The Buzz

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

Close in, the JSF does not have the maneuverability of the Raptor––or even a F-16 or F/A-18. If forced into a dogfight, an American F-35 pilot’s superior skills and experience might be the only factor that might save him or her from being shot down. The fact is that an F-35 in stealthy configuration armed only with internal weapons cannot currently carry the AIM-9X high off-boresight missile. If the AIM-9X were one day integrated into the weapons bays, it would come at the cost of an AIM-120 rail—which is arguably a better weapon for an aircraft like the F-35. Basically, an F-35 pilot should avoid a close in fight at all costs.

It is highly unlikely that a U.S. Joint Force Air Component Commander (JFACC) would assign an air superiority mission to an F-35 unit if alternatives were available. But given the tiny fleet of Raptors and dwindling F-15C fleet, it is possible that the JFACC could be forced to use the F-35 as an air superiority asset. However, that being said, the real threat to American air power in most regions around the world is not enemy air power—but rather advanced enemy integrated air defense systems.

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The Boeing F-15C Eagle has been in service with the U.S. Air Force for nearly 40 years and will likely serve for decades to come. Over the years, the mighty F-15 has been upgraded to keep pace with evolving threats, but does the venerable Eagle still have what it takes to dominate the skies?

The answer is yes—absolutely. The Eagle may be old, but it’s still one of the best air superiority fighters flying. The only operational aircraft that is definitively superior to the F-15 in most respects is the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor—other machines have the edge in certain aspects, but the F-15C is still competitive overall despite what the business development departments at various rival contractors might say.

Perhaps the most advanced threat the F-15 is likely to encounter is the Russian-built Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E. While there are more advanced threats in development, those aircraft are likely to be too expensive to ever become commonplace. The Su-35 isn’t the most common potential threat out there, but there is a good chance it will proliferate. Indonesia has reportedly decided to purchase the Su-35, and we know that the Chinese have had discussions about a potential purchase.

The Su-35 is a genuinely dangerous war machine, and in many metrics, it matches or even exceeds the capabilities of the latest upgrades for the F-15. In terms of pure kinematic performance, the Su-35 is slightly slower than the F-15C in terms of max speed but it can out accelerate the Eagle with its powerful twin Saturn Izdeliye 117S engines, which put out 31,900lbs of thrust each. Further, when the jet is relatively lightly loaded, it can maintain supersonic speeds without the use of its afterburners.

While excellent acceleration at high altitude to supersonic speeds is a huge advantage, the F-15C is no slouch—and it wouldn’t be a decisive edge for the Russian jet. However, where the Su-35 does have an insurmountable edge is at low speeds. The Flanker-E has three-dimensional thrust vectoring and is unbelievably maneuverable at low speeds. However, given the advent of helmet mounted cuing systems and high off-boresight missiles like the AIM-9X and Russian R-73, more often than not, close in visual encounters tend to be “mutual kill” situations as many pilots can attest. A lot of it is going to come down to pilot skill and, frankly, luck.  

At longer ranges, the F-15C and the F-15E still have the advantage over the Su-35 with their active electronically scanned array radars. The Raytheon APG-63 (v) 3 and APG-82 (v)1 on the two Eagle variants are still considerably superior to the Su-35S’ Tikhomirov IRBIS-E phased array radar. The Su-35 does hold a fleeting advantage for now for passive sensors since it has a built-in infrared search and track system (IRST), but the F-15 fleet will receive a very capable IRST in the near future—nullifying the Flanker’s edge.

One area the Flanker-E probably holds the edge is with its electronic warfare suite. The Su-35S boasts a potent digital radio frequency memory jamming suite that can wreck havoc with the AIM-120 AMRAAM missile. While American missiles are likely to eventually make it through, it will take many more missiles to achieve a kill than planners were counting on. The Su-35, meanwhile, carries a huge arsenal of air-to-air missiles versus the F-15 fleet’s obsolete defensive electronics. The U.S. Air Force is keenly aware of the problem, which is why it places such emphasis of on the $7.6 billion Eagle Passive/Active Warning and Survivability System upgrade.

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