As Canada searches for a replacement for its 80 obsolete, unsurvivable CF-18 aircraft, and as it looks for alternatives to the costly F-35, some people have suggested the F/A-18E/F Super Bug as the aircraft that Canada should pick. This would be a big mistake. The Super Bug cannot meet any of Canada’s defense needs.
Similarly, in the US, some ignorant people, misled by Boeing advertising and pacifist, anti-defense groups, are calling on the Navy and the Marines to cancel their variants of the F-35 and buy the Super Bug instead. Again, this would be a grave mistake. The Super Bug is useless and cannot meet the Navy’s or the Marines’ needs, either. There is nothing “superb” about it. It’s a piece of junk.
But first: what are the RCAF’s, the Navy’s, and the Marines’ needs?
Before we analyze the Super Bug itself and say whether it meets these three services’ needs, we must first define them. Let’s start with the RCAF (we’ll later apply our findings, where applicable, to the USN and the USMC).
The RCAF’s primary mission is, of course, to protect Canadian and (by agreement) American airspace (as the Canadian element of NORAD). A secondary mission is to support the US military in expeditionary campaigns if Ottawa so chooses. Such campaigns are increasingly less likely to be waged against insurgents and more against advanced nation states armed with advanced fighters and/or air defense systems and thus capable of contesting control of the air. In this kind of campaigns, Canada will have to have survivable, formidable aircraft if it intends to contribute anything of use.
As for the primary mission: protecting Canadian and US airspace will require a fighter with a long combat radius, high endurance, lots of fuel onboard, a superlative radar, and superlative aerodynamic and kinematic characteristics (i.e. good turning capability, a high thrust/weight ratio, a high ceiling, and a high maximum speed). This will be required to patrol the huge airspace above the second and fourth largest country in the world, respectively – Canada and the US (or at least the largest US state, Alaska).
This is because the threats the RCAF will encounter in this environment will (and presently are) Russian bombers (usually escorted by agile fighters such as MiG-29s and Su-27s; to be escorted by Su-30s, Su-35s, and PAKFAs in the future). Russia has 171 Tu-22M, 64 Tu-95, and 16 Tu-160 strategic bombers, each of which can carry at least six cruise missiles and a freefall nuclear bomb (although the Tu-160 is not yet fitted to carry one). Intercepting these bombers and their escort fighters will thus be the RCAF’s primary mission.
But intercepting them and defeating their escorts will require a fighter that will excel in Beyond and Within Visual Range combat alike. For BVR combat, this requires high speed, a high ceiling, and an excellent radar. This is required to detect and kill the enemy before he kills you, and to send your missiles farther than your enemy can. For WVR combat, the most frequent type of air to air combat, turning is the predominant capability needed, and that is governed predominantly by wing loading. (The less weight burden your wing carries, the easier it is to “lift” it and thus to turn the aircraft.) This disqualifies all aircraft with a wing loading higher than that of their competitors. In other words, you need to outturn the enemy and his missiles. A low thrust/weight ratio only aggravates this problem.
Yet, compared to these needs and these simple principles governing air to air combat (i.e. against these simple laws of physics), the F/A-18E/F Super Bug is an abysmal failure.
In BVR combat, the Super Bug is no contestant and will never be. Its service ceiling is a pathetic 50,000 ft (50 angels) – the lowest of all fighters currently on the market – and its maximum speed is just Mach 1.8. This means that its competitors can send their missiles much further than it can, and in BVR (or even WVR) combat, it would be sending its missiles uphill, upwards at enemy aircraft flying higher, thus forcing its own missiles to make a steep uphill climb.
The Su-27’s ceiling is , the Su-30’s is , and the Su-35’s is 59,100 ft. The Su-27’s max speed is Mach 2.35, the Su-30’s is Mach 2.0, and the Su-35’s is Mach 2.25.
Furthermore, the Tikhomirov NIIP, Phazotron Zhuk, and Irbis-E radars are more powerful than the Super Bug’s APG-79 radar.
In WVR combat, the Super Bug is no contestant either. It has a very high wing loading of 459 kg/sq m (94 lb/sq ft) and a pathetic thrust/weight ratio of 0.93:1, meaning the aircraft weighs more than the thrust its engines can produce, even with afterburners (which would consume all fuel in a few minutes).
Furthermore, the Super Bug can pull only 7.6Gs – and even that only when flown “clean” (i.e. without any external stores). If any external stores, such as missiles, bombs, or fuel tanks, are attached, it can pull even fewer Gs because it weighs more.
By contrast, the Su-27 – the predominant Flanker variant of today – can pull a full 9Gs, has a T/W ratio of 1.07:1, and has a wing loading of just 371 kg/sq m (76 lb/sq ft). The Su-30 does slightly worse, but still much better than the Super Bug with a WL ratio of 401 kg/sq m and a T/W ratio of 0.98:1. The Su-35 has a slightly higher WL ratio of 408 kg/sq m, but it’s still much lower than the Super Bug’s, and its T/W ratio of 1.13:1 is far better than the Super Bug’s and even slightly better than the F-15’s (1.12:1). The PAKFA’s WL ratio is unknown and could be anywhere between 330 and 470 kg/sq m. Its T/W ratio is 1.26:1, the best in the world except the F-22’s (1.29:1).
Furthermore, the Super Bug’s combat radius for an air interdiction mission is only 390 nmi (722 kms). The F-15’s, by contrast, is 1,967 kms.
So the Super Bug is a total failure in the air defense mission (or fleet defense, to think in USN/USMC terms).
What about expeditionary campaigns? There are two kinds of them: wars against advanced nation states (such as China, Venezuela, Syria, etc.) able to contest control of the air, and campaigns against primitive countries and insurgencies incapable of contesting it.
Campaigns of the latter kind are becoming much less frequent than they used to be, as the US has already withdrawn from Iraq, is withdrawing from Afghanistan, and does not intend to get bogged down in any new ground wars for many years to come. Thus, the weapons that were designed specifically and exclusively for such campaigns will become utterly useless once the last American soldier leaves Afghanistan.
In the future, the US and its allies will usually, if not exclusively, face advanced nation states such as China, Russia, Venezuela, and Syria, armed with advanced, robust Chinese and Russian air defense systems and fighters of comparable or better quality than American weapons and produced in large quantities due to their low cost as well as China’s and Russia’s rapidly growing military budgets.
Thus, in any conflict with China or any country armed with Chinese or Russian/Soviet weaponry, the US and its allies will have to defeat (inter alia) advanced air defense systems (such as the S-300 family, the S-400 Triumph (SA-21), and the HQ-9), heavily upgraded Soviet air defense systems (e.g. the SA-5 Gammon, SA-6 Gainful, and SA-11/17 Grizzly), and advanced fighters such as the Su-27, Su-30, Su-33, Su-35, PAKFA, J-11, J-20, and J-31).
Only highly capable, stealthy, high-performance air superiority fighters designed from the start as air superiority fighters will be able to survive in such environment, let alone to defeat these fighters and air defense systems.
Against such threats, the Super Bug is, again, an abysmal failure.
The Super Bug’s pathetic kinematic, aerodynamic, and radar characteristics (see above) guarantee that it would be slaughtered in BVR and WVR combat alike, and thus would be easily disposed of like trash (which it is) by the forementioned Chinese and Russian fighters.
Meanwhile, the Super Bug’s huge radar signature (allegedly smaller than that of other nonstealthy fighters, but in reality still much bigger than the F-22’s or even the F-35’s and more than large enough for enemy systems to detect and shoot it down effortlessly) guarantees that it would be slaughtered wherever it would venture.
Nor is anyone knowledgeable about military aircraft surprised. The Super Bug was designed solely for short-range small-scale strike against unhardened targets; against weak opponents unable to contest control of the air. It is useless for any other mission, including any combat against any opponent armed with advanced air defense systems and/or fighters and thus able to contest control of the air.
Such an aircraft is, or at least should be, totally unacceptable for the RCAF. I would like to remind the RCAF, the Department of National Defence (DND), and the Canadian Government that they need survivable platforms if they intend to contribute any weapon or capability of value in any future expeditionary campaign waged alongside the US or Britain. Unsurvivable, easy-to-kill platforms such as the Super Bug would be liabilities, not assets, as they would only drain American protective assets just to be able to survive in any airspace defended by the forementioned fighters and air defense systems.
For the same reasons, the USN and the USMC should not buy any more Super Bugs, as these aircraft constitute an utter waste of money.