There is no secret, our most-read article of 2020 was “The top 10 most advanced fighter jets in 2020”. Hundreds of thousands of people read it hoping to find out which fighter jet is better, or more realistically – hoping to see their favorite fighter jet at the top of the list.
The popularity of this article is just the tip of the iceberg. The internet is filled with aviation enthusiasts arguing over this topic, comparing statistics, impressions, looking for data that would prove the superiority of one model over another.
But does this behavior make sense? Is it really possible to tell which fighter jet is more powerful, more advanced, more capable or simply better? Most people would probably say yes. But there are a lot of arguments to claim the opposite. Let’s run down 10 of them that we found the most important.
10. Different fighters serve different purposes
Quite often, comparing one fighter jet to another brings up the fabled situation of apples and oranges. While modern fighter jets tend to be multirole, capable of engaging both ground and air targets, the way they do that differs. Some may have an emphasis on interception while others – on ground attack. Some may be focused on beyond-visual-range combat while others are optimized for dogfighting. Some are carrier-borne, others operate from specific bases or areas.
All of them are built to perform a particular set of missions deemed the most important by the operator, and will excel at those missions, while underperforming at others. The way any nation builds or selects its fighter jets is often tied to the military doctrine, which differs greatly from country to country. The usage of military assets reflects that too, and those assets are created in accordance with their use.
So, comparing, say, the F-15E Strike Eagle to the MiG-31, or the F-35 to the J-20 in many aspects is like comparing a truck to a sports car. Which is better? They both can perform in a race, and they both can transport some cargo. But is it really a fair comparison?
9. Actual performance is often classified
Secrecy is one of the most important factors in warfare. Militaries around the world know that well, and while they don’t miss a chance to boast about their capabilities, we may never be sure, which part of that boasting is actually true.
Even the well-publicized capabilities of older 4th generation fighter jets reflect only a part of the truth, as more specific, and more important details like the information on detection, targeting or communication systems are classified. When talking about the latest generation, we can assert next to nothing. Does it really make sense to compare the F-22 with the Su-57 when half of the information we have about them is just guesses, and there is a high probability that the other half is purposefully incorrect?
8. Jets are constantly being upgraded
The F-16A from the 1980s and the F-16V from 2010s are very different planes, with decades of advancements in combat aviation reflected in their design. The same goes for the MiG-29A from the 80s and the MiG-29M from the 10s. So, what are we talking about when comparing the F-16 to the MiG-29?
Most modern fighter jets have such an abundance of variants, modifications and other upgrades that for a layman it is impossible to keep up with all of them. Furthermore, a lot of the changes are not revealed to the public, with all that is known about some “upgrade to Block 50 configuration” is “avionics improvements” or similar vague thing.
It makes sweeping, larger-than-life conclusions about one aircraft being more advanced than another pointless, as the real situation is much more complex, since we are not just talking about two aircraft – we are talking about a multitude of them, all different in countless minute details.
7. Electronics is the most important part
When you look at a fighter jet you see an airframe with some engine nozzles and maybe some weapons sticking out of it. And so, many people focus on just that – speed, maneuverability, payload of a plane. Sometimes they include the power of the radar system, or a titbit on some other piece.
But this is often just a window dressing, as all those components are nothing without systems that run them. Not only hardware, but also software involved in the control of various features, as well as exchange of information between them will decide the effectiveness of a fighter jet. Most upgrades done to 4th generation fighter jets to bring them to 4+ or 4++ generation are not flashy, and involve improving electronics to bring them to the level that makes 5th generation jets what they are.
6. Dogfights are rare (and get rarer)
In movies, fighter jets often fly wingtip to wingtip, performing air show maneuvers and creating an impression that this is how fighting looks like. While that sometimes happens, and recent conflicts show that dogfighting can occur if an engagement happens under particular circumstances, it is still rare.
And even in a case when it happens, a modern dogfight will not look like ever before. Off-bore missiles that can attack targets at extreme angles, helmet-mounted gunsights, a focus on situational awareness – modern fighter jets are designed to shift the process of a fight from maneuvering to high-speed decision making.
The problem is, fighter jets comparisons are not about that. Speed, engine power, climb or turn rate – those are stats that make difference in a dogfight. They lose most of their meaning in a modern context.
5. Results of real engagements are often murky
In computer games, a goal is a goal, and a kill is a kill. It is easy to compare how many virtual fighter jets were shot down and how many escaped. In the real world, not so much. Even air-to-air kills from WWII are heavily contested to this day, and when it comes to engagements from the past 30 years, there are virtually no hard numbers – just differing versions of the same events.
Not only every participant in every conflict tries to present itself in the best light, they themselves may not know actual facts. Furthermore, aerial combat rarely involves pilots engaging each other in an honorable duel – a mission goal may necessitate avoiding air-to-air engagements, setting an ambush, or even sacrificing some part of a force. All those nuances are lost when people talk about those engagements, and a tactical victory with a loss of a fighter jet may be perceived as a sign of the jet’s inferiority. It means that even results of real fights are ill-suited for making conclusions about the effectiveness of a fighter jet.
4. Pilots are the ones who actually fight, not the jets
Comparisons of war machines almost always fall to this trap. The training and experience of an operator is, in absolutely all cases, more important than the performance of the hardware he or she is using. It is true for every kind of warfare, and aviation is an exemplar case. Fighter jets require exceptional skills to operate, and even more exceptional ones to master. Constant training is a must, as those skills can be lost in a very short time.
Furthermore, the disparity in the performance of most modern fighter jets is actually very small, increasing the importance of a pilot. This importance will not be lost until those pilots get completely replaced by artificial intelligence (AI), and even then, the effectiveness of its algorithms will often decide the outcome of a battle, not the weapon which is being used.
3. Fighter jets do not fight alone
The vast majority of comparisons focus on 1 vs 1 scenario – a jet that is faster, nimbler or better armed is declared a winner. Yet, even since the WWI, one-on-one engagements were a stark minority in comparison with group fights. Wings, squadrons or even bigger formations of jets are often used to perform combat missions, so group dynamics and tactics are at play. Being outnumbered rarely means that a fighter goes down in a blaze of glory: as recent conflicts show, more often than not, it is a death sentence, as more numerous force has a much larger array of tactical solutions at its disposal, and can nullify any advantage the enemy has.
Not only that, but many air forces operate at least several different kinds of fighter jets, each used for different purposes. An Indian Su-30MKIs guiding vastly older MiG-21s with their powerful radars to ambush an enemy is a great example of that. On its own, the MiG-21 does not stand a chance against modern jets, but employed as a part of the attacking force, it becomes a valuable asset.
2. Fighter jets are only a part of the system
The previous argument goes not only for jets. Fighters depend on data coming from a multitude of sources – airborne warning and control systems (AWACS), stationary radars, satellites, forward air controllers (FACs), and so on and so forth. Throw air defense systems into the mix, and you have a soup where no military asset can be judged as a standalone piece. For some reason, nobody compares reconnaissance satellites or communication equipment of FACs, yet they are as important for the functioning of any fighter jet as their own sensors.
1. Situation means everything
Modern aerial combat is as far from duel-like dogfights of WWI as it is from actual knightly duels. Missions involving fighter jets can involve all kinds of circumstances that increase or nullify the advantages of any system. A jet can be ambushed by another one, shot down while avoiding surface to air missile (SAM) site, be bogged down by a heavy payload, receive incorrect information, or simply encounter a bug in one of its many systems. It will say nothing about how advanced or how good it is, it may not even mean much in a particular engagement.
This goes for judging fighter jets on their past performance, as much as deciding which one of not yet combat-proven airplanes is better. Does it really make sense to compare them one with another if the circumstances of their use will quite definitely decide what happens?