In this week's edition of FJFC we look at a classic scenario pitting an up-and-coming star against a grizzled old veteran. The Lockheed-Martin F-35 is the new kid in town, looking to make a name for itself. A product of the Xbox generation, this kid played Call of Duty on a plasma screen, not Cops and Robbers in the backyard. While its being promoted as "the next big thing" in fighter aircraft, many remain unimpressed. Some say that it has only gotten this far due to "friends in high places" and a few greased palms.
Unlike the new kid, many think the F-15 Eagle's best days are behind it. Despite many years as the reigning champion, it has been surpassed by another prizefighter, the F-22. This, despite the fact that the F-22's fights have all been fixed and real challengers ignored. Some even say that the F-22 has issues that make it impossible to work with.
The F-15 has not been sitting idly by, however. The Boeing Bruiser keeps going to the gym and has learned new techniques. It has changed with the times and has managed to reinvent itself, not once, but twice. When times called for a heavyweight fighter-bomber to replace the F-111, the F-15 gulped down some raw eggs and beefed up to become the F-15E Strike Eagle. Now, with stealth all the rage, the F-15 has spent some time in the meat locker punching up sides of beef, still hungry for a fight. Now billed as the F-15SE Silent Eagle, is it ready to relive some of its previous glory?
Everyone should know the rules by now. Everything works as advertised and costs don't really matter.
In this corner... Hailing from Fort Worth, Texas, weighing in at 29,000 pounds (empty)... THE LIGHTNING KID!
And in this corner... Hailing from Saint Louis, Missouri... Weighing in at 31,700 pounds (empty)... THE BOEING BRAWLER!
LET'S GET READY TO RUMBLE!!!
Interdiction/Penetration: To put it simply, this will always be the F-35's category. It was made for this. It is very likely that the only platform to outscore it here would be the B-2. The F-22 may be stealthier, but its ground attack ability is quite limited.
Against any other fighter, the Silent Eagle might come out on top here. It is said to be nearly as stealthy as the F-35 from the front (the angle most likely to be pointing at the enemy). From the sides, top, bottom, and rear... No so much. Being "almost" as stealthy as the F-35 from the front does not equal "as stealthy" as a F-35 all over.
The JSF wins this one. Being sneaky is its "killer app". Advantage: F-35
Deep Strike: Like the prizefighter who refuses to retire, the F-15SE has endurance. Even without external fuel tanks, the Silent Eagle's combat radius more than enough to get the job done in "stealth mode". When that is not enough, the ability to add extra fuel by way of CFTs or external drop tanks make sure that the F-15SE can go the full twelve rounds.
Lockheed-Martin marketing materials like to play up the F-35's range compared to fighters like the CF-18 and F-16. While this is certainly the case, fighters like the CF-18 and F-16 were always meant to be short range aircraft, acting alongside longer-legged fighters like the F-14 and F-15. When compared against newer fighters like the Typhoon, Rafale, and Super Hornet; the JSF's range is about average. What really hurts the F-35 here is the lack of any sort of external fuel carriage. Older style tanks were found to have "separation issues" (meaning they crash into the aircraft when released). A newer bowling pin shaped tank did little to solve the problem in wind tunnel tests.
Even without external tanks, the Silent Eagle wins this one. The ability to mount CFTs and drop tanks make this entirely lopsided in favor of the old veteran. Advantage: F-15SE, clear winner
Payload: The F-35 can certainly punch well for its weight class. It can carry a respectable 18,000lbs worth of ordinance on 10 hardpoints. Each of its two internal weapon bays can carry up to a 2,000lb JDAM. If you need to fit a "bunker buster" into a medium size fighter, the JSF is just about your only option.
The Silent Eagle is only able to carry a 1,000lb JDAM in each conformal weapon bay (CWB), so its sneak attack does not have the same authority as the F-35. When not being sneaky, the F-15SE can carry a 23,000lb barrage. When the JSF is done for the day, the Silent Eagle still has plenty of fight left.
While the Boeing Brawler might not have a better sucker punch than the Lightning Kid, it can keep the punches coming all day. Advantage: F-15SE
Close-air-support: The F-35 is slated to replace the A-10. A lot of people think this is not a good idea. While the F-35 is equipped with precision targeting capability, most would agree it is not a very robust aircraft. In fact, in an effort to shave 11 pounds from the aircraft, the JSF is now quite vulnerable to ground fire.
Yeah... This one is no contest. Advantage: F-15SE, clear winner because it doesn't explode when shot with small arms fire.
Air-to-ground winner: If being sneaky is what you need, than the F-35 really is the best thing going. If, however, you need to blow a lot of stuff up, really far away, while getting shot at yourself, the Silent Eagle is the way to go. Winner: F-15SE Silent Eagle.
First look, first kill: This is another round that is going to favor stealthy aircraft. The F-35 looks like it could make a comeback after a quick motivational speech by its trainer at the corner. The Lightning Kid comes out with quick uppercut before the Boeing Brawler even has its gloves up...
The F-15SE knows this trick. It has its own stealth treatments, especially on the front where it counts. While it may not be as stealthy, it makes up for it with a bigger AESA radar. The F-35 will have an easier time finding the Silent Eagle, but it will have to sneak past the F-15SE radar and IRST in order to get a shot off, at which time it will more than likely give away its position.
The F-15SE mounts an AN/APG-82 AESA radar that is basically the AN/APG-79 used in the Super Hornet with a much larger "dish". While the F-35's AN/APG-81 might be more "advanced" it is roughly the same size as the AN/APG-79 and seems doubtful it can overcome the size difference. The JSF's EOTS and DAS are roughly equivalent to the Silent Eagle's Sniper XR pod and IRST. Advantage: Tie
Beyond visual range: The F-15 has an undefeated streak of over 100 to nothing. Most of it coming from BVR knockouts. Time for the Lightning Kid's trainer to give it some advice: Throw in the towel while you still have a chance.
The F-15SE flies substantially faster and higher. It carries the same amount of AMRAAMs internally as the F-35, but missiles launched with more energy (i.e.: faster and higher) have a much better probability of kill (pK). When not limited to internal storage, the F-15SE can carry enough AMRAAMs to fire off two at a time and still have plenty left over.
If the F-35 shows up on the Silent Eagle's scope, its going to have a bad time. It certainly cannot outrun the Mach 2.5+ F-15SE, nor outfly it or outshoot it. Advantage: F-15SE
Within Visual Range: The original F-15 was designed using the lessons learned over Vietnam. Those lessons came as the price of hubris, thinking that BVR AIM-7 Sparrow missile would render close-combat obsolete. Instead, it was found that BVR missiles missed far more often than they hit. Fast but clumsy fighters like the F-4 and F-105 were simply not as superior as they should have been to much cheaper MiG-17s and MiG-21s used by the North Vietnamese.
As good as the F-15 is at BVR combat, it is still one of the best WVR fighters in the world. A massive power-to-weight ratio, low wing loading, and a fanatical devotion to John Boyd's energy-maneuverability theory clearly puts it above the F-35's timid performance. The JSF's fancy HMD and DAS systems may give it an edge against older fighters, but the F-15SE comes equipped with IRST and HMDs to even the score.
This assumes that both aircraft are carrying similar weapon load-outs, but again, the Boeing Brawler has yet another trick. The F-35 can only carry the ASRAAM internally. Rail launched WVR missiles, like the AIM-9 Sidewinder, need to be carried externally. The F-15SE can carry Sidewinders internally, thank to its extending rail feature. The Silent Eagle wins this one hands down. Advantage: F-15SE
Dogfight: The F-15 used to be an enforcer for the Fighter Mafia. It can take a beating as well as dish it out. Its bubble canopy gives the pilot an excellent view around the aircraft. Its M61 Vulcan 20mm cannon may be a little old fashioned next to the F-35's 25mm GAU-22, but it carries nearly three times the ammo.
The F-35's hunchback design makes it difficult for the pilot to "check their six". While the fancy DAS and HMD give the pilot the ability to "look through" the aircraft, nothing quite beats the "Mark One Eyeball" in these situations. The fragile F-35 is already at a huge disadvantage against the bigger, faster, more agile F-15; things do not get better when it is fighting with the equivalent of an eye swollen shut.
This one is not even close. Advantage: F-15SE
Air-to-air winner: It is not a close fight. Like Tyson vs. Spinks, if you were late finding your seat, you may have missed the entire match. The F-35's only hope is to get a quick sucker punch off, something much easier said than done. Otherwise, the Boeing Brawler wins this one by a knockout. Winner: F-15SE
Versatility: The Silent Eagle does not pretend to be a "Jack-of-all-trades". It is a fighter, pure and simple. It is not going to do your taxes or write a sonnet. As I have noted before: It blows stuff up. If you want something else done, get a different plane.
The F-35 may not be the best air-superiorty fighter, but it does at least attempt other missions. With its stealth, sensors and data-links, it is actually a pretty good reconnaissance aircraft. It is also available in different flavors: The CTOL F-35A, the STOVL F-35B, and the carrier-capable F-35C.
This round goes to the Lightning Kid. Advantage: F-35
Logistics: Older versions of the F-15 are already in use all over the world. It is not quite as common as the F-16, but with over 1,600 built, parts should be plentiful no matter where you go. The Eagle has a long life ahead of it as well, likely flying well into the 2040s. It does require a well equipped airbase and it does have a reputation for needing lots of attention. For those willing to commit, the F-15 does offer a long lifetime of faithful service, however.
The F-35 sets out to replace all the F-16s and F/A-18s currently in service. Even conservative estimates put sales well over 3,000 worldwide... If everything goes as planned. While this should give the F-35 a clear advantage here, the JSF's history really puts this in doubt. Frequent groundings during development have made the F-35 a "no-show" at some events. Its stealthy coating has troubles peeling off, especially when it goes supersonic.
Neither aircraft is exactly care-free, so this one ends in a draw. Advantage: Tie
Versatility/Logistics winner: If you prefer more "multi" to your "multirole fighter" than the F-35 is the better bet. Both aircraft demand a serious commitment, however, so you might need a few extra "handlers" to keep up with their demands. Winner: F-35
Air-to-ground: F-35=1 - F-15SE=3Air-to-air: F-35=1 - F-15SE=4
Versatility/Logistics: F-35=2 - F-15SE=1
Final result: F-35=4 - F-15SE=8
For the first time here in FJFC, we have a decisive knock-out instead of a split decision. The Lightning Kid really never had a chance. The Boeing Brawler is simply a better strike fighter, being better at both striking and fighting. The JSF is definitely stealthier, and has some cool gadgets, but the Silent Eagle sticks to the fundamentals and it shows.
The Boeing Brawler still has a long career ahead before it has to hang up its gloves.
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