Pierre Sprey, the co-designer (with Harry Hillaker) of the F-16, continues, to this day, to extol the virtues of his brainchild and deride newer, better fighters (American and foreign) such as the F-22 and the Flanker family. In 2009, he ridiculously claimed that:
“The Su-30MK is simply another modification of the Su-27, a not-very-high-performing Russian imitation of our F-15 that had its prototype flight in 1977. The new version is significantly heavier and has poorer dogfight acceleration and turn than the original, mainly because of all the weighty and draggy gadgetry (e.g., canards, vectored thrust nozzles) added to allow these spectacular maneuvers [performed at airshows – ZM].
The more of these turkeys the Russkies sell, the longer the now-ancient F-16 (designed in 1972) will reign supreme as the world’s best fighter. And the less reason we will have to buy F-22s at $355 million each.”
Sounds very optimistic and bullish. But are Flankers “turkeys” and is the F-16 “the world’s best fighter” as Sprey claims? Absolutely not.
In this analysis, I will repeat some of what I said in September in rebuke to Sprey’s similar claims and add new information.
The F-16 is decisively inferior to all Flanker variants, including the Su-27, Su-30, Su-33, J-11, and Su-35. This is for a number of reasons.
In BVR combat, its inferior radar and missiles of inferior range, combined with its significantly inferior speed of Mach 2.0 (compared to Mach 2.25 and Mach 2.35 for the newest Flanker variants) and combat ceiling (60,000 feet versus 62,000 feet for the Su-35) would get it killed. If you have a superior radar, missiles of superior range, and can increase their nominal range still further by flying faster and higher than the enemy, you get a first look, first shot, first kill capability, and that makes you a winner.
If it comes to close combat, you will win if your fighter is better kinematically and aerodynamically, i.e. has better thrust/weight, thrust loading, and wing loading ratios than the competition. You also need to have a faster fighter which can egress safely out of the fight if need be.
Why does this matter? Because in air-to-air combat, victory is determined first and foremost by who can enter and egress from the fight with impunity, and who can acquire and hit the enemy first (i.e. first-shot capability). If you don’t have these capabilities, you will inevitably lose.
The F-16 flies far lower and far slower than the F-22 or its foreign competitors, with at a top speed of just Mach 2.0 and even that on a heat-emitting afterburner (compared to the F-22’s Mach 2.25 top speed, its supercruise ability, and its slit, stealthy engines). It cannot egress from the fight safely if it runs out of missiles. It would be easily chased, tracked, and shot down by the F-22 or by enemy aircraft.
The F-22, with its AIM-120D AMRAAM missiles and its APG-77 AESA radar, can have a first-look and first-shot capability, shoot down its enemies or, if it runs out of missiles, egress from the fight safely, quickly and undetected. It can engage and disengage at the pilot’s wish.
But of course, the F-16 won’t be fighting against the F-22. It will be fighting (if at all) against enemy aircraft such as the Flanker, the PAKFA, and the J-20. So let’s compare the old, 1970s’ vintage F-16 fighter to these modern Russian and Chinese aircraft:
|Dry thrust (kN)||76.3||86.3×2||89.17×2||N/A||74.5×2||74.5×2|
|Thrust w/afterburner (kN)||127||142×2||129.4×2||157+x2||180||122.5×2||125.5×2|
|Max speed (Mach)||2||2.25||2.35||2+||2||2||2.17|
|Combat radius (km)||550||NA||NA||NA||2000||NA||NA|
|Service ceiling (ft)||50000||59100||62523||65600||65617||56800|
|Rate of climb (m/s)||254||280+||300||350||N/A||230||246|
|Wing loading (kg/m2)||431||408||385||330-470||N/A||401||483|
|Number of weapons carried (max)||11||12||10||4 internal, 6 external||N/A||12||12|
|Internal fuel capacity (lb)||N/A||22711|
As you can clearly see from the table, the newest Russian and Chinese designs (with the partial exception of the Su-30 and Su-33) outmatch the F-16 by almost every criterion, including dry thrust, thrust with afterburner, thrust/weight ratio, wing loading (a lower one is better), service ceiling, top speed, rate of climb, and, in most cases, the number of weapons carried. Furthermore, the only A2A missiles American fighters carry today are the radar-guided BVR AIM-120 and AIM-7 missiles and the infrared guided AIM-9 Sidewinder missile. The US currently has no long-range (BVR) IR or passive anti-radiation missiles, while Russia and China do. Thus, a Flanker, PAKFA, or J-20 could launch mixed waves of radar-guided, infrared-guided, and passive anti-radiation BVR and then WVR missiles at the F-16, making sure that if one missile fails to kill the F-16, another missile will.
And the F-16 cannot prevail in WVR combat. For a dogfighter, the F-16 has an usually high (by modern standards) wing loading of 431 kg/sq meter, a low T/W ratio of 1.095:1 (compared to 1.19:1 for the PAKFA and 1.1:1 for the Su-35S), and a poor rate of climb (just 254 m/s). The J-11’s wing loading is just 385 kgs/m2, the Su-35’s is 408, the Su-30’s is 401, and the PAKFA’s will be only 330 kgs/m2.
The only advantages it has over some of these aircraft is that it can carry a grand total of 1 weapon more than the J-11 or the PAKFA, and it has a better T/W ratio and a better wing loading ratio than the Su-30 and the Su-33 (i.e. two older Flanker variants). Still, it is inferior, by most counts, to these aircraft as well.
For WVR combat, aircraft agility (determined by the T/W ratio, wing loading, and drag) is of supreme importance. And by that standard, the F-16 is inferior to all comers (except the Su-33, found only on Russia’s Kuznetsov class aircraft carrier).
Moreover, the Flankers’ thrust vector control engine nozzles and canards actually improve their agility and turning capability instead of inhibiting it.
Furthermore, the F-16 is not stealthy, while the PAKFA and the J-20 are, and has no supercruise ability, while the Su-35 and the PAKFA do, and the J-20 likely will (especially if Russian Saturn type AL-31F117S, Lyulka AL-41F, or Woshan WS-10G engines are used; it has been alleged that the Russians supplied AL-31F117s engines for J-2o prototypes).
A few years ago, AirPowerAustralia subjected the F-35 (the F-16’s planned successor) to a comparison with the Su-35S. In all categories, the F-35 was rated equal or inferior to the Sukhoi. If you substitute the F-16 for the F-35 and know the Fighting Falcon’s characteristics, you’ll know that the F-16 is just as inferior to the Su-35S, for the reasons already stated, including: lower top speed, lower combat ceiling, inferior missiles, inferior turning capability, lack of capability to outturn enemy missiles, a smaller missile load, inferior countermeasures, a vastly inferior radar (with just 1000 modules), lack of capability to safely egress from a fight, etc. Just compare the F-16 to the Su-35S and you’ll realize this. In fact, in 2008, APA did compare the F-16 (and all other Western fightertypes) against the Flanker family, and found that the F-16 is decisively inferior and the only Western fighter capable of defeating the Flanker family is the F-22.
Nor does it surprise anyone who is not biased and is knowledgeable about combat aircraft: the F-16 was NOT designed to compete with the Flanker family. It was designed to act as a battlefield interdictor and to defeat 3rd and early 4th generation Soviet fighters such as the MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-25, and early MiG-29 models. Defeating Su-27s or Su-30s was not its intended task; and these older Flanker models are not actually representative of the air threat facing America today. Newer Flanker variants, such as the Su-35S and the J-11, are.
Very simply, the F-16 is no match for the F-22 – or for the adversary aircraft it would encounter today (or tomorrow) if it were to engage in WVR or BVR combat. It would be easily shot down by these aircraft. The introduction of the Flanker, in its many variants, already made the F-16 obsolete and irrelevant, but the induction of the PAKFA and the J-20 into service will make it totally obsolete, irrelevant, impotent, and useless against anyone except insurgents.
UPDATE: On April 1st, 2013, the USAF deployed F-22s to the Korean Peninsula for the second time in three years, proving that they’re far from being useless hangar queens.