Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Rafale For RCAF - it Outperforms the F/A-18

Yesterday I published a repost by Doug Allan of bestfighter4canada showing that the Dassault Rafale is a better aircraft that the JSF F-35.

A few people pointed out that the comparison should be between the Rafale and the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet - widely thought to be the front runner in the CF-18 Replacement. I disagree - and think the Rafale should be the front runner - especially as they can be built in Canada.

My biggest argument here is that the Super Hornet, while more modern than the standard Hornet is still outdated and based on late 1970s early 1980s designs and ideas. Why replace our CF-18s with slightly newer models of CF-18s?

Here now is another comparison by Doug Allan; this time between the Rafale and the Super Hornet - I'll provide you with a spoiler - the Rafale outperforms the F/A-18 Super Hornet. The only way the Hornet wins is if it is the EA-18 Growler variant is used - which Canada is not looking at buying.

Image of Dassault RafaleImage of Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

Interdiction/Penetration: While not a stealth aircraft per se, the Rafale does have a lower radar signature than older "4th generation" fighters like the F-18 or legacy F/A-18. This is an added benefit to using nonmetallic composites in much of its construction. Some other "tricks", like burying the engine inlets and mild reshipping of the fuselage also help reduce radar signature. Much has been said about the Rafale's SPECTRA electronic warfare suite, capable of detecting hostile threats and either jamming enemy radar or deploying decoys and countermeasures.

The Super Hornet, while larger than older F/A-18 Hornets, offers a much reduced radar cross section. (RCS). Like the Rafale, this is done through increased use of composite construction, as well as paying close attention to body panel alignment as well as the engine inlet design. Like the Rafale, the Super Hornet carries an impressive electronic warfare suite. If the EA-18G Growler variant of the F/A-18 is considered, the Rhino wins this portion easily. The near single purpose Growler, equipped with powerful ALQ-99 ECM jamming pods and ALQ-218 tactical jamming receivers is custom made for seeking out ground based threats and eliminating them. Since the Growler is a single-purpose electronic attack aircraft, with only self-defense air-to-air capabilities, it is considered disqualified from FJFC for comparison purposes.

Since both aircraft have similar RCS combined with similar electronic warfare suites, there is little choice but to declare this one a draw. Advantage: Tie... Unless you count the EA-18G Growler.

Deep Strike: Both aircraft have similar combat radii, and any significant differences in ferry ranges or the like may benefit the Rafale based on using figures from the ground based Rafale C instead of the carrier based Rafale M. Both aircraft are capable of mounting up to five external fuel tanks. Dassault and Boeing have both studied the potential of adding CFT capability as well. Whatever the case, both aircraft can be described as having more than sufficient range.

With both aircraft being more or less tied for range, we have to look at their long range air-to-ground weaponry. Namely, stand-off missiles, also know as ALCMs. The Rafale equips the impressive SCALP EG (also known as the Storm Shadow) missile, which can deliver a 450kg warhead about 500km away. The Super Hornet's new AGM-158 JASSM-ER (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile - Extended Range) delivers a similar sized warhead, but can do so at roughly twice the range. This give the Rhino a significant advantage here.
Advantage: Super Hornet

Payload: French Air Force versions of the Rafale have a remarkable 14 hard points capable of handling 20,900lbs of ordinance. Of these, four (two wingtip, two flush with the rear fuselage) are usually dedicated to air-to-air missiles, leaving 10 hard points for fuel, bombs, or air-to-ground missiles. The Rafale is capable of handling nuclear ordinance as well.

The Super Hornet is capable of handling a slightly lower, but still impressive 17,750lbs worth of weapons. It is slightly more limited in how it carries it however, with only 11 total hard points, including two wingtip missile rails and two conformal hard points built for the AIM-120 AMRAAM.

With more payload capability combined with additional hard point options, the Rafale wins this round. Advantage: Rafale

Close-air-support: The Rafale and the Super Hornet are both easy to handle at lower speeds and altitudes. As carrier capable aircraft, they have to be. Picking a winner here is difficult, as both aircraft have similar weapon capability, but without a "killer app" like the Brimstone missile. The Rafale might have Brimstone capability in the future, but nothing is certain at the present. What the Rafale does have is the option to equip both rocket pods and a twin 30mm gun pod to supplement its built in 30mm GIAT 30 cannon.

The Super Hornet's most impressive weapon in the close-air-support arsenal is the precision SDB II (Small Diameter Bomb) which carries a 250lb warhead for minimal collateral damage.

With both fighters being incredibly competent for close-air-support, this one ends up as a draw. Advantage: Tie

Air-to-ground winner: Tie Both aircraft are more than capable ground pounders, with only minor differences in maximum payload and weapon types.

[Note: In the Super Hornet's last FJFC appearance, it lost some points due to a lack of a built-in IRST. As some have mentioned, there is a combination IRST/external fuel tank being tested. I have decided to include it here, and will continue to do so in the future. Its presence against the F-35 would likely have made a little difference (the Rhino won the WVR section, where IRSTs work best), but the outcome would have likely been the same.]

First-look, first-kill: Again, these different-looking fighters have remarkably similar capability. Both have similarly sized AESA radars and, with the F/A-18E/F's fuel tank/IRST in place, both aircraft have modern IRSTs. Neither aircraft is truly "stealth" but both have reduced radar signatures compared to older fighters.

Comparing the aircraft's EW and countermeasures pose a similar challenge. The Rafale has its famous SPECTRA, which looks to become more impressive in the future. Two infra-red sensors on either side of the tail fin will give the Rafale pilot a near 360 degree view of the airspace. Not to be outdone, Boeing is contemplating installing the EA-18G's sensors (but not jammers) on the Super Hornet. This would enable the Super Hornet pilot to detect radio emissions not normally detected.

Neither fighter has a clear advantage in detection or stealth. There may be significantly different details, but not enough for me to declare one superior to the other. Advantage: Tie

Beyond-Visual-Range: While both aircraft have a theoretical top speed of Mach 1.8, the Rafale is faster where it counts. Capable of supercruise, the Rafale is just as comfortable going supersonic as is it is subsonic. It that was not enough, the Super Hornet gets considerably draggy when weapons and fuel tanks are mounted. Both aircraft have similar service ceilings, but the Rafale has a much higher rate of climb and can get there much faster. If both aircraft are considered to have similar BVR missiles, than the Rafale has a clear advantage by being able to add more energy to them through speed and altitude.

Then, there is the real kicker. The Rafale will soon be cleared for the MBDA Meteor, while the Super Hornet will stick with the AMRAAM for the foreseeable future. While one could argue about the effectiveness of both missiles' guidance systems and the like, the big difference here is the Meteor's ramjet engine. While the ranges might be listed as similar, the Meteor's ramjet gives it more flexibility and a much larger "no-escape-zone".

Even without the MBDA Meteor, the Rafale has a clear advantage in long-range combat. It is faster and it climbs better. In air combat, speed + altitude = energy, and energy is life. Advantage: Rafale, clear winner

Within-visual-range: Assuming both aircraft have IRSTs and decent WVR missiles, like the AIM-9X Sidewinder or the MBDA MICA IR, this one gets a little tougher to call. The Rafale is the acrobat of the two, with better wing loading numbers, a higher thrust-to-weight, and higher g-load numbers. To put it quite simply, it is more agile than the Rhino.

Good thing for the F/A-18E/F that it has its vaunted "nose authority". This enables it to conduct high AoA (angle of attack) maneuvers and point its missiles where they need to go. Thanks to its helmet-mounted-display, the Super Hornet doesn't need to be as agile, however. If the pilot can see it, it can be shot. This is the one area that always seems to haunt the Rafale, while an HMD has been tested for it, there has yet to be any firm plans.

If the Rafale had an HMD, it would run away with this. That being said, shooting a HOBS (high-off foresight) missile to the side or even behind an aircraft to its intended target is certainly impressive, but not ideal. This is a tough one to call, (and I'm sure some will disagree) but I have to declare this one a draw. The Rhino has the better aim, but the Rafale is the tougher target. Advantage: Tie (if only the Rafale had an HMD!)

Dogfight: When the missiles are gone and the gloves come off, which aircraft is left standing? Both aircraft do quite well in the low speed/low altitude/high-AoA regime. The Rafale's close-coupled canard design helps put more air over the big delta wings, producing more lift. The Super Hornet's twin canted tails and trapezoidal wings help it perform seemingly gravity defying maneuvers.

With low-speed maneuverability pretty much a dead heat, the dogfight winner will likely be the one able to bring the bigger boom. Here, the Super Hornet is let down somewhat by its venerable M61 20mm Vulcan cannon. While there is nothing wrong with the M61 per se, it does take a few moments to get up to its 6,000 rounds per minute firing rate. In reality, its true firing rate is much closer to the 2,500 rounds per minute of the Rafale's GIAT 30. There is also the not-so-insignificant difference in calibre. With similar muzzle velocities, the Rafale's 30mm cannon wins this one. The Super Hornet may carry more ammunition, but it is easy to imagine which Dirty Harry would prefer.

Both aircraft are excellent gunfighters. Knowing that, I would put my money on the one with the bigger gun. Advantage: Rafale

Air-to-air winner: The Boeing Super Hornet was originally intended to replace both the F-14 Tomcat and the A-6 Intruder. Clearly, some air-to-air compromise needed to be made, but the developers seem to have erred more towards the ground attack role. While the Super Hornet is an acceptable air-superiority fighter, it does not have the same balanced approach as the Rafale. As France's sole front line fighter, the Rafale cannot have any glaring weaknesses. It succeeds in this regard with the exception of one minor detail, a HMD. Even without the HMD, the Rafale is fast enough, agile enough, and powerful enough to handle the Super Hornet. Winner: Rafale

Versatility: The Rafale is marketed as an "Omnirole" fighter, and with good reason. It seems to be equally adept at either the strike or air-superiority roles. While other fighters may be better at one role or the other, the Rafale is possibly the most balanced solution out there. With the carrier capable Rafale M, alongside a choice of either single-seat or two-seat versions, the Rafale can handle just about any role given to it.

Take a look at the United States Navy, however and you will notice that they currently operating a strictly "Hornet only" fighter fleet. While some air-superiorty capability was lost with the retirement of the F-14, the USN has made do. In fact, with the legacy Hornet F/A-18C/D, Super Hornet F/A-18E/F, and the EA-18G Growler, the USN is quite happy, thank you. Senior USN brass have even gone on the records stating that they could cope just fine with a Super Hornet/Growler fleet if the F-35C does not pan out. The prospect of an "Advanced Super Hornet" with CFT's, enclosed weapon pods, and upgraded engines is being looked at with great interest. Even without future improvements, the Super Hornet and Growler provide a great "one-two-punch" for the USN. The Growler variant offering a EW/ECM capability seen nowhere else in the world.

The Rafale is a great single-type solution, but the Growler variant of the Super Hornet makes up for any faults the F/A-18E/F has as an air-superiority fighter. Advantage: Tie

Logistics: With a carrier version available, the Rafale should have no problem adapting to rough landing strips or the like. It fuels up using the "probe-and-drogue" aerial refueling system, much like Canada's current CF-18s. In all, the Rafale would be an easy aircraft to live with... If you do not mind your parts and weapons supply coming strictly from France.

The Super Hornet can go anywhere and do just about anything the CF-18 does. It is slightly larger, but other that that its logistics are the same, if not better. It uses standard American NATO weaponry. Considering that the USN operate the Super Hornet all over the world, it is pretty soon that wherever you are, parts can be made available. Advantage: Super Hornet

Versatility/Logistics winner: Both aircraft are excellent workhorse, capable of performing whatever role thrown at them. The Rafale is a better air-superiority fighter, but the existence of the EA-18G Growler easily remedies this. Any military committed to the Super Hornet should take advantage of the commonality with the Growler, much like Australia has. What really wins this for the Super Hornet is its use with the USN and the existing support for the aircraft. Winner: Super Hornet

Final Score:
Air-to-Ground: Rafale=3 - Super Hornet=3 (4 if you count the Growler)
Air-to-Air: Rafale=4 - Super Hornet=2
Versatility/Logistics: Rafale=1 - Super Hornet =2

Final Result: Rafale=8 - Super Hornet=7 (8 if you count the Growler)

Even with the Growler, I am declaring a win for the Rafale. Since the emphasis on which is the best fighter, air-to-air capability acts as a tie breaker whenever possible.

Both aircraft are excellent "Jack-of-all-trades" aircraft, with the Rafale coming out slightly ahead due to its stronger emphasis on air-superiorty without sacrificing the strike role. The Rafale would have likely done even better with the addition of an HMD.

Since the topic of price is bound to come up... Yes, the Super Hornet is indeed a cheaper aircraft. (Because it is the older aircraft)  As I have said before, it is likely the "safest" replacement for Canada's CF-18, but it lacks some of the other options' capabilities.

The Rafale on the other hand, would be a fantastic selection with only three simple stipulations: 1) HMD installation. 2) Standard NATO weapon integration. 3) Canadian manufacturing and intellectual rights.


  1. Dont worry,if they really hold a fair competition,the Rafale will win anyways.

    1. Hello Vargas, Thanks for the comment! (FYI - despite 6,000+ page views - You are the first!) I agree - if the competition is fair and open the Rafale should win, hands down.