This article attempts to compare the combat performance of fighter aircraft of the early 21st century.
Specifically, it compares their capabilities as air superiority fighters, that is, fighting other fighter aircraft, which is generally a harder task than shooting down aircraft which are not fighters.
In general, because of the lack of reliable information about the fighters themselves, and the lack of actual combat between them, it is extremely hard to judge how they will perform in combat. The bodies in the best position to know — aircraft manufacturers and air forces — keep secret much of the real capabilities of their aircraft, but simultaneously often try to present them in the best possible light by claiming superiority over other comparable vehicles.
More detailed reports of capabilities, or comparative evaluations, are often unsourced, making it extremely difficult to determine the factual accuracy of the capability reports or the expertise of the opinions advanced.
For conciseness, this page considers only fighter aircraft manufactured in 2000 and those that are planned to be manufactured later in the decade. Older aircraft are likely to be less capable than the aircraft in this survey. Two promising Russian aircraft, the MiG-35 and Sukhoi Su-47 Berkut will also not be included, as there is not enough reliable information available about their performance and no assurance that they will ever go into service with any air force. The aircraft included are:
People’s Republic of China/Pakistan:
- FC-1 / JF-17, manufactured 2006–
- Chengdu J-10 manufactured
France: Dassault Aviation Rafale manufactured 2001–
India: Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) manufactured 2006–
Germany/UK/Italy/Spain: Eurofighter Typhoon manufactured 2003–
Japan: Mitsubishi F-2, based on the F-16, manufactured 1996–
- Mikoyan MiG-29 ‘Fulcrum’ manufactured 1983–
- Sukhoi Su-27 ‘Flanker’ and derivatives such as Sukhoi Su-33: manufactured 1982–
- Sukhoi Su-30 ‘Flanker’, manufactured 1996–
Sweden/UK: Saab/BAE Systems JAS-39 Gripen manufactured 1996–
Taiwan: AIDC Ching Kuo, based on the F-16, manufactured 1994–2000
- McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle manufactured 1973–2000
- General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon manufactured 1978–2002
- McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet manufactured 1980–
- Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor manufactured 2003–
- USA/UK: F-35 Joint Strike Fighter 2008–
What makes a good fighter?
In short-range (within visual range or WVR) air-to-air combat conducted to date, fighters have had to get into a good position to fire their weapons upon the enemy fighter, and this is likely to continue to be an air-combat requirement. Thus, WVR engagements (dogfights) can be reduced, on paper, to comparative maneuvering ability between the two airplanes.
If a fighter can turn faster than its opponent, it will find it easier to get into a favorable position, — generally, behind that opponent. An airplane’s ability to turn can be roughly gauged by its wing loading. This is the mass of the aircraft divided by the area of the wings. The bigger the wings, the easier it is for them to push the aircraft in a direction other than that in which it is currently traveling. Note that some aircraft use thrust vectoring, where the jet exhaust from the engines doesn’t always go straight backwards but can be tilted up or down (and sometimes also left to right) to increase maneuverability.
Engine power also confers advantages in air combat. Most simply, high overall speed can allow a pilot to choose to disengage an opponent by simply outrunning it. This ability to disengage may also apply to incoming missiles, allowing escape from what would be a fatal shot to a slower airplane.
A high-powered fighter is also more likely to maintain a crucial overall energy advantage over its opponent. All air combat maneuvers (ACM) require a certain amount of physical energy, most simply thought of as airspeed plus altitude. When fighters perform the high-g maneuvers common in air-to-air combat, they must sacrifice one or both of these qualities, and there are fundamental limits to how much of each can be sacrificed. Altitude can obviously not go below the ground level, and airspeed can not fall below the stall speed of the fighter. If a pilot attempts a maneuver at too low an initial total energy level, he/she will likely stall the airplane and become an easy target for a missile or gun kill. The fighter’s engines add energy at a certain rate; the higher this rate, the greater can be considered the fighter’s ability to manoeuver. Higher engine power allows the airplane to maintain a high energy level and therefore engage in more aggressive ACM.
A good comparative measure of acceleration is a plane’s thrust to weight ratio (note that if this is greater than 1, the aircraft is capable of accelerating while flying straight up).
Table of thrust-to-weight ratio and wing loading
|Rafale F2||1.13||304||5300 l fuel internal|
|Typhoon||1.18||300||4700 l fuel internal|
|Su-30||Indian Su-30MKI has thrust vectoring|
|F-22A||1.2||342||13000 l fuel internal and 2D thrust vectoring|
- values are at normal takeoff weight unless otherwise specified
- some of the takeoff weights and thrust values are not officially available;
there is some considerable guesswork involved. Ricconi  claims that the F-22’s wing loading and thrust-weight
ratios are actually little better than the F-15C.
However, some sources dispute the value of maneuverability of fighters in the contemporary and near future environment, given the expected abilities of medium-range air-to-air missiles to out-turn, outrun, and out-accelerate any manned aircraft, and the ability of new short-range missiles (with helmet sights) to be launched at a very wide range of angles and with a very high probability of hits. The extreme version of this view states that any aircraft will do, as long as it can carry the missiles and radar. In exercises using the new missiles, pilots report using only a small fraction of their available maneuverability, and that in WVR (within visual range) combat “everybody dies at the same rate”, and “F-5 or a MiG-21 with a high-off-boresight missile and HMD is as capable in a 1-v-1 as an F-22” . As to the validity of this argument, it is worth noting that the F-22 (on the basis of the estimates presented here) has a very high thrust-to-weight ratio, low wing loading, and thrust vectoring to improve maneuverability; but whether this maneuverability is simply a remnant of its 1980’s genesis is open to question. There are also plans to upgrade the thrust of, and possibly add thrust vectoring to, the Typhoon. If these plans are implemented, it would be reasonable to assume the users of the Typhoon still regard maneuverability as an important combat feature.
Conversely, on the basis of published thrust-to-weight ratios and wing loading the F-35 is likely to be little more maneuverable than the F-16.
The Typhoon, the Rafale, and particularly the F-22 have a considerable performance advantage over the other craft in the list in that they have the ability to travel at supersonic speeds without the use of afterburners, an ability known as supercruise. As afterburners use a huge amount of fuel, most fighters can use them for only a few minutes. Therefore, an aircraft with supercruise should theoretically have a huge advantage in pursuing or evading a non supercruise-capable plane, in that the supercruise-capable aircraft will have a higher speed and thus a higher amount of maneuvering energy. Supercruise will also allow these planes to spend more time in combat, particularly at longer ranges, rather than in transit.
However, a report by a former Air Force colonel who was involved in the F-16 program and supercruise development states that the advantage of the F-22 is not great in practice, because its fuel capacity greatly limits the use of supercruise .
To pursue and launch missiles at an opponent out of visual range, a fighter must determine their location. By and large, this is done with radar. A plane that is hard to detect on radar, therefore, will be at a big advantage over one that is more easily detected because the “stealthy” plane should be able to shoot first (or, for that matter, leave without being detected).
Recent American fighter aircraft development has focused on stealth, and the recently deployed F-22 is the first fighter designed from the ground up for stealth. However, the stealthiness of the F-22 from angles other than head-on is not clear. The in-development F-35 is also regarded as stealthy, but some reports claim it is significantly less so than the F-22, particularly from the rear. .
Furthermore, the export JSF is claimed to be significantly less stealthy than the US/UK version.
The Rafale and Typhoon are not ground-up stealth designs, but since the disclosure of the F-22 and earlier stealthy bomber designs they have undergone substantial detail refinement to reduce their radar cross section (RCS). How much effect this has on detection range is unclear. Effective detection range by radar is usually approximated as proportional to RCS^0.25  and therefore even reducing an aircrafts RCS by 50% does little to reduce detection range. The Mitsubishi F-2 and the Indian Light Combat Aircraft (Tejas) are also reported to have been equipped with radar-absorbing material in parts. 
Neither the MiG-29 nor the Su-27 and its derivatives have any known stealthy features, nor do the F-16 derivatives produced by Taiwan. Similarly, there are no reports on the stealthiness of the Chinese aircraft.
The Wikipedia article on the Super Hornet mentions proposals to reduce its RCS, but, like the European aircraft, it will undoubtedly have a much larger RCS than either of the other American fighters.
Actual figures of the stealthiness of the various aircraft are unsurprisingly highly classified.
It should be noted that stealth is considered mainly in terms of lack of visibility to other airborne radars. Ground-based, lower-frequency radars are less affected by stealth features. The Australian Jindalee over-the-horizon radar project is reported to be able to detect the wake turbulence of an aircraft regardless of its stealth capabilities . It remains to be seen whether a similar system can be devised that is small enough to fit into aircraft, and is suitable for tracking rather than simply a warning. Loss of stealth advantages would make the F-35 particularly vulnerable.
There are some reports that the Rafale’s avionics, the Thales Spectra, includes “stealthy” radar jamming technology, a radar cancellation systems analogous to the acoustic noise suppression systems on the De Havilland Canada Dash 8. Conventional jammers make locating an aircraft more difficult, but their operation is itself detectable; the French system is hypothesised to interfere with detection without revealing that jamming is in operation. In effect, such a system could potentially offer stealth advantages similar in effect to, but likely less effective than, the F-22 and JSF. However, it is unclear how effective the system is, or even whether it is fully operational yet.
As well, research continues into other ways of decreasing observability by radar. There are claims that the Russians are working on “plasma stealth”, . Obviously, such techniques might well remove some of the current advantage of the F-22 and JSF, but American defence research also continues unabated.
There are ways to detect fighters other than radar. For instance, passive infra-red sensors can detect the heat of engines, and even the sound of a sonic boom (which any supersonic aircraft will make) can be tracked with a network of sensors and computers. However, using these to provide precise targeting information for a long-range missile is considerably less straightforward than radar.
The avionics systems of the various fighters vary considerably. In general, Western avionics are viewed as by far the most technologically sophisticated. The F-22 and F-35 have a unified avionics design, with most processing performed in a central aircraft computer and with very high-speed interfaces to individual components. The Rafale and Eurofighter have slower main computers and internal data networks. How much difference this actually makes, of course, is open to conjecture; the “devil is in the detail” of the software and special-purpose used to process sensor and positioning information which is in any case classified. The “user interface” of the new American fighters has been publicly displayed, however, and has received positive comment for the coordination of the interface presented to the pilot. Russian and other nations’ avionics are also generally regarded as less technologically sophisticated than American ones at this point in time. However, it should be noted that it is possible to upgrade avionics architecture without changing the airframes, and that governments tend to classify their avonics (particularly their newest versions available) thus making it difficult to gather accurate data.
A fundamental part of a fighter’s avionics is its radar. In terms of individual aircraft, the AESA. This is reportedly regarded as highly secret technology, and it is unlikely to be exported. Neither the Rafale (PESA RBE2) or Eurofighter have such an advanced radar (the Eurofighter is equipped with the Euroradar CAPTOR), but a next-generation radar system, the AMSAR, is under development, and has a design similar to the American radars. It may eventually be fitted to both aircraft . radars of the American fighters are claimed to have a significant advantage over others. All fighters are generally equipped with a passive device that “listens” for radars targeted at them. The F-22 and F-35’s radar is designed to be difficult to detect (given the acronym Low Probability of Intercept – LPI), while maintaining superior ability to find other aircraft to conventional designs.
While the F-35’s radar is undoubtedly technologically sophisticated, it is reportedly considerably less powerful than the F-22’s, because the F-35 is limited by the amount of room and electrical power available in its nose.
Another factor to consider is the sophistication of other sensors, such as passive infra-red and passive radar detectors, as well as radar jamming capabilities. Few specific details of these are in the public domain.
All of the modern European and American aircraft are capable of sharing targeting data with allied fighters and from AWACS planes (see JTIDS). The Russian MiG-31 interceptor also has some datalink capability, so it is reasonable to assume that other Russian planes can also do so. The F-22 and particularly the F-35 are reportedly much more able in this area.
Given the existence of LPI radars and some basic knowledge (or at least intelligent guesses) as to the methods used, the question arises as to whether countermeasures have yet been developed to allow their detection. This is unclear from published sources.
Comparatively little is known about the avionics of the new Indian and Chinese planes. It is generally assumed that they are well behind Western standards. However, reports from the recent Indian-American exercise suggest that India, at least, has begun to develop their own expertise in the area. Furthermore, thanks to its homegrown LCA program and a burgeoning computer industry, India has fielded a range of avionics items built around the accepted international standards. Recent Indian aircraft all incorporate homegrown Open Architecture computers using Commercial off the shelf (COTS) processors.
Cost effectiveness and availability
The more an aircraft costs to buy, the fewer units of it can be afforded and
vice versa as contractors decide to charge more for lower quantities. Another
aspect of availability is that some exporting nations limit who they will sell
aircraft to for political motives. Generally, the USA and most Western European
countries tend to be more selective about who it will sell to, and Russia and
China less selective. All countries tend to sell less capable versions to
foreign purchasers. Information about aircraft costs is hard to get hold of.
Because of inflation, one must also include the year that a cost refers to;
figures are in USD unless otherwise specified.
- Rafale More than €50m, depending on export sales
- Typhoon Austrian version: ’03 €62m
- Mitsubishi F-2 US$ 100m
- MiG-29 about ’98 US$ 27m
- Sukhoi Su-27US$ 24m
- Sukhoi Su-30 US$ ~38m (Several variants)
- Sukhoi Su-30K for Indonesia: ’98 US$ 33m
- Sukhoi Su-30MKI for India, highly specified version: ’98 US$ 45m
- Sukhoi Su-30MKM for Malaysia, a variant of the Indian version: ’03
- Gripen about ’98 US$ 25m
- Ching Kuo initially large order put cost per unit at US$ 24m
- F-15 ’98 US$ 43m
- F-16 late models about ’98 US$ 25m
- F-18 E/F model ’98 US$ 60m
- F-22A ’03 US$ 152m, based on production run of 276 aircraft costing
- F-35 planned costs, based on version, in ’94:
- F-35A US$ 28m
- F-35B US$ 35m
- F-35C US$ 38m
Actual costs of the F-35 JSF are:
- F-35A US$ 45m
- F-35B US$ 60m
- F-35C US$ 55m
Prices come from the article, supposedly as per Asia Pacific Defence
Reporter, September 2005.
Range and runways
|range,int fuelkm||range,ext fuelkm||ferryrangekm||takeoff,landingm||notes|
|Rafale F2||800||1850||3850||400, 300|
- explanations of the columns, in order:
- the range the aircraft can travel to, on a typical air superiority mission,
with 10 minutes loiter over the target, using only internal fuel, travelling at
high altitude (which conserves fuel), returning to its airbase after the mission
- the same, using external fuel (drop tanks) as well
- the range the aircraft can travel when moving to a different airbase
- the length of runway the aircraft needs to take off and land
- the range the aircraft can travel to, on a typical air superiority mission,
How many hours of servicing does the aircraft require per hour of flight?
Fighters as part of a system
While it may be tempting to focus on the dogfighting capabilities of an
individual aircraft, other military equipment has a considerable bearing on the
likely outcome of air-to-air combat, particularly for long-range
Perhaps the most obvious items to consider are the aircraft’s air-to-air
missile systems. For instance, while the Eurofigher is almost certainly easier
to detect on radar than an F-22, the British version is intended to be upgraded
to replace the AMRAAM missiles for initial deployment with the MBDA Meteor. The Meteor has a far greater range than the AMRAAM,
and is claimed to be much more manoeuverable at the limits of its range.
Therefore, the Eurofighter pilot may be able to fire their missiles much
earlier. Missile systems are upgraded more often than the planes themselves. As
discussed earlier, the development of short-range missiles that can fire at
targets not directly in front of a plane seems to have radically changed the
nature of short-range combat, making the performance of the missile, not the
aircraft, the key factor. Similarly, radar systems, and electronic
countermeasures, can also be upgraded. It is not unknown for the combat systems
on exported planes to be substantially inferior to the ones supplied to the
manufacturer’s home air force.
Systems not physically located within the aircraft can also make a
substantial difference to combat effectiveness. Radar systems, such as AWACS planes, as well as shipboard and ground-based radars, can
inform fighters of the location of opponents that they cannot detect with their
own radars, and do this without the fighters having to use their own radars and
thus give away their position. Even the availability of airborne refuelling can
make a big difference to combat effectiveness by extending the distance and time
fighters can spend in the air.
Finally, the human factor cannot be ignored, as pilot ability and training is
still believed to play a large part in the results of air combat. This favours
air forces who select their pilots on merit and have the resources to allow
extensive training exercises.
Britain’s Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (now split into QinetiQ and DSTL) did an evaluation (simulation based on the available data)
comparing the Typhoon with some other modern fighters in how well they performed
against an expected adversary aircraft, the Sukhoi Su-35. Due to the lack of information gathered on the 5th
generation combat aircraft and the Su-35 during the time of this study it is not
meant to be considered official.
The study used real pilots flying the JOUST system of networked simulators.
Various western aircraft supposed data were put in simulated combat against the
Su-35. The results were:
|Aircraft||Odds vs. Su-35|
|Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor||10.1:1|
|Dassault Rafale C||1.0:1|
|Sukhoi Su-35 ‘Flanker’||1.0:1|
|McDonnell Douglas F-15C Eagle||0.8:1|
|McDonnell Douglas F/A-18C||0.3:1|
|General Dynamics F-16C||0.3:1|
These results mean, for example, that in simulated combat, 4.5 Su-35s
were shot down for every Typhoon lost. Critics have pointed out though that it
is unclear about whether todays advanced Flankers were actually factored in.
These have far more advanced radar (BARS on the MKI and MKM, with further
improvements planned as Russia continues to field improved radars) and avionics
than the Su-35 of that time. Plus Russia has longer range missiles currently in
development, but which could be fielded by advanced Flanker variants in the
future. Missiles such as the KS-172 may be intended for large targets and not
fighters, but their impact on a long range BVR engagement needs to be factored
The “F/A-18+” in the study was apparently not the current F/A-18E/F, but an
improved version. All the western aircraft in the simulation were using the AMRAAM missile, except the Rafale which was using the MICA missile. This does not reflect the likely long-term
air-to-air armament of Eurofighters (as well as Rafales), which will ultimately
be equipped with the superior MBDA Meteor (while carrying the AMRAAM as an interim
Details of the simulation have not been released, making it harder to verify
whether it gives an accurate evaluation (for instance, whether they had adequate
knowledge of the Sukhoi and Raptor to realistically simulate their combat
performance). Another problem with the study is the scenarios under which the
combat took place are unclear; it is possible that they were deliberately or
accidentally skewed to combat scenarios that favoured certain aircraft over
others; For instance, long-range engagements favour planes with stealth, good
radar and advanced missiles, whereas the Su-35’s alleged above-average
manoeuverability may prove advantageous in short-range combat. Nor is it clear
whether the Su-35 was modeled with thrust vector control (as the present MKI’s,
Eventually, we shall not forget that the DERA simulation was made in the mid
90’s with limited knowledge about the Radar Cross Section, the ECM and the radar
performances of the actual aircrafts : indeed, at that time, the 4th/5th
generation fighters were all at the prototype stage.
Friendly air forces regularly practice against each other in exercises, and
when these air forces fly different aircraft some indication of the relative
capabilities of the aircraft can be gained.
The results of an exercise in 2004 pitting USAF F-15 Eagles against Indian Air Force Su-30MKI’s, Mirage 2000’s, MiG-29’s and even
the elderly MiG-21 have been widely publicised, with the Indians winning “90% of
the mock combat missions” . Another report  claims that the kind of systemic factors mentioned in the
previous section were heavily weighted against the F-15s. According to this
report, the F-15’s were outnumbered 3-to-1. The rules of the exercise also
allowed the Indian side the use of a simulated AWACS providing location
information, and allowed them to use the full fire-and-forget active radar of
simulated MBDA Mica and AA-12fire-and-forget mode (rather relying on the F-15’s internal
radar for the purpose). None of the F-15’s were equipped with the latest AESA radars, which are fitted to some, but not all, of the
USAF’s F-15 fleet. The report concludes that despite all these mitigating
factors, the quality of the IAF opposition was a considerable surprise to the
USAF pilots and observers, and revealed a weakness in USAF tactics in dealing
with “launch-and-leave” tactics by opposing aircraft.
missiles. The F-15’s, by contrast, were not permitted to
simulate the full range of the AMRAAM (restricted to 32 km when the full range
is claimed in the report to be over 100km), nor to use the AMRAAM’s own radar
systems to guide itself in
It is worth noting that the USAF is currently lobbying hard for as large a
complement as possible of the F-22 and F-35, and evidence that present USAF
equipment is inferior to potential enemy fighters is a useful lobbying tool.
In June 2005, a Eurofighter pilot was reportedly able, in a mock confrontation, to avoid two pursuing
F-15s and outmanoeuvre them to get into shooting position.
Combat between modern jet fighters has been very rare.
In combat involving the US and its military allies factors extraneous to the
quality of the individual aircraft (such as weight of numbers, ability to train
pilots properly, presence of radar systems etc) have typically overwhelmingly
favoured them, making a realistic assessment difficult.
In any case, air combat involving the aircraft discussed are as follows:
- During the Gulf War, USAF F-15s shot down 5 Iraqi MiG-29s
- On January 17, 1993, a USAF F-16 shot down a MiG-29 in Iraqi no-fly zone. (Some sources claim it was a MiG-23.) 
- In February 1999, during the Eritrean-Ethiopian War, Ethiopian Su-27s shot down 2 Eritrean.
MiG-29s. Some sources claim that the Ethiopian planes
were flown by Russian pilots, the Eritrean planes by Ukrainians (certainly, the
pilots were at least trained by instructors from those nations)
- During the 1999 Kosovo War, a Netherlands F-16 shot down 1 Yugoslavian MiG-29; USAF F-15s shot down 4 MiG-29s and a USAF
F-16 shot down 1 Mig-29, the last aerial victory scored against the Mig-29.
- Fighter “non-comparison” table – compares fighters, and
contains links to other aviation topics
- Fighter Planes and Military Aircraft (in depth data for all
- aeronautics.ru showing estimated aircraft prices