As Ukraine is on the verge of receiving its first F-16 aircraft, it will be interesting to understand how it will fare against the Russian Su-35s.
The F-16, also known as the Fighting Falcon, is a lightweight, single-engine, multirole fighter jet designed in the United States by General Dynamics, now Lockheed Martin. It was first used by the United States Air Force in 1978 and has been adopted by numerous other countries worldwide. The F-16 is known for its agility, speed, and range, and it can carry a wide range of weapons, including missiles, bombs, and rockets.
The Su-35, the Flanker-E, is a Russian heavy twin-engine multirole fighter jet. The Russian Air Force was the first to use it, followed by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force. Iran is also likely to receive the Su-35 for its air force. The Su-35 is known for its manoeuvrability, speed, and range, and it can carry a wide range of weapons, including missiles, bombs, and rockets.
The Su-35 outperforms the F-16 in many ways. It has a higher top speed – more than Mach 2, a longer range – more than 3,600 kilometres, and a more powerful radar. The Su-35 is more manoeuvrable than the F-16 due to its thrust vectoring technology, which allows it to change the direction of its engine exhaust and perform extremely tight turns.
The F-16, on the other hand, has some significant advantages. It is lighter and faster than the Su-35, making it excellent for air-to-air combat and dogfights. The F-16 is also more fuel-efficient and easier to maintain than the Su-35.
Ukrainian Fighting Falcons
Let us first understand the F-16s promised to Ukraine. These aircraft will be gradually shipped from Denmark, the Netherlands, and other nations. Denmark has performed its aircraft’s Mid-Life Upgrade or MLU and brought it to Block 20 level. The Netherlands has aircraft in the Block 15OCU modification, and some aircraft have been upgraded to MLU 2020
Let’s look at the weapons carried by these three modifications that may end up in the Ukrainian Air Force.
Let us examine the F-16 Block 15OCU. It is distinguished by its modest speed – approximately 0.8M Mach. It can carry the medium- and short-range anti-ship missile AGM-119A Mk3 Penguin, which has a launch range of up to 40 kilometres. The missile includes a terrain-following mode. It has served with the Royal Norwegian Air Force since 1987. The AGM-65 Maverick, a subsonic air-to-surface missile with a speed of 0.9 Mach, can destroy heavily armoured and moving targets in metropolitan settings. It also launches the AIM-120 AMRAAM, an all-weather guided supersonic missile with a speed of 4 Mach and a medium range of up to 75 kilometres.
The F-16 Block 20 can launch the AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship subsonic missile, which has a range of up to 280 kilometres. The AGM-88 HARM is a high-speed anti-radar missile capable of targeting high-frequency radars, with a 25 to 150-kilometre launch range. The AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon is a tactical glide bomb with stealth technology that can also be used as a cruise missile. AGM-154 is designed to engage stationary and moving targets beyond air defence zones. The engine-powered version has a maximum launch range of 560 km. The glide bomb version has a range of 24 to 130 kilometres, depending on the drop height. They can launch AIM-120 AMRAAMs. For short range, they can fire AIM-9X Sidewinder or IRIS-T. These aircraft are now outfitted with the Northrop Grumman AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar or SABR, an Active Electronically Scanned Array or the AESA radar.
The Netherlands’ F-16, as part of MLU 2020, received the AN/APG-66(V)2 radars specific variant for RNLAF. Air combat weapons are similar to Belgium’s Block 20 aircraft.
The Su-35 Flanker-E is equipped with various sophisticated sensors and avionics, which improve its combat capabilities and allow it to operate in various environments.
With high-resolution imaging and mapping capabilities, the Irbis-E Passive Electronically Scanned Array (PESA) radar detects and tracks air and ground objects across long distances. It can also detect and track targets in low-visibility environments and resist jamming and interference.
The OLS-35 is a passive infrared search and track system that enables the Su-35 to locate and track flying targets without emitting signals that might be detected by hostile radar. It can also identify and illuminate ground targets for air-to-ground missiles.
The L-150 Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS) is a targeting system that includes a laser range finder and a high-resolution camera, allowing the Su-35 pilot to detect and track ground targets with precision.
The Khibiny electronic warfare system includes jamming and deception equipment that can disrupt and confuse opponent radar and communications. It also includes a towed decoy system that can deflect incoming missiles away from the aircraft.
The Su-35’s computerised flight control system provides the pilot with precise aircraft control while boosting manoeuvrability and stability. It also features an automatic ground collision avoidance system (Auto-GCAS), which can prevent the plane from colliding with the ground in the event of a pilot error or equipment failure.
The inertial navigation system (INS) gives the Su-35 pilot accurate information on the aircraft’s position, heading, and velocity, which is required for navigation and aiming.
Overall, the Su-35’s advanced sensors and avionics give comprehensive situational awareness and enable it to carry out a wide range of missions, including air-to-air and air-to-ground operations in complex and contested locations.
The Su-35, like the F-16, can carry a wide range of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons, allowing it to perform a variety of missions.
R-27 (AA-10, Alamo) Medium-range, semi-active radar-guided missile
R-73 (AA 11 Archer) Short-range infrared-guided missile.
R-77 (AA 12 Adder) is a medium-range active radar-guided missile.
RVV-MD (AA-11 Archer) and RVV-SD (AA-12 Adder) are short-range infrared-guided, medium range, active radar-guided missiles.
Kh-29L/T (As-14 Kedge) The Kh-25 (AS-10 Karen) is a laser-guided missile. Kh-31P (AS-17 Krypton) is a laser-guided missile. The Kh-38 (AS-14 Kedge) is an anti-radiation missile. Precision-guided bombs
KAB-500 (As-14 Kedge) is a precision-guided bomb, and KAB-1500 (AS-16 Kickback). FAB-500 General Purpose Bomb.
The Su-35 also carries a 30mm GSh-30-1 cannon capable of firing 1,500 rounds per minute and engaging air and ground targets.
The Su-35 has various countermeasures, including chaff and flare dispensers, to protect it from hostile missiles and radar-guided weapons.
Nonetheless, the Su-35’s diverse armament loadout and improved targeting systems make it a formidable fighter capable of a variety of tasks.
F-16 vs Su-35 air combat
The Su-35 Irbis-E radar has a detection range of over 400 kilometres for aerial targets and 200 kilometres for ground targets. Belgium’s F-16 Block 20 AN/APG-83 Radar range is about 370 kilometres. Since it is an AESA Radar, it is superior to Su-35’s PESA radar.
Dutch F-16s AN/APG-66(V)2 radar has a detection range of about 111 kilometres.
It is unclear if Ukrainian F-16s will receive the Link-16. Theoretically, it has a range of about 555.6 km when there is a clear line of sight. It can have an operational range of 92.60 to 277.80 kilometres in tactical settings. It has the potential to receive data from NATO assets nearby.
Beyond Visual Range missiles
The F-16 and Su-35 are armed with long-range air-to-air missiles that can engage adversary aircraft beyond visual range (BVR). The missile systems that these aircraft use vary depending on the operator and mission objectives.
The R-77 air-to-air missile, also known as the AA-12 Adder, is often carried by the Su-35. This medium-range missile can engage targets at distances up to 110 kilometres. It is a radar-guided missile with a high kill probability capable of engaging several targets simultaneously. The R-37M missile has a range of about 300 kilometres.
The F-16 can be equipped with various air-to-air missiles, including the AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-7 Sparrow. The AIM-120 AMRAAM missile has a medium range of up to 160 kilometres, whereas the AIM-7 Sparrow missile has a greater range of up to 145 kilometres. Both of these missiles have a high kill rate and are radar-guided.
The AIM-120 AMRAAM is widely recognised as one of the world’s most advanced and effective air-to-air missiles, boasting a high kill probability and advanced features, including datalink guidance and active radar homing. In contrast, the Su-35’s R-77 missile is a highly capable weapon with better guidance and multiple target engagement capability.
The Vympel R-37M is a Russian hypersonic air-to-air missile with an operational range of 150-398 kilometres. It can potentially revolutionise the BVR game, although whether the Su-35 would generally carry it or how many new missiles have been produced is unclear.
Medium range Air to Air Missiles
The R-27 air-to-air missile, also known as the AA-10 Alamo, is typically carried by the Su-35. This medium-range missile can strike targets at distances of up to 80 km. It has a high kill probability and may be equipped with various guidance systems, such as infrared and radar homing.
The F-16 can carry a variety of medium-range air-to-air missiles, including the AIM-120 AMRAAM and AIM-9 Sidewinder. The AIM-120 AMRAAM is a medium-range missile with a maximum range of 160 kilometres, whereas the AIM-9 Sidewinder is a shorter-range missile designed for close-range engagements.
The AIM-9 Sidewinder missile is extremely nimble and effective at close range, but it has a shorter range than the R-27 missile used on the Su-35.
IRIS-T Short-Range Air-to-Air Missile, depending on the variant, has a range of 20-40 kilometres.
Within Visual Range weapons
The F-16 is generally equipped with the AIM-9 Sidewinder short-range air-to-air missile, which is highly nimble and capable of attacking targets at distances of up to 18 km. It uses infrared navigation and can track and engage targets even in highly manoeuvrable environments.
The Su-35 is generally equipped with the R-73 air-to-air missile, also known as the AA-11 Archer. This is a highly agile missile with a range of up to 30 kilometres, designed for close-range confrontations. It is a highly versatile weapon with infrared navigation and may be launched from any direction.
The F-16 carries an M61 Vulcan 20mm weapon, while the Su-35 has a GSh-30-1 30mm cannon.
The F-16’s M61A1 Vulcan cannon is a 20mm six-barrel rotary weapon that can fire up to 6,000 rounds per minute. It has a 4,000-foot range and is accurate across short and medium distances. The Vulcan gun is mounted on the aircraft’s right side and is loaded with 511 rounds of ammunition.
On the other side, the Su-35’s GSh-30-1 cannon is a 30mm, single-barrel cannon capable of firing up to 1,800 rounds per minute. It has a range of up to 3,000 metres and performs effectively across short to medium distances. The GSh-30-1 is located on the aircraft’s left side and is equipped with 150 rounds of ammunition.
The outcome of a cannon engagement is strongly influenced by the pilot’s abilities and tactics. In general, the F-16 has a higher rate of fire and greater ammunition than the Su-35, giving it an advantage in long-range combat. However, the larger calibre gun on the Su-35 can efficiently knock down targets in less time.
Because the aircraft is frequently involved in high-speed, high-G manoeuvres, pilot competence and situational awareness become crucial factors in determining the outcome of a WVR encounter. The circumstances, such as the target’s range and direction, as well as the opposing aircraft’s evasive manoeuvres, will also influence the specific weapon system used.
To Sum Up
The Su-35 outperforms the F-16 regarding range, engine power, and avionics. The F-16 Block-20, on the other hand, is extremely agile, has good avionics and has a history of effective combat operations.
The result of such a situation would be influenced by several factors, including the pilots’ aptitude and training, the weapons systems and capabilities of each aircraft, the environment and geography in which the conflict occurs, and many others. It should be remembered that modern air combat is highly complicated and frequently includes elements other than the aircraft’s performance capability.