The Boeing F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornet are both variants of the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet fighter jet. Carrier-based and twin-engined, the F/A-18E and F are larger and more sophisticated than their predecessors, the F/A-18C and D Hornet. The F/A-18E is a single seat fighter, while the F/A-18F features a pilot and co-pilot sat in tandem. Both variants of the Super Hornet carry a 20mm cannon, as well as air-air and air-surface armaments. They can also carry a maximum of five external fuel tanks, and can even act as an airborne refuelling tanker if required.
With a maximum speed of Mach 1.8 and a range of 1,275 nautical miles, the Super Hornet is both faster and more versatile than previous incarnations of the Hornet. It features a total of eleven weapons hardpoints: two at the wingtips, six under the wing and three under the fuselage, allowing it to take on a variety of different combat roles. Common armaments for the Super Hornet include the AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-7 Sparrow air-air missiles, AGM-65 Maverick air-surface missiles, and the Paveway range of laser guided bombs. Laser targeting pods can be fitted to the aircraft’s hardpoints if required.
Currently in service with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and US Navy, the Super Hornet entered production in 1995. Since then, over 500 of the aircraft have been built, at a cost of $66.9 million per unit. The aircraft entered service with the US Navy in 1999, and the RAAF in 2010.
The Super Hornet began life as the Hornet 2000 project, a prototype version of the regular F/A-18 Hornet designed to take larger engines and an increased payload. McDonnell Douglas (later taken over by Boeing) pitched the Super Hornet to the US Navy as a replacement for the ageing Grumman A-6 Intruder and LTV A-7 Corsair II, as the Navy’s original planned replacement, the McDonnell Douglas A-12 Avenger, had run into budgetary problems and was likely to be cancelled. The Navy liked the upgraded Hornet, and placed their initial order for the plan in 1992. The Super Hornet also ended up replacing the F-14 Tomcat, meaning that Hornet variants made up the Navy’s entire complement of fighters until the early 21st century.
Maximum speed: Mach 1.8+ (1,190 mph, 1,900 km/h) at 40,000 ft (12,190 m)
Range: 1,275 nmi (2,346 km) clean plus two AIM-9s
Combat radius: 390 nmi (449 mi, 722 km) for interdiction mission
The Sukhoi PAK-FA is a Russian fifth generation twin-engine fighter jet. It is scheduled to be introduced in 2016, with a total of 60 production planes currently on order by the Russian Air Force. Its T-50 prototype first flew in 2010, with a second prototype entering its testing phase in early 2011. Once it is released it is intended to supersede the Mikoyan Mig-29 and Sukhoi Su-27 as the Russian military’s go-to interceptor aircraft. It will also form the basis for the Sukhoi/HAL FGFA, a joint venture between Sukhoi and India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited which is intended to provide the Indian Air Force with a fifth generation fighter of its own by 2022. At present, no other nations are in the running to purchase the aircraft, with China opting to develop its own stealth fighter.
Technical specifications regarding the PAK FA are somewhat limited, as many aspects of the aircraft are highly classified by the Russian military. However, it is known to incorporate stealth technology, and is able to cruise at a speed of over Mach 1. Its tail fins are of particular interest to the aerospace community, as they are fully movable rather than being fitted with conventional rudders. This unique tail design is thought to give the aircraft greater manoeuvrability than the American F-22 Raptor, although this may come at a cost of reduced stealth capability. The PAK FA’s fuselage is mostly comprised of titanium alloy.
Powered by two Saturn AL-41F1 turbofans, the PAK FA has a maximum speed of over Mach 2, and a service ceiling of 20,000 metres. The T-50 prototype was not fitted with any guns as standard, but it is possible that the production version of the aircraft will have either single or dual cannon fitted, possibly the Gryazev-Shipunov Gsh-301 30mm model. As with many stealth aircraft, the PAK FA has weapons hardpoints mounted in internal bays as well as in a traditional wing-based configuration. In additional to its six external hardpoints, its two fuselage bays can carry three R-27 air-air missiles or two R033 air-air missiles each. It is thought to use the advanced AESA N050 avionics system.
Maximum speed: Mach 2+, 2,100-2,600 km/h (1,300-1,560 mph) ; at 17,000 m (55774.3 ft) altitude
The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is a fifth-generation, single-seat multirole fighter jet with stealth technology. A true multirole fighter, it is able to undertake both air and ground assault missions, as well as reconnaissance tasks. It has three distinct variants: the F-35C, a carrier-based version; the F-35B, a short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) version; and the F-35A, which takes off and lands in a conventional manner.
The Lightning II is derived from the Lockheed Martin X-35, which was the end result of the Joint Strike Fighter program. Joint Strike Fighter was an international effort between the US and its closest allies, and as such the F-35 is more of a collaborative project than many comparable fighter jets. The international consortium of companies working on it is headed up by Lockheed Martin.
As of early 2013, the F-35 is still not in active service. It first flew in 2006, but currently in limited production only. When it is eventually introduced, the US Marine Corps, Navy and Air Force plan to purchase 2,443 F-35s, replacing the majority of the US military’s current fighter contingent. The other Joint Strike Fighter nations also have options on the F-35, with the UK, Italy and Canada amongst those who may elect to take the plane on.
The F-35B is particularly notable for its propulsion system. This STOVL variant of the plane is fitted with the Rolls Royce LiftSystem, a specially designed nozzle on its Pratt & Whitney F135 engine which allows it to angle thrust directly downwards in a similar way to the now-obsolete Harrier GR8. The LiftSystem is significant in that it renders the F-35B the first supersonic STOVL plane. However, the complexities of the system mean that the F-35B has a fuel capacity one third less than the conventional takeoff F-35A.
The F-35 is armed with a General Dynamics GAU-22/A Equalizer gatling cannon, and can be further equipped with a range of missiles and bombs on its 6 wing-mounted and four internal hardpoints. Compatible weapon systems include the AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missile, the AGM-154 JSOW air-to-surface missile, the JSM anti-ship missile and the B61 nuclear bomb.
Maximum speed: Mach 1.6+ (1,200 mph, 1,930 km/h) (Tested to Mach 1.61)
Range: 1,200 nmi (2,220 km) on internal fuel
Combat radius: 584 nmi (1,080 km) on internal fuel
Service ceiling: 60,000 ft (18,288 m) (Tested to 43,000 ft)
Rate of climb: classified (not publicly available)