Top 10 multi-role fighters 2020

Point-Blank.jpgModern fighters are ‘multi-role’, meaning they can attack aerial or surface targets. They can carry the same weight of anti-surface munition as a World War II bomber, yet are also capable of performing the air superiority mission which demands extremely high performance. The ‘swing’ or ‘omni’ mission is one in which both air and ground targets are attacked in the same sortie. 

In 2020, fighter-bombers dominate, with only the US and Russia rich enough to produce and field single-role fighters and attack aircraft. Here we assess and rank the ten most capable multi-role combat aircraft in service in 2020. 

Before we reveal our top 10 for 2020, Jim Smith, who took an active role in in the development of many British warplanes, shares an analysis of what ‘multi-role’ means.

Note: The introduction section is by Jim Smith, the top 10 section is by Hush-Kit (with a section from Justin Bronk) with recommendations from Jim, but does not reflect his opinions. 

Why do air arms select multi-role aircraft?
“When considering the qualities of particular systems, or classes of capability, it is always good practice to start with an examination of what objectives might drive their selection.
In the case of multi-role aircraft, having been peripherally involved with Tornado, and fairly deeply involved with both the Typhoon and JSF projects, I can well remember the much rehearsed argument ‘Another Jack of All Trades, and Master of None’ directed against the Multi-Role solution as opposed to separate Air Combat and Strike platforms.
I can also remember the German Government attitude to Typhoon (when it was still EFA) ‘Not a Deutsche Mark for air-to-surface’*. And the Treasury coming in with “As it’s multi-role, I assume you’ll be taking at least two types out of Service when it comes in” – bye-bye Jaguar and Harrier …

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So those are the rather glib messages suggesting multi-role aircraft might not be the way to go. But what are the counter arguments? And where might a multi-role solution be just the thing. Well, there are two obvious drivers – force structure constraints, and the economy. For the first, consider maritime air power, specifically carrier-based operations.

You need to be able to provide fighter aircraft – as a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) screen to deter attacking forces, defeat threat anti-shipping and air combat capabilities, and protect other assets, such as airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft, tankers and electronic warfare (EW) platforms. But you also need a strike aircraft, capable of projecting power from the ship – otherwise what’s the point of being there? And you only have limited space on the ship to store and maintain your aircraft.

Hence even the US select multi-role aircraft for naval air, most notably the F-4 Phantom II and more recently the F/A-18F Super Hornet. Not to say they don’t also have some single role aircraft, but these two excellent aircraft give the lie to the “… Master of None” gibe.

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A Navy chase F-4 Phantom II assists with flight tests of an Hornet development aircraft. The Hornet is taking on fuel from a KA-3.

In addition, in smaller air arms, and in smaller economies, it may be neither necessary or affordable to maintain separate strike and fighter capabilities. The development of air combat aircraft has been increasing in both cost and time as more and more capability is both sought and delivered. This trend has placed relentless pressure on forces to reduce the number of different types in the inventory, partly because of the continuing increase in development cost and time of such systems, but also because of the operational costs in maintaining, and in training air and ground crew for multiple different systems. As an example, in the UK, we can see a fairly near-term future in which a mix of Typhoon and Lightning II will provide the core air power for the nation, excepting long-range precision strike by cruise missile.

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The pressure to reduce the number of types in the inventory has also driven some innovative and successful solutions, where different variants of aircraft have been produced optimised for the Fighter and Strike roles, the most notable Western examples being the F-15C and F-15E, and the Tornado GR and F3 aircraft. These aircraft have differing avionics, and some significant airframe differences, yet still manage to retain significant commonality in propulsion and other, not directly role-specific, systems. However, these aircraft are not truly multi-role, as they are specialised variants of a near-common platform, rather than truly able to be used in many roles.

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The third reason to adopt a multi-role approach is simply the flexibility in defence planning which it enables. Many recent conflicts have not involved a contest for air dominance. In general, although fighter aircraft have been used to escort high value targets, the air threat in (say) Afghanistan, Mali or Yemen, has been minimal, and the ability of air combat aircraft like Typhoon or Rafale to ‘Swing Role’ and deliver strike missions has been invaluable. The F-16 also provides a good example of a fighter that has spent most, though definitely not all, of its life operating as a strike asset.
What makes a good multi-role combat aircraft?

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Let’s start with a brief indication of the capabilities we might expect such an aircraft to have. A multi-role combat aircraft is one that is used to perform many different types of mission.
Examples might include the delivery of precision guided bombs; the delivery of long-range stand-off weapons; the suppression of enemy defences, perhaps through the use of anti-radar missiles in support of other aircraft; carriage of tactical reconnaissance systems; and the ability to both defend itself against air threats, and, when necessary, escort other aircraft.

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In some cases, possibly many cases, a swing-role capability may be desirable. This means the ability to switch from one mission to another if required, for example, the carriage of mixed weapons so that alternative targets can be addressed. Carriage of both laser-guided bombs to allow direct attack, and anti-radiation missiles to allow defence suppression, for example. Fighter aircraft may carry a full air-to-air load out as well as air-to-surface weapons, allowing them to retain an air combat capability once the air-to-surface stores have been released. As a capability, ‘swing role’ may be particularly important in delivering Close Air Support (CAS), where precision is required due to the proximity of friendly troops, but the nature and location of the target will be unknown until an airborne taking is received.

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Pic credit: Sławek @hesyja Krajniewski

Delivering this flexible capability is going to drive a number of aspects of our aircraft. To be effective in air combat, it is going to need a radar, an infra-red seeker tracker (IRST), if it has aspirations to either be somewhat stealthy or tackle stealthy targets, and ideally both Long-range or Medium-range and Short-range air-to-air missiles (L/MRAAM and SRAAM). To survive, it’s also going to need the defensive aids that support air combat – a towed decoy; defensive aids system, chaff, flares, missile launch and approach warner, for example.
Beyond this, our aircraft is going to need to be effective, at a minimum, as a tactical strike aircraft. This means having the payload-range to deliver its weapons to their targets. Precise requirements will depend on the targets to be engaged, as this will drive the nature of the weapons to be carried, and the sensors needed to support them. A basic precision-guided bomb delivery capability will require either a podded or internal laser designation system, and the necessary weapons stations and pylons to carry and release the weapons. A JTIDS (Joint Tactical Information Distribution System) or other equivalent datalink capability will also be essential to enable situational awareness, and to receive in-mission target tasking and authorisation.
If the targets are heavily defended by anti-air systems, or are hardened, then it is likely that the ability to deliver weapons with significant stand-off capability will be needed. Because of the need for these weapons to make a powered fly out to their targets, they will be larger and heavier than unpowered bombs or glide-bombs. Similarly, the use of larger and more complex warheads against hardened targets will also drive up weapon size and weight.vWw0mUczZ7AwDk53lmQyuJ1dcUurYw7vkAIofG5Q9tZXvyJTUO5qg2B08nPEJAznRpt3agbm27ZEGiiTra-h-HJjLbhJoCXH_U_MxE-vco4zuieOeLeA-5QrW0CkT6OKvG00Sw76gKL1
Unless a stealthy multi-role system is available, the stores are likely to be mainly carried externally, which compromises radar signature, and increases drag very significantly. To achieve a useful mission radius on a strike mission, it is likely that increased fuel will be required, either through the use of external fuel tanks (e.g. Rafale, Typhoon), fuselage saddle tanks (e.g. F-15E, Late-model F-16) or increased platform size (e.g. Su-32, J-20).

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It is important to note that having plenty of pylons available to carry weapons is necessary, but not sufficient. For a multi-role aircraft to be an effective strike platform, the weapons it carries must be integrated with the aircraft system. Aircraft sensors have to be able to cue weapons; the weapon capability envelopes have to be displayed to the pilot; the appropriate carriage and release envelopes must be known and respected; and pilots and maintainers have to be trained in the use and the maintenance of the various systems.
Low Observable Systems
What of stealth? By this I mean systems that are hard to detect by surface and air-based sensors of all types, but generally at least radar and infra-red sensors. One impact of seeking to avoid detection is that when this is necessary, no external stores can be carried. The effect of this is to require stores to be carried in internal bays, which limits the size and number of weapons that can be carried, impacting on both fighter and particularly strike capability.

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This has driven the development of specialised stores such as the Small-Diameter Bomb (SDB), but use of internal weapons bays for air-to-surface stores will generally be at the expense of carriage of MRAAM. The inability to carry external tanks or stores without compromising the aircraft stealth capability will reduce both strike range and mission flexibility. That said, the low signature of these aircraft does allow greater utility in high threat environments (sometimes described as the ‘first day of the war’ capability).
A related issue is that while internal stores carriage also means that (generally) there is plenty of space for internal fuel, the resulting configuration can also have higher wave drag. This tends to result in less combat radius or combat persistence than might be expected, and can also result in less energy manoeuvrability.

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Are the F-22 and F-35 multi-role? Well, they do have both fighter and strike capabilities, but will be constrained by weapons bay size if they are relying on stealth to survive. Certainly, the Royal Navy and Royal Australian Air Force will be seeking to use their Lightning IIs for both air defence and strike. Some other air arms will rely on a force mix approach, using their Lightnings mainly as a strike asset, supported when required by air superiority fighters.

 

The F-22 is effectively optimised for the fighter role, and JSF for strike. In service, F-22 is likely to be used primarily an air superiority fighter, even though it is capable of carrying a mix of JDAM and SRAAM to deliver a strike capability, largely because it is available in limited numbers. Arguably, the F-22 is better employed to achieve air superiority, enabling other aircraft and systems to deliver the strike missions.
Conversely, at least in high-threat environments, the F-35 might best be considered as a strike aircraft with a self defence capability, or perhaps as an air defence aircraft without an effective strike capability. Of course, both air combat and strike effects can still be achieved, using aircraft with a mix of strike and air combat load outs – effectively functioning as ‘bombers and escorts’.
Is a stealthy multi-role aircraft possible? Certainly, but such an aircraft may need to have a larger weapons bay than the F-22 or F-35 to accommodate the variety and size of weapons required for strike missions. Inevitably such a design would be large and expensive, and an exemplar perhaps already exists in the Chinese J-20.
Mission Support

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Much depends on the target set, and particularly whether moving targets as well as fixed targets are to be addressed. If targets are fixed, pre-planned strikes are possible and may be conducted with ‘fire and forget’ systems such as cruise missiles and other stand-off weapons. If targets are moving, or are re-locatable, and are thus uncertain in position, a more flexible approach will be necessary.

A variety of approaches are possible, the simplest being laser designation from the aircraft, with the laser being enabled to track the target. This approach, however, relies on a line of sight being available to the target, and hence results in relatively short-range engagements, which may not be feasible against some targets. Alternatively, an active seeker on the weapon may be used, for example using a millimetric wave radar or an infra-red sensor to track and guide to the target.
Importantly, appropriate operational doctrine and command and control systems need to be in place to enable swing role, close air support and dynamic in-mission planning to allow targets of opportunity, or urgent tasking requests, to be addressed. Avoiding casualties to friendly forces or civilians, ensuring the validity of targets and the suitability of the weapons carried, coordinating actions with coalition ground forces, and ensuring the safety of air operations in a complex environment, will all require secure, high confidence datalink communications, and a system for receiving, processing and approving taskings.
While what is described has a Western and Coalition perspective, it is clear that any multi-role, dynamically planned short-notice operation is unlikely to be possible unless some process is in place for issuing and accepting valid taskings in a dynamic environment.
Features enabling a multi-role capability – a reprise
A summary list of good attributes for a multi-role combat aircraft might be (in no particular order):

 

  1. A suitable integrated suite of air-to-air weapons for self defence and escort capability. Likely to be a minimum of 4 MRAAM and 2 SRAAM
  2. A suitable integrated suite of air-to surface weapons.
  3. Precise capabilities will depend on the target set, but likely to include precision guided bombs, anti-armour and/or anti-shipping weapons, stand-off weapons and cruise missiles, anti-radiation weapons.
  4. Appropriate sensors to detect targets and provide necessary weapons guidance. Likely to include Air-to-air and air-to-surface radar, IR Tracker, laser designator and capability to carry other systems such as a tactical reconnaissance package.
  5. Sufficient internal fuel to deliver required mission radius, enhanced when necessary by additional external fuel, and ability to receive air-to-air refuelling.
  6. Defensive aids including chaff, flares, active radar and IR jamming capability. Ideally a towed radar decoy, or other means of electronic attack
  7. Datalink communication to off-board assets such as AEW&C aircraft; ability to receive and pass on target information and authorisation; necessary datalink support to weapons, and desirably ability to provide third-party targeting and weapons support.
  8. Air vehicle performance sufficient to deliver Beyond visual range (BVR) air combat, and desirably to survive WVR air combat.
  9. An affordable and supportable airframe and weapons systems.
  10. If stealthy, a sufficiently large internal weapons bay, or bays, to be able to carry both MRAAM and air to surface weapons simultaneously.
  11. An appropriate command, control and doctrinal environment to allow dynamic in-flight mission targeting.

 

–– Jim Smith

 

 

Aircraft discounted from the list 

Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor 

An unmatched air superiority aircraft –but a waste of capability to use as a strike aircraft.

Chengdu J-20

I see this as air superiority, but with an anti-access edge. If armed with a hypersonic air-to-air weapon it would have to be a concern for US AWACS and AAR assets. If capable of fielding a similar anti-ship weapon it might also be a concern for the USN.
Sukhoi Su-57 Felon 

Impressive looking beast, which could well be a good future multi-role platform.

Mikoyan MiG-35

Should become a decent all-rounder but is currently immature.

 

Top 10 multi-role fighters 2020

10. McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C Hornet (APG-79v4)

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The number ten slot is the most contested, with each potential candidate bringing something to the table: the JF-17 has a state-of-the-art cockpit, a stand-off ground attack capability and a potent EW suite; the Mirage 2000 is a proven and well equipped platform; the Tejas is tiny, with a good sensor package and the best carefree handling system of any fighter. But it can only go to one aircraft, so by a slim margin we are handing the number 10 slot to the upgraded FA-18Cs of the USMC. Though they may lack endurance, they may be ancient, they are currently been given a new lease of life with the retrofitting of the APG-79v4, a baby version of the Super Hornet’s AESA radar. This results in excellent situational awareness in an engine/airframe combination already loved for its reliability and legendary manoeuvrability, and one cleared to deploy a wide-range of modern munitions. The Hornet has been combat proven for over 30 years and earned its spurs itself in the heartbreaking wars of the Middle East, Afghanistan and Libya. Back in the early 1980s the legacy Hornet led the way, demonstrating how an electronic cockpit and a decent multi-mission radar was the way forward. In 2020 it can still hold its own and it will continue to serve for some time.

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9. Chengdu J-10C

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Observers tend to be cautious of heaping praise on Chinese hardware, which (other than engine technology) may be a position more rooted in historical prejudice than fact. Judging an aircraft that has not been exported is tricky, but it is noteworthy that Pakistan cancelled their 2009 order for the type in 2011 to concentrate on improved JF-17 variants in the short term, followed by a likely commitment to the J-31. This may point to the aircraft’s capability edge over the JF-17 being too marginal to merit the cost, but this is pure speculation. What is more certain is that this is modern design that is being rapidly updated.

The Chinese J-10 is in service in large, and growing, numbers. The latest version, the J-10C, is a formidable machine. We spoke to Justin Bronk, Research Fellow for Airpower and Technology at the RUSI think-tank to find out more. 

No nation has more new aircraft programmes than China, and the progress it has made in the twenty years has been spectacular. In the field of fighter aircraft much media attention has been paid to the rather spectacular J-20, a monstrous stealthy combat aircraft comparable in some respects to the US’ F-22, while less has been paid to the J-10.

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The J-10 entered service in 2006 and since than around 350 have been built, more than the number of French Rafale, or Swedish Gripen and very close to the number of F-35s. With an estimated empty weight of 8850 kg and maximum weight of 19277 kg it is comparable to the F-16, as is its reheated thrust of around 130kN. The latest version, the J-10C, is the most potent – with a modern AESA radar and the ability to carry the PL-15 long range air-to-air missile, a formidable weapon in the same class as Europe’s much lauded Meteor. We asked Justin Bronk how the aircraft would fare against the F-16, the most widely used modern fighter aircraft.

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“On J-10C in Beyond Visual Range combat; kinematically, it is likely to be somewhere close to a later Block F-16; the original J-10A’s thrust-weight ratio most likely having degraded due to weight growth as more advanced sensors, stores and kit such as HMS have been added.” — the J-10C’s thrust-to-weight, an important measure for how ‘energetic’ the aircraft is, remains decent- above 1.1 -1 in a typical combat configuration. “With a light airframe, relaxed stability, decent (although not stellar) thrust to weight ratio and large canards, the J-10C is very agile in airshow configuration and the option for thrust vectoring only increases this capability at low speeds. However, the light airframe and small size relative to fighters like the J-20, Typhoon or F-15 mean that external stores and fuel tanks will have a more serious impact on both performance and agility than on larger fighters.”

D0ViGLvW0AATKCg.jpgChina has long struggled with aero-engine technology, so how good are the J-10C’s WS10s? “The WS-10 series has suffered from persistent problems with engine life, mean time between failures and throttle-spool response time. Whilst it has improved sufficiently to enter quantity production for later J-10Bs and J-11s, the Russian AL-31FN Series 3 developed for the J-10B is still a superior engine on almost all metrics aside from cost. Chinese military turbofan engines are improving rapidly but are at best only at par with Russian equivalents and are not yet in a position to compete directly with European or American designs.”

The PL-15 missile is something of a bogeyman to US planners, as if fully operational and as good as the Chinese say it condemns AMRAAM-armed legacy platforms to a position of vulnerability.

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Bronk believes the Pl-15 is not yet fully operational, “The PL-15 is certainly being shown off on carriage flights with a number of different PLAAF types, so being somewhere around what we in the West would term Initial Operating Capability but not near Full Operational Clearance is probably a decent bet. There is a fair bit of concern in the US fighter community about the PL-15; its size and design should allow it to technically outrange the AIM-120 series and a proper active radar seeker head gives a lot more tactical options than older semi-active Russian and Chinese ‘sticks’.”

Though mechanically scanned radars are considered a technologically of the past, they remain the most common fighter sensor in the West. The J-10C has an Active Electronically Scanning Array radar, “Finally, its AESA radar should give the J-10C a significant advantage over older Mech-Scan equipped F-16s in the BVR arena; although having a great deal more experience in the technology, American fighter AESA sets are likely to remain superior where fitted especially in terms of advanced low-probability of intercept/detection (LPI/LPD) scanning modes.” In summary, Bronk firmly places the J-10C in Generation 4.5* “All in all, the J-10C is a significant leap into true ‘4.5th Generation’ capability for the PLAAF compared to the earlier variants of this distinctive bird. 

*something he defines as including “low-observability to radar; the ability to supercruise (fly at supersonic speed without using afterburners); and extreme manoeuvrability at all speeds.”.

8. Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II

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In the scenario of war against Russia or China, the F-35 should be able to operate on Day One. If the US doesn’t want go to war with Russia or China, and just fancies bombing poor people, then the F-35 offers a great deal of over-capability (as do all the aircraft on this list). As a Rafale pilot recently noted in an interview, a weaponised C-130 or 737 would be able to do everything currently expected of a frontline fast jet in real-world operations.

The F-35C lacks maturity, and the F-35B has a short range. In time, the C variant would perhaps be the best multi-role one, with its bigger wing, then the A. The F-35B has significantly less range. As discussed above, I wouldn’t see this delivering a swing role very well. It has the advantage of stealth, and good data-links within F-35 to F-35, but would be unlikely to fare well in WVR combat.

7. Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 70

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It would be easy to dismiss the F-16 as it is so old, but the latest versions have very little in common with the aircraft that flew 46 years ago.

The F-16’s traditional dominance in the WVR regime is dependent on a relatively clean configuration. Whereas the eurocanards carry their vital EW kit internally, the F-16 will in any real-life situation go into battle with a very draggy 600-pound pod. Above 25,000 feet and at higher speeds it is dominated by the eurocanards in air-to-air combat.

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The latest F-16s carry AESA radar, an impressive weapon load of modern weapons and some avionics and systems superior to even those of the F-35. The cockpit of the block 70 is excellent and future variants are likely to benefit from Lockheed Martin’s experience of wide-screen displays.

The F-16 has seen as much combat as any US aircraft type, and has demonstrated itself for 40 years. It remains an aircraft to be respected.

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(Note: Mitsubishi F-2 is included as an F-16 variant for our listing)

6. Saab JAS 39C Gripen

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The Gripen has a good mix of external stores, fuel capability and good connectivity, but is a single-engine and smaller design and hence has less range with a useful load. Its air combat capability, with the superlative Meteor long range missile, is likely to be better than the F-16. The Gripen pilot is imbued with excellent situation awareness and protected by an exceptional electronic warfare system. 

The Gripen is also the cheapest aircraft to operate on this list, the least fuel thirsty and the smallest. Its small size, combined with high off-boresight missiles and a helmet cueing system make it a particularly nasty opponent in within visual range combat.

5. Boeing F-15SA/QA Eagle 

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Though the USAF’s F-15E force is old, it is unmatched in the strike role. But it is is also rarely used in a dedicated air combat role, which raises questions about it being counted in this category. Self defence certainly, but given the F-22 and F-15Cs, in service it’s not really a multi-role aircraft. It is however a multi-role aircraft for some of the export operators of the type. The latest members of the Strike Eagle family, (the SA and QA) are lavishly equipped with all the latest sensors and systems.  The SA is ferociously capable as will the QAs when they reach a greater stage of maturity.

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Personally I would have placed the F-15SA or QA higher in this list. In payload performance, sensor suite and modernity of systems it ranks very highly. Depends whether we give more importance to the ground attack or air role. At the risk of committing to the Turkey at Christmas argument I would argue that the former has dominated the last two decades of air operations.

4. Sukhoi Su-35/Su-30M series

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Deciding which ‘Flanker’ to include is challenging. It would be tempting to include the Chinese J-15 on the grounds that carrier fighters must be multi-role but the J-15 currently shares many of the limitations of the Su-33 (which are described here) — is not optimised for air-to-ground and lacks a meaningful load-out when carrier deployed.

The Sukhoi Su-35 is generally better equipped than the Su-30M series though lacks the situational awareness and workload benefits of the M’s backseat WSO, but does benefit from the very capable Russian defensive electronic warfare system. The vast sums that the Indian Air Force is willing to pump into Rafale procurement does not boost confidence in the similar vintage Su-30M (the Russian type having entered Indian service only five years before Rafale entered French service). The Su-34 is more of a medium bomber than a multirole fighter. The Su-35 has a very powerful radar, excellent kinematic performance and an exceptional un-refuelled radius of action. It should be able to give a decent account of itself in air combat with any type short of the F-22 or Su-57. Another contender is the Chinese J-16, a twin-seat multi-role Flanker.

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The Russian Su-35 and related aircraft have high payload range, a very good range of weapons carriage options, including large numbers of pylons and high internal fuel. They also have large radars and are fitted with IRST. They might not do too well against stealthy fighters, but in a permissive environment, or against non-stealthy opponents, would be a capable multi-role aircraft in at least the F-15E class.

3. Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

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The Super Hornet is very well equipped, and needs to be. Whereas the air force can rely on a mixed force of F-15C/Es, F-16s, F-35As, A-10s etc, the Super Hornet has to do pretty much everything (at least until the F-35C is more mature). The range of weapons it can carry is impressive, ranging from the stealthy AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile) to the AGM-88 for anti-radar attacks, the JDAM series and the AGM-84 Harpoon anti-shipping missile. Air-to-air weaponry is decent but typical of the current US lag behind Europe. Though the AIM-120D is highly regarded, it is an enhanced range AIM-120 rather than the new breed of long-range air-to-air missiles.

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It is much slower than the European canards, and the extremely draggy manner in which the fuel and weapons are carried further compounds this disadvantage. The aerodynamic configuration is optimised for low-speed handling. The most notable omission equipment-wise, an IRST, will be solved with a combination sensor/fuel pod carried on the centreline. This inelegant solution will have a deleterious effect on the Rhino’s already lacklustre performance. Boeing had earlier proposed an internal IRST at the expense of the aircraft’s gun, but this was rejected by the Navy.

I have placed this ahead of the F-15E because I think it achieves a better balance between both roles. The F-15E is a very capable strike aircraft, but I’m suggesting less emphasis is likely to be given to air combat missions (at least in US hands) because of the availability of other assets. At present the F/A-18E is the primary strike and air combat asset for the US Navy.
2. Eurofighter Typhoon

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Cynics might note that the Eurofighter nations have spent a great deal of time and money on turning the Typhoon into a Rafale, i.e. converting it from a fighter to a fighter-bomber (this idea would have been taken further if the rather silly idea of a carrier Sea Typhoon had actually happened). Today’s Typhoon, especially the British examples, are a very different beast from the fighter-intercepter that entered service in 200

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The long road to AESA seemed to be finally reaching a happy conclusion but has recently split into a complicated mess of different nations and different radar. Still when Kuwait receives their Typhoon’s this year they should have a functional AESA in the Captor-E Radar 0.

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Like Rafale, it has demonstrated capability in both the air-to-air and air-to-ground role, and likely exceeds Rafale in the former domain due to greater energy manoeuvrability.

1. Dassault Rafale 

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Other than low observability the Rafale has almost everything. The most notable absence, a helmet mounted display/cueing system has, with the introduction of the type into Qatari service, been addressed (though no photos have yet been released to support this). It also lacks a towed radar decoy though it is believed this will enter service with the Indian Air Force in the near future. There is some question regarding whether all Rafale’s have an IRST, though it was a certainly a part of the original internal sensor set.

It edges out Typhoon due to better strike optimisation and greater number of ‘wet’ pylons, giving a broader range of weapons fit options and potentially greater range.

 

Future Capabilities – By Jim Smith 
“What of the future? Well, who would dare to predict anything in the world of 2020? However, if the material out there in US and European future air power projections is to be believed, a system of systems approach is likely to be the key to future air power.
It seems likely that, at least from a US and European perspective, autonomous, cooperating systems of systems will form the basis of future air power. To implement this, it is likely that we would see a return to a variety of specialised platforms, rather than the current move towards fewer multi-role systems.
The driver for this is likely to be survivability. Wherever possible, systems will be unmanned and either autonomous or operated remotely. If this approach is to be believed, future manned platforms will largely be limited to a manned multi-role system such as Tempest or Future Combat Aircraft System (or their US equivalents), accompanied by a series of unmanned co-operating systems, which could include a ‘wingman’, a Neuron or Taranis platform to augment air combat capability or provide a strike platform. Other functions, such as refuelling, Electronic Attack, Electronic Intelligence, Target Detection and Geolocation, and Communications Relay, would all be delivered by specialist autonomous or remotely operated vehicles.

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Manned platforms would be limited to, perhaps, Airborne Early Warning & Control platforms, and the manned fighter aircraft, operating principally as a fighter and weapons director, controlling cooperating unmanned weapons carriers. All elements of the system would be stealthy, and linked by secure data-links, with the intent of separating command and control, sensor and weapons delivery elements.
Is this plausible? Well, technically this might be an endpoint of a road-map, and individual elements of such a system are likely to be achievable in the relatively near term.
A better question might be ‘Is such a system affordable?’ Separating the functions across 7 or 8 specialised platforms would certainly increase costs, as each would need to be designed, developed and integrated. It would also be unlikely to reduce manpower costs all that much, as experience seems to show that unmanned and autonomous systems still need to be maintained and ‘crewed’, even if the crew is not actually in the aircraft.
Among the most powerful drivers against the implementation of such a system would be its vulnerability to cyber attack through interference with communication links. Its most effective opponents are, however, likely to be the accountants in Treasury departments, who may not be swayed by survivability arguments when asked to disaggregate the functions of one multi-role platform to two, three or four specialist, stealthy and autonomous platforms.

In any case, it is perhaps a safe bet that this route will not be affordable outside the Super-Powers – China, Russia and the USA. The EU, and the UK, would, in my view, not be able to take on this approach without cooperation, and in the current climate, that seems a big ask. Maybe the first integration should be between the Tempest and Neuron or FCAS and Taranis if a European approach is to be sought.

It is also not clear how a carrier task group could accommodate such a proliferation of platforms, and it is also clear that this type of solution will not be available without very significant expenditure. So – for the UK and EU, it would be best to design FCAS and Tempest with capability growth in mind. Build growth avionics capacity and some extra volume into the initial aircraft, because more sensors, more functionality, and more roles are likely to be required. And I would not expect the USN to adopt the same solutions as the USAF – the (big) carriers might not be big enough to accommodate the system of systems approach.

Multi-role systems are likely to be of continuing value to Air Arms and countries that are not seeking world domination, but need to address local defence issues, and to deter external aggressors.”

––– Jim Smith

 

 

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5 comments

  1. Pingback: Friday NatSec Roundup - Lawyers, Guns & Money
  2. Duker

    Isnt the Typhoon described as ‘swing role’ , a higher standard than the 70s grade ‘multi role’. The difference being it can do both missions at the same time on the same sortie.
    Ever since the first fighter-bombers of WW2 which were just high powered fighters of the day without the high level double stage superchargers or turbochargers but with a few bomb shackles and a sturdier under carriage and some oleo extension, and whos only option when finding enemy fighters was to drop the lot and uses its speed to get out of there and maybe use its guns and some maneuverability. The Mosquito , amoung others , used the same airframe but with substantial changes for say bomber or night fighter missions.
    Now something like the Typhoon can carry beyond visual range weapons with a radar to support it and precision guided weapons and the avionics to find targets and doesnt need to abort one mission in order to do the other on the same sortie. Not that many airforces have that requirements in their peacetime or soft peace environment.
    Indias buying of the Rafale seems to me to be a connection to the ‘possibility’ of nuclear strike, not that the French would confirm that. ( A role that France does require itself) The Typhoon is definitely not nuclear capable even for its existing users but an expensive upgrade could make so.

    • Jim Smith

      A very fair observation. In my introductory piece I discuss the merits of a ‘swing-role’ capability, and the need for flexible planning and tasking mechanisms to support such capability. Typhoon, Rafale, F-18, F-16 and F-15 in other than US service are all Swing-role. i’d certainly expect the high-end Sukhoi derivatives and equivalent Chinese systems to have this capability, but not sure whether this is part of their operator’s doctrine. I’ll leave any comment on that to my co-authors.

  3. John Miles

    Fair play putting the Rafale top, but soon the Typhoon will outperform it measurably. The Radar 1 (or 2) AESA to fit to RAF aircraft will fully integrate modern missile capability, ECM and detection. The radars capability to operate 100 degrees off bore sight, yet still receive a BVR confirmation of kill signal from the likes of the Meteor, is to huge advantage over anything any other western aircraft can achieve. In the swing role on day one it can accept targeting data from F-22′ in the air superiority role and F-35’s in a ground attack role, and launch Taurus or Storm Shadow Cruise missiles. Then to the smaller weapons. First the Spear family of cruise missiles, including and Spear EW, followed by the Brimstone. The AESA swash plate can then rotate to face the ground, to again afford the Typhoon the widest field of regard of the ground of any western aircraft. The pilot can designate a kill zone for the Brimstone, into which 12 missiles can be fired simultaneously. The missiles detect, prioritise for heavy armour, then select separate targets each for a high precision, low collateral strikes. All of the above is soon to be augmented by the introduction of the Striker II helmet, for air superiority day or night.

    • emeraldharvest

      Well I think your right John but the problem is, the article does not seem to consider weapon loadouts, the Brimstone/SPEAR line of missiles for example are the deadliest air to ground munition in their class, effective against anything from tanks, buildings to smaller targets with lethality and range beyond essentially any other munition of its size. Then you consider, you can get 3 on one pylon! A Typhoon can carry 12+ Brimstone missiles and be effective against more targets at longer range with each one than a Rafale could with a full load-out.

      Combined with the fact the Typhoon is an air supremacy fighter that has evolved digital stealth, a two way link with its meteor which will be more capable due to the Typhoons high altitude/energy and I cannot see Rafale being comparable at all, nor any aircraft really for either interception or strike. That said, in terms of multi-role capability, the Rafale’s advantages include having variants for carrier purposes, nuclear carriage and so on.

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