Our friend Harold Hutchison posted another update to his F-35 coverage over at Strategy Page blog…We’ve cross posted here.
While the F-35 compares favorably to some of the latest European fighters, the natural question emerges: How does it fare against some of Russia’s best, particularly the Su-27/30/33/35 and later versions of the MiG-29?
The Su-27 is roughly equivalent to the F-15. Like the F-15, it started out as an air-superiority fighter. However, as the years went on, it also proved to be very capable at ground attack. There have been very few combat tests of the Su-27 family to date. The only one known of is the Ethiopia/Eritrea conflict in 1999–2000, in which it scored at least five kills. The Su-27 family usually has ten weapons pylons, a 30-millimeter cannon, and a combat radius of 1,500 kilometers. The Su-30 is comparable to the F-15E, and has 12 weapons pylons. The Su-30 has been exported to a number of countries, including Venezuela, India, China, and Malaysia. It is arguably the best fighter that the Russians have been exporting, and one of the best in the world. Algeria is acquiring 28 of these planes.
The MiG-29 is a shorter-range fighter, with six weapons pylons, a 30-millimeter cannon, and a combat radius of 700 kilometers. Like the Su-27 family, it started as an air-superiority fighter/interceptor, but it also proved capable of carrying a lot of air-to-ground ordnance. The MiG-29 is flown by a number of countries, including Poland, Russia, India, North Korea, Cuba, and Iran.
What makes both of these planes interesting is their use of an infra-red tracking system. This is often used with the R-73/AA-11 air-to-air missile. The Archer has a range of 20–40 kilometers, depending on the version, and a 16-pound warhead. Another feature of the missile is the ability to work with a helmet-mounted sight (the missile goes for whatever the pilot is looking at). These are impressive systems, enabling a MiG-29 or Su-27 to get in a shot without having to use radar. Still, will they be enough to get a better chance against the F-35 in a fight?
The F-35 has one big advantage over these fighter families from Russia. Its visability, particularly with regards to its vulnerability to being picked up on radar, is very low. While the infra-red systems are an advantage, these fighters still need to be cued in via an airborne radar plane or a ground station, and they will still have trouble picking up the F-35.
The MiG-29 and Su-27, on the other hand, are much more visible on radar. In essence, the F-35 still retains the advantage it holds over the Eurofighter, Rafale, and Gripen: It will see its targets long before its targets see it. And that will enable it to get in the first shots. With missiles like the AMRAAM and AIM-9X, the F-35 will be very likely to kill its targets before they even know an F-35 is in the area. In essence, the F-35 will have the best Russian planes outperformed, and it gets worse when one realizes that the United States Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps will combine for more F-35s than there are Flankers and Fulcrums in service.