The answer to the question of whether the F-16 or the F-18 is the better aircraft in a dogfight is probably best answered with, “it depends.”

It depends on what kind of dogfight we are talking about. Most often the preferred dogfight would be the “basic fighter maneuvers,” type, i.e. up close with just guns.

Yet, this is not at all realistic today because it leaves out the standoff capabilities of sensors and missiles that these aircraft employ. And missiles and sensors have decided the battle in almost every instance of air combat in the last 30 years. Most of the air-to-air combat kills have occurred without either pilot ever laying eyes on the other.

In Long-range Fight, I’d Give the Advantage to the F-18

SPMAGTF CR-AF 20.1: Bilateral AAR
Spanish Air Force F18 Hornets with the 11th Wing fly in formation next to a U.S. Marine Corps KC-130J with Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-Crisis Response-Africa 20.1, Marine Forces Europe and Africa, as part of a bilateral fixed-wing air-to-air refueling training event near Morón Air Base, Spain, March 10, 2020. (Photo by 1st Lt. Andrew Soto/USMC)

Here’s why. The Navy generally has better radars and jammers to blind an adversary in a long-range fight. Back in 2019, the Aviationist Geek Club did a story about an EA-18G Growler (the electronics warfare variant of the Hornet) that was sporting under its cockpit the kill silhouette of an F-22 Raptor.

As the story goes, the Growler managed to jam the F-22, get behind it, and then kill it with an AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missile. Of course, this was a simulation, but it took place at Nellis Air Force base, practically the front porch of the Air Force and home to the Air Combat Command where they train fighter pilots in combat tactics.

It could be dismissed as just a lucky shot, but the F-22 was designed to remove any hope of such luck by an adversary in a dogfight.

In that long-range fight at standoff range, it comes down to who detects the other’s emissions first and then jam and blind their opponent to put a warhead on his forehead first. Since this what the F-18 was built and its pilots train for, I’d give this fight to the Hornet.

There have been a ton of varients on both fighters since their introduction in the 1970 and 80s respectively. This makes comparison difficult.

In a Close-range Gunfight, Neither the F-16 nor the F-18 Is the Clear Winner

An F-16 flies against a magnificent backdrop.
An F-16 flown by Alec “Bulldog” Spencer during a mission at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, February 14, 2019. (Photo by Tech. Sgt. John Raven/USAF)

The Falcon is able to make incredibly tight turns and sustain very high G loads on its airframe without shedding parts. We are talking about 9Gs with the Falcon versus 7.5 Gs for the Hornet. You would think that the plane that can turn tighter than the other guy will win? Well, not so fast.

The F-6 can turn tighter and even go faster in that turn than the F-18, but the low G loads on the Hornet actually make it more maneuverable than the Falcon. The Hornet pilot can point his nose just about anywhere in the sky — even at an F-16 out rating him in a turn. The F-16 is a relatively easy fighter to fly compared to the Hornet. But a guy who knows what he’s doing in the F-18 can make that aircraft dance on a pinhead, while the Falcon has computer-controlled flight limiters that prevent the pilot from pushing the aircraft too close to the edge of its flight envelope. Something that no doubt has saved the lives of a lot of green Air Force pilots.

Size Matters

The Falcon has better cockpit visibility and is a smaller aircraft than the Hornet. This is a very big deal. Being able to see the other guy first, even if by a few seconds, can be the deciding factor in a dogfight. We actually study this stuff and there is a record of dogfight victories that are tied to getting “eyes on” the enemy first.  It’s also about seizing the initiative and putting your opponent on the defensive where you have the better chance of shooting him because he is reacting to your moves rather than making moves of his own.

The Falcon has six hardpoints for carrying weapons and electronics pods. The Hornet has 11. There is a real advantage there for the Hornet.

The Hornet also carries 78 more 20mm rounds for its gun than that Falcon. Just one of those 20mm rounds hitting an aircraft can wreck it.

Pilot Quality and Training

Navy pilots return home from a deployment.
Navy pilots from Strike Fighter Squadron 32 greet friends and family members during a homecoming ceremony at Naval Air Station Oceana. VFA-32, part of Carrier Air Wing 3, completed a seven-month deployment aboard the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman. (Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Indra Bosko/U.S. Navy)

Finally, we come down to what may be the most important factor of all, pilot quality and training. In WWII, Korea, and Vietnam there were numerous examples of inferior planes flown by experienced pilots downing superior planes flown by inferior pilots.  That is not to say that Air Force Pilots are inferior to Naval Aviators, or vice versa. But a matchup between the F-16 and F-18 will always come down to pilot skill.

Since the F-18 can be flown with fewer automatic controls on its flight envelope an experienced pilot can learn to finesse the Hornet to its very limits. On the other hand, the Air Force pilot will be forced to fly well within the F-16’s limits.

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A Hornet pilot, knowing that his 7.5 g load limit will not beat him as much as the 9 Gs that Falcon pilot is pulling, could win the fight by forcing the F-16 driver to “Turn and Burn” and wear himself out physically until he makes a mistake. Physical exhaustion is a concern. After a dogfight, pilots report that they are wringing wet with sweat and are physically exhausted from the exertion of high G maneuvering. If you can make the other guy tire out first, you can beat him.

What Do the Professionals Think?

SOFREP spoke at length with an Air Force Air Traffic Controller about his experiences over a span of 12 years. He told us that he had seen hundreds and hundreds of landings, but never failed to be impressed with Navy pilots. “I think they are just better,” he said. And he added,

“[The Navy pilots] are very precise fliers. When they would come in on a landing approach they would be dead perfect on the glide path. I can’t remember ever telling any of those Navy guys to correct their rate of descent or speed. They would be PERFECTLY on it the whole time. We’d be watching them on radar lining up to land and there was no slop in their flying at all.  They’d come in one after another perfectly spaced, after making their turns onto final exactly alike in everything. They were just… better.”

So, F-16 or F-18?

In that mythical dogfight between an F-16 and an F-18, there are no cut and dry answers. The outcome will depend on various factors that can be very hard to quantify with any accuracy. Yet, if we had to bet, we would go with a Naval Aviator flying the Hornet.

Let us know what you think in the comments below.

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