The Buzz

Russia's Lethal Su-35 Fighter vs. America's F-35, F-15 and F-16: Who Wins?

Russia’s Su-35 fighter certainly has western defense outlets buzzing--and for good reason.

Moscow, despite heavy sanctions and an economy that has certainly seen better days, keeps pumping out new combat systems one after another--items like new tanks, submarines, nuclear weapons platforms and more.

While many were indeed designed and planned for ahead of the imposition of sanctions, Russia is clearly making a big effort to modernize its armed forces, especially its air force, and moving past older Soviet platforms. The Su-35 is a good example of such efforts.

So how would the Su-35 do against America’s best planes? How would  it fare against an American air force that is clearly the best in the world.  How would, for example, the Su-35 do in a combat situation against Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter? How would Russia’s new plane do against older aircraft like the F-15 or say F-16?

Such scenarios matter--and not just in the context of a possible NATO/Russia or Middle East situation, but now that Russia is set to deliver the Su-35 to China, such comparisons matter even more. There are many places where all of these lethal aircraft will overlap, making such comparisons even more timely.

Compiled below is three articles, written last year by TNI’s Defense Editor, Dave Majumdar, that looks at these questions in depth, combined in one posting for your reading pleasure. With that said, let the debate begin.

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While the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is slated to become the mainstay of the Pentagon’s tactical fighter fleet, not everyone nation on Earth can afford to fly an expensive fifth-generation fighter.

Even Russia and China are not likely to attempt to develop an all fifth-generation fighter fleet—instead, for the foreseeable future, the derivatives of the Sukhoi Su-27 Flanker air superiority fighter will make up the bulk of their tactical air arsenals. The most potent Flanker derivative is the Su-35, which is a much-improved version with vastly improved avionics, engines and airframe. In the years ahead, this latest Flanker-E is likely to proliferate around the world.

To counter the proliferation of Flanker variants, the U.S. Air Force, Marines and to a far lesser extent, the U.S. Navy will have to rely on versions of the F-35 even though it was never intended to be an air superiority fighter. It was and continues to be a strike aircraft with a robust air-to-air self defense capability even though the Pentagon has pushed it to a be a jack-of-all-trades.

How would a group of four F-35s fare if it were confronted by a formation of four Su-35s? The most likely answer is that they would change course and call in the F-22 Raptors and F-15Cs, which are tasked with gaining and maintaining air superiority. Meanwhile, the F-35s would go on their merry way to their assigned targets.  

However, as history shows us, many times in war you do not always get to chose from the most optimal of solutions. If the F-35s were left to their own devices, they would probably be alright even against the Su-35––if they played their cards right. The F-35s pilots would have to use their stealth, onboard and offboard sensors and smart tactics that play to the F-35s strengths and avoid its weakness. That means using the jet’s stealth and sensors to engage enemy fighters from beyond visual range and avoiding a visual range turning fight where the F-35 is vulnerable.

Unlike a Raptor, which was designed from the outset as an air-to-air killer par excellence—the F-35 was not. The Raptor combines a very stealthy airframe with a high altitude ceiling and supersonic cruise speeds in excess of Mach 1.8. Compared to that, the F-35 can  just barely touch Mach 1.6 in full afterburner. Further, the F-22 possesses excellent maneuverability for close-in visual-range dogfights––it crushes the competition in terms of turn rate, radius, angle-of-attack and energy addition at all altitudes.

Whereas a four-ship flight of Raptors cruising at high supersonic speeds in the rarified atmosphere above 50,000 feet can effectively choose when and where to fight, a flight of slower, lower-flying F-35s might find themselves forced to react to better-performing enemy planes if they are not careful.

Moreover, the F-35 does not have the speed or altitude to impart as much launch energy to the AIM-120 air-to-air missile as the Raptor can, which means the missiles will have less range when fired from a JSF. Nor can the F-35 carry as many air-to-air missiles—which is a problem given that digital radio frequency memory jammers can wreak havoc with the AMRAAM’s guidance system.

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