, only the Super Hornet currently has an operational helmet mounted sight in the shape of the proven Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS), increasing the odds of a kill during the initial merge and ‘bug nose pointing magic’ turn.
Top WVR fighters of 2019 here
If in a guns-only situation, with both aircraft slicked off; the Rafale M will eat the Super Hornet at any altitude. A head-on would be the Bug’s only chance assuming a 1v1 with reasonably comparable pilot skill.
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Beyond visual range combat
With a slight advantage in general radar detection range for the APG-79 on the Super Hornet over the RBE but a significantly lower frontal radar cross section and better ECM capabilities on the Rafale, the Rafale will probably get the first look.
A F3R standard Rafale M brings the very-long ranged Meteor missile to the BVR arena, comfortably out-ranging the F/A-18E even from a similar launch speed and altitude with AIM-120D. Rafale is also capable of supercruising comfortably at around 30,000ft, with the option of going higher without issues, whilst the Super Hornet cannot supercruise and is more comfortable at lower altitudes, meaning its missiles start with significantly less energy at launch. Therefore, even though the APG-79 would probably detect the Rafale at longer ranges than the AIM-120D’s no-escape launch zone, the Rafale M would detect the Super Hornet in time to launch Meteor with a good Pk from significantly futher out. First shot and first kill are likely to go to the Rafale M.
Top BVR fighters 2019 here.
Acceleration/ climb rate / top speed/ ceiling
The Rafale M wins comfortably over the Super Hornet in all these categories, despite being considered somewhat underpowered compared to dedicated air superiority fighters like the F-15, Typhoon, Su-35 and F-22.F-15, Typhoon, Su-35 and F-22.
Instantaneous turn rate / sustained turn / High alpha / G loadings/ sustained G
Here again, the Rafale M wins on most counts, with the advantage in instantaneous turn, sustained turn and sustained G turning performance. The Rafale M is cleared to +9G whilst the Super Hornet is limited to +7.5G. However, if carrying a multirole load, both would likely be limited in terms of permissible G loading more by stores than airframe strength. The Super Hornet wins on high alpha but not by as much as when compared to many other aircraft.
Defensive aids and radar conspicuity
The latest version of the SPECTRA electronic warfare and countermeasures suite on the F3R standard of Rafale (both naval and land based variants) is widely considered one of the most capable self-defence suites in operational service today. Having chosen to forgo development of stealth aircraft, France has put significant resources into the SPECTRA suite – counting on it, coupled with the standoff range of the Air-Sol Moyenne Portée Amélioré (ASMPA) missile to allow penetration of the latest enemy air defence networks for the airborne nuclear delivery mission. In 2011, the Armée de l’Air showed that it was able to strike targets within Libya before the main US Air Force suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) strikes had taken place by relying on the SPECTRA system for self-protection. The Rafale M also benefits from a reduced frontal RCS compared to the Super Hornet, although given the AESA radars mounted by both types, this would be of limited usefulness in a 1v1 especially with external stores mounted. India’s Rafales will include a Rafael manufactured new X-Guard towed decoy but it is not clear whether the Aéronavale’s Rafale Ms include a similar system.
Typhoon versus Rafale here
The Super Hornet Block II has the improved AN/ALQ-214 Integrated Defensive Countermeasures (IDECM) system which includes a highly capable radar warning receiver, automatic chaff, flare and decoy programmes and various options for self-protection jamming. It also carries the combat-proven ALE-55 towed decoy, meaning that it stands a reasonable chance of absorbing at least one radar-guided missile which makes it to terminal homing without damage. However, in general, the electronic warfare and RCS reduction options potentially available to the Super Hornet have not been prioritised during Block II development, due to the standard presence within the air wing of dedicated EA-18G Growlers to support the Super Hornets in these areas.
Human machine interface/situational awareness
The Super Hornet has a relatively straightforward and ergonomic cockpit design with an emphasis on safe deck operations and multirole combat capability over specialisation. Its three large MFDs ensure that information from the various sensors and weapons systems being carried are easily displayed. However, there is little in the way of sensor fusion techniques, beyond the integration of off-board situational awareness data via Link 16, which is displayed on both the main attack radar display and RWR/EW pages. The use of the JHMCS adds an additional layer of situational awareness during stressful combat situations when heads-up time is at a premium. In all, the Block II Super Hornet is a fairly middle-of-the-road advanced fourth generation aircraft in HMI and SA terms.
The Rafale M, by contrast, has an ergonomically slightly cleaner design with minimal knobs and switches included in favour of five full colour MFDs and an electronic ‘knee-board’ tablet carried for additional flexibility and ease of access to information. In the F3R standard, there is a greater emphasis on post-sensor fusion than on the Super Hornet Block II – with tracks from the SPECTRA system, RBE2-AA and OSF all processed and shown on a single situational awareness display as standard, with the option to open separate windows for each if required. However, compared to something like the F-35, there is still a great deal of mental multi-tasking required for pilots processing information from multiple displays simultaneously in different sections of the cockpit.
Overall, however, the F3R-standard Rafale M beats the Super Hornet Block II on cockpit interface and general SA, but in a WVR or otherwise stressful ‘heads up’ situation, the lack of a helmet mounted display leaves it behind the Super Hornet in HMI.
Sortie rate/maintainability/spares cost/unit cost of aircraft/cost of operating
The French Aéronavale has been pleased with the ability of the Rafale M to generate multiple sorties per day and be rapidly turned around when required. Readiness and spares availability is helped by the close synchronisation between the specialised Aéronavale Rafale M fleet and the refit/work up/deployment schedule of the sole French aircraft carrier, Charles de Gaulle. The latter provides a predictable basis for planning aircraft maintenance, upgrade work, stockpiling spares and getting personnel qualified and current when needed. When the carrier is at sea, the Rafale M’s are ready to deploy and operate with high efficiency. However, if viewed as a long-term multi-year enterprise, only periodic capability is generated in return for significant costs.
The Super Hornet has had more issues with spares and availability in recent years, but this has at least as much to do with the US Navy’s carrier groups and air wings operating far above long term planning assumptions for many years as it does anything to do with any inherent properties of the Super Hornet itself. Exceptions would be continued problems with the on-board oxygen generation system (OBOGS), and APG-79 radar issues. However, the sheer size of the Super Hornet fleet in US Navy service, as well as with overseas customers like the Royal Australian Air Force leads to significant economies of scale in terms of operating costs and spares costs compared to the small Rafale M fleet.
Sadly I wouldn’t know – not having deck landed either of them. Whichever of Dassault or Boeing gives me a backseat cat and trap ride first will win! 😉
Range is extremely subjective for combat aircraft since a huge amount depends on the weapons and other stores carried, the external fuel tanks carried, mission profile flown, time on station required at the destination, and reserve allocation for recovery to deck or diversion. Both Rafale M and Super Hornet are also capable of air to air refuelling using probe and drogue equipped tankers, or buddy buddy refuelling.
However, with a significantly greater payload capacity, less draggy airframe and ability to fly higher and faster especially in dry power, it is safe to say that the Rafale M has a significantly greater overall combat radius for most missions than the F/A-18E.
The Super Hornet is the winner on most counts on weapons options. Whilst the Rafale M can carry a significantly greater external payload, especially when also carrying three external fuel tanks, the Super Hornet benefits in terms of flexibility and cost of munitions from being cleared to carry and deliver practically every weapon in the vast US air-launched inventory. This gives it relatively affordable options for close air support, interdiction, long range strike, anti-shipping strikes and air superiority, as well as the ability to draw on forward position stocks all over the world during deployed operations.
By contrast, the Rafale M relies predominantly on the excellent but extremely expensive AASM-Hammer series of guided bombs. These include dual-mode laser and GPS/INS guided and IR guided variants, as well as extended range kits with a rocket booster motor. It is also, however, cleared for delivery of the Paveway II/III series of laser guided bombs too for a lower cost direct-attack option. In terms of standoff attack, the Rafale M can fire the SCALP (also known as Storm Shadow) low-RCS cruise missile, and the Exocet anti-ship missile. Both remain expensive compared to their US-made equivalents. The same is true of the MICA medium/close range missile which is extremely capable within around 20km but struggles to compete with AIM-120C, let alone AIM-120D in longer range BVR engagements. However, the MICA-IR does give a rare Western option for fully passive (i.e. non-radar dependent) medium range engagements in conjunction with the OSF system. Meteor – now integrated in F3R standard Rafale M aircraft – is undeniably expensive, but offers better range, terminal performance in long distance engagements, and reportedly better resistance to DRFM jammers than AIM-120C or AIM-120D.
Interview with a Rafale M pilot here.
Biggest plus and minus for each aircraft
For Super Hornet
+ huge user community resulting in affordable spares and upgrades, as well as docile handling, excellent high-alpha performance in a merge, and access to the full suite of US air-delivered weaponry.
– Underpowered for its weight especially at high altitudes, and high-drag pylon arrangement means external stores drag penalties are increased.
For Rafale M
+ advanced aerodynamic design and avionics fit at least half a generation ahead of the Super Hornet, with brutal WVR performance below 35,000ft
– relatedly small user community and French-specific weapons and systems mean operating costs are higher and global spare parts base is much more restricted. Also still not operating with a HMS.
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