Europe has long seen a concentration of some of the world’s most capable fighter aircraft as a frontier between the U.S. led Western Bloc and the Warsaw Pact. So today we bring the top six powerful fighter aircraft of Europe.
Although less of a priority for U.S deployments in the 21st century, due to Russia’s post-Soviet military decline and Washington’s greater focus on Northeast Asia, it still remains an important front for combat aviation. Throughout the Cold War the most capable combat aircraft in the theatre were notably those deployed by the U.S. and Soviet militaries, such as F-15 and F-14 heavyweight fighters by the former and Su-27 and Su-24Ms by the latter, while European air forces in both NATO and the Warsaw Pact either produced less capable aircraft domestically, such as the pan-European Tornado, or acquired lower end American or Soviet fighters such as the F-16, F-4, MiG-29 and Su-22. In the 21st century the U.S. continued to reserve its most capable fighters for domestic use, with F-22 Raptors and in future F-15EX Eagle IIs deployed to the theatre being flown by American pilots, while Russia’s only remaining regional clients Belarus and Serbia were unable to afford top end Russian combat jets. An assessment and ranking of the most capable fighters deployed by European states provides insight into the balance of power on the continent and the kinds of defence relationships that have evolved since the end of the Cold War.
F-35A — Norway, Italy, Belgium, Poland, the Netherlands, Finland and Switzerland
Entering service in the U.S. Air Force from 2015, the F-35A was for years the only fighter the service had on order and was developed jointly with a number of European partners including Norway, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and initially Turkey.
The F-35 is one of just two fifth generation fighters fielded at squadron level strength and in production worldwide, alongside the Chinese J-20 which entered service in 2017, and is considered to be well ahead of other Western designs for its combination of state of the art avionics, well ahead of those of the older F-22, with a radar evading stealth profile that improves survivability significantly against all beyond visual range threats.
While it is hotly debated whether the F-35A is the most capable American fighter, with the F-15EX having similarly capable avionics but a far superior flight performance, while the F-22 has a lower radar cross section and more firepower, in Europe there is little doubt that it is the dominant fighter. Nevertheless, the aircraft is restricted to a limited initial operating capability and is far from ready for medium or high intensity combat, with ongoing performance issues and serious delays to their resolution forcing the Pentagon to repeatedly postpone full scale production. The F-35’s ranking is based on its high potential, but it is currently not well suited to a major war particularly as availability rates remain low due to difficulties with maintenance.
F-35B — Britain
The F-35B was the first F-35 variant to enter service, joining the U.S. Marines in 2014, and was developed with significant technological inputs from Britain, which is the only Tier One client in the F-35 program.
The fighter is approximately 50 percent more expensive than the F-35A developed for the air force also F-35B has limited combat capability and 33% less missile carrying capacity, a much shorter range, and low maneuverability as well higher operational costs and maintenance needs.
Its sole advantage is the ability to perform short takeoffs and vertical landings, which allow it to deploy from light aircraft carriers such as the American Wasp Class as well was from ski jump and short runways. The fighter’s stealth profile and formidable avionics nevertheless make it potentially very capable, although like the F-35A it remains far from ready for medium intensity combat engagements.
The F-35B’s crash rate has notably also been significantly higher than the F-35A despite the much smaller numbers in which it is fielded. Spain is considered a potential future client for the F-35B to replace its Harrier II vertical landing capable jets, although it is currently considered unaffordable.
Su-30SM — Belarus
Delivered from 2019, Belarus’ sole squadron of Su-30SM fighters provides its air force with the heaviest and longest range aircraft in Europe capable of air to air combat.
The Su-30SM is an ambitious modernisation of the Su-27/30 Flanker, a Soviet fighter developed specifically to outmatch the American F-15 and which in multiple exercises proved capable of doings so. It builds on its performance with a higher composite airframe, lower maintenance requirements, a new generation of sensors, armaments and avionics and a twin seat configuration well suited to strike operations.
The Su-30SM is also the only fighter deployed by a European state with thrust vectoring engines and by far the most maneuverable, and has access to the longest ranged air to air missiles on the continent with the R-37M able to engage targets up to 400km away at Mach 6 speeds.
The fighter’s endurance is sufficient for strike missions as far as Britain from Belarusian airfields without aerial refuelling and with a considerable payload of standoff precision guided munitions, while its electronically scanned array radar can detect targets up to 400km away.
The Su-30SM benefits from being fully operational and based on thorough combat tested design, with the Flanker being the only modern fighter on the continent to have seen multiple engagements against enemy fighters. Unlike the F-35 it is a fully combat ready aircraft, although with Belarus having ordered only 12 and unlikely to ever afford more than 36 it is also one of the rarest fighters in Europe.
Eurofighter T4 — Germany and Spain
Although the first electronically scanned array radars for air to air combat were introduced into service by the Soviet Union in 1981, followed by the United States in 2000 and Japan in 2002, the Eurofighter Typhoon program has continued to rely on mechanically scanned radars which has long been criticised for its obsolescence particularly in an intense electronic warfare environment.
The Eurofighter T4, although possibly being the most costly fighter in the world, despite its relatively lightweight, finally introduced the Captor-E Mk 1 AESA radar in 2020 when the first units were delivered to the Kuwaiti Air Force. It was the Kuwaiti contract which was thought to have covered much of the costs of research and development to modernise the fighter’s sensors, although the aircraft cost an average of $321 million each far surpassing most advanced fifth generation designs such as the F-35, F-22, and J-20.
The Eurofighter’s costs have been the source of considerable controversy, with strong calls, particularly in Germany to abandon further production in favor of American F-35s, although ultimately the perceived need to preserve domestic industry has ensured continued investment. Although costly, the Eurofighter T4 boasts considerable performance advantages over its predecessors with much improved avionics and electronic warfare capabilities. Access to the Meteor air to air missile with an estimated 200km range has also been a major boom to the program.
Rafale F3 — France
The Rafale has its origins in the Eurofighter program in the 1980s, when France was part of the program for a Joint-European fighter, with the two designs sharing considerable similarities. The French fighter’s most distinguishing feature are its engines, with the French Snecma M88 turbofans producing just 75kN each with afterburner while the British EJ200 engines powering the Eurofighter can put out 30 percent more at 90kN. Other than Iran’s Kowsar, no production fighter in the world has weaker engines than the Rafale. This affect’s the Rafale’s flight performance, with a below average speed and very low operational altitude for a twin engine fighter, although its range is considerably longer than the Eurofighter in part due to the M88’s low fuel consumption.
Until the Eurofighter T4 entered service, the Rafale was overall considered a more capable fighter with modern variants having used AESA radars since 2013. Before that, the Rafale was notably the only non-Russian fighter ever to use a passive electronically scanned array radar which still had significant performance advantages over the Eurofighter’s mechanically scanned array design. The fighter has electronic warfare and Spectra system.
The Rafale F4 currently under development is expected to bridge the gap in avionics with the new Eurofighter T4, but until that time the most modern Rafale variant, the Rafale F3, will for a few years lag slightly behind. The Rafale does notably have the important advantage, however, of lower operational costs and maintenance needs which has contributed to its favourability on export markets over the Eurofighter.
F-16 Block 70/72 — Slovakia and Bulgaria
The latest iteration of the F-16 Fighting Falcon, although making relatively few changes to the airframe which has served since 1978, provides a strong enough performance to be a formidable low cost contender on foreign markets.
The F-16 is the cheapest Western fighter currently in production, and has been marketed primarily to less developed countries with smaller defence budgets including Bahrain, Bulgaria, Morocco and Slovakia, with Taiwan purchasing the fighters only after being denied the right to purchase F-35s.
The fighter is nevertheless one of the most capable in Europe with its AN/APG-83 radar, although small like those on the Eurofighter and Rafale, being highly sophisticated with a search range of 370km. The radar is derived from the F-35’s APG-81, but consumes less power and is lighter. This allows the F-16 to operate modern AIM-120D air to air missiles range of 160-180km. The F-16 itself is prized for its low operational costs and maintenance needs, and with state of the art sensors, missiles and electronic warfare systems it remains a formidable fighter.