F/A-18 Hornet vs Su-33 Flanker

Seeing F/A-18 Hornets and F/A-18E Super Hornets on the carriers of the United States Navy is a very common sight. Originally introduced in the early 1980s, they have formed the backbone of the USN’s fixed winged aircraft fleet. The Soviet navy on the other hand relied on a variant of the trusted Flanker to secure their battle groups from aerial threats. As usual these jets have been wrongly compared even though the roles they have been designed for are pretty different. One of them is the Swiss knife of carrier borne fighters and is being used for strike, fleet air defense and electronic attack whereas the other is a dedicated fleet defense fighter. Lets compare them properly and clear the clutter surrounding their roles.

Ideology and Design

F/A-18 Hornet

The Vietnam war had taught some hard lessons to both USAF and USN. Both of them had assumed that close in fighting using guns was a thing of the past. They had promoted air to air missiles (AAMs) as the weapon of the future. The F-4 Phantom II became the mainstay fighter for the USAF and USN and was used extensively in the conflict. The Phantom is a Mach 2 capable interceptor designed to climb fast and shoot down Soviet bombers before they released their atomic cargo over American cities. It was no dogfighter. It carried both the AIM-7 and the AIM-9 for taking out targets but lacked an internal gun. During the Vietnam conflict it was pitted against the MiG-17, the MiG-19 and the MiG-21. The first two were excellent dogfighters whereas the 3rd was a Mach 2 interceptor but could maneuver pretty well close in when flown by a well trained pilot. The missiles didn’t work as advertised and the need for an internal gun was felt. Thus the pilot training syllabus was changed later on while late model F-4s got an internal gun.

phantom (2)F-4 Phantom about to land on USS John F. Kennedy CVA-67

The lessons learnt were in the minds of the people involved in the study to determine navy’s future needs for carrier borne aircraft. The study was ordered by the Chief of Naval Staff, USN in the year 1972. This fighter would be designed to overcome the deficiencies in aircraft like the F-4. The F-14 Tomcat was the replacement for the now venerable F-4 but it ended up being costly and difficult to maintain. Thus a multirole fighter with reduced procurement and operational costs was desired to replace the remaining F-4 Phantoms and all A-7 Corsairs. The original VFAX programme which resulted in the F-14 was revived. The navy was suggested to choose either of the USAF’s LWF (Light Weight Fighter) competitors. The navy’s requirement differed from the air-force’s as they wanted a dedicated air superiority day fighter but the navy wanted an all weather multirole fighter for its decks. The resulting requirements have been listed below.

  1. Improved Agility,
  2. Compatible with AIM-7 and AIM-9,
  3. All weather fighting capability,
  4. Reduced operational and maintenance costs,
  5. Ground attack capability.

YF-16 and YF-17YF-16 and YF-17 flying in formation.

The LWF programme had two flying prototypes ie YF-16 from General Dynamics and YF-17 from Northrop. The air force would choose the YF-16 in the year 1975 and it would evolve into the F-16, one of the most capable fighters ever built. The navy felt that the Falcon was too small for its needs. It had a single engine but the navy preferred twin engine aircraft for higher safety. Thus they chose the YF-17 Cobra. There were other designs offered by Grumman, LTV etc. but they died on the drawing board.

Northrop teamed up with McDonnell Douglas to develop a carrier borne variant of the YF-17. Northrop would build the aft section of the jet whereas McDonnell Douglas would build the front half. The former would retain all rights for the F-18L, a dedicated land based variant. The F/A-18 and the YF-17 only share an over all resemblance with the former being a completely new aircraft. Extensive changes, listed below, were done to the Cobra’s design to make it carrier capable.

  1. Strengthened landing gear,
  2. Strengthened air frame,
  3. Increased wing area,
  4. Larger internal fuel tanks,
  5. Arresting hook was added,
  6. Nose tow link was added, (for catapult launches)
  7. New radar system,
  8. Increased take off weight,
  9. Folding Wings,
  10. Syncing AIM-7 etc.

F-18LNorthrop F-18L

This new fighter would enter service in the year 1983 as the F/A-18 Hornet. Around 1400 of these would be produced for the USN and several airforces. It would prove its mettle in conflicts and its variants still remain in production.

1Credits-On the pic

Su-33 Flanker-D

In our article on MiG-29K we did a touch and go on Su-33’s story. The Soviet Union had finally decided to match American carrier might on the high seas. Unlike the western allies their navy would still be submarine centric. The carriers would lead elaborate battle groups with dedicated air defense, surface warfare and ASW vessels. These vessels would take care of enemy assets thus allowing Soviet submarines to operate freely and block sea lanes of communications (SLOCs). The Soviets essentially intended to repeat what the Germans tried in both the world wars, ie conquer Europe by cutting off supplies from mainland America.

Thanks to lack of experience in carrier operations they decided to develop naval fixed wing aviation in steps instead of directly jumping onto large nuclear powered carriers. They started with Moskva class cruisers which would have large deck aft of the super structure to deploy helicopters. The next step came in the form of Kiev class aircraft carrying cruisers. These semi-carriers had heavy anti-surface and anti-air armament along with an angled deck for deploying Yak-38 STOVL aircraft. Kuznetsov class cruisers formed the next step. These aircraft carrying cruisers would also have heavy anti-surface and anti-air weaponry but a full fleged deck to deploy STOBAR fighters. The final step would be even larger Ulyanovsk class cruisers which would displace around 90,000 tonnes and would be powered by nuclear reactors. These would then challenge the USN on the high seas.

DF-ST-85-09939The Kiev class was the first Soviet vessel to carry significant numbers of fixed wing aircraft.

Soviets preferred ski jumps over catapults as the former required no maintenance, was easy to deploy and reduced stresses on the jets. Ski jumps reduced the variety of aircraft that can be launched as the aircraft needs to have high thrust to weight ratio for effective use. Thus 2 jets were selected for operational use, the MiG-29K would be used for strike and serve as second layer of air defense whereas the Su-33 (Su-27K) would be used for air defense only. To suite these needs, the original Su-27 was modified and the modifications have been listed below.

  1. Larger Leading Edge Root Extensions (LERX),
  2. Addition of canards to reduce take off distance and increase agility,
  3. Folding wings and horizontal stabilizers,
  4. Strengthened landing gear,
  5. Strengthened air frame,
  6. Better engines,
  7. Larger control surfaces,
  8. Shortened tail sting,
  9. In-flight refueling probe.

1T-10K and MiG-29K prototypes on Tbilisi

The carrier programme had several changes during its entirety and one last change made the naval Flanker the sole Soviet carrier borne fighter. It was decided that only the Su-33 would be procured and the MiG-29K programme would be shut down. It would serve on the Kuznetsov and Ulyanovsk class cruisers under construction. The Soviet Union started showing signs of an impending economic collapse in the late 1980s. Defense procurement was rolled back and as a result only 24 Su-33s were built. Construction of the 2nd Kuznetsov cruiser and the 1st Ulyanovsk class cruiser was stopped, the former was sold to China and the later was scrapped on the ways.

Development & Capabilities

F/A-18 Hornet

After selection and nearly three and a half years of development the first prototype was ready for its first flight. It flew for the first time on 18th November 1978 from Lambert-St. Louis International airport. The aircraft effortlessly took off and safely landed after the 50min sortie which took it to 24,000ft at speeds around 300kn. An F-4 and an F-15 flew chase during the Hornet’s first sortie. A total of 12 prototypes would be built for testing by the manufacturer and the end user ie the USN and the USMC. The prototypes went through a series of tests to check their flight characteristics and their capabilities. Once their airworthiness was certified, they were tested at SBTF (Shore Based Test Facility) for carrier ops. This was followed by carrier certification trials onboard USS America CV-66 between 30th Oct and 3rd Nov 1979. The pilots first performed several touch and gos before making the first arrested landing and first catapult assisted launch. The Hornet entered service in the year 1983 with the designation F/A-18A for the single seat variant and F/A-18B for the two seat variant. It also marked the first ever use of the designation F/A for a fighter. It signifies that the fighter can do strike missions as well as air defense.

1st Hornet prototypeFirst Hornet prototype (Credits-On the pic)

The Hornet has several design features which help it maneuver at very low speeds thanks to the lessons learnt during the Vietnam conflict. These features include a nearly flat belly and LERX. It is powered by 2 F404 engines producing a total of 22,000 pounds of thrust. These engines were a pretty big improvement over the J-79s used on the Phantoms as they produced nearly the same thrust while occupying less space in the airframe, weighing less and consuming less fuel.

3rd Hornet prototype (1)3rd Hornet prototype performing an arrested landing onboard USS America

United States Navy and the USMC presently operate the F/A-18C single seat and F/A-18D twin seat variants of the original Hornet. A new variant with a radical redesign was developed in the late 1990s. Designated F/A-18E/F, it sported a longer fuselage, uprated F414 engines and a larger wingspan. It sports the APG-79 AESA radar which was developed using technology from the F-22’s APG-77. An electronic attack variant of the Super Hornet, designated E/A-18G Growler has replaced the old E/A-6 Intruders in the USN service. Both the Growler and the Super Hornet have a wide variety of weapons to strike air and surface targets. They sport advanced missiles like the AIM-120 and AIM-9 for taking out air borne targets, AGM-84 Harpoon for taking out ships and JDAMs along with LGBs for taking out surface targets. It also has a M61 Vulcan 20mm Gatling just behind the radar in its nose. It can haul 8 tonnes of ordnance off the deck to targets thousands of kilometers away. With several jets of both the Super Hornet and the Growler variants in the order book, F/A-18 lines would be running for few more years.

RELEASED--MCCM Jerry McLain, CNRNW PAO LCPO, credit as a U. S. Navy photo by: MC1 Bruce McVicarA Growler is usually armed with 3 ALQ-99 jamming pods carried on hard points, 2 ALQ-218 wing tip jammers along with other systems placed in the nose where the gun is situated on a Hornet. 

Su-33 Flanker-D

Nearly a year before the Hornet entered service the Russians established their SBTF in Crimea which is commonly known as Nitka. They used the 3rd Su-27 prototype and a production Su-27 for trials at the facility till T-10K (Sukhoi’s inhouse designation for Su-27K) prototypes were available. A total of 9 T-10K prototypes were built for state trials by Sukhoi. This was followed by trials aboard the new Tbilisi. Trials started with carrier standing still in bow winds with aircraft performing touch and gos. This was changed to sailing in head wings with increasing speeds. The second T-10K prototype managed to perform the first Soviet arrested landing on 1st of November 1989 along with the first night landing some days later. At the controls was none other than Viktor Pugachov, the inventor of Pugachov’s Cobra. The naval Flanker officially entered service in 1998 thanks to the economic problems faced by the newly formed Russian Federation.

1T-10-03 at Nitka 

Like all carrier borne aircraft, the need for a dedicated trainer was felt. As the pilots came up the ranks they found it difficult to train directly on the rolling, pitching and yawing carrier deck after spending most of their time on firm ground. This led to the development of Su-27KUB or Su-33UB. It sported a redesigned cockpit with side by side seating for the pilots instead of the traditional tandem seating. This improved crew communication and visibility both of which are essential for carrier ops. It flew for the first time in 1999 but has been rarely seen thereafter. The Russians use Su-25UTG for this role.

1Su-33UB seen on the now renamed Admiral Kuznetsov.

The Su-33 is one mean flying machine. Powered by uprated AL-31F3, this fighter sports an impressive range. It was designed to be an air superiority fighter with limited anti-surface capability. It could carry the Moskit supersonic AShM along with Kh-31 to kill enemy surface assets. Other than that its armament was pretty limited to air to air missiles like R-27, R-60 and R-73. It could carry 6.5 tonnes weapons on 12 hardpoints. The center line point can be used for buddy refueling pod. The pod is seldom used thanks to the impressive range offered by the Flanker family. The aircraft still retain their original OLS-27 IRST pods and N001 radar. Interestingly it has been claimed that ski-jumps reduce range and payload of the aircraft operating off it. In Flanker’s case however a 2.5 tonne payload would translate into 4xR-77 missiles and 6xR-73 short range missiles which is pretty good for air defense mission. Add the Flanker’s impressive ferry range to the mix and you have got a potent fighter.

1Su-33s on the short launch position.

Conclusion

Even though both the fighters we spoke about in this article originated from variants designed to operate from terra-firma, thats where the similarity of their fates end. United States Navy has several squadrons of Hornets and its variants in service compared to just 20 or so Su-33 in Russian service. The USN will surely keep its Hornets airworthy for some time through the next decade whereas the new MiG-29Ks entering service with the Russian navy will replace the Su-33s pretty soon. The lineage of Su-33 however won’t die. The Chinese bought an Su-33 prototype and developed a carrier based variant of their J-11B itself a copy of Su-27. Designated J-15, this aircraft will see service on Chinese carriers for a long time and might end up finally challenging the Hornets thanks to the changing geo-political scenario.

1J-15 taking off from the Chinese carrier Liaoning.

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23 thoughts on “F/A-18 Hornet vs Su-33 Flanker

  1. Great article on the comparison of the F/A-18 Hornet and Super Hornet to the SU-33/ J-15. The Flanker is superior to both Hornet variant even though they are launch by using a ski ramp with half the fuel. You got to remember that the Flanker was designed to kill the F-15 and is one of the most aerodynamic fighters ever built. With those wide space engine s with over 27,000 lbs of thrust and large full load, it’s still a match for any fighter attacking the fleet. Its radar and missiles has better range in BVR combat and it’s deadlier in close with IRST,/Optical combination. If the Chinese Navy ever perfect the EMLS launching system as on the US Navy Gerald Ford class carrier’s, it’s gonna be rough for the Super Hornets without F-22 Raptor backup! I feel the US Navy is sitting on there laurels here by doing modest up grades like the Advance Super Hornet while waiting on the 6th Generation Fighter in the 2030 time frame that will cost probably 200 million a copy. The Chinese Navy New carriers /J-15 combination will be ready by 2020.

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    1. By the time the 6th gen fighters come on line the, the SU-33 will be on par with the Current F/A-18 C/D generation. The Super Hornet will move to the Advance Super Hornet.

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      1. The SU-33 is an old design but It’s performance still is better. It wouldn’t take long for the Russians to configure their more up to date SU-35 for carrier operations. The SU -30/35 are multi-role fighters and are a match for any fighter jets in the world including the F-22. Asked the RAF what happened to their Eurofighter when they went up against India’s SU-30MKI. I would hate to see the Russians Navy put on the long range SU-34 strike fighter/ bomber on that carriers. They have been see doing traps and launches. The US Navy would kill to have a all strike wing of F-15E Strike Eagles if they were carrier capable. They would be just about even then but just.

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  2. Don’t think the SU-33 is playing catchup but are being relaced by the Naval version of the MIG -29K. It’s a true multi-role fighter with increased range and very advanced avionics equally to earlier Super Hornets before their radar upgrades. The Indian Navy will be getting 60 of these strike fighter jets for their STOBAR carriers.

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      1. It’s much larger and would of cost much more money to modify. The carrier they just purchased from Russian would have only 12-15 SU but twice the number of Mig’s. The Air Force already has over a hundred SU-30MKI’s and a few Mig-29 squadrons.

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  3. The US training and aircraft avionics are 20 years ahead of anything the Russians have, they’ve been playing catch up since the Cold War. Nothing is more telling than experience and just plain better avionics which will defeat any threat for 2 decades. I find some of these comments by all these defense experts pretty much all guesses…when I was in the Air Force attached to agressor squadrons during the last year of my hitch, saw many countries pilots and aircraft get defeated time and again to US and British and even Israeli pilots. The Israeli pilots proving to be very worthy and up to any type of fight. The Paks just don’t seems to grasp the concept of an integrated effort. The times the US pilots did get beat was because they are not allowed to use their still secret avionics in most settings, but if they did, they would drop like flies long before they could even engage…

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    1. Near the end of Cold War, the line had become very faint. Radars like Zaslon on MiG-31, Shmel on A-50, N011M on Su-30 were very capable and at times superior in some aspects when compared to Western equivalents.

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    1. russian technology has not been proven in combat. the Israeli-Arab wars and Iraq war has proved that. but before the Iraq War, the russian boasted that their Mig 29’s and SU 27 could outperform the f-15s, f-16s and f-18s but US has lost only one f-18 confirmed shot down by a Mig-25 in a BVR. but the rest the mig-29s were not even a match and a number of Migs and SUs were evacuated to Iran to prevent them destroyed. the Iraqi air force which is the most powerful in the middle east at that time was totally destroyed.

      now this time SU 30, SU 35 and SU 37 against the F-15s which has immaculate 100-0 dog fight record, upgraded f-16s block 50s and f-18 super hornets, i still believed the american technology and experience pilots is capable of beating them. the F-22 and f-35 will be on reserved. thats how powerful the US air force. not counting his allies.

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  4. what i said the “the russian boasted”, i did not say the SU 27 took part in the Iraqi war. however, i still believed the SU 27 are still no match with the f-15s and upgraded f-16s. try send the SU 27s to the Israelis were they will meet the f-15s and f-16s. but the russian has already stopped experimenting on the israeli’s because they know what will happen.

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  5. I enjoy reading comparisons such as this, but have a beef with this one. I don’t care how it is spun now, the F/A-18, legacy or Super Hornet, was NOT designed as an air superiority fighter! Read the history, it was meant to replace the A7 Corsair as a ground attack plane while the F-14 served the air defense role. When the US Navy retired the F-14 it basically vacated the fighter plane role and turned fleet air defense over to the shipbourne Aegis system. Comparing the SU-33 to the F/A-18 is like comparing an SUV to a Corvette, two completely different machines designed to serve different roles. The better comparison is the SU-33 to the F-15 or F-22.

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  6. I don’t think any current fighter jets of the U.S can beat the current Mig or Su jets of the Russia at all. Why? Because the U.S. lacked advanced technology in this field for quite sometime in comparison to that of the Russian one.

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