BACK TO BASICS: FIREPOWER
|Meet the Fokker.|
Welcome to "Back to Basics"; an ongoing series in which we will attempt to "get back to basics". Each week (or so) we will examine one crucial aspect of a fighter and how the fighters vying for Canada's FFCP compare.
What makes a fighter aircraft... a fighter?
No matter how fast or maneuverable an aircraft is, you cannot truly call it a "fighter" until you strap on some weapons. Without those weapons, that fighter becomes either a trainer, a reconnaissance platform, or an acrobatic demonstrator.
While all fighters have weapons, weapons alone does not make an aircraft a fighter. One would hardly call a B-17 or an A-10 "fighters". The reason for this is obvious, those two aircraft are designed to engage ground targets. Fighter weaponry places the emphasis on one thing: Air superiority.
The first true "fighters" were nothing more than WWI biplanes with machine guns bolted on. Eventually, rockets were added to the mix, but were too crude for anything other than slow targets. The addition of jet propulsion and radar would force a paradigm shift, however, as speeds got faster and distances got greater. Guided missiles soon replaced machine guns as the defacto weapon system of choice.
At one point, it was thought that guns on aircraft were obsolete. Harsh lessons of the Vietnam War proved otherwise. Even now, there is debate over whether or not fighters still need cannons.
|"PEW PEW PEW!"|
Missiles have come a long way since Vietnam. Modern guidance systems are way more sophisticated, as are targeting systems. This carries over to air-to-ground weapons as well. During the Gulf War, precision "smart weapons" proved to be more effective than the "carpet bombing" seen in previous wars.
This fundamental change has led to in interesting development: Precision over brute force. Small fighters carrying a light load of guided munitions can do the job previously done by heavy bombers. Once cannot stress the political importance of this. Images of heavy bombers carpet bombing an area with little regard for civilian casualties does little to win the "hearts and minds" of the general public.
Guidance systems vary by weapon and by purpose. Air-to-air missiles tend to use infrared (heat-seeking) for within visual range (WVR) or radar guidance for beyond visual range (BVR). For air-to-ground, a dizzying array of options exist. These include (but are not limited to) infrared, remote-TV, laser, radar, and GPS-guided bombs and missiles. Platforms range from small, "low collateral damage" munitions up to long range "cruise" missiles, "bunker busters", right up into nukes. Even "dumb" bombs and rockets still see use.
|F-15E Strike Eagle (technically a "fighter-bomber")|
These advancements have also led to fighters becoming less specialized. Previously, fighters would be categorized for a single role, be it intercepting, night-fighting, or fighter-bomber. Most new fighters are considered "multirole" in that that the same aircraft can perform different tasks depending on the need.
While the proliferations of smart weapons has decreased the need for heavy payloads, modern fighters still do okay in that department. With a max payload of 23,000 pounds, the F-15 Strike Eagle actually exceeds that of the iconic WW2 B-29 Superfortress.
The three fighters competing to replace the CF-18 are not quite up to that standard, but they are remarkably impressive when compared to other WW2 era bombers. Not only that, but they all carry massive cannons that would put any WW2 fighter to shame and precision missiles that could only be replicated by controversial methods.
Quantifying a modern fighter's firepower can be done by looking at several factors.
- Its cannon. (calibre, rate of fire, ammunition capacity, etc.)
- Its maximum payload. (total weight along with number of hardpoints)
- Its weapon selection. (what variety of missiles, bombs and rockets can be used for both air-to-air and air-to-ground)
The Gripen's single barrel Mauser BK-27 revolver cannon utilizes the smallest gun with the lowest rate of fire (1,000 to 1,700 rpm) and the least amount of ammunition (120 rounds). It mitigates this somewhat by using the largest bullet (27mm) with the highest muzzle velocity (1,100m/s). It also "spins up" faster than others. This allow it to spit out 4kg worth of projectiles in the first half-second of fire compared to the Super Hornet's 2kg.
The Gripen E's maximum payload capacity is compromised by its smaller size compared to the others. It has yet to be finalized, but Saab has estimated a maximum capacity of 6 tonnes over 10 hardpoints. This is significantly less than the others. To put it in perspective, however, it is only slightly less than that of the Avro Lancaster bomber of WWII. For a more immediate comparison, it carries 200kg less than the CF-18... But utilizes two more hardpoints.
Weapon selection is were the Gripen really excels. Saab has made it a point for the Gripen to be compatible with most modern missiles. This includes (but is not limited to) AMRAAMs, Meteors, Sidewinders, and IRIS-Ts for counter-air. For ground targets, the Gripen can carry anything from the traditional 250lb Mk80 "dumb bomb" to the 800kg RBS-15 anti-ship missile and the massive 1.5 tonne KEPD 350 cruise missile. For those weapons that the Gripen has not already been cleared for, Saab has enabled the end user the modify the source code how they see fit to add additional weaponry or equipment.
Being larger than the Gripen but smaller than the Super Hornet, the F-35 unsurprisingly occupies the middle ground between the two when it comes to weaponry.
At 100kg, the F-35's GAU-22/A "Equalizer" cannon weighs about the same as the Gripen's BK-27, but its rotary 4-barrel "Gatling" style design takes up more space. While it uses a slightly smaller round (25mm) with a slightly slower muzzle velocity (1,050m/s), it makes up for this with a much higher rate of fire (3.300rpm). With only 180 rounds, that gun will not be able to shoot for long.
Many would consider a stealth fighter's cannon superfluous. It is in its missiles and bombs that the F-35 earns its keep. For this, the JSF can carry 2.6 tonnes worth of weaponry on 4 internal hardpoints with up to an additional 6.8 tonnes distributed mounted on 6 external pylons. Altogether, this is roughly the payload of the legendary B-17 Flying Fortress of WW2.
When it comes to weapon selection, the JSF does very well. It should, considering it will eventually become the most prevalent fighter used by the USA and many of its allies. All of the the usual American-sourced munitions are included (AMRAAM, Sidewinder, Paveways, JDAMs, etc) with many more (like the Meteor and Joint Strike Missile) on the way.
The F-35 does have two limitations when it comes to weapon selection, however.
The first is the physical limitation of its internal weapon bays, which were designed to hold a single AMRAAM and 2,000lb JDAM each. This means some munitions will be need to be modified to fit or restricted to external carriage, negating some stealth characteristics.
The second limitation not physical, but exists in the JSF's proprietary software. Despite being a global platform, the F-35's source code is only accessible to American officials. Any changes to modify the code need to be approved by the Joint Program Office in the Pentagon. Thus far, only Israel has been granted access to modify their own F-35s as they see fit. This "walled garden" approach is understandable for a intelligence sensitive stealth fighter, but it does place restrictions on the end user.
Larger and more robust than the other two, it should be no surprise that the Super Hornet offers the most weapon options. The F/A-18E/F can even go so far as to offer capabilities that transcend what would be considered modern-day fighter roles.
The F-35's cannon should be familiar to anyone who knows anything about fighter jets. Its familiar M61A2 (similar to the CF-18's M61A1) is based on design thKat has seen service for over 70 years. at 92kg, it has less mass than the other two on paper, but takes up more space thanks to its 6 barrels. It also shoots the smallest calibre round (20mm) at a similar muzzle velocity (1,050m/s) to the F-35's GAU-22/A. The M61A2 more than makes up for its less powerful round with much faster rate fire (6,000rpm) shooting up to 412 rounds. The Super Hornet's cannon exercises two simple rules: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" and "spray and pray".
When it comes to missiles, bombs, and other payload, the Super Hornet is impressive. Able to carry 8 tonnes worth of payload on 11 hardpoints, the F/A-18E/F is roughly on par with the JSF. It is also roughly on par with the subsonic A-6 Prowler bomber that it replaced. To put things in a more historical perspective, the Super Hornet has roughly 6 times the payload of the B-25 Mitchell bomber used in the famous Dolittle Raid of WWII.
Where the Super Hornet really shines is versatility. The USN has adapted the F/A-18E/F into multiple roles; replacing the F-14 Tomcat(air superiority), A-6 Intruder (bomber), A-7 (attack), EA-6 Prowler (electronic warfare), S-3 (anti-submarine/anti-ship), and KA-6 (aerial refueling). (Rumors of a COD version and AEW&C version are unfounded.)
Whatever the target, the Super Hornet likely has a weapon for it. For the air it has AMRAAMs and Sidewinders. For ground targets, everything from simple "dumb" bombs to cruise missiles can be fitted. For sea targets, anti-ship missiles like the AGM-84 Harpoon and even naval mines can be equipped. Looking for something suppress enemy air defenses? How about the AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missile or towed decoys? If that is not enough, there is also the more specialized EA-18 Growler soon to be equipped with the Next Generation Jammer. Whatever the mission, the Super Hornet likely "has an app for that".
As for integrating newer weapons, the F/A-18E/F should be easier than the F-35. Its software is not as "locked down" as the JSF's and its lack of internal storage gives it a little more flexibility. This flexibility is what eventually convinced the Germans to select it as a (partial) replacement to its retiring Tornado fleet.
All three fighters competing to replace the CF-18 are considered "multi-role". All are capable of mounting a myriad array of weapons ranging from smart missiles to dumb bombs. All three have an internal cannon. When put in historical perspective, all three surpass the capabilities of what used to be considered a "heavy bomber" when it comes to payload with weapons able to strike targets hundreds of kilometers away with surgical precision.
One could argue that precision guided weapons have placed less emphasis on maximum payload. Others would argue that more is always better.
For Canada's FFCP the question is not "Which fighter has the most firepower"? The question is: "Is too much ever enough?"