Dogfight: America’s F-35 Fighter Jet vs Russia’s Su-35

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The USA’s global military dominance is unquestionable, partially owing to the fact that it outspends other countries by a long shot. As we saw in our recent episode, “Top 10 Most Powerful Militaries in the World,” America has a staggering $639 billion defense budget, which is around 10 times larger than the defense budget of second-placed Russia. That isn’t to say, however, that Russia doesn’t own some of the world’s most devastating military technology. Even though Russia also comes in second with regard to world’s most advanced air force, it is, nonetheless, the owner of one of the most feared and respected flying machines ever made: The Sukhoi Su-35. We thought it would be fun to see how well that machine would fare if it were pitted against America’s pride and joy of the skies, in this episode of The Infographics Show, Dogfight: America’s F-35 Fighter Jet vs Russia’s Su-35.

Let’s start by looking at the Su-35. The aircraft is a vastly upgraded version of the Sukhoi Su-27, which makes-up most of Russia’s 3,547 fleet. The single-seat, twin-engine, multirole fighter had its maiden flight as a prototype in 1998, and has since been modernized. The Russian Military of Defence has boasted that it has the most advanced aircraft ever created, hoping other countries might bite and import some of its Su-35s. A handful of countries such as India, Indonesia, and Brazil have expressed interested in purchasing a number of these fighter jets, but only China so far has showed the money, reportedly spending $2 billion on a 24-strong fleet. The first batch of four jets became property of the Chinese late in 2016; the second batch of 10 was delivered in February this year, and the rest will arrive in China in 2018. Earlier this year Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu said cooperation between the two countries in terms of defense was “at an all-time high.”

In light of this ever-expanding and sometimes confounding arms race, we’ll introduce America’s newest weapon of choice in the air, the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. Currently the F-35 comes in three models, each with a varying capacity for different types of warfare. The F-35A is for conventional takeoff and landing; the F-35B is for short takeoff and vertical-landing, and the F-35C is for Catapult Assisted Take-Off Barrier Arrested Recovery for use on an aircraft carrier. The single-seat, single-engine, multirole stealth fighters’ first iteration flew its maiden flight in 2006. In 2015 and 2016, the F-35B and F-35A respectively were said to be ready to be deployed. The USA is set to buy 2,457 of these aircraft from aerospace company Lockheed Martin. U.S allies, including the U.K., Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, and other countries, have helped shoulder some of the burden of the cost of developing this supreme flying machine, contributing somewhere in the region of $4.375 billion. Development costs are expected to be around the $40 billion mark, although the purchase of 2,457 jets will be an estimated $200 billion. If the aircraft is delivered as promised, it will make the F-35 one of the world’s most numerous fighter jets.  Interestingly, despite U.S. allies investing heavily in the development of the F-35, the U.S. military has said that no one but itself will have access to the software codes required for the fighter to function. A number of allies have expressed dissatisfaction at this, believing it to be a rebuff from the U.S. The secret to the F-35’s magic is in the code, as we will see.

One thing experts seem to agree on is that a dogfight between these two mighty machines is a highly unlikely scenario. If a dogfight did occur, one air combat researcher said in 2016 that the F-35 would not beat the Su-35 in a million years. It was also reported, somewhat controversially, that the F-35 came out the loser in simulated dogfights when it came up against its aged predecessor, the F-16. So why then is America’s newest aircraft called the most advanced fighter jet the U.S., or anyone for that matter, has ever created? The reason is simply because it was designed to do a lot more than meet in a head-to-head battle in the sky. Experts have said comparing the F-35 to older jets is like comparing an iPhone to a wall-mounted telephone. “We don’t even know 50-80% of what this airplane can do,” one former F-35 commander was quoted as saying. We do know its stealth attributes, mind-boggling computational power, and complex use of data are designed to make it neither seen nor heard. At the same time, it sees everything, able to detect an aircraft such as the Su-35 from a very long distance. The F-35’s active electronically scanned array radar system is said to be able to spot another aircraft from as far as 186 miles (300 km), which is far superior to the 30 miles (50km) range of the Su-35’s infrared search and track system. The electronic warfare suite of the F-35 makes it a flying hacker like no other, being able to jam another aircraft’s radio frequencies better than previous technology has been able to do. It’s also said to have an unprecedented situational awareness, meaning it’s one step ahead of its foes at all times. One U.S. air force commander put it like this: “The pilot sees a beautiful God’s eye view of what’s going on, and it’s a stunning amount of information.”

What would an F-35 do if it came close to an Su-35? It would probably head-off in another direction, is the consensus from experts. The Su-35’s supermaneuverability is way ahead of the F-35, which has an inferior thrust-to-weight ratio. In terms of dogfighting, it’s just not as nimble as the Su-35. The F-35’s main strength is to know how to avoid ever being in a position in which it would have to engage with an Su-35, thanks to its game-changing computational power.

This brings us to some head-to-head facts about the two fighter jets. Note there are slight differences between the F-35 A, B and C.

Speed: The F-35 can reach up to speeds of 1,200 miles per hour, whereas the Su-35 has a maximum speed of 1,726 miles per hour. Likewise, the Su-35 has a superior rate of climb at 280 meters per second, to the F-35’s 230 meters per second. This is why one outspoken researcher said the F-35 “can’t turn, can’t climb, can’t run”. The U.S. military’s rejoinder to this criticism is that it doesn’t have to.

Range: The F-35 can fly 1,200 nautical miles between take-off and landing, while the Su-35 has a 1,940 mile range.

The service ceiling, which means how high the aircraft can reach using its full potential, favors the F-35 at 65 thousand feet. The Su-35’s service ceiling is 55 thousand feet.

As for offense, the aircrafts are quite different. The F-35 is said to have superiority at long distance with its MBDA Meteor Beyond Visual Range missile. The Su-35’s AA-12 Adder missile has received good reviews, but is said to be slightly inferior. The F-35 also packs an IRIS-T infrared homing air-to-air missile, an AIM-9X short range missile and an AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile. It carries 7 types of Air-to-surface missiles and two types of anti-ship missiles. Similarly, the Su-35 carries an assortment of short, medium and long range missiles. In terms of bombs the F-35 carries a larger selection, including a B61 nuclear bomb.

As for pricing the F-35 costs somewhere between 95-121 million dollars per unit, while the Su-35 is less than half that at 40-65 million dollars. Some critics have said the F-35 is almost too big to lose, in terms of cost. Adding to budget woes is the fact that its futuristic design has resulted in developmental pains and costly defects.

Who would win in a dogfight between these two kings of the sky has become a somewhat divided matter between those who’ve been following the development of fighter jets. Luckily for everyone the fight is purely hypothetical at the moment, but given what you know now, which machine would you put your money on?! The fast-moving, aerial grappler, or the patient super-brain pegged by some as a quantum leap in aircraft technology? Let us know in the comments! 

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