This page attempts to compare the combat performance of fighter aircraft of the 2000s.
Specifically, it compares their capabilities as air superiority fighters, that is, fighting other fighter aircraft, which is generally a harder task than shooting down aircraft which are not fighters.
For conciseness, this page considers only fighter aircraft manufactured in 2000 and those that are planned to be manufactured later in the decade. Older aircraft are likely to be less capable than the aircraft in this survey. Two promising Russian aircraft, the MiG-35 and Sukhoi Su-47 Berkut will also not be included, as there is not enough reliable information available about their performance and no assurance that they will ever go into service with any air force. The aircraft included are:
What makes a good fighter?
In air-to-air combat, a fighter has to get into a good position to fire its weapons at an enemy fighter. (Or at least it has had to in the past; in the future it may well be that the increased range, speed, and maneuverability of air-to-air missiles means the maneuverability of the fighter doesn't matter, and you may as well use a slow, lumbering passenger jet as your missile carrier).
If a fighter can turn faster than its opponent, it will find it easier to get into a good position, for example behind its opponent. If a fighter has high speed and great acceleration, it will be able to choose whether or not to engage a less capable opponent. It will also have more chance of outmaneuvering or outrunning a missile that is locked on to it.
When aircraft turn, such as when they perform high-g maneuvers typical of air-to-air combat, they lose speed. The better their acceleration, the quicker they can pick up this speed again.
An aircraft's acceleration is calculated as its thrust minus its drag, divided by its mass. A good measure of comparative acceleration is a plane's thrust to weight ratio (note that if this is greater than 1, the aircraft is capable of flying vertically upwards).
An aircraft's ability to turn can be approximately gauged by its wing loading. This is the mass of the aircraft divided by the area of the wings. The bigger the wings, the easier it is for them to push the aircraft in a direction other than that it is curently travelling. Note that some aircraft use thrust vectoring, where the exhaust from the engines doesn't go straight backwards but can be tilted up or down (and sometimes also left to right). The purpose of thrust vectoring is to increase maneuverability.
Table of thrust-to-weight ratio and wing loading
| ||Thrust/ |
|Rafale F2 ||1.04 ||320 || |
|Typhoon ||1.18 ||311 || |
|F-2 ||0.89 ||430 || |
|MiG-29SM ||1.13 ||411 || |
|Su-27 || || || |
|Gripen ||0.94 ||341 || |
|F/A-22 ||1.27 ||320 ||max takeoff wt; thrust vectoring |
|F-35A ||0.83 ||446 || |
- values are at normal takeoff weight unless otherwise specified
It is a truism that "amateurs talk about tactics, dilettantes talk about strategy, professionals talk about logistics". The best fighter in the world is useless unless it is available where it is wanted, when it is wanted.
Cost and Availability
The more an aircraft costs to buy, the fewer units of it can be afforded and vice versa as contractors decide to charge more for lower quantities. Another aspect of availability is that some exporting nations limit who they will sell aircraft to for political motives. Generally, the USA tends to be the most fussy about who it will sell to, and Russia and China the least fussy. Information about aircraft costs is hard to get hold of. Because of inflation, one must also include the year that a cost refers to; figures are in USD unless otherwise specified.
- Typhoon Austrian version: '03 € 62m
- Mitsubishi F-2 US$ 100m
- MiG-29 about '98 US$ 27m
- Sukhoi Su-27US$ 24m
- Sukhoi Su-30 US$ ~38m (Several variants)
- Sukhoi Su-30K for Indonesia: '98 US$ 33m
- Sukhoi Su-30MKI for India, highly specified version: '98 US$ 45m
- Gripen about '98 US$ 25m
- Ching Kuo initially large order put cost per unit at US$ 24m
- F-15 '98 US$ 43m
- F-16 late models about '98 US$ 25m
- F-18 E/F model '98 US$ 60m
- F/A-22 '03 US$ 152m, based on production run of 276 aircraft costing US$ 42bn
- F-35 planned costs, based on version, in '94:
- F-35A US$ 28m
- F-35B US$ 35m
- F-35C US$ 38m
Range and runways
| ||range, |
|Rafale F2 || ? ||1850 || ? ||400, 300 || |
|Typhoon || ? ||1389 ||3706 || ?, ? || |
|F-2 || ? ||834 || ? || ?, ? || |
|Gripen || ? ||834 || ? ||400, 500 || |
|F/A-22 || ? || ? || ? || ?, ? || |
|F-35A ||1000? || ? || ? || ?, ? || |
|F-35B ||1000? || ? || ? || ?, 0 ||STOVL |
|F-35C ||1000? || ? || ? ||carrier || |
- explanations of the columns, in order:
- the range the aircraft can travel to, on a typical air superiority mission, with 10 minutes loiter over the target, using only internal fuel, travelling at high altitude (which conserves fuel), returning to its airbase after the mission
- the same, using external fuel (drop tanks) as well
- the range the aircraft can travel when moving to a different airbase
- the length of runway the aircraft needs to take off and land
How many hours of servicing does the aircraft require per hour of flight?
Britain's Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (now split into QinetiQ and DSTL) did an operational evaluation comparing the Typhoon with some other modern fighters in how well they performed against an expected adversary aircraft, the Sukhoi Su-35. Due to the lack of information gathered on the 5th generation combat aircraft and the Su-35 during the time of this study it is not meant to be considered official.
The study used real pilots flying the JOUST system of networked simulators. Various western aircraft were put in simulated combat against the Su-35. The results were:
These results mean, for example, that in simulated combat, 4.5 Su-35s were shot down for every Typhoon lost.
The "F/A-18+" in the study was apparently not the current F/A-18E/F, but an improved version. All the western aircraft in the simulation were using the AMRAAM missile, except the Rafale which was using the MICA missile.
One must bear in mind that the full details of the simulation have not been released, making it hard to verify whether it gives an accurate evaluation of the capabilities of these aircraft (for instance, whether they had adequate knowledge of the Sukhoi and Raptor to realistically simulate their combat performance).
Combat performance is often down to pilot training rather than aircraft capabilities. A list of all combats involving these aircraft:
- During the 1991 Gulf War, USAF F-15s shot down 5 Iraqi MiG-29s
- On January 17, 1993, a USAF F-16 shot down a MiG-29 in Iraqi no-fly zone. (Some sources claim it was a MiG-23.)
- In February 1999, Ethiopian Su-27s (believed flown by Ukrainians) shot down 2 Eritrean MiG-29s (believed flown by Russians)
- During the 1999 Kosovo War, a Netherlands F-16 shot down 1 Yugoslavian MiG-29; USAF F-15s shot down 4 MiG-29s
- Fighter "non-comparison" table (http://www.canit.se/%7Egriffon/aviation/text/fighters/fighters.html) - compares fighters, and contains links to other aviation topics
- aeronautics.ru (http://www.aeronautics.ru/nws002/military_aircraft_prices.htm) showing estimated aircraft prices
- StrategyPage report on F-15 vs. Su-35 comparison (http://www.strategypage.com//fyeo/howtomakewar/default.asp?target=HTMURPH.HTM)