With both aircraft being more or less tied for range, we have to look at their long range air-to-ground weaponry. Namely, stand-off missiles, also know as ALCMs. The Rafale equips the impressive SCALP EG (also known as the Storm Shadow) missile, which can deliver a 450kg warhead about 500km away. The Super Hornet’s new AGM-158 JASSM-ER (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile – Extended Range) delivers a similar sized warhead, but can do so at roughly twice the range. This give the Rhino a significant advantage here.
Advantage: Super Hornet
With more payload capability combined with additional hard point options, the Rafale wins this round. Advantage: Rafale
Close-air-support: The Rafale and the Super Hornet are both easy to handle at lower speeds and altitudes. As carrier capable aircraft, they have to be. Picking a winner here is difficult, as both aircraft have similar weapon capability, but without a “killer app” like the Brimstone missile. The Rafale might have Brimstone capability in the future, but nothing is certain at the present. What the Rafale does have is the option to equip both rocket pods and a twin 30mm gun pod to supplement its built in 30mm GIAT 30 cannon.
The Super Hornet’s most impressive weapon in the close-air-support arsenal is the precision SDB II (Small Diameter Bomb) which carries a 250lb warhead for minimal collateral damage.
With both fighters being incredibly competent for close-air-support, this one ends up as a draw. Advantage: Tie
Air-to-ground winner: Tie Both aircraft are more than capable ground pounders, with only minor differences in maximum payload and weapon types.
[Note: In the Super Hornet’s last FJFC appearance, it lost some points due to a lack of a built-in IRST. As some have mentioned, there is a combination IRST/external fuel tank being tested. I have decided to include it here, and will continue to do so in the future. Its presence against the F-35 would likely have made a little difference (the Rhino won the WVR section, where IRSTs work best), but the outcome would have likely been the same.]
First-look, first-kill: Again, these different-looking fighters have remarkably similar capability. Both have similarly sized AESA radars and, with the F/A-18E/F’s fuel tank/IRST in place, both aircraft have modern IRSTs. Neither aircraft is truly “stealth” but both have reduced radar signatures compared to older fighters.
Comparing the aircraft’s EW and countermeasures pose a similar challenge. The Rafale has its famous SPECTRA, which looks to become more impressive in the future. Two infra-red sensors on either side of the tail fin will give the Rafale pilot a near 360 degree view of the airspace. Not to be outdone, Boeing is contemplating installing the EA-18G’s sensors (but not jammers) on the Super Hornet. This would enable the Super Hornet pilot to detect radio emissions not normally detected.
Neither fighter has a clear advantage in detection or stealth. There may be significantly different details, but not enough for me to declare one superior to the other. Advantage: Tie
Beyond-Visual-Range: While both aircraft have a theoretical top speed of Mach 1.8, the Rafale is faster where it counts. Capable of supercruise, the Rafale is just as comfortable going supersonic as is it is subsonic. It that was not enough, the Super Hornet gets considerably draggy when weapons and fuel tanks are mounted. Both aircraft have similar service ceilings, but the Rafale has a much higher rate of climb and can get there much faster. If both aircraft are considered to have similar BVR missiles, than the Rafale has a clear advantage by being able to add more energy to them through speed and altitude.
Then, there is the real kicker. The Rafale will soon be cleared for the MBDA Meteor, while the Super Hornet will stick with the AMRAAM for the foreseeable future. While one could argue about the effectiveness of both missiles’ guidance systems and the like, the big difference here is the Meteor’s ramjet engine. While the ranges might be listed as similar, the Meteor’s ramjet gives it more flexibility and a much larger “no-escape-zone”.
Even without the MBDA Meteor, the Rafale has a clear advantage in long-range combat. It is faster and it climbs better. In air combat, speed + altitude = energy, and energy is life. Advantage: Rafale, clear winner
Within-visual-range: Assuming both aircraft have IRSTs and decent WVR missiles, like the AIM-9X Sidewinder or the MBDA MICA IR, this one gets a little tougher to call. The Rafale is the acrobat of the two, with better wing loading numbers, a higher thrust-to-weight, and higher g–load numbers. To put it quite simply, it is more agile than the Rhino.
Good thing for the F/A-18E/F that it has its vaunted “nose authority”. This enables it to conduct high AoA (angle of attack) maneuvers and point its missiles where they need to go. Thanks to its helmet-mounted-display, the Super Hornet doesn’t need to be as agile, however. If the pilot can see it, it can be shot. This is the one area that always seems to haunt the Rafale, while an HMD has been tested for it, there has yet to be any firm plans.
If the Rafale had an HMD, it would run away with this. That being said, shooting a HOBS (high-off foresight) missile to the side or even behind an aircraft to its intended target is certainly impressive, but not ideal. This is a tough one to call, (and I’m sure some will disagree) but I have to declare this one a draw. The Rhino has the better aim, but the Rafale is the tougher target. Advantage: Tie (if only the Rafale had an HMD!)
Dogfight: When the missiles are gone and the gloves come off, which aircraft is left standing? Both aircraft do quite well in the low speed/low altitude/high-AoA regime. The Rafale’s close-coupled canard design helps put more air over the big delta wings, producing more lift. The Super Hornet’s twin canted tails and trapezoidal wings help it perform seemingly gravity defying maneuvers.
With low-speed maneuverability pretty much a dead heat, the dogfight winner will likely be the one able to bring the bigger boom. Here, the Super Hornet is let down somewhat by its venerable M61 20mm Vulcan cannon. While there is nothing wrong with the M61per se, it does take a few moments to get up to its 6,000 rounds per minute firing rate. In reality, its true firing rate is much closer to the 2,500 rounds per minute of the Rafale’s GIAT 30. There is also the not-so-insignificant difference in calibre. With similar muzzle velocities, the Rafale’s 30mm cannon wins this one. The Super Hornet may carry more ammunition, but it is easy to imagine whichDirty Harry would prefer.
Both aircraft are excellent gunfighters. Knowing that, I would put my money on the one with the bigger gun. Advantage: Rafale
Air-to-air winner: The Boeing Super Hornet was originally intended to replace both the F-14 Tomcat and the A-6 Intruder. Clearly, some air-to-air compromise needed to be made, but the developers seem to have erred more towards the ground attack role. While the Super Hornet is an acceptable air-superiority fighter, it does not have the same balanced approach as the Rafale. As France’s sole front line fighter, the Rafale cannot have any glaring weaknesses. It succeeds in this regard with the exception of one minor detail, a HMD. Even without the HMD, the Rafale is fast enough, agile enough, and powerful enough to handle the Super Hornet. Winner: Rafale