Now we get to the good planes. The planes that made the cut. The planes that have the right stuff. So which will win?
First to go is the Eurofighter. This is another case of reality making an otherwise excellent fighter not work out well in practice. It should be a great choice, being optimized for air-to-air engagements first, and having what is by all accounts an excellent cockpit. In simulated dogfights, it’s even beat the Raptor a few times–and when it did the planes weren’t fitted with IRST or helmet-mounted sights. And that hints at one of the problems. Stinginess on the part of the builders because of a hippie ‘peace dividend’ has not only reduced the procurement numbers, driving up the costs, but they’ve also looked to delete things no sane person would remove. The Germans bought fighters without the suite of jammers and warning systems. The British considered deleting the gun. And everyone is dragging their feet on the latest sensors. IRST and AESA radar integration are proceeding slowly. Who knows if or when the fancy AESA radar will actually fly on production fighters–which means Borgundy might have to shoulder the cost of integration of something that really ought to come standard on a modern fighter. Plus, the fact that there are three countries as primary contractors instead of one means that you get to deal with politics and all three. Hello delays, cost overruns and a sticker price that is embarrassingly high. The Rafale is slightly less dogfight optimized than the Eurofighter, but it has one prime contracting nation that is actually upgrading, and it’s a whole lot cheaper. The Rafale also carries more. Both the Super Hornet and the Gripen are significantly cheaper as well. So, the Eurofighter gets the axe.
Next down is the cheap and cheerful Gripen. I’ll go light on the summary, because Fishbreath has written on it extensively. Suffice to say it’s cheap to buy and cheap to maintain. I could make this elimination much easier by looking at the Gripen-C that’s actually flying as opposed to the Gripen-E that has been offered/promised Brazil, but that’s hardly fair. Also, Fishbreath would whine. So, why not the Gripen-E? Well, again, where’s the radar? It’s promised an AESA unit, but very little is known. I can tell you it won’t be a very powerful unit, because power requires transmit/receive modules and the Gripen has a tiny nose. Will it be good enough? Will it have the features that we’ve come to expect on such excellent units as the APG-80? We don’t know. We could probably take a chance on the radar, but the Gripen’s small size means it’s rather payload and range limited. It’s certainly not going to be very capable of a deep interdiction tasking. In terms of dogfighting, its small size is a benefit, but it doesn’t help it as a bomb truck and we need to do both. Borgundy is also concerned about the EW systems, or rather, the lack of a strong integrated EW suite. We’d probably have to pay for more of that, especially as SEAD capability is notably absent from the Gripen-E. Honestly, the Gripen’s low cost and ease of maintenance led it to fare much better than I thought it would, but at the end of the day, we want fancier electrics and more hauling capacity.
That leaves the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which I will refer to as ‘Rhino’ like US Navy pilots and aircraft handlers, and Dassault’s Rafale. The Rhino has a significant price advantage, but otherwise they’re very similar fighters. Both have plenty of carrying capacity and hardpoints, with the edge going to Rafale for overall capacity. The Rhino has had an AESA radar for longer, and it’s currently widely in service. Rafale is just now getting those pushed out to the Armee de l’Air’s fleet. The Rhino’s radar is a bit better according to the published statistics, but the Rafale has an IRST unit. Both have a serious avionics suite built around making information easily available. Due to the IRST and the superior EW-suite, the Rafale does more with sensor fusion in it’s cockpit. On the EW front though, the Rhino beats all comers with its specialized EW-variant called the Growler, which is a phenomenal addition to the support fleet of any air force.
Handlingwise is where the Rafale edges out the Rhino though. The big Rhino could really use more engine power than it’s got, and in embiggening the Hornet, the spry handling has suffered. The Rafale has a more recent aerodynamic design and better power for its weight. The Rafale can still get decent range with conformal fuel tanks and no fewer than five hardpoints plumbed for droptanks. And, with nine other hardpoints, the Rafale is still capable of hauling a heavy warload. It’s got the interdiction capabilities, the dogfighting capabilities, and the sensor capabilities that we need. So it’s our choice for modern multir—hold on.
I appear to have forgotten one. Bugger. That won’t do at all.
It appears our conclusion was a trifle premature. Join us next time when the Rafale has a fly-off against the F-35A Lightning II.
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