The most numerous combat aircraft in service are light multirole fighters, unspecialized relatively low cost platforms widely fielded by both developed and developing nations and capable of fulfilling both ground attack and air to air combat roles. These fighters are generally smaller, shorter ranged and more affordable than their high performance counterparts built on air superiority airframes, with the latter in most cases maintaining a significant advantage in their air to air combat capabilities. Modern air superiority platforms include the fourth generation several variants of the Su-27 as well as the U.S. made F-14 and F-15 and the fifth generation F-22, J-20 and Su-57. A league below these are the light multirole fighters - the most prolific of which are the F-18, MiG-29, J-10 and F-16. A comparison of the light fighter platforms currently in service, one which excludes both the air superiority platforms and dedicated interceptors such as the MiG-31, can be made to indicate which fighters from the light category are the most effective in air to air combat. This comparison will not take into account acquisition costs, operational costs or maintenance requirements and the resulting sortie rates - focusing purely on fighters' combat capabilities.
1. F-18E Super Hornet Block 3
Developed from the F-18A, a light multirole platform deployed by the U.S. Navy with a similar role to the Air Force’s F-16, the latest iteration of the F-18 fields far more specialised and sophisticated capabilities far exceeding those of the original platform and was designed with an entirely different role. The F-18A and C variants were developed as light counterparts to the F-14, a heavy fighter relied on to engage advanced enemy aircraft and contest air superiority. The F-14’s retirement however left the Navy highly vulnerable with its carrier air wings unable to compete against near peer adversaries fielding sophisticated heavy combat aircraft. As a result a new aircraft was developed by extensively modifying they airframe of the original light F-18 to produce a heavier and far more capable, though extremely costly, platform capable of better contesting air superiority. While the original F-18E left much to be desired in its capabilities, particularly compared to the F-14 it was set to replace, later iterations of the platform have been developed into what are today perhaps the most capable carrier based fighters in the world.
The air to air combat capabilities of the F-18E Block 3 are able to rival those of many heavy fighters such as the F-15C, and combine a formidable payload with cutting edge avionics and radars. The fighter is equipped with fourteen air to air missiles, a payload matched only by Russia’s Su-35 heavy fighters, and is capable of fielding the formidable AIM-120D long range missiles. While the original F-18E fighters, alongside the majority of U.S. platforms such as the F-15, are restricted to a 75km air to air strike range when employing the AIM-120B, the AIM-120D deployed by the F-18E Block 3 more than doubles this and allows it to target enemy aircraft up to 180km away. The sheer number of missiles it carries and its ability to engage multiple adversaries simultaneously meanwhile makes it a lethal threat at long range, arguably moreso than the far heavier F-14 it was set to replace, which compensates for the heavy platform’s superior speed, range and manoeuvrability.
Other notable assets of the Super Hornet Block 3 include limited frontal stealth capabilities, a next generation cockpit and conformal fuel tanks for an extended range, all of which allow it to far surpass rival light fighters in combat. Indeed, the new F-18E in many ways resembles specialised heavy fighters in its capabilities more than it does the original F-18A, and its designation as a light fighter may well be put to question considering its increased weight and air superiority capabilities. The Super Hornet Block 3 is set to be a highly sought out export among U.S. allies, as with the F-22 banned from export and the heavier F-15 having seen no comparable modernisations as of yet, it may well be the most capable U.S. fighter in air to air combat available for export. The Indian Navy for one is likely to become a major operator of the fighter onboard its carrier INS Vishal, while Australia, Finland and Bulgaria have also shown interest in acquiring the fighter. Whether operating from land or from a carrier deck, the newest iteration of the F-18E is a force to be reckoned with, and the platform is set to be key to the U.S. Navy's future operations long after the lighter F-18 variants are phased out. The Super Hornet continues to be upgraded with advanced avionics and anti stealth capabilities to counter couture future threats to the U.S. Navy, and the Block 3 is unlikely to be the final or most variant of the platform.
Continued in Part Two.