Friday, August 22, 2014

Fighter Jet Fight Club: Super Hornet vs. Silent Eagle!



Like many of you, I grew up in the shadow of an older sibling.  That older sibling always seemed to be so much better at everything.  Everything just sort of fell in place for him.  High school was a breeze, followed by university, followed by a prestigious and high-paying job.

My story was a little different.  I was the awkward kid in high school, flunked out of university, than wandered around from one low-paying job to another until I finally got my act together.  By the time I did, by older brother was already living in a nice house, driving a fancy sports car, and dating one beautiful woman after the other.

In retrospect, it was all about timing.  My brother was born 10 years before I was, giving him an ample head start.  He graduated university at a time when a diploma was all you needed to land a high-paying job (even a Bachelor of Fine Arts).  The economy was good and everybody was hiring.

I was not so lucky.  Intent on challenging myself, I chose the more difficult courses in high school:  Honors math, chemistry, physics, and biology.  Yeah...  Science, bitch.  While I kept my grades up in high school, university ended up being a disaster.  Needless to say, calculus and alcohol do not mix.  For the next few years, I kept stumbling around trying to find my path.  Finding work was a challenge, and a 5-year foray into journalism proved fruitless.  By the time I finally "found myself" in a career in emergency medicine, my older brother was well set on his life's path, getting job promotions and doing quite well for himself.

I bring up this sibling rivalry because it reflects the fates of Boeing's (formerly McDonnell Douglas) fighter offerings.

The F-15 Eagle has always been the favored son.  Put simply it was the air-superiorty fighter of the 1970s and 1980s.  While the F-14 may have co-starred in a Tom Cruise blockbuster, it was more of an interceptor and it just did not match the F-15's international sales success (with one exception).  Even today, after the F-14 has long been retired, the Eagle lives on, not just as an air-superiority fighter, but a strike fighter as well.  Cancellation of F-22 Raptor production means the F-15C will still be relevant for the foreseeable future.  With the development of the F-15SE Silent Eagle, Boeing hopes to continue producing Eagles for years to come.

By contrast, the F/A-18 Hornet has taken a while to find itself.  First developed as the YF-17 Cobra, it was passed over in favor of the YF-16 Fighting Falcon for the USAF's Lightweight Fighter (LWF) program.  Luckily, the United States Navy was in need of a light multirole fighter to supplement its F-14.  The Cobra would live on as the F/A-18 Hornet.  Later, cancellation of the A-12 Avenger II and retirement of the F-14 left the USN with another large gap to fill.  Still reeling from the recession of the 1990s, the Pentagon opted for a low risk solution of "upsizing" the F/A-18 Hornet.  This led to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.

To this day, the F-15 continues to be more successful than its younger sibling.  Many air forces passed over the original Hornet in favor of either the more intimidating Eagle or the cheaper Fighting Falcon.  Even now, Boeing is struggling to find buyers to keep the Super Hornet assembly line running.

So how do these sibling measure up to each other?

[NOTE:  While I may have forgone the "Advanced Super Hornet" in previous FJFC installments, doing so would seem unfair here.  Neither aircraft is operational, nor does either have any guarantee of production.  I am willing to bend the rules a little this time.  There is still no information on how a Super Hornet with GE414-EPE engines would perform, so please bear with me.]

Air-to-ground:

Interdiction/Penetration:  Boeing has been hard at work trying to lower the RCS of the Super Hornet while it is carrying additional fuel and weapons.  While the CFTs and enclosed weapon pod (EWP) seen on the Advanced Super Hornet do not lower RCS compared to a an unladen Super Hornet, they certainly would compared to a Super Hornet carrying drop tanks and external missiles all mounted on pylons.  It helps that the Super Hornet was designed with RCS reduction in mind.  Then again, Boeing will be offering a "hybrid" Super Hornet that mounts the electronic warfare receivers from the EA-18G Growler.  This would assist in avoiding enemy defenses.  

While the F-15's basic design comes from a time when "stealth" was of little concern, Boeing has done all it can to reduce the Eagle's RCS in the F-15SE.  Conformal weapon bays keep ordinance hidden from prying radar eyes, and liberal application of RAM (radar absorbent material) has driven down the F-15's RCS just about as far as it can go.

So which one is stealthier?  Even with EWPs, the Super Hornet is still hanging stuff off of it, resulting in increased radar return.  The F-15SE's stealth modifications have focused on reducing frontal RCS, with much less attention places on other aspects (doing so would likely require a full redesign).  With too much guesswork involved regarding both aircraft, let us just call it even.  Advantage:  Tie

Deep Strike:  When Boeing super-sized the F/A-18 into the Super Hornet, one of the biggest payoffs was range.  When the Advanced Super Hornet's CFTs are added, this range increases even further (about 1000km).  With long range ALCMs like the AGM-158 JASSM-ER available, the Rhino will have no trouble reaching its target.  

Range has never been much of a problem of the F-15.  It was one of the first applications of CFTs (formerly known as FAST packs), allowing for extra fuel without much extra drag.  With the F-15SE, these CFT's have been converted to CWB's, but the ability to mount CFTs remains.  There is also a similar weapon selection to the Super Hornet, so reach is likely to never be an issue.

When it comes to range, both fighters should be considered to have more than enough.  About the only way to improve on either aircraft's range is to implement a long range bomber instead.  Advantage:  Tie

Payload:  The other major improvement the came about from the F/A-18's growth spurt is the ability to carry far more ordinance.  Not only could the Super Hornet carry almost two tons more worth of weapons (17,750lbs total), but it could bring more of those weapons back to the carrier and land safely.  Oddly enough, this came at a slight price.  "Separation issues" (i.e. bombs bumping the aircraft after release) forced engineers to mount the weapon pylons at a 3° outward angle.  It is hoped that the EWPs will help mitigate this somewhat, but the fact remains that "maxed out" Rhino will have to fight substantial drag.  

Not that it matters compared to the Silent Eagle.  The F-15SE should be able to carry anywhere from 23,000lbs to 26,000lbs (depending on the source).  Some of these weapons can be stored internally, eliminating drag.  

The F-15SE has the clear win here.  Advantage:  F-15SE

Close air support:  Precision guided munitions are all the rage these days.  Some say that dedicated CAS aircraft like the A-10 are quickly becoming obsolete.  Why should an aircraft fly low and expose itself to ground fire when it can fly above the clouds dropping laser and GPS guided bombs?  Thankfully, the Super Hornet can do both these things.  With the proper ordinance and a targeting pod, it can rain down "death from above" without ever exposing itself.  When the situation calls for it, the Rhino can fly low and slow, putting the "Mark One Eyeball" on the target.  Praised for its low-speed, high AoA performance, the F/A-18E/F makes a darn good CAS platform.

The Silent Eagle has similar ground pounding capabilities as the Super Hornet at high altitudes, but the F-15 was never meant to fly slow and low enough to land on an aircraft carrier.  The F-15SE is just out of its element at low altitudes.  It is a rugged aircraft, sure, but it really was meant to fly fast and high.

While the Super Hornet is comfortable flying low-and-slow or high-and-fast, the Silent Eagle really would prefer just to stay away and play sniper.  Advantage:  Super Hornet

Air-to-ground winner:  Both aircraft are impressive when it comes to the strike role.  The only real difference is that the F-15SE is more of a heavy bomber while the Super Hornet does better supporting ground troops.  You really cannot go wrong with either one, however.  Winner:  Tie

Air-to-air:

First look, first kill:  Neither is truly a "stealth" fighter, yet both have been thoroughly "stealthified". It would be hard to say which one has a true advantage when it comes to reduced RCS.  The F-15 likely has a slightly higher IR signature, thanks to its massive P&W F100-229 turbofans.  Both aircraft will incorporate built-in IRST sensors.  

Whatever similarities the two might have regarding stealth are thrown out the window when comparing radars.  The Super Hornet just does not have the roomy nosecone of the Eagle, despite both fighters being similarly sized.  Both aircraft use the same processor, but the dish on the F-15SE is about 50% larger.  

With everything else being more or less equal, this one goes to the one with the bigger radar.  Any advantage the Super Hornet might have in the IR spectrum would be academic by comparison.  Advantage:  F-15SE

Beyond visual range:  There is nothing really wrong with the Super Hornet as an air-superiority fighter, but there is nothing really impressive about it either.  Most agree that the USN lost some of its air-superiority capability when it retired the F-14.  Some even suggest that the USN upgraded the wrong fighter.  Even with a performance boost provided by uprated GE414-EPE engines, the Super Hornet will never be capable of the F-15's raw power and speed.  

No one has ever criticized the F-15's air superiority capability.  Quite the contrary.  With an undefeated 100-0 win/loss record in air-to-air combat, the Eagle has nothing to prove.  The F-15SE flies faster, higher, and maneuvers better than the Super Hornet.  Not only can it give its AMRAAMs more energy, but its larger radar makes locking on to the target a snap.  

Not only does the Silent Eagle have some clear advantages over the Super Hornet, but the F-15 Eagle family has the reputation to back it up.  Advantage:  F-15SE

Within Visual Range:  Things get a little more even as the aircraft get closer together and top speed becomes less of a factor.  Both aircraft are quite proficient at "turning and burning".  Both aircraft are equipped with HMDs and the ability to fire HOBS missiles, in this case, the AIM-9X Sidewinder.  

Both aircraft have roughly the same power-to-weight ratio, but the Silent Eagle capable of slightly better g-loading.  The Eagle also boasts of better time-to-climb and wing loading.  The Super Hornet does have a superior nose authority, however, allowing it to point its Sidewinder at target more quickly.

The Silent Eagle starts out with a slight advantage here, only to lose that advantage to the Rhino as things get slower and tighter.  Advantage:  Tie

Dogfight:  Both of these rugged aircraft are built tough.  Tough enough that it would likely take more than a lucky hit with either aircraft's 20mm M61 Vulcan cannon to take the other out.  

If both aircraft have converged into a "furball", the Super Hornet's nose authority really starts to give it a clear advantage.  Not only that, but the Rhino handles much easier at slow speeds than the high-strung F-15.  If that was not enough, the Super Hornet just so happens to hold more ammo than the Silent Eagle as well.

Where the Eagle was meant to fly high in the clouds, the Hornet prefers to buzz around closer to the ground.  In a close quarters knife-fight, the F/A-18E/F has a clear edge.  Advantage:  Super Hornet

Air-to-air winner:  The F-15 was first envisioned as an air-superiority fighter with "not a pound for air-to-ground".  It was only later that it was found out that the Eagle makes a pretty darn good strike fighter, as well.  By contrast, the Super Hornet was a budget-friendly attempt to replace two vastly different aircraft (the A-6 and F-14) resulting in an impressive, but still compromised design.  Winner:  F-15SE

Versatility/Logistics:

Versatility:  Once again, the Super Hornet scores an easy win in the versatility department.  Carrier capable?  Check.  Two-seater version?  Check.  Electronic warfare version?  Check.  Electronic warfare-light version?  Likely check.  Aerial tanker?  Check.  AEW&C version?  Maybe someone is working on it as we speak.

The F-15SE is a little more...  Simple.  While there are plenty of different F-15 variants (F-15C, F-15J, F-15SG, F-15K...), these all boil down to one of two archetypes:  Air Superiority (F-15C) or Strike Fighter (F-15E).  Sadly, a F-15G "Wild Weasel" was never meant to be.  The Silent Eagle is a strike fighter.  It strikes and it fights.  What more could you want?

The Super Hornet's "Jack-of-all-trades" capability once again secures the nod in this category.  Advantage:  Super Hornet

Logistics:  Former US president Bill Clinton once said:  "When word of crisis breaks out in Washington, it's no accident the first question that comes to everyone's lips is: where is the nearest carrier?"  Super Hornets are already deployed all around the world in service with the USN.  Their "no frills" design has made them reliable, dependable, and easy to maintain.  It is said to be even easier to maintain than the older, less capable legacy Hornets.

Boeing has stuck with marketing the Silent Eagle only to nations that already use a F-15 variant of some kind.  This speaks volumes.  Without existing infrastructure, it seems likely that the F-15SE would be too much trouble for new buyers to operate.  The F-15 requires long runways and all the fixin's at its home base.  The F-15E's cost per flying hour is roughly 50% more than the Super Hornet, the Silent Eagle's RAM coating would likely only make the disparity even larger.

While the Super Hornet seems ready to do anything and go anywhere, the Silent Eagle comes across as somewhat of a diva.  Advantage:  Super Hornet

Versatility/Logistics winner:  While the Silent Eagle may be more impressive in the air, the Super Hornet proves itself easier to live with on the ground.  Not only that, but it is up for just about anything.  It really does put the "multi" in multirole fighter.  Winner:  Super Hornet


Final score:

Air-to-ground:  Super Hornet = 2  -  Silent Eagle = 2
Air-to-air:  Super Hornet = 2  -  Silent Eagle = 3
Versatility/Logistics:  Super Hornet = 2  -  Silent Eage = 0

Final Result:  Super Hornet = 6   -  Silent Eagle = 5

WHAT?  

Thus far, the Super Hornet has yet to win an installment of FJFC.  The Silent Eagle has yet to lose.  How did this happen?

In a word, balance.  The only role that the F-15SE would have a clear advantage over the Super Hornet is that of air-superiority.  Yet the Super Hornet is just as capable in the strike role, and offers the capability to perform other roles as well.  It should be noted here as well that the "Advanced" features of the "Advanced Super Hornet" (CFTs, EWPs, and increased engine power) had very little effect on the final outcome.  At most, the score would have been tied.

Not that it matters here, but the Super Hornet is far more affordable as well.  

Like the F-15SE, I'm pretty sure my older brother would win in a fair fight against his younger sibling.  He also has a nicer house and earns a larger paycheck.  That does not make him superior however.  It is merely the result of a singular drive to succeed at one's job path.  He seems to have little free time, no real hobbies, and takes life far too seriously.  Like the Super Hornet, I stylize myself as a bit of "Renaissance man", capable and knowledgeable in areas that have no bearing on my career, but I find it rewarding nonetheless.  I make time to do the things that I enjoy, and I'll be damned if I can't laugh at things, least of all myself.

Besides all that, I'm pretty sure Mom always did like me best



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