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From The National Interest
Russia’s Su-35 fighter certainly has western defense outlets buzzing--and for good reason.
Moscow, despite heavy sanctions and an economy that has certainly seen better days, keeps pumping out new combat systems one after another--items like new tanks, submarines, nuclear weapons platforms and more.
While many were indeed designed and planned for ahead of the imposition of sanctions, Russia is clearly making a big effort to modernize its armed forces, especially its air force, and moving past older Soviet platforms. The Su-35 is a good example of such efforts.
So how would the Su-35 do against America’s best planes? How would it fare against an American air force that is clearly the best in the world. How would, for example, the Su-35 do in a combat situation against Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter? How would Russia’s new plane do against older aircraft like the F-15 or say F-16?
Such scenarios matter--and not just in the context of a possible NATO/Russia or Middle East situation, but now that Russia is set to deliver the Su-35 to China, such comparisons matter even more. There are many places where all of these lethal aircraft will overlap, making such comparisons even more timely.
Compiled below are three articles, written several years ago by TNI’s former Defense Editor, Dave Majumdar, that looks at these questions in depth, combined in one posting for your reading pleasure. With that said, let the debate begin.
While the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is slated to become the mainstay of the Pentagon’s tactical fighter fleet, not everyone nation on Earth can afford to fly an expensive fifth-generation fighter.
Even Russia and China are not likely to attempt to develop an all fifth-generation fighter fleet—instead, for the foreseeable future, the derivatives of the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker air superiority fighter will make up the bulk of their tactical air arsenals. The most potent Flanker derivative is the Su-35, which is a much-improved version with vastly improved avionics, engines and airframe. In the years ahead, this latest Flanker-E is likely to proliferate around the world.
To counter the proliferation of Flanker variants, the U.S. Air Force, Marines and to a far lesser extent, the U.S. Navy will have to rely on versions of the F-35 even though it was never intended to be an air superiority fighter. It was and continues to be a strike aircraft with a robust air-to-air self defense capability even though the Pentagon has pushed it to a be a jack-of-all-trades.
How would a group of four F-35s fare if it were confronted by a formation of four Su-35s? The most likely answer is that they would change course and call in the F-22 Raptors and F-15Cs, which are tasked with gaining and maintaining air superiority. Meanwhile, the F-35s would go on their merry way to their assigned targets.
However, as history shows us, many times in war you do not always get to chose from the most optimal of solutions. If the F-35s were left to their own devices, they would probably be alright even against the Su-35––if they played their cards right. The F-35s pilots would have to use their stealth, onboard and offboard sensors and smart tactics that play to the F-35s strengths and avoid its weakness. That means using the jet’s stealth and sensors to engage enemy fighters from beyond visual range and avoiding a visual range turning fight where the F-35 is vulnerable.
Unlike a Raptor, which was designed from the outset as an air-to-air killer par excellence—the F-35 was not. The Raptor combines a very stealthy airframe with a high altitude ceiling and supersonic cruise speeds in excess of Mach 1.8. Compared to that, the F-35 can just barely touch Mach 1.6 in full afterburner. Further, the F-22 possesses excellent maneuverability for close-in visual-range dogfights––it crushes the competition in terms of turn rate, radius, angle-of-attack and energy addition at all altitudes.
Whereas a four-ship flight of Raptors cruising at high supersonic speeds in the rarified atmosphere above 50,000 feet can effectively choose when and where to fight, a flight of slower, lower-flying F-35s might find themselves forced to react to better-performing enemy planes if they are not careful.
Moreover, the F-35 does not have the speed or altitude to impart as much launch energy to the AIM-120 air-to-air missile as the Raptor can, which means the missiles will have less range when fired from a JSF. Nor can the F-35 carry as many air-to-air missiles—which is a problem given that digital radio frequency memory jammers can wreak havoc with the AMRAAM’s guidance system.
Close in, the JSF does not have the maneuverability of the Raptor––or even a F-16 or F/A-18. If forced into a dogfight, an American F-35 pilot’s superior skills and experience might be the only factor that might save him or her from being shot down. The fact is that an F-35 in stealthy configuration armed only with internal weapons cannot currently carry the AIM-9X high off-boresight missile. If the AIM-9X were one day integrated into the weapons bays, it would come at the cost of an AIM-120 rail—which is arguably a better weapon for an aircraft like the F-35. Basically, an F-35 pilot should avoid a close in fight at all costs.
It is highly unlikely that a U.S. Joint Force Air Component Commander (JFACC) would assign an air superiority mission to an F-35 unit if alternatives were available. But given the tiny fleet of Raptors and dwindling F-15C fleet, it is possible that the JFACC could be forced to use the F-35 as an air superiority asset. However, that being said, the real threat to American air power in most regions around the world is not enemy air power—but rather advanced enemy integrated air defense systems.
The Boeing F-15C Eagle has been in service with the U.S. Air Force for nearly 40 years and will likely serve for decades to come. Over the years, the mighty F-15 has been upgraded to keep pace with evolving threats, but does the venerable Eagle still have what it takes to dominate the skies?
The answer is yes—absolutely. The Eagle may be old, but it’s still one of the best air superiority fighters flying. The only operational aircraft that is definitively superior to the F-15 in most respects is the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor—other machines have the edge in certain aspects, but the F-15C is still competitive overall despite what the business development departments at various rival contractors might say.
Perhaps the most advanced threat the F-15 is likely to encounter is the Russian-built Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E. While there are more advanced threats in development, those aircraft are likely to be too expensive to ever become commonplace. The Su-35 isn’t the most common potential threat out there, but there is a good chance it will proliferate. Indonesia has reportedly decided to purchase the Su-35, and we know that the Chinese have had discussions about a potential purchase.
The Su-35 is a genuinely dangerous war machine, and in many metrics, it matches or even exceeds the capabilities of the latest upgrades for the F-15. In terms of pure kinematic performance, the Su-35 is slightly slower than the F-15C in terms of max speed but it can out accelerate the Eagle with its powerful twin Saturn Izdeliye 117S engines, which put out 31,900lbs of thrust each. Further, when the jet is relatively lightly loaded, it can maintain supersonic speeds without the use of its afterburners.
While excellent acceleration at high altitude to supersonic speeds is a huge advantage, the F-15C is no slouch—and it wouldn’t be a decisive edge for the Russian jet. However, where the Su-35 does have an insurmountable edge is at low speeds. The Flanker-E has three-dimensional thrust vectoring and is unbelievably maneuverable at low speeds. However, given the advent of helmet mounted cuing systems and high off-boresight missiles like the AIM-9X and Russian R-73, more often than not, close in visual encounters tend to be “mutual kill” situations as many pilots can attest. A lot of it is going to come down to pilot skill and, frankly, luck.
At longer ranges, the F-15C and the F-15E still have the advantage over the Su-35 with their active electronically scanned array radars. The Raytheon APG-63 (v) 3 and APG-82 (v)1 on the two Eagle variants are still considerably superior to the Su-35S’ Tikhomirov IRBIS-E phased array radar. The Su-35 does hold a fleeting advantage for now for passive sensors since it has a built-in infrared search and track system (IRST), but the F-15 fleet will receive a very capable IRST in the near future—nullifying the Flanker’s edge.
One area the Flanker-E probably holds the edge is with its electronic warfare suite. The Su-35S boasts a potent digital radio frequency memory jamming suite that can wreck havoc with the AIM-120 AMRAAM missile. While American missiles are likely to eventually make it through, it will take many more missiles to achieve a kill than planners were counting on. The Su-35, meanwhile, carries a huge arsenal of air-to-air missiles versus the F-15 fleet’s obsolete defensive electronics. The U.S. Air Force is keenly aware of the problem, which is why it places such emphasis of on the $7.6 billion Eagle Passive/Active Warning and Survivability System upgrade.
The real dilemma is that the Su-35 and the current day F-15 Eagle are comparable—and that’s what is worrisome for the U.S. Air Force. The service is used to fighting adversaries where it has a huge technological advantage—against the Su-35 that deficit does not exist and the Flanker-E even has some advantages over the Eagle. Overall, if all things were equal, even a fully upgraded F-15C with the latest AESA upgrades would have its hands full versus the Su-35. But that would mean the United States would be fighting a war against Russia or some other great power—like China. That’s not likely to happen.
More likely to happen is that a F-15 would run into a Su-35 operated by some Third World despot. The pilots are not likely to have the training, tactics or experience to fight against an American aviator with a realistic chance of winning. Further, Russian jets are not exactly known for their reliability, combine that with poorly trained maintenance crews and lack of spare parts, some random Third World power is not likely to be able generate a fully operational jet much of the time. Furthermore, other than Russia and China, a potential adversary is not likely to have an AWACS or full ground controlled intercept capabilities—which further hampers the enemy.
Bottom line: unless the F-15 is fighting World War III, the Air Force is probably going to be ok keeping the Eagle in service for another two decades. It might not be the one-sided turkey-shoot the Air Force has gotten used to, but the United States isn’t in danger of losing air superiority.
The Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon has been the mainstay of the U.S. and allied air forces for decades. Over the years, the aircraft has evolved from a lightweight visual range dogfighter into a potent multirole warplane that flies the gamut of missions ranging from the suppression of enemy air defenses to air superiority. Though it has been operational since 1980, the “Viper” continues to evolve and will remain in service with the U.S. Air Force and other militaries for decades to come. But while the F-16 remains a potent fighter, potential adversaries have caught up—the latest Russian aircraft like the Sukhoi Su-35 can match or exceed the Viper in many respects.
While the Su-35 is more of an analogue to the Boeing F-15 Eagle, Russia is selling many more Flankers than MiG-29 Fulcrum derivatives around the world. Indeed, the U.S. Air Force usually has its “red air” aggressors replicate Flanker variants (usually the Flanker-G) rather than the MiG-29 or its derivatives during large force exercises like Red Flag or Red Flag Alaska. That’s because derivatives of the massive twin-engine Russian jet are amongst the most likely aerial adversaries American pilots might face.
The Su-35 is not the most common Flanker derivative, but it is the most capable version built to date. In the right hands—with properly trained pilots and support from ground controllers or an AWACS—the Su-35 is an extremely formidable threat to every Western fighter save for the F-22 Raptor. The F-35 would probably be ok too—if the pilots used its stealth, sensors and networking to their advantage—tactics and training makes all the difference.
What about the workhorse fleet of F-16s? The Viper doesn’t have the latest upgraded F-15C’s massive active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar nor can the F-16 usually lob the AIM-120 missile from the speeds and altitudes that the Eagle can attain. But then the F-15C was built as a dedicated air superiority fighter. Most in-service F-16s don’t have an AESA installed at all. The UAE’s advanced F-16E/Fs have the APG-80 AESA—which has excellent capability—but that’s a tiny fleet of aircraft. U.S. Air Force F-16s are not currently fitted with an AESA and are at a severe disadvantage versus the Su-35 or other advanced Flanker derivatives.
The U.S. Air Force is keenly aware of the problem. The service had intended to retrofit 300 or so F-16s with an upgrade called the Combat Avionics Programmed Extension Suite (CAPES), but that program was cancelled because of automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. Nonetheless, the Air Force knows it needs to urgently retrofit the F-16 fleet with new radars sooner rather than later.
Earlier this year, the Air National Guard issued an urgent operational need statement calling for an AESA to be installed in their F-16s performing the homeland defense mission. The radars are needed to track cruise missiles and other small, hard to detect targets. The active Air Force is also aware of the problem and issued a request for information for a new radar for the F-16 fleet in March. That same month, Air Force chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh told the House Armed Services Committee, “We need to develop an AESA upgrade plan for the entire fleet.”
The U.S. Air Force does not use the F-16 primarily as an air superiority fighter—the air-to-air mission is secondary—the AESA is needed to keep the venerable jet relevant. With an AESA, the F-16 could probably hold its own against the Su-35 at longer ranges—but it would still be a challenge.
At shorter ranges, it comes down to pilot skill and the performance of each jet’s high off-boresight missiles. The advent of missiles like the R-73 and AIM-9X have turned visual range fights into mutually assured destruction scenarios. Mutual kills are not uncommon during training sorties. While the Su-35’s thrust vectoring gives it an edge at very low speeds (mind you, low speeds mean a low energy state), it’s not an insurmountable problem for an expert F-16 pilot—who knows how to exploit his or her aircraft to the fullest—to overcome.
The bottom line is that the Su-35 and the other advanced Flankers are extremely capable aircraft. The Pentagon’s fourth-generation fighter fleet no longer enjoys a massive technological advantage as they did in years past. The United States must invest in next-generation fighters to replace the existing fleet as soon as possible.