How would F-15, F-16 and F/A-18 fighter jets fare one versus the other in a dogfight?
First flown in 1972, the F-15 Eagle entered U.S. Air Force service in 1974. The Eagle’s most notable characteristics are its great acceleration and maneuverability. It was the first U.S. fighter with engine thrust greater than the basic weight of the aircraft, allowing it to accelerate while in a vertical climb. Its great power, light weight and large wing area combine to make the Eagle very agile.
The F-16 evolved from a 1972 USAF Lightweight Fighter (LWF) prototype program which sought a small, lightweight, low cost, air superiority day fighter designed for high performance and ease of maintenance. It achieved combat-ready status in October 1980.
LWF program, which saw Northrop YF-17 and the General Dynamics YF-16 competing one versus the other, sought a small, lightweight, low cost, air superiority day fighter designed for high performance and ease of maintenance. The program was initiated because many in the fighter community believed that aircraft like the F-15 Eagle were too large and expensive for many combat roles.
On Jan. 13, 1975 at Edwards Air Force Base (AFB), Secretary of the Air Force John L. McLucas announced that the YF-16 had won the competition over YF-17 for full scale development as the USAF’s next Air Combat Fighter.
Although it lost the LWF competition to the YF-16, the YF-17 (which was nicknamed “Cobra” and was the culmination of a long line of Northrop designs, beginning with the N-102 Fang in 1956, continuing through the F-5 family) was selected for the new Naval Fighter Attack Experimental (VFAX) program and evolved in to the F/A-18.
This design, conceived as a small and lightweight fighter, was scaled up to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which is similar in size to the original F-15.
How would these exceptional fighter jets fare one versus the other in a dogfight?
Former F-15 pilot with the U.S. Air Force (USAF) James Jones explains on Quora:
“Having engaged in (simulated) combat against both- luckily for me not simultaneously I can tell you my thoughts and observations. First the F/A 18. For a dedicated dual role aircraft, it’s easy to underestimate the Hornet as a fighter…but that’s a serious mistake. A well flown Hornet or Super Hornet is a surprisingly competent adversary. A well flown Eagle should have no trouble, but therein lies the rub. We’re not always at the top of our game when we should be. It doesn’t take much imagination for me to envision a Hornet driver having a good day waxing the tails of an Eagle driver having a so-so day.
“The F-16. What a little pain in the ass that thing is. If it ever grows up to be an adult plane it will be formidable.
“Actually, I have the same observation about the F-16, although the F-16 driver doesn’t have to be having as great of a day, and the Eagle driver doesn’t have to be having as bad of a day.”
Dan Greene, former F/A-18 pilot with the US Navy, doesn’t think the same way.
“I flew Hornets for 10 years (mid 90s to mid 2000s). The only competition in a dog-fight was the F-16. The F-15 was relatively big and slow and easy to beat (like the F-14).
“F-16s: Generally speaking a well flown Hornet could beat a well flown Viper if you got a quick kill or could tie the Viper up in a slow flight. However, the Hornet driver generally had to be at the top of his or her game because the big-mouth Viper had awesome thrust to weight and could get out of trouble fast.
“F-15s: The Eagle on the other hand…. was relatively easy. Nothing could beat the F-15 BVR. But in a dog fight, the Eagle had relatively weak nose / pitch authority and high alpha slow speed capability compared to the Hornet.
“End result…. we generally lost 50% of our Viper dog fights, but won nearly 100% of our Eagle fights.”
As we have previously explained, most Viper Drivers agree the “big mouth” Block 30 has the best BFM performance. The “big mouth” refers to the larger intake that allows the GE engine to gulp more air, thus giving more thrust. Lieutenant Colonel Philippe “Rico” Malebranche says it is the “best BFM’ing Viper… because it didn’t have all the avionics, so its nose is lighter and I can get it tracking across the horizon easily.”
Malebranche has flown numerous different versions of the Viper, as well as the F/A- 18C Hornet in an exchange tour with the U.S. Navy. When asked by John M. Dibbs and Lt. Col. Robert “Cricket” Renner for their book Viper Force 56th Fighter Wing-To Fly and Fight the F-16 about flying the Viper against various dissimilar aircraft, he said, “The F- 16 is still very capable versus the F-15 or F-22. The F/A- I 8E/F Super Hornet is nowhere close to the Viper’s thrust-to-weight. We can climb 3,000 feet above the Hornet, then bunt over to put him in the HUD [for a gun shot]. The Viper is a rate fighter, whereas Hornet guys like to point and keep on pointing.”
Summing-up, despite the aircrews’ opinions, we have to remember that a lot of success in dogfight has to do with the pilot’s ability to maximize the jet’s capability. Reiterating one of Topgun’s main teaching points, which is credited to the Red Baron himself: “It’s not the crate, but the man sitting in it.”
Photo credit: Cpl. Andy Hurt / U.S. Air Force