I will be honest... I have been dreading this installment of Fighter Jet Fight Club. I tend to root for the underdog in any competition, but what happens when underdogs have to compete against each other? Both of these aircraft have a 0-2 record for FJFC, yet both are clearly crowd favorites in the comment section.
Our contestants today are two of the biggest value propositions in the fighter world today. Both are "modernized" versions of aircraft that have been flying since the 80s. Neither make promises of being the most dominant force in the skies, but they do promise a "90%" solution at "50%" of the cost. Most importantly, both aircraft are "tried and true" designs that have provided years of faithful service. Despite this, they are often overlooked in favor of newer, flashier aircraft like the F-35 Lightning II.
Which aircraft will see redemption here today?
Just remember the rules.
Infiltration/Penetration: In our raunchiest sounding category, both aircraft match up quite closely. While neither is truly a "stealth" design, both use techniques that help reduce their radar cross section. They are also both fitted with plenty of electronic countermeasures.
The Gripen does have its smaller size to give it a slight advantage, not to mention its single engine gives it a smaller IR signature. It is said to have an RCS of about 1/10th that of a F-16. All else being equal, I would consider this enough to give it the advantage here...
All else is not equal, however. The Super Hornet has that tech-savvy variant, the EA-18G Growler. Normally, this would only add points for this variant under the "Versatility" category. But Boeing is now offering a "hybrid" Super Hornet that replaces the Super Hornet's wingtip missile launchers for the Growler's ALQ-218 receivers. While this "Growler Hornet" would lack the EA-18G's jamming capability, it would have a much easier time "seeing" enemy radar coverage.
With this capability, the Super Hornet comes out slightly ahead here. Advantage: Super Hornet
Deep Strike: Possibly the single most important improvement to the "NG" Gripen is its improved range. By simply repositioning the landing gear, Saab cleared up enough room to hold 40% more fuel. Best of all, it did this without adding considerably more weight or drag. Being a small, single engined fighter, the Gripen sips fuel instead of guzzling it down like larger, twin engine aircraft.
When Boeing set out to improve the range and payload of the F/A-18 Hornet, they did what any typical American would do: Supersize it! Bigger aircraft burn more fuel, but they can also carry more of it. They can also carry more weapons. Supersizing the Hornet did have a few drawbacks however, weapon separation issues forced a 3° outward cant to the weapon pylons adding considerable drag. Boeing has proposed two rather elegant solutions to this issue, both incorporated into the Advanced Super Hornet concept. Conformal fuel tanks and an enclosed weapon pod would likely do wonders for the Super Hornet's range. Unfortunately, neither proposal has been approved for funding.
Weapons being equal, I'm inclined to award this one to the Gripen NG. Weapons are NOT equal however. The Gripen has access to the 500km range Storm Shadow and KEPD 350, both of which are quite impressive. The Super Hornet can carry the 1000km ranged AGM-158 JASSM-ER ALCM, giving it a clear win here. After all, it is best to strike an enemy from a distance where they cannot strike back. Advantage: Super Hornet
Payload: This one is obvious. The Super Hornet is about twice the mass of the Gripen. It can carry a substantially larger payload. Not only this, but an equal payload will have much less effect on the Super Hornet's performance. Advantage: Super Hornet, clear winner
Close-air-support: When it comes to getting down and dirty, both aircraft fit the bill quite nicely. They each do quite well in the "low-and-slow" regime thanks to their ability to land on short runways or carrier decks. Both can be fitted with precision targeting pods like the SNIPER XR or LITENING.
Normally, this would come down to weapons, but even then, there is very little difference between the two. It looks like they will both be capable of using the MBDA Brimstone. The Brimstone is a "low collateral damage" air-to-ground missile that has proven quite useful for the close-air-support role. Advantage: Draw
Air-to-ground winner: No real surprise here. The Super Hornet became the direct replacement for the A-6 Intruder after the A-12 Avenger fiasco. It is a big, burly fighter bomber that was meant to straddle the line between the retired A-6 and F-14. It is a big fighter because it simply needs to be. The pint-sized Gripen just does not have the size to compete with it here. Winner: F/A-18E/F Super Hornet
First look, first kill: When Boeing super-sized the Hornet, they neglected to super-size its radar. Boeing kept the same forward fuselage. This means that, despite the Hornet getting bigger, its radome remains the same size. The radar has been updated to AESA standard, however. No IRST is built-in, but add-on solution has been found in mounted an IRST sensor to the Super Hornet's centerline fuel tank. While this is certainly a welcome addition, it remains a slightly kludgy fix. Its position (seen in the photo above) mandates the center fuel tank, adding weight and drag. It also has an obvious blind-spot both behind and above the aircraft.
Despite being smaller, the Gripen NG houses a similar-sized (about 1,000 T/R modules) AESA radar to the Super Hornet. Any criticisms that European AESA radars are lesser than their American counterparts are baseless. In fact, it seems the opposite might be true as European makers are now using Gallium Nitride instead of Gallium Arsenide. The Gripen takes it one step further by mounting the radar on a "repositioner" that allows +/-100° scan angle. Typically, AESA radars are fixed, and "steered" virtually. It's simpler than it sounds. Here is the Gripen E's radar:
And here is the Super Hornet:
|No video... it doesn't move.|
The Gripen E's built-in IRST is also in a more traditional location at the base of the windscreen. This allows it to mimic the pilot's head movement more accurately so it can project the image on the pilot's HMD.
If we consider both aircraft to have a similar RCS despite their different physical sizes, the Gripen has a clear advantage here. It has better radar and better IRST. Its smaller, single engine design give it a smaller IR signature. Advantage: Gripen
Beyond Visual Range: When the Super Hornet replaced the F-14 Tomcat, it was neglected to carry over the F-14's AIM-54 Phoenix long-range air-to-air missile. This is a shame. Instead, the Super Hornet must make do with the ubiquitous AIM-120 AMRAAM medium range missile. There is certainly nothing wrong with the AMRAAM, it is the benchmark from which all other BVR missiles are compared. The Phoenix was something special, however.
Then again, maybe the Gripen now carries the "next big thing" in BVR air-to-air missiles. The MBDA Meteor uses a ramjet instead of a rocket to give it a more controlled flight to the target. This not only improves its range, but its pK (probability of kill).
Even without the Meteor, the Gripen still has the advantage. Not only does it boast a higher top speed and rate of climb, but it is capable of supercruise. This allows it to give its missiles substantially more energy. It also plays to the cliche "Speed is life... Altitude is life insurance."
Sorry, Rhino fans, the Saab wins this one. Advantage: Gripen
Within Visual Range: There is no ignoring the laws of physics on this one. The Gripen is faster and smaller. It has superior wing loading. Its inherently unstable, tail-heavy, delta canard layout takes full advantage of fly-by-wire flight controls. The Gripen wants to constantly change direction, but its on-board computers keep it in check until the pilot wants it too. If that was not enough, the Gripen comes equipped with HMD's and just about whatever WVR missile you desire.
While the Super Hornet improves on the legacy Hornet in most ways, raw speed and turning power just about equal to, and sometime inferior to, the older model. The legacy Hornet actually boasts slightly better wing loading, and thrust-to-weight ratios. Matters are complicated further when he Super Hornet mounts its draggy pylons. The Rhino does indeed have its kludgy IRST and HMD to help matters somewhat against opponents without such gear, but its not enough to outperform the Gripen here. Advantage: Gripen
Dogfight: When things get up close and personal, the Super Hornet finally starts evening the air-to-air score. The Super Hornet seems most comfortable when flying lower speeds at high angles of attack (AoA). The Rhino driver has remarkable control over the aircraft in this regime, able to point the Super Hornet's nose (and gun) wherever they want. Its 20mm M61 cannon has been around for roughly a half-century now, and for good reason.
The Gripen's close-coupled canards help it when flying high AoA as well. It may lack the "notability" of the Super Hornet, but it certainly is no slouch. At the very least, it has the ability to accelerate away from its slower opponent.
The Gripen's 27mm BK-27 Mauser cannon forgoes ammunition and maximum firing rate for hitting power. While the F/A-18 can "pray and spray" the Gripen prefers to make its shots count. It should be noted that the two-seat Gripen F goes without a cannon altogether, using that space for co-pilot. It should also be noted that the EA-18G and "hybrid" versions of the Super Hornet also trade in their cannon for EW equipment.
With no clear winner, this one is a toss-up. Advantage: Draw
Air-to-air winner: While the Super Hornet may have dominated the air-to-ground round, the air-to-air round easily goes to the Gripen. Again, there is no arguing with physics. Bigger fighters can carry more stuff, while smaller fighters can be quicker and more agile. The Gripen is also helped by its sensors.
Flexibility: Both of these aircraft pride themselves on being "all-in-one" solutions to your combat aircraft needs. The JAS 39 Gripen's "JAS" acronym translates to Fighter, Attack, Reconnaissance. The F/A-18E Super Hornet's F/A acronym stands for "Fighter/Attack". Both aircraft are available in one-seat or two-seat flavors.
The Super Hornet does have a few other tricks up its sleeve, however. While Saab is investigating the possibility of a "Sea Gripen", the Super Hornet is already carrier capable. It can also be equipped with "buddy refueling" gear to act as an aerial refueling asset, albeit a small one.
Of course, no discussion about the Super Hornet is complete without mentioning its nerdy, AV club member brother, the EA-18 Growler. Different enough to be considered a different aircraft, the Growler is still similar enough that any nation purchasing the Super Hornet would be daft not order a few Growlers as well. The availability of the EA-18 makes this category pretty much decided. Advantage: Super Hornet
Logistics: One Hercules aircraft. That is all that is needed to carry the spares and service equipment needed to support a ten-aircraft deployment of Gripens for up to four weeks. For every three hours in the air, it requires roughly one hour of maintenance (compared to 1:1 or worse for most aircraft). Turn-around for an air-to-air mission can be done in under 10 minutes by a team of six. It can land on a decent stretch of road and be serviced from a truck.
The Super Hornet is said to be even simpler to maintain than the legacy Hornet. Despite being a larger aircraft, it uses less parts in its construction. It was designed to be maintained within the tight confines of a aircraft carrier. If it were being compared to any other fighter besides the Gripen, it would likely have the advantage.
Oddly enough, the Super Hornet has helped contribute to the Gripen NG. It's GE414 engines have proven to be so successful in the Super Hornet that they have been adopted for use in the Gripen with very little modification. The Gripen's previous engine, the RM12 was derived from the GE404 used in the legacy Hornet, but modified for durability and reliability. Exemplary service in the Super Hornet proved that such modification were not needed for GE414.
The Gripen would likely get the nod here simply based on using a single GE414 instead of two. It goes much farther, however. It is hard to come up with an modern fighter that has a smaller logistical footprint than the Gripen. Advantage: Gripen
Versatility/Logistics winner: The Super Hornet is the more versatile machine, thanks to its smorgasbord of attachments and its electronic warfare variant. The Gripen is much easier to bring into the action, requiring only a bare minimum of additional support. What really needs to be said here is that BOTH aircraft are very good in either of these categories. Winner: Tie
Air-to-ground: Gripen = 1 - Super Hornet = 4Air-to-air: Gripen = 4 - Super Hornet = 1
Flexibility/Logistics: Gripen = 1 - Super Hornet = 1
Final Result: Gripen = 6 - Super Hornet = 6
Well! This is a far cry from our decisive knock-out last week.
Both aircraft have their definite strengths and weaknesses. The Gripen is the better fighter, the Super Hornet the better bomber. Confusing matters more is the fact that both aircraft offer exceptional value in today's expensive fighter jet market. Even in this department, they each have their advantage. The Gripen costs more per unit than the Super Hornet, but it balances out with a lower operating cost.
At this point, you are all welcome to accept a tie as the verdict and read no further...
But those rules! Rule 5 states "NO TIES"!
It is not too late. Go ahead, skip the next part...
GET ON WITH IT!
Fine. This is "Best Fighter for Canada", not "Best Bomber for Canada." The Gripen is faster, more agile, and has better situational awareness than the Super Hornet. While it may lack the Rhino's massive payload capability, this is a bit of a non-issue when it comes to air-to-air capability or precision ground attack. The Growler's EW capability is great, but it really is more of a niche capability. In trying to fulfill so many roles, the Super Hornet spreads itself too thin. It can do a lot of different things, but it is hard to think of one single thing it does better than anything else. The Saab Gripen NG focuses more on the basics. It simply sets out to do what a multirole fighter should do. That means that the Saab Gripen NG is the winner of this bout.
But there is one more thing...
Notice, in the scoring, that each aircraft has does quite well in one category? Can you imagine an air force that utilized the advantages of both aircraft? The aircraft are different enough to complement each other, yet are similar enough (same engines, etc) to mitigate the cost issue associated with fielding mixed fighter fleets.
Can you imagine if both Saab and Boeing teamed together to build a high performance aircraft?
Oh... That's right... They already have.