F-35 hits Su-35 beyond visual range, but it’ll flee if they’re close
PANAGYURISHTE ($1=1.84 Bulgarian Levs) — The US Air Force’s Lockheed Martin stealth F-35 Lightning II may never meet the Russian Air Force’s Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E in a dogfight. But with Iran’s eventual acquisition of the Su-35, there is even a slim possibility that an Israeli F-35 Adir could face off against its Iranian opponent.
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Military experts and tactical pilots try to analyze a situation in which the two aircraft meet. Who will have an advantage over the other, with what and how would such a battle end?
First, we must note an important fact. The two combat aircraft are different not only in design and combat capabilities but also in purpose. We deliberately do not call them fighters, because one of the two is not so much a fighter, but more of an strike aircraft. The F-35 is a strike aircraft because its purpose is not to fight enemy aircraft but to carry out air attacks on ground targets using air-to-surface missiles.
With that cleared up, here’s what is supposed to be possible if the F-35 meets the Su-35. First, one of the two combat aircraft has a better ability to identify its opponent. This is the F-35, which is equipped with very advanced sensors that offer exceptional battlefield awareness. In simple terms, this means that the F-35 will spot the Su-35 much earlier and at a greater distance than the Russian fighter is capable of against its American adversary. I.e. many F-35s can fire their air-to-air missile and can destroy a Su-35 without the Russian pilot ever knowing who hit it and from where.
Why is that? It all boils down to the two radars of the two fighters. But if the F-35’s radar is very good at searching, the Flanker-E’s is so bad at searching because of its range. The Su-35’s Irbis-E PESA radar is supposed to identify targets 200 km away. But in the process of searching, the radar reduces its range to about 95 km. – more than 50% reduction in radar efficiency. This is because the Irbis-E is designed to seek targets with a 3 m² radar cross-section [RCS].
However, fighters in recent years have been designed with an even smaller cross-section – 1 m². And if this is so, then the Su-35 can identify the F-35 only at a distance of 45 km, because the F-35 has a uniquely low radar cross-section – 0.01 m². Too late for the Su-35 pilot if he survived the already long-shot air-to-air missile from the F-35 pilot.
Let’s reverse the roles. The F-35 is supposed to detect the Su-35 at a distance of 150 km. As it became clear enough time for the F-35 pilot to launch his missile. But the Su-35 has excellent maneuverability and countermeasures. There are reports that some Russian Su-35s are even equipped with early warning receivers against the AIM-120 AMRAAM missile radar. The Su-35 also has a smart jammer for decoy jamming and maybe even a towed decoy. I.e. the Su-35 can avoid the launched missile.
During all this time, maneuvers are carried out and the distance is shortened by both fighters at the same time. The closer the Su-35 is to the F-35, the more its radar, which we forgot to say rotates and has 120-degree awareness, can pick up the maneuvering jets of the American warplane. And if the F-35 is designed for fighting beyond visual range, the Su-35 is designed for fighting within visual range. Often, even though this is Russian practice, the Su-35 fires two missiles within a few seconds. One with active radar, followed by the second with infrared targeting. This could definitely make the situation worse for the F-35 when the two aircraft are already close.
There is one more fact that is important to note. If the F-35 misses on the first air-to-air missile fire and decides to turn, that makes it an even bigger target for the Russian pilot. Why? At the rear, the radar cross-section of the F-35 is no longer 0.01 m², but many times larger. This means that the Su-35’s Ibris-T now has a better awareness of what fader is in front of it and can now radar-lock it.
F-35 is a strike aircraft
This is why we may never witness a battle between the Su-35 and the F-35. In both cases, the two air-dominant machines have their advantages, but again we come back to their purpose. The F-35 attacks ground targets, and in the event of an air encounter, it will most likely flee to avoid an impending battle and preserve the value of the expensive combat equipment.
A similar opinion was expressed by Colonel Konstantinos Zikidis of the Hellenic Air Force [HAF]. He says that in real life if the F-35 is on a mission and intercepts the Su-35, it will most likely return and divert the fight to another time. “During a strike mission, you wouldn’t appreciate the company of a super-maneuverable enemy fighter. After all, the F-35 is designed to be a strike aircraft, as its original name [JSF] suggests, not a fighter,” Colonel Konstantinos Zikidis of the Hellenic Air Force [HAF].
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