F/A-18E/F Super Hornet versus Rafale M

Rafale and F-18 are the world’s most known fighter jets, and if you are someone who is into aviation, then there is no way you have not heard about these two bad boys. Let’s talk about these two. 

French Rafale M and Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet entered service less than a thousand days apart. It is hard to find a fast jet capable of operating in the harsh conditions of an aircraft carrier. These two fighter-bombers are an example of that uncommon breed.

One is the centerpiece of the US naval aviation force, built by the world’s largest aeronautical business, while the other is proudly independent France’s first real carrier fighter – let’s see how they compare.

This article will compare a F/A-18E Super Hornet Block II and an F3R-standard Rafale M.

The Rafale M versus the Super Hornet

The primary sensor on both the Block II Super Hornet and the F3R-standard Rafale M is an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar.

F/A-18E/F Super Hornet vs Dassault Rafale M
RAFALE

The APG-79 version of (AESA) Radar is fitted to the Super Hornet Block II. In contrast, The RBE2-AA version of (AESA) is provided to the F3R-standard Rafale M; these radars can simultaneously scan and track air functions on sea and ground targets.

It’s interesting to note that the nose apertures of the Rafale and the Super Hornet are both similarly narrow. Compared to AESA-equipped fighters with wider noses, such as the F-15 and F-22, this limits the number of transmit and receive (T/R) modules that can be put in a fixed radar array and make options to improve scan width, such as rotating mountings. However, both types achieved the milestone of fielding an operational AESA radar before many rival designs.

F/A-18E/F Super Hornet vs Dassault Rafale M
Super Hornet

Detailed performance numbers for AESA radars are closely guarded. However, we do know that the Rafale’s RBE2-AA can conduct a more simultaneous scan and track operations while having a slightly shorter maximum range than the Super Hornet’s APG-79.

The dedicated department of test and evaluation (DOT&E) and the US Navy’s Operational Test and Evaluation Force have given the APG-79 unsatisfactory assessment reports.

APG-79 was introduced in late 2010, and since then, it has faced numerous reliability and working problems. Built-in options for electronic attacks have been put off over and over again. Competitor evaluation and mission analysis in the early 2010s revealed that the APG-79 and mechanically scanned radar-equipped Super Hornets performed similarly in mission effectiveness.

Dassault has well-integrated Rafale’s mission systems and sensors. Land-based Rafale combat testing with identical radar and software fit was successful over Iraq and Syria.

As a result, the Rafale M in F3R configuration arguably has a better radar than the Block II Super Hornet in most multi-role circumstances.

F/A-18E/F Super Hornet vs Dassault Rafale M
FLIR

On the nose of the Rafale M is the OSF (optronic Secteur frontal) electro-optical, infra-red search and track, and video imaging sensor suite. There are two sensors in this system. It can be used for both BVR (Beyond visual range) scanning and tracking of air targets at medium ranges without generating any detectable radiation, as well as scanning for land and sea targets at shorter ranges and acting as a FLIR (forward-looking Infrared) for the pilot in low-visibility situations.

 The second component is an electro-optical/InfraRed video imaging sensor with laser range-finding. It has a capability for use within 35-40km.

“FLIR-forward-looking Infrared can detect a small difference in Heat.”

To aid in multi-role and strike operations of Rafale, the Damocles targeting pod is equipped with a data link relay node for relaying ISR data to tanker and AWACS Airborne Warning & Control System units while in flight and IR/EO imaging, laser designation, and spot track capabilities.

However, The AN/ASQ-228 Advanced Targeting Forward-Looking Infrared (ATFLIR) pod carried by the Super Hornet is far superior in terms of resolution and multi-spectral imaging capability.

F/A-18E/F Super Hornet vs Dassault Rafale M
OSF (Optronique Secteur Frontal)

On the other hand, the OSF (Optronique Secteur Frontal) on the Rafale has been an integral part of the aircraft’s sensor suite since its inception because the Aéronavale retained a medium-range InfraRed seeker missile in the shape of the MICA-IR to enable passive BVR engagements.

Super Hornet’s sensors are all externally added, as is its podded IRST. An infrared search and track (IRST) system is a method for detecting and tracking objects which give off infrared radiation. The aircraft has a poor track record for adding new sensors while still maintaining high operational availability and dependability.

Where do both jets stand in terms of Within visual range combat? 

The Rafale M would have a significant advantage over a Super Hornet if they were both flying within visual range of each other. With external loads and altitudes above 25,000ft, the Super Hornet’s performance drops substantially.

F/A-18E/F Super Hornet vs Dassault Rafale M

The Rafale M can outperform the Super Hornet in immediate and sustained turn rates at all comparable loads and altitudes, but it excels at altitudes below 35,000ft.

The Rafale M generates massive lift, has much better thrust-to-weight at combat loadings, and has superior acceleration. The Super Hornet has superior high-alpha “nose pointing” capabilities in the initial merge, but if the pilot fails to kill the Rafale M during that one initial maneuver, it will find itself with almost no energy and unable to sustain maneuvers or accelerate away.

The Mica and the AIM-9X missiles are potent WVR weapons with unique off-boresight capabilities. Notably the Mica’s “Parthian shot” potential. In addition, Mica has more kinetic energy than the AIM-9X because it can draw 50g, is faster off the rail, and has a longer burn.

F/A-18E/F Super Hornet vs Dassault Rafale M
MICA MISSILE

The successful Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS), which is only now equipped on the Super Hornet, increases the chance of a kill during the initial merge and “bug nose pointing magic” turn.

The Rafale M will destroy the Super Hornet at any height if the battle is fought with only guns. The Hornet’s only chance, assuming one versus with relatively equivalent pilot skill, would be a head-on.

Beyond visual range combat 

The APG-79 on the Super Hornet has a modest advantage in overall radar detection range over the RBE, but the Rafale has a substantially lower frontal radar cross-section and greater ECM capabilities; thus, it’s likely that the Rafale will have the first look.

A Rafale M of F3R standard adds the Meteor missile to the BVR arena, comfortably out-ranging the F/A-18E even from a similar launch speed and altitude as the AIM-120D.

Rafale can also supercruise easily at roughly 30,000 feet, potentially going higher without issue. In contrast, the Super Hornet cannot supercruise and is more comfortable at lower altitudes, implying that its missiles begin with substantially less energy at launch.

So, even though the APG-79 would probably be able to spot the Rafale from farther away, the Rafale M would be able to spot the Super Hornet in time to launch Meteor with a good Pk from much further away. The Rafale M will likely get the first shot and the first kill.

Acceleration/ climb rate / top speed/ ceiling 

Despite being deemed underpowered compared to dedicated air superiority fighters like the F-15, Typhoon, Su-35, and F-22, the Rafale M easily defeats the Super Hornet in all these categories. Su-35 and F-22; F-15, Typhoon and Su-35.

Defensive aids and radar conspicuity 

Many experts believe that Rafale’s F3R standard version of the SPECTRA electronic warfare and countermeasures suite, including naval and land-based versions, is the most capable self-defense system currently in use.

As opposed to investing in the development of stealth aircraft, France has placed a high priority on the SPECTRA suite in order to penetrate the most recent enemy air defense networks for airborne nuclear delivery missions, relying on the SPECTRA suite in conjunction with ASMPA missile standoff range.

The enhanced AN/ALQ-214 Integrated Defensive Countermeasures (IDECM) system of the Super Hornet Block II has a highly competent radar warning receiver, automatic chaff, flare, and decoy programs, and multiple self-protection jamming options.

F/A-18E/F Super Hornet vs Dassault Rafale M
Super Hornet

It also carries the combat-proven ALE-55 towed decoy, which gives it a decent chance of absorbing at most minuscule one radar-guided missile that reaches its target without damage.

Human-machine interface/situational Awareness

Superhornet’s cockpit is a bit simple and comfortable. Prioritizing the safe deck operation and multi-role combat capability. the three multi-role function displays make the work easier by displaying all the necessary information from multiple sensors and armaments. 

Utilizing the  Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) gives an additional layer of situational Awareness in combat scenarios where reaction time is limited. In terms of HMI (Human-machine Interference) and Situational Awareness, the Block II Super Hornet is a somewhat average advanced fourth-generation aircraft.

In Comparison, Rafale M has a cleaner, ergonomic design, With five full-color multi-function displaces and an electronic Knee board tablet, making it flexible and simple to access the information. 

In terms of post-sensor fusion, F3R has toped it. It collects the information from the SPECTRA system, RBE2-AA, and OSF and processes and Exhibits on a unified situational awareness Display. If needed, it can display the windows separately for each sensor.

Sortie rate/maintainability/spares cost/unit cost of aircraft/cost of operating

Its been an advantage to the French Naval aviation that Rafale M can generate multiple sorties in a day and is always ready to turn around when needed. 

( Sortie is a combat mission for a single aircraft that begins when the aircraft takes off in military aviation) 

Close synchronization between the Aéronavale Rafale M fleet and Charles de Gaulle’s refit/work up/deployment schedule helps readiness and spare availability.

Charles de Gaulle gives a reliable way to plan aircraft maintenance, upgrade work, stockpile spare parts, and get qualified and up-to-date staff when needed. When the carrier is out at sea, the Rafale Ms are ready to be used and work well.

Spare parts and availability have become more of a problem for the Super Hornet in recent years. However, it’s not the problem with the super Hornet but with the US Navy’s Carrier Groups and Air wings operating far above long-term planning assumptions.

Exceptions include concerns with the onboard oxygen generation system (OBOGS) and the APG-79 radar.

In contrast to the small Rafale M fleet, the sheer size of the Super Hornet fleet in US Navy service and with international customers such as the Royal Australian Air Force results in enormous economies of scale in terms of operating expenses and spare prices.

Range/endurance

Combat aircraft have a very variable range since a lot depends on the weapons and other supplies they carry, the external fuel tanks they carry, the mission profile they fly, the amount of time they need to be on station at their destination, and the amount of reserve fuel they have for getting back to the deck or making a change.

The Rafale M and the Super Hornet can refuel in the air using a probe and drogue-equipped tankers. This is called buddy-buddy refueling.

However, the Rafale M has a substantially broader overall combat radius for most missions than the F/A-18E because of its significantly greater cargo capacity, less draggy airframe, and ability to fly higher and faster, notably in dry power.

Weapons options 

In terms of weaponry, the Super Hornet is in the lead on most fronts. Super Hornets can carry and deliver nearly every weapon in the United States’ air-launched arsenal. In contrast, the Rafale M can carry a substantially larger external payload, especially when equipped with three external fuel tanks.

Conversely, on the other hand, Rafale M uses the excellent but costly AASM-Hammer series of guided bombs. There is a dual-mode laser, GPS/INS guided, and infrared (IR) guided versions, as well as kits with a rocket booster motor that lets you shoot farther.

Also, it is approved to receive the Paveway II/III series of laser-guided bombs, which can be used for aggressive attacks at a reduced cost.

The Rafale M can attack from a distance using the low-RCS SCALP (also called Storm Shadow) cruise missile and the Exocet anti-ship missile. Both remain pricey in comparison to their US-made counterparts. The MICA medium/close range missile is capable inside 20km but can’t match with AIM-120C or AIM-120D at longer ranges.

However, in conjunction with the OSF system, the MICA-IR offers a rarely available Western alternative for entirely passive (i.e., non-radar dependant) medium-range engagements.

Meteor, which is now standard equipment on the F3R Rafale M, is prohibitively expensive. Still, it delivers superior range, terminal performance in long-distance battles, and resistance to DRFM jammers than either the AIM-120C or AIM-120D.

Conclusions:

For Super Hornet

The most significant advantage of the super Hornet is that It has a large user base, so spare parts and upgrades are cheap. It is also easy to control, has excellent high-alpha performance in a merger, and can use all US air-delivered weapons.

While the biggest Drawback is that, It doesn’t have enough power for its weight, especially at high altitudes, and the way its pylons are set up makes the drag of its external stores worse.

For Rafale M: 

Most significant Advantage: Aerodynamics and electronics are at least half a generation ahead of the Super Hornet, and the WVR performance below 35,000ft is brutal.

 And the Drawback with it is that the Small number of users and French-made weapons and systems means that operating costs are higher, and the global supply of spare parts is much smaller. Also, they still don’t have an HMS.