Fighter Jet Fight Club: Silent Eagle vs. Gripen!
In the third installment of FJFC, I've decided to mix things up a bit. Whereas the first two match-ups pitted similar aircraft against each other (Typhoon vs. Rafale, JSF vs. Super Hornet), these two aircraft occupy different ends of the fighter spectrum. The F-15 has been around since the 70s, since then, it has earned an undefeated streak of victories. It has also been continuously improved, culminating into the F-15SE Silent Eagle that Boeing is now pitching to prospective buyers. The JAS-39 Gripen, on the other hand, started service in the 90s, with the intention of being Sweden's sole multirole fighter. It has since morphed into the "Gripen NG", an updated version intended for worldwide sale.
A brutish giant with a menacing reputation is pitted against a undersized upstart... David and Goliath anyone?
Remember, in Fighter Jet Fight Club; every system works as advertised and costs don't matter. Given the... Uh... Controversy of my last two installments, I will now include a brief discussion at the end looking at more "real world" implications. Scoring remains the same, however. For a detailed listing of the rules, check here.
Interdiction/penetration: What sets the Silent Eagle apart from other F-15s is its emphasis on front-aspect stealth. Taking one of the most effective strike platforms in the world (the Strike Eagle) and making it harder to detect is a surefire recipe for success. Its ability to carry weapons internally help keep its radar signature down. On top of this, it will equip a modern electronic warfare suite.
The Gripen has a promising ECM suite, and it has the benefit of a small IR and RF signature thanks to its small size and single smaller engine. Start hanging large missiles or bombs to it, however, and things start to change. Would it match the Silent Eagle's capability? Unlikely.
With each aircraft building upon its previous version's strengths, I have to give this one to the Silent Eagle. With a powerful electronic warfare system and reduced frontal RCS, the F-15SE is the one to beat here. Boeing claims its front radar signature is close to the F-35's. Advantage: Silent Eagle
Deep Strike: The F-15SE should have a pretty impressive range right out of the box. Bigger fighters can hold more fuel, after all. Add to this the ability to mount conformal fuel tanks and huge external drop tanks and you have a strike fighter that can fly seemingly forever. If that wasn't enough, the Silent Eagle could strap on a few AGM-158 JASSMs (joint air-to-surface standoff missile). The newest version, the JASSM-ER, has a range of about 1,000km.
The Gripen E/F manages to hold 40% more fuel than its earlier variants. It is also a small, fuel efficient design, and various drop tanks sizes will be available. It can carry either the KEPD 350 or the Storm Shadow stand-off missiles. The KEPD 350 has a shorter range than the JASSM-ER, and the Storm Shadow has a smaller warhead.
With a range that can only be beat by strategic bombers, the F-15SE wins this one, hands down. Advantage: Silent Eagle, clear winner.
Payload: With a maximum payload of 23,000lbs, the Silent Eagle can carry a heavier bomb load than a B-29 Superfortress. Also, by utilizing CFTs, it doesn't have to sacrifice pylons to fuel tanks.
The Gripen E/F carries a heavier payload with more hard points than its predecessors, but does not even come close the the F-15SE. Advantage: Silent Eagle, by a whole bunch.
Close Air Support: With precision guided weapons dropped from high altitudes becoming the norm for close-air-support, the F-15 looks more than capable. Plenty of targeting pod options along with a long loiter time are definite pluses here.
The Gripen is just as capable of carrying those same type of precision guided weapons, however. Not only that, the Gripen can operate from improvised airfields, closer to the action. If that wasn't enough, it performs much better at low altitudes, allowing the pilot to put his own eyes on the action, not just the targeting pod. Advantage: Gripen.
While both fighters are capable multi-role platforms, the Silent Eagle's sheer size gives it a clear advantage in payload and range. It is also more than capable of holding its own in suppressing group based defenses. The Gripen's only advantage is when the situation calls for "danger close". Air-to-ground winner: F-15SE Silent Eagle.
First-look, first kill: The Silent Eagle's radar will be roughly equivalent to that in the Super Hornet... Only with a significantly larger (1,500 vs 1,000 T/R modules) "dish". This brings the F-15SE's radar capability closer to that of the F-22. Also, with a radar absorbent materials and internal weapon storage, the SE's frontal radar cross section is said to approach that of a F-35. In a head-on confrontation, the Silent Eagle has a clear advantage. Like any other stealth aircraft, once you start mounting weapons externally, the F-15SE's RCS increases considerably.
The Gripen E/F has a small radar cross section for the simple reason that it is a small fighter. It also mounts its 1,000 T/R AESA radar on a repositioner, giving it a wider field of view than the fixed one in the F-15SE. From the back, the Silent Eagle's two big, powerful, hot engines will light up the Gripen's IRST like a Christmas tree, more so when using afterburners to go supersonic. The JAS-39E/F's IR signature is also rather small, thanks to a single engine that is smaller than a single F-15SE engine. The Gripen also doesn't need to use afterburner to go supersonic.
Beyond Visual Range: [Note: To avoid complicating matters, we are going to assume both aircraft are armed with AIM-120D AMRAAMs. The "AMRAAM vs. METEOR" debate will have to wait for another time and place... Sorry to disappoint!]
Again, this gets complicated base on whether the F-15SE is carrying internal weapons only or not. Firepower or stealthiness? That is the question that will have to be asked and answered every time the Silent Eagle prepares for a mission. Either way, the F-15SE should be an absolute monster in the air. From the outset, the Eagle was meant to fly higher and faster than just about any other fighter out there. With an air combat record of over 100 kills and zero defeats, the F-15 is the one to beat.
The Gripen E/F should be no slouch in this department, however. Initially designed to counter the MiG-29 and Su-27 (which was designed to counter the F-15), the Gripen can hang with the big boys. While it lacks the F-15's raw power, it still has the ability to supercruise. This allows it to keep its speed up without guzzling fuel and increasing its IR signature.
With or without stealth, the F-15SE wins this one. A bigger radar gives it an advantage in locking on, while its higher speed and maximum altitude allow it the ability to give its AMRAAMs more kinetic energy, increasing their range. Quite frankly, the F-15 is the reigning champion in air-to-air combat based on its BVR abilities. As good as the Gripen may be, it is still just a contender. Advantage F-15SE Silent Eagle.
Within Visual Range: Things change somewhat when the two aircraft get closer. If the Silent Eagle is in stealthy configuration (4 internal AMRAAMs only), it will be at a disadvantage to its Swedish rival. The Gripen typically carries at least 2 wingtip mounted IR guided missiles (IRIS-T, Sidewinders, or similar) and at least 2 RF guided missiles (AMRAAM or equivalent). This gives the Gripen a better mix of seeker heads. In "non-stealthy" mode, the F-15SE can carry AIM-9X Sidewinders, made more lethal by IRST and HMD assisted targeting.
The Gripen presents a much smaller heat signature than the F-15SE, however. Its single, smaller engine powering a smaller airframe simply gives off less heat that the massive F-15. This difference increases when both aircraft fly transonic. With its afterburners firing, the F-15SE is of a Roman candle lit beside a birthday candle. While both aircraft are capable of extremely violent maneuvers, the Gripen's newer relaxed stability, fly-by-wire design gives it a clear edge here. The F-15SE may incorporate fly-by-wire, but it cannot really capitalize on this since its design still originates from the 1970s.
All said, the F-15SE will likely try its best to avoid a "merge" with a JAS-39E. As impressive as the F-15 is, it is still a 40-year old design that can only do so much to fight the laws of physics. The Gripen is smaller, more agile, and does not need to rely on its afterburner to maintain speed. Depending on whether the F-15SE is carrying Sidewinders or not, WVR combat with a Gripen will likely not fare well for the Eagle. Advantage: JAS-39E/F Gripen.
Dogfight: Given the Gripen's WVR performance, you would think this would be a cakewalk for it right? Not really...
The F-15SE used the venerable M61 Vulcan 20mm gatling gun. This cannon has been used by the majority of American fighters since the 60s. It can belch out over 6,000 rounds per minute out of its 510 round magazine. For as much as the Eagle can dish out, it can take it. The F-15E Strike Eagle, from which the Silent Eagle is derived from, is itself a beefed up version of the F-15B. How tough is the F-15? In 1983, an Israeli F-15D had a mid-air collision with an A-4 Skyhawk, yet managed to land safely despite missing its entire starboard wing.
By comparison, the Gripen is a welterweight. While certainly more nimble and harder to hit, the Gripen needs to rely on dishing far more out than it can take. For this, its Mauser BK-27 revolver autocannon packs a substantial punch. The BK-27's 27mm rounds are larger, yet travel roughly the same speed (1,100 m/s) as the M61's. While the BK-27 has a slower rate of fire (up to 1,700), that rate of fire is instantaneous, whereas the M61 needs to "spool up". The Gripen pilot needs to make those shots count as the Gripen only carries 120 rounds, about 1/5th that of the F-15SE. That Mauser cannon is only available on the single-seat Gripen models as well.
While the Gripen E's cannon has slightly more punch than the F-15SE's, it likely wouldn't be enough. The Silent Eagle simply has more staying power and more ammo. Gripen Fs (along with older Bs and Ds) do not even mount a cannon. Advantage: F-15SE Silent Eagle.
A battle between the Silent Eagle and the Gripen would be study in contrasts. Raw power versus nimble agility. While the F-15SE would likely be the favorite, the Gripen E could very well win the day if it plays cautious. The Silent Eagle may win simply on the element of surprise. The more efficient Swede has the advantage if it forces its opponent to rely on its fuel-robbing afterburner, or if it brings the battle close enough that the Silent Eagle's stealth and bigger radar are no longer an advantage... But not too close. For fans of the "Game of Thrones", the Eagle versus the Griffon would likely resemble the infamous "Mountain and the Viper" (CAUTION: SPOILERS!) Given the F-15's reputation, it's better BVR ability, and its sheer ruggedness; I have to give it the edge in a battle with the Gripen. Air-to-air winner: F-15SE Silent Eagle, but barely.
Versatility: When the F-15 was initially conceived, it was meant to be a pure air-superiority fighter. "Not a pound for air-to-ground" was the design mantra. With the F-15E, that mantra got defenestrated and quite a few pounds (about 2,700) were added. The F-15SE is a true multirole strike fighter, equally capable performing interception as it is ground pounding. The Eagle is also capable of handling other big stuff like the AGM-158 cruise missile and even experimental anti-satilite missiles. It is even nuclear capable.
From the outset, the Gripen was conceived to be equal parts Jakt (fighter), Attack, and Spanning(reconnaissance) aircraft. Its right there in the designation JAS-39. While both aircraft should be capable of mounting similar types of weaponry, the Gripen has already been cleared for a wider variety of non-American weapons like the IRIS-T and Meteor. While the Gripen has already seen several variants, leading up to the current E and F models, there is still the potential for two more models. A "Sea Gripen" concept has been advertised to Brazil and others. There has been talk of the Gripen being used as the basis for a T-38 Talon trainer replacement. Currently the Gripen D model is used in the Empire Test Pilot School.
While both declare themselves "multirole", the F-15SE's job seems to focus on a three simple words. Blow. Stuff. Up. By contrast, the Gripen would likely be a superior choice for more nonviolent roles like reconnaissance and training. This gives it the edge in versatility. Advantage: JAS-39 E/F Gripen
Logistics: A big airplane needs a big runway, and the F-15SE is no exception. No less than 2,300 meters is required. It also burns a lot of fuel and takes a well trained ground crew at a proper airbase to maintain. The Silent Eagle also uses the USAF's preferred "boom" style of aerial refueling, requiring a dedicated tanker like the KC-10 or KC-135.
As for the Gripen, logistics is where it shines. Designed to be supported by a team of one technician and five conscripts, the Gripen is one of the most maintenance friendly fighter aircraft in the world today. It does not even need a true runway, just 800 meters of straight highway will do. It can be supported out of the back of a truck. When deployed, a single C-130 Hercules can support a force of 10 Gripens. With a "probe-and-drogue" style of aerial refueling, the Gripen is compatible with refueling pods like those found on Canada's CC-150 Polaris, CC-130H(T) Hercules, or even the "buddy" refueling pods found on other fighters like the Super Hornet.
The Gripen is the clear winner here. Advantage: JAS-38 E/F Gripen, clear winner.
Air-to-ground: F-15SE = 3 - JAS-39E/F = 1
Air-to-air: F-15SE = 2 - JAS-39 E/F = 2
Versatility/Logistics: F-15SE = 0 - JAS-39E/F = 2
Final result: F-15SE = 5 - JAS-39E/F = 5
Given that the Silent Eagle clearly won the air-to-ground and squeaked by on the air-to-air portion, I have to declare it the winner.
WHAT? Did the guy who started the gripen4canada blog just declare the F-15SE a better fighter than the Gripen?
In a world where costs do not matter and everything works as advertised, the F-15SE will likely be a slightly better choice than the Gripen NG. This comes with an awful lot of fine print, however:
- Neither aircraft technically exist yet. Both have "demonstrators" that differ slightly from what the finished product will be.
- Weapon systems are not compared. This would be the true tie-breaker here. If the MBDA Meteor offers an improvement on the AMRAAM, then the Gripen wins this one if it is equipped but the F-15SE is not.
- The F-15SE Silent Eagle has yet to find a buyer, whilst the Gripen NG has found 2 (formerly 3). The Gripen NG's future is pretty much assured at this point, whilst the Silent Eagle's future is very much in doubt.
- The F-15SE's canted tails, said to enhance stealthiness, are said to be a customer option.
- The Silent Eagle's stealthiness is a topic of debate, while it was once claimed to match the F-35 in frontal RCS, recent claims have been more conservative.
- A lot of the F-15SE's advantages seem like overkill. Is a Mach 2.5+ fighter capable of carrying over 10 tons of ordinance, including nukes, really needed?
- On the other hand, some of the Gripen's advantages, like its reduced logistic footprint, seem more practical.
Then, there is the big one. Costs are not supposed to matter in FJFC, so this next part has no part in the final scoring. Using the F-16 as a benchmark (here and here), the F-15 costs nearly twice as much as the Viper to fly. By comparison, the Gripen operates as 2/3rds the cost of the F-16. This means that for every Silent Eagle launched, you could afford to send 3 Gripen NGs instead.
Consider that, then you can figure out for yourself which one is the real winner here.
Let me know what you think.