Prior to this month, a U.S. aircraft hasn’t been forced to shoot down a manned enemy aircraft since a pair of Air Force F-15’s defeated two Serbian MiG 29’s in 1999.  With that significant a gap in combat operations of that sort, one could be forgiven for fist pumping a bit about the Navy’s F/A-18E fighter jet’s victory over a Su-22 in the skies above Syria last week.  Not because we applaud an increase in tensions between the disparate groups in the hotly contested nation, nor because we’re happy to hear the Syrian pilot ejected over ISIS held territory and is listed as “missing in action” (a fate he would have been spared had he not attempted to kill coalition troops)… but simply because it’s good to know that the arsenal of combat aircraft we maintain, and the pilots that fly them, are still capable of Top Gun style shoot outs when the need arises.

That’s an important thing to know for sure in the modern climate of military powers flexing their muscle via long-range bombers and increasingly advanced fighter jets.

But, just how impressive is that victory?  With so many letters and numbers being tossed about, it can be difficult to appreciate just what in blazes an F/A-18E is, let alone how a Su-22 stacks up against it.  Was this a case of advanced technology triumphing over old, outdated tech?  Were the two jets evenly matched in capabilities?  Were our F/A-18s in any danger of losing this skirmish?

These important questions can inform how we feel about our nation’s fleet of fighting-fliers, but in order to answer them, we need to break down the elements of the dog fight into digestible tidbits.  Let’s start with a classic “tale of the tape” comparison of the fighters.

F/A-18E Super Hornet

F/A-18E Super Hornet (Image courtesy of the U.S. Navy)

The F/A-18 platform is the Navy’s primary fighter, and currently exists in two trims with variations within each: the traditional F/A-18 Hornet, and the upgraded Super Hornet.  The clash in Syria saw the more advanced of the two jets facing off against Syria’s Su-22, so that’s the plane we’ll use for this comparison.

The Super Hornet was designed to provide close air support, without compromising its air-to-air combat capabilities.  In terms of combat aircraft, most jets tend to do one or the other particularly well, but the F/A-18 has proven itself throughout the war on terror as a solid air support craft, and last week’s events seem to indicate that it dogfighting teeth are still plenty sharp.  They are capable of aircraft carrier operations, meaning in many nations, the F/A-18 is the first American fighter the enemy may come across.  The first Hornets were deployed in November of 1978, and the Super Hornet upgrades were first fielded in 1995.

Length: 60.3 feet (18.5 meters).