Dassault Rafale v/s Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet
? RAFALE v/s SUPER HORNET
? TUSSLE OF THE EVENLY POISED
? WHICH WILL EDGE OUT THE OTHER?
Today, we will pit two of the finest contenders in India’s Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) Contract 2.0 against each other. In the end, some of you may feel slightly vindicated. Others will simply be more angry with me… Sorry about that.
From an aesthetic point of view, the Dassault Rafale and the Boeing Super Hornet are two very different looking fighters. The Rafale uses a close-coupled canard-delta wing layout with a single vertical stabilizer while the Super Hornet (a.k.a. ‘Rhino’) uses a more familiar trapezoidal wing with traditional elevators and two canted stabilizers.
Despite looking quite different, the two aircraft have a lot in common. Both are twin-engine, carrier capable jets with similar payloads and operating ranges. Despite years of faithful service from both aircraft, foreign buyers are scarce.
Dassault has managed to win India’s MMRCA 1.0 competition for 36 aircraft, besides Qatar has ordered 36 aircraft and Egypt is receiving the delivery of 24 aircraft, but it has yet to be finalized for India’s MMRCA 2.0. Boeing has managed to sell a small number of Super Hornets and Growlers to Australia, though US’s domestic order is quite huge. Both suffered defeat in Brazil after the plucky little Swedish Gripen drank their milkshake.
So here RAFALE and RHINO go head to head!
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 non-metallic composites in much of its construction. Some other “tricks”, like burying the engine inlets and mild reshaping 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 the 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 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.
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 similarly sized warhead but can do so at roughly twice the range. This gives the Rhino a significant advantage here.
⏩Advantage: Super Hornet
French Air Force versions of the Rafale have a remarkable 14 hardpoints capable of handling 20,900lbs of an ordinance. Of these, four (two wingtips, two flushes with the rear fuselage) are usually dedicated to air-to-air missiles, leaving 10 hardpoints 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 hardpoints, including two wingtip missile rails and two conformal hard points built for AIM-120 AMRAAM.
With more payload capability combined with additional hardpoint options, the Rafale wins this round.
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.
?AIR-TO-GROUND winner: Tie
Both aircraft are more than capable ground pounders, with only minor differences in maximum payload and weapon types.
Again, these different-looking fighters have a 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 true “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.
While both the 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. If 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, then 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 has 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
Considering 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 agiler 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 was the one area that always seemed to haunt the Rafale, but in case of India’s Rafales, Israeli HMD is being integrated with them.
And if the Rafale has an HMD, it would run away with this. Without an HMD in Rafale, shooting a HOBS (high-off foresight) missile to the side or even behind an aircraft to its intended target is certainly impressive, but not idle. So with the addition of HMD, the advantage of Rhino having the better aim is negated, and on top of that, the Rafale is the tougher target.
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 caliber. 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.
?AIR-TO-AIR winner: Rafale
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 frontline fighter, the Rafale cannot have any glaring weaknesses. It succeeds in this regard even with the exception of one minor detail, HMD. The addition of HMD is a red cherry on top. Rest assured the Rafale is fast enough, agile enough, and powerful enough to handle the Super Hornet.
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-superiority 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 has 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 has been taken up 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 is 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.
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. In all, the Rafale would be an easy aircraft to live with… Whatever you would have minded with your parts and weapons supply coming strictly from France, is being taken care of by setting up 2 maintenance and overhaul facilities and spares in India.
The Super Hornet uses standard American NATO weaponry. Considering that the USN operate the Super Hornet all over the world, wherever you are, parts can be made available. Moreover, Boeing is committing to set up similar facilities in India as Dassault.
?Versatility/Logistics winner: Both aircraft are an excellent workhorse, capable of performing whatever role is 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. But setting up in-house facilities in India means nobody really wins this section. So it is a tie
Air-to-Ground: Rafale=3 – Super Hornet=3 (4 if you count the Growler)
Air-to-Air: Rafale=4 – Super Hornet=1
Versatility/Logistics: Rafale=2 – Super Hornet =2
Final Result: Rafale=9 – Super Hornet=6 (7 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 tiebreaker 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-superiority without sacrificing the strike role.
Since the topic of price is bound to come up… Yes, the Super Hornet is indeed a cheaper aircraft. The Advanced Super Hornet would likely go a great deal toward improving the Super Hornet, but there is no “free lunch” here. Full development of the Advanced Super Hornet would take money, negating one of the Super Hornet’s biggest selling point.