F-15 EX Fighter Jets are set to enter the race for the Indian MMRCA contract. The American F-15 EX fighter aircraft will compete against the French Rafales, Russian SU-35s, American F/A 18 Super Hornets & F-21s besides the Swedish Gripen.
As EurAsian Times reported earlier, the F-15 EX made a comeback after the US Air Force (USAF) placed an order for eight which could go up to 72, will join the F/A 18 Super Hornet and the F 21 ( a variant of the F 16) that are already on offer.
Besides the French jets, American and Russian jets are head to head once again for the lucrative Indian defence tender. The two high-end heavyweight aircraft F-15EX and Su-35 represent the modernization of the cold war era aircraft. So how does the Su-35 compete against the F-15EX fighter aircraft?
What is MMRCA tender?
Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender falls under India’s make in India initiative under which the country pursues to jointly manufacture 114 fighter aircraft and assist its Air Force expansion plans.
F-15EX and Su-35 are both in contest for India’s MMRCA tender. While the MMRCA initially stated that aircrafts should be of a light to medium weight, the Su-35 and F-15X stand out as the only two high-end heavyweight aircraft in the race, keeping the French Rafales out from the picture for now.
Su-35 vs F-15EX Jets
Both the F-15EX and the Su-35 are twin-engine designs capable of functioning at high altitudes, and both have the long ranges needed to penetrate enemy airspace and deliver a wide range of munitions for both air to air and air to ground missions.
The F-15EX certainly does have the advantage of higher speed as it can reach up to the speeds of Mach 2.5 while the Su-35 is restricted to speeds of around Mach 2.25. Both field radars which are similarly sophisticated – the Irbis-E and AN/APG-82 – although the Su-35’s radar is larger and believed to be more powerful.
The Irbis-E can identify most fighter-sized targets at ranges of over 400 kilometres, and can track up to 30 airborne targets concurrently and engage up to eight. Stealth fighters with lower radar cross-sections can reportedly be detected at ranges of over 80km.
The Su-35 does benefit from a number of advantages including beyond visual range engagements, including its radar cross-section reducing profile which leaves its radar cross-section at under one third that of the F-15.
Whereas the Su-35 is a lot stealthier than the original Su-27 – the F-15 has seen little change to its profile. Plans to similarly reduce the radar cross-section of the F-15 under the F-15SE program were cancelled, and have not been incorporated into the F-15EX design.
Other advantages enjoyed by the Su-35 include its access to R-37M hypersonic air to air missiles – which have a long 400km range, high manoeuvrability, a Mach 6 speed and very powerful sensors.
American F-15s today rely on the ageing AIM-120C with a 105km range – although the F-15EX could be marketed with the AIM-120D with a longer 180km range. These missiles have less than half the range of the R-37 and are much slower – with a speed of around Mach 4.5.
The Su-35 will in the near future also have access to the K-77, which will make use of a revolutionary new APAA guidance system that will make it extremely difficult to evade. The missile will have a range of approximately 200km.
While the F-15EX’s air to air missiles does suffer a quantitative disadvantage, the fighter is able to carry up to 22 of them where the Su-35 can carry just 14. The F-15’s engine thrust is considerably lower than that of the Su-35 however, which if combined with such a heavy weapons payload will seriously compromise manoeuvrability at all ranges and the fighter’s ability to evade missile attacks.
In visual range combat, the Su-35’s advantages are even more evident. The F-15EX has a much bulkier design with a much lower thrust/weight ratio, allowing the Su-35 to easily outmanoeuvre it even without relying on its thrust-vectoring engines. Three-dimensional thrust vectoring capabilities, however, will make the Su-35’s advantage bewildering at short ranges.
While the Su-35 appears to be the more capable aircraft based on an assessment of its capabilities, its main attraction to India over the F-15EX is likely to be its compatibility with existing jets in the Indian Air Force’s fleet.
The Su-35 is closely related to the Su-30MKI and the Indian Air Force already operates over 250 and interoperability will provide a significant advantage that the F-15EX would lack.
Alongside the Su-30, India deploys a number of other Russian jets such as the MiG-29 and MiG-21Bisons which use modern Russian munitions such as the R-77 and R-27 air to air missiles – all of which are compatible with the Su-35.
The similarities between the Su-35 and the Su-30MKI will also allow pilots to relatively easily transfer between operating the two classes – which with India already having several hundred trained Su-30 pilots is a major advantage.
By contrast, integrating the F-15EX into an already very diverse fleet – some would argue too diverse – could provide a logistics nightmare – particularly considering that India deploys no classes of American fighter and no American air to air missiles or maintenance equipment.
Further increasing the attractiveness of the Su-35, the fighter has been offered for licence manufacturing in India alongside transfers of some technologies for its AL-41 engines and Irbis-E radars. A license manufacturing deal is reportedly being tied to a deal to modernize the Su-30MKI to a ‘4++ generation standard’ – allowing the Indian Air Force to upgrade existing fighters with Irbis-E radars and AL-41 engines which would revolutionize their performances.
This would also allow the older fighters to make use of new types of munitions such as the R-37M air to air missile. While the F-15EX is a very formidable fighter, it cannot be paired with an upgrade package for existing Indian fighters in any comparable way – which would only be possible if India already operated older classes of American fighter such as the F-15C.
Eventually, it remains uncertain whether India will opt for a heavyweight fighter under the MMRCA contract or whether it will stick to its original plan to acquire a lighter and lower maintenance jet such as the MiG-35 or French Rafale.
While both the F-15EX and the Su-35 are somewhat similar, the Su-35’s advantages, especially in close range engagement, is noteworthy. The Su-35s primary advantage over the F-15EX, however, is the difficulty of incorporating American aircraft into a service that already operates an overly diverse fleet and does not operate any classes of American fighters or air to air missiles.
This advantage is further cemented by the Su-35s very high level of interoperability with the Su-30MKI, and the possibility of using Su-35 technologies obtained under the contract to upgrade the Su-30 to a comparable ‘4++ generation’ standard.
Washington has applied immense political pressure including threats of economic sanctions on the country to stay away from Russian hardware. While the advantages of the Su-35 are overwhelming, opting for the American F-15Ex or other fighter jets including the F-21 or the F-18 Super Hornets as part of a politically motivated purchase remains a considerable possibility.