EDIT ON July 12th, 2013: Mr Gunzinger has clarified that he did not ever intend to equate the F/A-18E/F Super Bug with the F-35C:
“I was never suggesting there was an equivalency between the Super Bug, as you call it, and the F-35C. That was not the point.”
“They’re going to have to make some trade-offs. Do they want to continue on the current path of buying as many F-35s as are on the books today, or do they want to change the mix for the future carrier air wing by perhaps, in the near term, buying a few more F/A-18s and investing in UCLASS and in the future buying a few less F-35s?”
Those are very wrong comments, and it’s not clear why a credible and distinguished analyst such as Col. Gunzinger would make them. In any case, I’ll correct the record.
The fact is that, as holistic analysis by myself and AirPowerAustralia has demonstrated multiple times, the Super Bug is NO substitute for the F-35 and can never be. The reasons for this, to reiterate, are as follows.
Firstly, as everyone knows, the F-35 is very stealthy (hard to detect for radar), while the Super Bug is not stealthy at all and has a large radar signature, despite Boeing’s attempts to reduce it. This means the Super Bug is not usable or survivable in ANYTHING other than benign environments where the only opponents are insurgents unable to contest control of the air.
So cancelling (or cutting back on) the F-35 and replacing it with the Super Bug would relegate Navy and Marine aviation solely to such benign environments, making them useless for dealing with anyone other than a trivial opponent.
Secondly, besides its lack of stealthiness, the Super Bug is decisively inferior to the F-35 in every other parameter as well. To wit:
“the Super Bug is decisively inferior to all three F-35 variants on all counts, except that it has a slightly higher thrust/weight ratio with a 50% fuel load than the C model and its maximum takeoff weight is 6,000 lb higher than the B model’s (but still 4,000 lb lower than the F-35A’s and C’s).
Other than that, it is decisively inferior to all three F-35 variants – in terms of the G limit, combat radius, internal fuel capability (i.e. how much fuel can it carry internally, without external fuel tanks, which increase its RCS), dry thrust, thrust with afterburner, and stealthiness (and thus survivability), which is necessary to survive in today’s threat environment infested with modern IADSes and fighters.
But why do the characteristics other than stealthiness matter?
Thrust, and more importantly, T/W ratios affect planes’ speed, maneuverability, climbing ability, and other aerodynamic performance. Internal fuel capability affects the plane’s combat radius, and as we see from the table, all three F-35 variants have a combat radius significantly larger than the meagre CR of the Super Bug, which is only 390 nm. The F-35 can also fly much higher than the Super Bug, and therefore, launch its missiles from a much higher altitude to increase these missiles’ range significantly. A higher G limit means the F-35 can withstand higher forces of gravitation, and therefore more violent maneuvers, than the Super Bug.”
You can see a comparative table here.
Thus, in dogfights and in long-range combat against enemy aircraft, the F-35 would do much better than the Super Bug (for starters, it has a higher T/W ratio and can withstand a full 9 Gs, while the Super Bug cannot).
And thanks to its very short CR, the Super Bug can’t, even with fuel tanks, meet enemy cruise-missile-launching aircraft/ships/ground platforms far enough from the carrier (before they launch their missiles). The F-35C, with an unrefueled combat radius of 615 nm, can.
The Super Bug is also decisively inferior to all current and projected Chinese and Russian fighters. As I observed a while ago:
“almost all Flanker variants (except the Su-33) outperform the Super Bug in almost every criterion of kinematic and aerodynamic performance, in most cases by huge margins, as does the PAKFA and (where information is available) China’s 5th generation fighter, the J-20.
These adversary aircraft can fly much higher (no lower than 56.8 angels, and up to 65.6 angels), faster (2-2.25 Mach vs the Super Bug’s Mach 1.8 top speed), and farther than the Super Bug, which means that, in a combat situation, they could launch their anti-ship or air to air missiles from a range (and altitude) beyond the Super Bug’s reach, and by flying high, they would dramatically increase the nominal range of their missiles. In a close combat situation, they can easily outturn the Super Bug with their superior G limit (turning capability) and much better thrust-to-weight and wing loading ratios. The only exception to this rule is the least-proliferated Flanker variant – the carrier-borne Su-33, currently serving only on Russia’s Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier – which has a lower T/W and a higher wing loading ratio than the Super Bug.
Moreover, the J-11 and the PAKFA can carry one weapon fewer than the Super Bug.
Otherwise, all of these aircraft are decisively superior to the Super Bug in all criteria.”
AirPowerAustralia expert Dr Carlo Kopp has studied the Super Bug closely and has come to roughly the same conclusion as myself – the Super Bug is decisively inferior to the Flanker family by all criteria, except those Flankers not fitted with modern radar:
“In assessing the Flanker against the Super Hornet it is clear from the outset that the advantage in firepower, speed, raw agility, range and manoeuvre performance goes to the Flanker. Given that operational Flankers span variants from B through H, and type designations from Su-27S, through Su-30s to Su-35s, there are a wide range of configurations possible.
This has been further complicated by the Russian propensity to customise configurations for clients, and perform ongoing technology upgrades to operational variants. Another byproduct of Russian marketing is that the label Su-30 spans an upgraded Su-27SKM (Su-30KI) up to the Indian Su-30MKI, which uses extensive ly features demonstrated in the Su-37.(…)
In conclusion, the Flanker in all current variants kinematically outclasses the Super Hornet in all high performance flight regimes. The only near term advantage the latest Super Hornets have over legacy Flanker variants is in the APG-79 AESA and radar signature reduction features, an advantage which will not last long given highly active ongoing Russian development effort in these areas. The supercruising Al-41F engine will further widen the performance gap in favour of the Flanker. What this means is that post 2010 the Super Hornet is uncompetitive against advanced Flankers in BVR combat, as it is now uncompetitive in close combat.”
You can read more here. Remember that Dr Kopp wrote that in 2007, five years ago, when Chinese and Russian technology wasn’t yet as advanced as today. Since then, China and Russia have closed the remaining gaps with the US.
The Super Bug, thanks to its short combat radius, high wing loading, low T/W ratio, and other flaws is also decisively inferior to Chinese J-7 and J-8 fighters (which were produced during the 60s, 70s, and 80s). It’s so inferior to adversary aircraft that it’s nearly useless.
Nor is this any surprise to anyone who actually knows something about fighter aircraft (unlike Col. Gunzinger, a former bomber pilot). The Super Bug is not, and was never intended to be, an air superiority fighter or even a fighter at all – it was to be a pure ground attack jet with limited self-defense A2A capability. Hence the designation F/A-18. Its sole mission was always to deliver small bomb loads against primitive insurgents in airspace sanitized by other aircraft. It was never intended to take on enemy fighters or IADSes.
Sending pilots in Super Bugs against enemy aircraft (or IADSes) would practically be a death sentence on them, and a huge injustice to them, just as it was to force American pilots to fly Brewster Buffalos, P-39s, and P-40s against Japanese Zero fighters during WW2. American pilots were being slaughtered en masse in these inferior aircraft until Mustangs entered service in large numbers.
It’s utterly unacceptable.
As for the naval UCAV (UCLASS), if the Navy can’t afford three things at once, it should hasten the F-35C’s development, terminate the MYP contract for the Super Bug, and cancel any further Super Bug purchases. Doing so will free up enough money to develop the UCAV. The Super Bug is useless, so buying it is a waste of money.
It’s time to kill the Super Bug.
UPDATE: In a separate interview, in May 2012, also for FlightGlobal, Gunzinger acknowledged that the Super Bug is unsurvivable in contested airspace. His CSBA colleague Jan van Tol, the author of the AirSea Battle concept, said the same.