Tag Archives: procurement

Retro Procurement: Harriers for Luchtburg?

The year is 1993. A small Central American state, wealthy by the sale of unregulated and questionably ethical banking services to nations the world around, finds the firehose of Soviet arms slowing to an occasional drip when the Russians remember they sell weaponry. At the same time, in a newly multi-polar world, with trade opportunities abounding and the demand for questionably ethical banking services skyrocketing, Luchtburg finds itself in ever higher demand. Its interests overseas grow day by day.

Its defense apparatus is poorly suited to overseas interests. Having bought primarily from the Soviets, Luchtburg has a bunch of short-ranged interceptor-type fighters and interdictor-style attack aircraft, little access to smart munitions, and a token navy based around export-model Kilos and various frigates with anti-ship missiles. Not a great force for projecting power around the world, it must be said. So what’s a newly-flush nation to do? Buy weapons from Uncle Sam, of course. Eager to flip a previously-Soviet-friendly nation to to the side of truth, justice, and the American way, the United States invites a delegation from the Luchtbourgish Ministry of Defense to talk about Luchtburg’s future role on the world stage.

The answer, of course, is aircraft carriers. The problem is, Luchtburg might be flush, but it isn’t flush enough to buy a Nimitz-class, and the Americans aren’t selling, either. What the Americans propose instead is this: buy a bunch of the brand-new Night Attack Harriers and two old, recently decommissioned LPHs: USS Iwo Jima and USS Okinawa. No Tarawas are on the table. They still have too much life in them. No Wasps either; they’re too new. The most the Americans will do is maybe build a ski jump onto the Iwo Jimas, and perhaps extend the flight deck a few feet either way.

Is it a good buy?

The Harriers

The Harriers are a no-brainer. They’re pretty much the most recent ground attack aircraft built, support tons of modern American smart weapons, and have no replacement in sight. The latter point is important, given that it means they’ll see future upgrades and maintenance over the years. Luchtburg doesn’t want to buy a dying system, and the Harrier is just hitting its stride.

In the future, the Americans may be open to selling us the AV-8B Harrier II+. The Plus model includes a radar scavenged from old US Navy Hornets, and can carry the new AMRAAM missile. Of course, we aren’t close enough to the Americans for that yet, but having a fighter with modern BVR missile capability would be a huge win for the Luchtbourgish Air Force, even if it doesn’t go supersonic.

Accident rates may be higher for the Harrier than for more conventional aircraft, but the Harrier II is still new, and the Americans are still making airframes and parts. We’ll buy a few extra, and keep a tab open with McDonnell Douglas.

The Iwo Jimas

Now for the Iwo Jima-class LPHs. This is a slightly harder question. At first glance, they look like your standard straight-deck not-quite-aircraft-carrier. Big open flight deck, deck edge elevators, hangar deck of reasonable size. The Harrier is small and the elevators and hangar are sized for biggish helicopters, so from that perspective, the Iwo Jimas are big enough.

They have some downsides, though. For one, they aren’t quite as fast as we might like, with a top speed of 21 knots. For another, they have a slight operational problem, owing to their single-shaft design. Rather than describe it, I’ll quote an evocative passage from Marines & Helicopters:

One characteristic was first noticed shortly after the Iwo Jima left the dock on 5 September 1961 for her initial tests at sea. […]

Obviously such an innovative design was going to have a number of small discrepancies on her first shakedown. The Iwo Jima did. One of the most serious was described in the initial reports as: “serious hull vibrations at high power.” […]

This characteristic vibration was never to be cured in any of the class. At about 15 knots the entire ship began to shake every time one of the blades of the screw took a bite of the water. At that speed it was slight throughout all the ship, but more pronounced in the stern and bow Marine berthing areas. As the speed increased, the vibration increased correspondingly in frequency and severity.

Embarked Marines learned to recognized it and within a short period actually could tell how fast the ship was going by the rattle of the decks. It was as if the builders had given each man aboard the vessel his own private speedometer. As the Iwo Jima and her sister ships reached 21 knots the pounding became more pronounced and was inescapable anywhere on board. To the builders this was “severe vibration at high power.” To all Marines who experienced it, it was “the twenty-one knot thump.”

Amusing, but less than ideal, and perhaps concerning for aviation operations where 20 knots of wind over the deck is already a bit less than might be desired.

Speaking of, just how well is the type actually suited to flying Harriers? Take a look at it from above, and it strongly resembles the later Tarawa type, with the exception of some more rounded deck edges. Take a measuring tape to it, though, and you’ll find that the flight deck is only 600 feet long, against 800 feet on the Tarawa. That’s not so great. How big a deal is it, exactly, though?

In a previous post, I found some reference material on Harrier takeoff rolls and worked through some examples. By the book, with a 20-knot headwind (nearely all the Iwo Jimas can muster), you can fly a 26,000-pound Harrier off of a 500-foot deck. (Figure we’ll leave a 100-foot margin to allow for easier spotting.) The Harrier II’s maximum takeoff weight is some 31,000 pounds. I suspect the book has some margin for error: in DCS, I can pretty readily get a 30,000-pound Harrier off the Tarawa with room to spare.

Still, though, the Iwo Jimas give up a lot of capacity. I think the right decision for Luchtburg is still ‘sure, throw them in’, especially given that, at this stage of their careers, they won’t cost that much more than a Harrier. Luchtburg’s shipyards can get up to speed on aircraft carrier-ish projects by building a ski jump and an aft deck extension to provide a bit more off-the-deck capability.

Cool Hornet Features

The F/A-18 Hornet is a really neat aircraft. While it didn’t win our Retro Light Fighter contest, it’s still an awesome plane with a couple unique options. Let’s take a look.

ATARS
ATARS, or Advanced Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance System, combines image capture, datalink and image storage capability in one package. It’s got both visible-spectrum and thermal cameras, two data storage units, an interface with the APG-73 radar to save synthetic aperture radar imagery, and a datalink. That datalink can transmit to any Common Imaging Ground/Surface Station compatible system. The coolest part about ATARS is that the package fits in the gun bay of a F/A-18D, so it doesn’t require a big, heavy, draggy pod.

Night Attack Variant
The Guy in the Back isn’t a very popular feature amongst fighter pilots. The regular -D model Hornet has the usual second set of flight controls there. But under the Night Attack program, these were replaced with a dual-sidestick layout of the back seat cockpit of the Strike Eagle. Also, the center Multipurpose Color Display and Upfront Controller were transposed. This gave a position optimized for using the targeting pod and guiding weapons. I’m surprised Fishbreath hasn’t gone for this more, being a carrier-capable, smaller, cheaper strike fighter. The Night Attack layot could be swapped back to a conventional trainer rear cockpit, with center stick and throttles. This was not common practice though.

Griffin III: OMFV Frontrunner?

At AUSA 2018, we saw three possible candidate vehicles for the OMFV Bradley Replacement: BAE’s CV90 Mk. IV, Rheinmetall/Raytheon’s Lynx, and General Dynamics’ Griffin III. Of these, the Griffin III looks to be the frontrunner right now, in so far as it very closely matches what the US Army says it wants. Let’s take a look.

Griffin III is based on the ASCOD hull. This checks our already in service box; the ASCOD is used by Spain and Austria, and was the basis for Britain’s Ajax (and related family of vehicles). It is a newer chassis than the CV90, which is also in service in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and some other places. The Lynx is not in service in any version anywhere, which is points against it, though it is also a contender in Australia’s new IFV competition.

Both the CV90 Mk IV and Lynx have 35mm guns. However, US Army really wants a 50mm. Both BAE and Rheinmetall claim to be able to oblige. General Dynamics, on the other hand, went ahead and mounted the XM913 50mm gun in their AUSA show vehicle. General Dynamics also has a turret design with an incredible +85/-20 elevation range, which looks pretty spectacular on a show floor and is expressly directed at urban warfare scenarios that the US Army worries about. A near-vertical autocannon looks great for anyone who remembers Grozny.

Continuing to hit all the cool future features, General Dynamics has partnered with Aerovision for UAV integration. The Griffin III comes with a nine tube vertical launcher for Aerovision’s Switchblade UAV/Missile, with all the related digital datalink equipment installed. The turret can also accommodate ATGMs, but these weren’t fitted for the show model.

Additional systems fitted for the show model were the Iron Fist (hard kill) APS system, with associated radars and launchers, a gunshot locating system, and Armorworks Tacticam multispectral camouflage. A situational awareness system (i.e. a whole bunch of cameras) was also fitted. I’d guess it’s Leonardo DRS’ system, but this wasn’t stated.

Protection levels are not clear yet. At the show, the Griffin III model as configured weighed about 38 tonnes. With all of the supplemental armor kits mounted, the vehicle would weigh about 50 tonnes.

In terms of capacity, the Griffin III is at a bit of a disadvantage, being designed around no more than six dismounts, where the CV90 can accommodate eight and the Lynx can hold nine. But the US Army has stated that it’s happy enough with a lower capacity vehicle. Their documents indicate that six or even five dismounts is acceptable, and their plans call for a six vehicle platoon with five dismounts in each one.

Let’s also talk about the crewing needs. General Dynamics designed the Griffin III to have space for a three man crew, but automation and crew aids sufficient to enable a two man crew. They’ve done a good job of hedging their bets, being prepared to deliver the future-looking vehicle the Army says it wants, but being prepared for a more conservative design if that ends up winning out.

It’s still really early in the race, and the US Army might change the requirements somewhat. But it’s clear that General Dynamics did their homework when putting the Griffin III together. They seem to have a reasonable idea of what the Army wants, and what tradeoffs they might be willing to accept.

The OMFV Program

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. The US Army is looking to replace it’s Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles with…

Okay, yeah. We’ve been down this road a few times. And we at the Soapbox are super skeptical. But let’s look at this “Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle” anyway.

Obviously, it’s supposed to do double duty as a UGV. Not really a surprise there. We do have some ground drone kits, so that might work out okay.

It’s also supposed to be “better” than the Bradley in terms of protection, dash speed, and lethality. Unsurprising. Better can be kind of an annoying word though, because it make you vulnerable to the sort of Lucy-with-the-football stuff we’ve seen before.

Hopefully continuing the trend of this program having some restrictions in it to help it actually go somewhere, the Army is keenly interested in buying something that’s a derivative of someone else’s already-in-service vehicle.

We also see that they’re looking to fit a pair of the new OMFVs in a C-17, giving a maximum weight of about 38.75 tonnes. Or can be stripped down to that weight. Again, this is pretty reasonable given the capacity they want, which we’ll get to in a minute.

The fun begins when we look at the manning numbers. The US Army is specifically requesting a crew of 2 and capacity for 5 dismounts. Let’s look at those in turn.

A crew of two means some faith in your sensors and computer systems for observation and fire control. In practice, this means distributing the gunner’s work between the computers, the driver, and the commander. There have been tests of two-man armored fighting vehicle crews in Germany, the United States, and Israel going back to the 90s. The conclusion has been that it works if you had quality situational awareness aids (i.e. electronic sensors with some computer systems for ‘sensor fusion’), and faith that those aids would actually work. The Israelis have been working on a next gen combat vehicle called the Camel, which also has a crew of two. So it’s very possible, but it requires some forward thinking. Big Army is not usually fond of being forward thinking, so good on them.

Five dismounts is a bit more than half of the old GCV’s goals. It’s nice to see the Army realizing what gave them so much trouble last time and trying something else. Five dismounts reduces the size of the armored volume. It also is smaller than the standard six-man dismount capability that seems to be the common standard. The army is not changing the number of dismounts per platoon though; they’re planning to have six OMFVs in each platoon.

I’m coming around to the idea of smaller, well-protected vehicles with fewer dismounts. I’m a little skeptical of a platoon of six vehicles with thirty dismounts though. That seems a lot for one platoon commander (probably some Lt.) to manage. Maybe modern technology makes it easier. Maybe they plan to give platoon command to some other rank. Or maybe they know something I don’t.

Looking for STARS

No, this doesn’t involve a trip to the Arklay mountains. Today, we’re looking into aerial systems for monitoring ground combat and enemy forces, also known as ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance). This is an often-overlooked capability, and while such systems are not foolproof, not having them can lead to a lot of embarrassment. The notion was a key part of late-Cold War Airland Battle tactics, where ISR platforms could provide targeting data for long range weapons to atrit Soviet forces before they made contact with friendly ground troops.

In terms of current capabilities, the United States has the only serious capability worth writing home about, using the E-8C JSTARS. These put a powerful, GMTI/SAR capable radar on a Boeing 707 airframe. They have proven to be extremely effective when deployed, and were sorely missed by the Europeans during their recent Libya “intervention.”1 Of course, we can’t just buy these, because the 707 is long since out of production. Also, the USAF hasn’t really decided how it wants to proceed to replace or recondition the E-8Cs. We’ll look at other people’s ISR platforms as well as things that were proposed to replace the JSTARS.

The UK operates four Sentinel R1s, built by adding the appropriate radar systems to a Bombardier Global Express business jet. This is a relatively low-cost airframe, being a business jet, though the usual UK small orders means the net result is still going to be expensive. Also, lots of the analysis and battle management workstations are ground-based, for better and for worse. A Global Express 6000 derivative was one of the proposals for a JSTARS replacement.

Brazil has deployed three R-99s, ERJ-145 conversions with the appropriate SAR capable radar, to monitor illicit narcotics tracking and other illegal activities in the Amazon basin as part of the SIVAM. Unfortunately, I don’t know that much about the radar system deployed, and this one wasn’t proposed for the JSTARS replacement, so it’s not using that particular radar package.

Gulfstream also has an offering to replace the JSTARS that is based on their G550 SEMA variant, though with more radar focus than EW-focus. The SEMA version of the G550 is in use by the Israeli air force and has recently been purchased by Australia. There’s also a significantly reworked G550 variant, originally used with Conformal Early Warning2 arrays by the Israeli air force in the AEW&C role. The CAEW variant has also been purchased by the US Navy for monitoring their missile test ranges, and is to be reworked by L3 with electronic warfare systems in the conformal fairings to replace the EC-130H Compass Call in USAF service.

Boeing has a 737-derivative, which is pretty similar to the P-8, other than having a radar optimized for a different mission. Radar options for the JSTARS replacement proposal were similar to those of the bizjets. Annoyingly, the product page for this is no longer on Boeing’s website. The strangest thing about Boeing’s proposal (sparse as the details are) is that it didn’t do all that much to take advantage of the extra space, weight, and power capabilities of the 737 platform.

At the end of the day, 8-10 analysts doesn’t require a 737, and if you’re not going to load it up with a big radar, you can go with a smaller, more fuel-efficient jet.

Let’s also talk about the Global Hawk. The RQ-4B Block 40/RQ-4D variants come equipped with a small version of the MP-RTIP radar originally intended for the E-10A. That’s a pretty fantastic radar, and the RQ-4D3 is the highest-flying option. It does not operate in adverse weather conditions though.

Alright, let’s get picking. We’re going to want some RQ-4Ds because of that fantastic radar and because it’s a pretty natural fit for a UAV. There’s a big NATO buy at the moment, and we’d like to get in on that model. We’re also going to want a manned option though, which means we’re going to have to sort through the business jet contenders. In terms of radar systems, all of the JSTARS replacement offerings had a similar radar fit, which doesn’t help us much. According to the Business & Commercial Aviation 2018 buyer’s guide, the G550 is a little cheaper than the Global Express 6000, but the difference is probably too small to matter.

What is different is that there are a lot more military G550 variants in service. There’s also the flight tested CAEW airframe, which is useful for a few other purposes besides the AEW&C role it was originally intended for. So we’ll go with that one, since it gives us a few more options for related aircraft down the line. We especially like the idea of an electronic attack version.


  1. Or whatever we’re calling “it’s not a war because shut up” these days. 
  2. If I was going to go with a business jet derivative for AEW&C the G550 CAEW would be it, because it has a pretty nice radar, and the conformal array fit is cool. But the Wedgetail radar is a more powerful one. 
  3. The RQ-4B Block 40 that a bunch of NATO partner nations are buying. Because that totally deserves a new designation. 

Maritime Patrol Aircraft

Today we’re talking maritime patrol aircraft. There are two on the market worth looking at: Boeing’s P-8 Poseidon and Kawasaki’s P-1. Let’s look at them both and see what we like.

The Poseidon was designed to replace the P-3 Orion, and the P-8 is based on the Boeing 737-800ERX, which means it has the fuselage from the 737-800 and the wings from the 737-900. So it’s based on a recent model of a very popular airliner, which keeps airframe costs down and ensures a good supply of future spare parts. The Poseidon has a weapons bay located behind the wing, with five weapons hardpoints. An additional six hardpoints are under the wings. This bay might seem a little small, but you can’t actually put the bay between the wings, because that’s where the structure is to support the wings.

Sensorwise, the P-8A is equipped with the APY-10 multi-mission surface search radar, plus facilities for a large number of sonobuoys, and an EO/IR ball turret. It even has a sensor to detect emissions from diesel ships and submarines. In its standard, USN model, it does not have a magnetic anomaly detector (MAD). This was per a NAVAIR request to reduce weight and improve range. It also allows for a higher-altitude flight profile that is more fuel efficient, especially for an airliner-derived platform. In turn, the lack of MAD has been frequently criticized. It should be noted that this shouldn’t be seen as an indictment of the platform; regardless of what you think of the US Navy’s decision the P-8 can be equipped with a MAD, and the version for India has been sold with one.

The P-1 was also designed to replace the Orion, and it took a notably different path. It’s about the same size as the Poseidon, but it’s optimized for lower-altitude flying, with less-swept wings. It’s equipped with advanced avionics, including a fly-by-light flight control system, an HPS-106 AESA surveillance radar, and a magnetic anomaly detector standard. It has eight internal and eight external hardpoints for weapons. It does not have provision for midair refueling.

In terms of comparatives, the P-1 has more weapons capacity, and flies the traditional lower altitudes of the P-3 Orion. The P-8 is a higher altitude aircraft, for better and for worse. The P-8 has a big edge in terms of costs, being based on a currently-produced airliner, being in higher-rate production, and having tons of spares readily available. The popularity of the 737 platform will mean that there will be a large supply of future spares too.

And, like everyone else who has looked at these two, we’re going with Poseidon. Which begs the question, to MAD or not to MAD? I’m going to hedge here, because I really want to see some data or some test results, but I don’t have them as an armchair strategist. I’ll tentatively say “With MAD”, understanding that I’m open to data that I don’t have right now showing that it’s really not needed.

Choosing and Buying an AEW&C Platform

Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C, often colloquially called AWACS even though that’s a specific system for the role) is what separates the Serious Air Forces from the cut-rate posers. The idea is to take a large airframe, usually a jetliner, put a big radar on it, and then have a bunch of people sitting at computers to coordinate your sorties. All the benefits of GCI in a portable package!

A large part of picking a platform is determining your constraints. We’re looking for a land-based platform that’s relatively low cost to operate and can handle a good number of friendly and enemy aircraft. For this reason, we’re going to look at the larger class of AEW&C platforms.

As a brief aside, the smaller platforms are the Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye, and a number of business jet derivatives. The Hawkeye is the only decent carrierborne AEW&C platform available, so if we were looking to build a naval air arm, that’s what we’d pick for the purpose.

The obvious large AEW&C platform is the E-3 Sentry. However, it is built on a Boeing 707-derived airframe, and these are no longer in production. No luck there. This problem also presented itself to the Japanese when they were looking for a larger platform to supplement their Hawkeyes in the 1990s.

Boeing obliged with the E-767, which puts the radar and computers from the E-3 onto a 767-200 airframe. The resulting widebody has space for up to 19 controller consoles, though I couldn’t find a great source on how many the JASDF use. It still uses the same radar as on the Sentry, albeit with upgrades. Also, as presently configured, it has no aerial refueling capability.

About a decade later, Boeing responded to an Australian RFP with a new design: the E-7A Wedgetail. This aircraft is based on the 737-700 airframe, and mounts Northrop Grumman’s Multirole Electronically Scanned Array radar. This is an actively scanned array, so it doesn’t need to rotate. It does posses aerial refueling capability, and is capable of mounting up to twelve controller consoles. At present, Australia has fitted ten consoles.

In terms of bigger platforms, these are the contenders. More consoles on the E-767 means it can coordinate more friendly aircraft. The more advanced MESA radar on the Wedgetail lets it refresh scans of regions faster and adjust power to focus on particular sectors with longer-ranged scans. It’s also able to handle simultaneous air and surface search. and the actively scanned array should be better at ECCM.

You can probably see where this is going. We’re opting for the E-7A Wedgetail. It’s even the cheaper option of the two. It’s telling that Wedgetail has had several export successes since being sold to the Australians. It’s also telling that the E-767 is absent from most of Boeing’s current marketing materials.

Choosing a Tanker Aircraft

Tanker aircraft are a requirement for any serious projection of airpower. And no one ever has enough of them. So let’s go get some.

Previously, the standard in aerial refueling was the KC-135, a close relative of the classic Boeing 707. Today, there are two different airframes available for tankers. There is the Boeing 767 and the Airbus A330. The 767 has two tanker derivatives: the KC-767, which is derived from the 767-200ER and is in use by Italy and Japan; and the KC-46A, which is based on the 767-200LRF1 and is in use by the United States and Japan. Note that the KC-46A is bigger than the KC-767, and carries more fuel. The A330-MRTT is the tanker derivative of the A330, and it is bigger than the KC-46A.

Now on to the choices. We know from the USAF tanker proposals that the 767 options have a lower projected life cycle cost than the A330-MRTT. For many export customers, this is outweighed by the greater fuel and cargo capacity of the Airbus. On the other hand, the 767s smaller size means it can operate out of smaller airfields. It is closer in size to the KC-135R, for those looking for a direct replacement, or just trying to picture sizes.

For us, we’d also point out the massive USAF buy of KC-46As as points in its favor, since that will mean the type will get more future upgrades and development money, if only to keep the US fleet going. Further, 767s are Boeing aircraft, and have a flight envelope not restricted by the flight computer. We prefer this.

So we’re going with the KC-46A. It’ll get the upgrades, and Boeing is still making 767s for the civilian market, which is a plus. We expect to be able to cannibalize ex-civilian airliners for parts and airframes for years after the type is formally retired (as was done with the KC-135), but the longer we can go before having to do this the better.


  1. Which is actually quite a bit different from the 767-200ER. 

Choosing a Jet Trainer

While not glamorous, jet trainers are an important part of an air force’s inventory. And with the US Air Force looking for a replacement for its venerable T-38s, I thought I might do likewise. As always, we’re looking for something off the shelf, which is doubly important for a trainer. A trainer’s most important evaluation criterion is cost; it should be cheap to buy and cheap to operate. It should, however, have a reasonably sophisticated cockpit so students can start learning on the sorts of instruments they’ll see on your front line fighters, as this will reduce training time there.

Cost is always a hard thing for the armchair strategist to analyze, however recently Poland sought a new trainer. Looking at their tender, we can get an excellent idea of relative costs, since Poland makes none of the three leading contenders. They compared the current model of BAE’s Hawk trainer, Alenia’s M-346, and Korean Aerospace’s T-50. All three are new-build aircraft, complete with modern comforts like glass cockpits. Costs for the bid (for a fixed initial number of aircraft) broke down as follows: M-346: 1.168 billion złoty, Hawk: 1.754 billion złoty, and T-50: 1.803 billion złoty. The M-346 won in Poland. It has also won a similar comparison in Singapore, but I don’t have their competitive bids to examine.

We might next ask if we ask anything more of our trainer. Some smaller air forces have trainers that are tasked to also be light attack aircraft. Were this the case, like any other tender we’d start discussing payload and compatible weapons fit. However, since we do not have such a role in mind for our trainer, we do not need to make such comparisons.

Since the M-346 is our lowest-cost option that meets our capability requirements, the M-346 is our choice.

Retro Air Force Procurement II: Lightweight Fighter Edition

It’s time for another classic showdown. Let’s look at two competing lightweight fighters. Specifically, the F-16 Viper and the F/A-18 Hornet. We’re going to keep this fair, so we’re generally looking at older Vipers, from back when both were in production. For a mid 90s procurement challenge, we’re going to have the F/A-18C/D Hornets go up against the F-16C/D Block 50/52 Vipers.

The F-16 was the fighter that (re)popularized the light fighter concept. It’s relatively small, has one engine, and a reasonable amount of capability. For a western fighter, it’s pretty cheap too. One engine means that the maintenance and support costs are going to be lower. Plus, it’s engine is common with that of the F-15, which is awesome if you operate the bigger type. It has possibly the most cockpit visibility ever. It can do any mission you please. It’s great.

The F/A-18 Hornet brings something a little different to the table. It’s got two engines, a navy-grade undercarriage, and some really fancy avionics for the time. The Hornet was small and advanced, but it cost more both to buy and to maintain. It’s also multirole, and was the first aircraft to shoot down enemy aircraft with missiles and complete a bombing mission on the same sortie in the Persian Gulf War. It’s also got great cockpit visibility.

So let’s break this down:

  • Cost: Viper. Duh. Viper is cheaper to buy, cheaper to fly. Has just the one engine. And it’s the same engine used in the F-15, which is a big bonus if you also operate Eagles, because then you don’t need to add another engine’s parts to the support list. And we do operate Eagles.

Looking at FY98 prices for both (using total program cost for each, because that’s what I happened to find), Vipers will run $26.9M and Hornets will run $39.5M.

  • Cockpit Systems: Hornet. The Hornet has three displays compared to the Viper’s two, and they’re bigger displays at that. The Hornet can run a moving map display too, which is really cool.

  • Engine Power: Viper. Even though it only has one engine compared to the Hornet’s two, the Viper has a lot more thrust, and a pilot can use this thrust to get out of trouble. Or take off quickly.

  • Low-Speed Handling: Hornet. The Hornet is a fantastically high-alpha jet. It performs well at low speeds and high angles of attack, so it’s a great turning dogfighter.

These two previous points mean that while the two aircraft fight very differently, they’re both very capable machines. Practical dogfight capability is a draw.

  • Targeting Pods: Viper. Both aircraft have access to the full range of NATO FLIR targeting pods like LITENING, which use infrared-spectrum cameras and lasers to identify targets. However, the Viper can also mount the ASQ-213 HARM Targeting System pod, which allows for identification of type, bearing, and most importantly range of enemy radars. Accurate range data allows the AGM-88 HARM to be used more effectively.

  • Weapons Fit: Tie. Both aircraft can operate a wide variety of ordinance, with no significant differences between the two.

  • Jamming Systems: Tie. Mostly because both can mount modern ECM pod options, and those are a pain to compare with unclassified data. So we’ll call it a wash.

  • Towed Decoys: Viper. The Viper can be equipped with the ALE-50 towed decoy system. While the bigger Super Hornet can also be so equipped, the standard Hornet cannot.

  • Naval Capability: Hornet. If you want to operate your fighters off of carriers, the Hornet is CATOBAR capable and the Viper isn’t.

  • Twin Engines: Hornet. Lots of Hornet export customers like the twin-engine reliability, since they have big, foreboding, sparsely-populated regions. Like with Naval capability, if this is important to you, the Hornet gains points.

  • Radar Range, Track Fighters: Viper. Based on totally shady open-source materials, I’ve found the maximum radar range to track a small fighter to be 80 km for the Block 50/52 Viper (with the APG-68(V)7 radar) and 72 km for the F/A-18C Hornet.

  • Radar Range, Track Bombers: Hornet. The same source gives the F/A-18C Hornet a maximum radar range to track bombers to be 150 km and the Block 50/52 Viper with APG-68(V)7 radar a maximum tracking range of 140 km.

  • Recon: Hornet. The Viper requires a camera pod for reconnaissance missions. The Hornet can replace the gun and ammo package with a reconnaissance camera package,

  • Pending Upgrades: Viper. In the above, I’ve compared what was flying in 1998 for both aircraft. However, both Greece and Israel were looking to buy some Vipers, and a number of improvements were offered. Specifically, the Apg-68(V)9 radar and removable conformal fuel tanks were available for F-16s ordered in 1998, and both of these features were purchased by the Israelis.

Okay, so where do we come down for Borgundy? We’re going to go with the Viper. The Viper provides excellent multirole capability while also being relatively low cost to purchase and operate. As a bonus, it can have common engines with our Eagle/Strike Eagle fleet. In the late 90s, the Viper is not only super popular in the export market, but it also continued to see development. It does a good enough job at everything we’d like it to do, while also being cheaper than the competition. It’s superior SEAD functionality is a bonus, as we take that mission seriously.

Note that while I picked 1998 as the year for this, mostly because I had price data for that year, the conclusion is similar for other Hornet/Viper matchups of similar vintage. The key differentiators that would push for a Hornet buy are naval aviation (or a naval/land common fighter project) or large remote spaces that would lead to a favoring of a twin-engine design. Neither of which applies for Borgundy, unless the United States wanted to sell one of their (likely conventional powered) carriers to us as well.