How does the F-16 perform against its adversaries in dogfight?

Dec 10 2012 - 21 Comments

The Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon is the western world’s most prolific fighter of the last 40 years.

Even if medium and long range air-to-air massiles, such as the AIM-7 Sparrow and the AIM-120 AMRAAM,  have been integrated in the F-16 since 1986 for the BVR (Beyond Visual Range) engagements, the Viper was born in response to LWF (Light Weight Fighter) program, for a small and agile fighter: the USAF needed a small, cheap, maneuverable airplane to flank the F-15 Eagle, its air superiority fighter, to face the small Soviet fighters, such as the MiG-21 in close combat.

Indeed, Red and Green Flags, Tiger Meetings, and any other major western exercise feature tons of Vipers (the universal F-16’s nickname) of all types and ages and, almost daily, F-16 from different air forces take part to DACT (Dissimilar Air Combat Training) sessions against the most modern fighter jets, sometimes playing the Aggressor role.

Therefore, understanding which are the advantages and the disadvantages of F-16 against the modern western fighters in DACT sessions, based on pilots accounts and most widely known fighter jets characteristics (Rules of Engagement within the training scenario, pilots skills and other factores which may have a significant impact on the outcome of a dogfight will be ignored), can be interesting.

According to one of the more experienced of the U. S. Air Force Viper’s pilots, Lieutenant Colonel Philipe “Rico” Malebranche, the F-16 can do very well against the F-15. The F-16 is small, light and agile: although it has a lower maximum speed and rate of climb, it has a smaller Radar Cross Section and, once on the merge, it’s harder to spot. Furthermore, its turn rate is impressive: it does not lose much energy in turns (unlike, for instance, a Mirage 2000) and can outmaneuver the F-15 in low altitude dogfights.

However, the toughest of the fighter jet to face in aerial combat, at least if you are seated in an F-16, is the F-22 Raptor“It’s not a matter of trying to kill him, but to see how long you can survive!” as “Rico” says in “Viper Force: 56th Fighter Wing–To Fly and Fight the F-16″ book by Lt. Col. Robert “Cricket” Renner USAF (Ret.).

WVR engagements versus the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet can be quite challenging as well.

The F-16 has a higher thrust-to-weight ratio than the “Super Bug” and this is an advantage Viper drivers can exploit in close air combat: “we can climb 3,000 feet above the F-18, then bunt over to put him in the HUD (Head Up Display) for a gun shot” Malebranche, who has also been an exchange pilot in a U.S. Navy Hornet Squadron, says.

However, while it bleeds energy faster than the F-16, the “Rhino” is much better than the Viper if the dogfight gets slow, because the Hornet handle high angles of attack and point the nose at the opponent easier.

And how can the Viper perform against the Eurofighter Typhoon?

During more or less  a decade of service with the Italian Air Force, the F-16 has been extensively used to train Typhoon pilots in WVR engagements. According to the Italian pilots, the F-16 matches the F-2000 under 10,000 feet. But above FL100 the Typhoon becomes quite difficult to beat since its superior aerodynamics give the Eurofighter can out maneuver the Viper at every engagement.

Dario Leone for

Image credit: U.S. Air Force

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  • Richard

    “Superior aerodynamics” of the Eurofighter Typhoon? Is it really aerodynamics or the (canard) control surfaces that contribute to its edge in maneuverability?

  • http://Ln593285 Dario Leone

    Both things contribute to the Eurofighter’s edge in maneuverability.

  • Ian Paterson

    The “Rhino” was always an F-4 “Phantom II” when I was in the air force, has that changed?

    • David Cenciotti

      “Rhino” is the Super Hornet’s nickname used on board aircraft carriers

  • Lasse

    How does it do against the JAS Gripen 39

    • TopGunWel

      It all depends on tactics, mission support, pilot training and so on, but the Gripen C/D has faired very well against RoNAF F-16′s aswell as F-16′s in Red Flag.

  • Auroranexus

    Great article.. I can agree with most of it.

    Nothing like a good 9 G turn to get the blood going.

  • Auroranexus

    Then again, I do have to say, I’d like to go against one of those European jocks and see how they fair!

  • Dario Leone

    Auroranexus- I was sure you would appreciate my new article! As you can see my favourite aircraft is the F-14, but I like to write also about other aircrafts! However maybe you can give us more infos on how the F-16 permorms in dogfights.

    Lasse- I have non infos on how the Viper performs against the Gripen. Since I have seen in several airshows both Gripen and F-.16, in my honest opinion I think the Viper is superior in WVR.

    • Auroranexus

      I personally think “Rico” is pretty accurate. It’s sleek, tiny, and agile as heck. It’s a beautiful plane, and the instability giving it the ability to go to 9 Gs is breathtaking.. Literally! I think it may be one of the sexier aircraft to be made, I mean, look at it– it’s sleek and beautiful. I feel sorry for women in my life who need to compete with it! Haha.

      I may have a bit of an ego, but personally I don’t see the Gripen as much of a threat. I personally feel adept to take on anything but an F-22, as that would be like cat and mouse, if the mouse could hide anywhere and shoot the cat with no warning.

      The T-50 looks like a fierce competitor, and I would be on alert from a Eurofighter, but personally I wouldn’t even bother with an F-22. One radar signature from that and I think any sane pilot would turn back.

    • energo

      Probably old news, but speaking WVR some remarks from pilots is that – generally – the Gripen has a quicker turn and that the Viper has a bigger engine and thus an edge in ‘the vertical’ and sustained turn. In BVR the Gripen is said to have the advantage with a very good radar and refined datalinking.

  • Tang

    Great article.

    But what about the edge with the Mig 29, Su 27 and Rafale for instance ? Thanks to Red Flags we should have some clues …

  • Dario Leone

    Auroranexus- I admired last year Thunderbirds’ show and I think their F-16C Block 52 were beatiful and powerful. They perform a beatiful flight display. But when the solo F-16 perfomed a schneider in mi opinion it was less hard than the one Typhoon performed later. I think the Eurofighter can turn tighter than Viper.

    I think you are right aircrafts are often sexier than women ah ah!

    Tang- From what I see during an airshow Rafale hasn’t a high edge above the F-16. I guess the Viper can turn tighter than Fulcrum based on the MiG 29 display I enjoied last year, while I think the SU 27 is a hard adversary not only for the Vipers but also for the other fighters, even if when fully loaded Flanker loses part of its maneuverability. However what it makes the difference is pilot’s training.

  • Zack North

    In the Frisian Flag excercises last spring Finnish Air Force Hornets downs NATO F-16s and Eurofighters 17.5 to one.

  • john mc lane

    The mirage 2000 have an instantaneous turn rates well above the viper which gives immediately advantage in dogfight and even if it loses some energy, as exceptional aerodynamics of M2000 allows him to compensate the loss of some of energy. You should know that since the mirage and F16 confronts in excercise, 9 times out of 10 the mirage wins…The power of the reactor is not enough to win a dogfight….The typhoon ?? this plane is a big joke !

    • Voice_of_Reason

      sources or it didn’t happen

      • Stathis Zavvos

        • Voice_of_Reason

          one YouTube video does not substantiate the claim that OP made that Mirage 2K shoots down Vipers “9 out of 10 times” in exercises.

          The block of the Viper also makes a difference – a bigmouth US Viper (block 50/52) is more formidable than an older block 30 that some nations are still flying.

          In any case, the real world combat record of the F-16 is stellar, both A2A and A2G, and it has much longer legs than the Mirage. the Mirage 2K is very limited in payload and range compared to the Viper, and I am not aware of much real-world impact the Mirage has had.

      • Stathis Zavvos

        The instantaneous turn rate is a significant advantage for the mirage, as the magic II missile is a better IR missile than the AIM 9 and an experienced mirage pilot will get the kill before the f-16 tries to gain altitude after the initial confrontation (In which case the F-16 would have an advantage due to higher sustained rate.

        In Greece where they operate both, they consider the Mirage 2000-5 Mk II and above superior to the F-16 in BVM and the F-16 superior in WVM due to being more powerful.

        The Mirage has some advantage as well with the longer range MICA missile, which shoots towards the projected course of the enemy and starts tracking when it’s close. This has an advantage because the f-16′s pilot would get a defensive stance upon close missile warning which would cause him to lose his lock on the AMRAAM had he shot one. The MICA also produces no warning when shot from behind and if the pilot doesn’t see it it’s a kill.

        Overall though, the f-16 offers a much better package and performs very well in all roles, while the Mirage doesn’t do so well for other roles (with the exception of the exocet anti-ship naval missile)

  • crystal

    I guess we’ll never know. Forty years and 4500 units later, there have only been Frisian Flag combat encounters