F-16 vs F-18: Key Differences Between the US Air Force’s Most Iconic Fighters

Photo Credit: 1. US Air Force / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons 2. Canva

General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon vs McDonnell Douglas F-18 Hornet – which one would win in an aerial battle? These two aircraft are among the most dependable and deadly in the US arsenal, and have helped win wars, defend ships and redefine the technological prowess that is American innovation.

Despite their similarities, the F-16 and F-18 have a number of differences, and it’s these that’ll reveal which aircraft is superior.

History of the F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-18 Hornet

McDonnell Douglas F-18 Hornets parked on the flight deck of the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75)
McDonnell Douglas F-18 Hornets on the USS Harry S. Truman‘s (CVN-75) flight deck . (Photo Credit: Aris Messinis / AFP / Getty Images)

The General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon, now manufactured by Lockheed Martin, was introduced in 1978. This multirole, air superiority aircraft costs upwards of $14 million to produce, and its adaptability and speed make it an indispensable fixture of the US Air Force. Over 4,600 have been manufactured since 1973, with a number of countries operating the aircraft through such conflicts as Operation Desert Storm, the 1982 Lebanon War and the Soviet-Afghan War.

The McDonnell Douglas F-18 Hornet was introduced in 1983 as America’s first all-weather fighter and attack aircraft. Flown by the US Navy and Marine Corps, they’re designed to deploy from aircraft carriers, and are among the most aerodynamic operated by the US military. Since exported to other countries, the F-18 is favored for its increased weapons-carrying abilities, and saw action during the likes of Operation El Dorado Canyon, the War In Afghanistan and the Iraq War.

In 1999, the Boeing  F/A-18E/F Super Hornet entered service to replace the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. Larger and more advanced than the standard F-18, its equipped to carry air-to-surface and air-to-air missiles, with its primary armament being the M61 Vulcan.

F-16 vs F-18 – Which has the better design?

Lockheed Martin F-16CJ Fighting Falcon in flight
Lockheed Martin F-16CJ Fighting Falcon. (Photo Credit: US Air Force / Getty Images)

Despite its earlier design, the F-16 Fighting Falcon is one of the most cost-effective, efficient and maneuverable aircraft in the US arsenal. Thanks to the development of older aircraft, such as the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle and General Dynamics F-111 Aardvark, the F-16 is equipped with reliable systems that give it a wide combat radius.

The F-16 can locate targets, regardless of weather conditions, including low-flying enemy aircraft. It can fly more than 500 miles in an air-to-surface role and deliver weapons with extreme accuracy, all while defending itself from enemy aircraft. It’s also the first to use the relaxed static stability/fly-by-wire flight control system, giving it increased maneuverability and performance.

The cockpit of the aircraft was re-designed to include a “bubble canopy,” which gives pilots increased visibility throughout the side and rear. A side-stick controller was also implemented for better control of the F-16 while performing high-G missions. The controller is equipped with hand pressure sensors that send electrical signals to flight control systems, like rudders and ailerons, allowing for increased instantaneous changes while in a tense combat situation.

Onboard avionics systems are equipped with advanced navigation, including enhanced global positioning and inertial navigation systems (EGI), that send steering information to the pilot. Counter-pressure pods, high-tech radios and instrument landing systems are also integrated into the aircraft.

McDonnell Douglas F-18 Hornets parked on the flight deck of the USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78)
McDonnell Douglas F-18 Hornets on the USS Gerald R. Ford‘s (CVN-78) flight deck. (Photo Credit: Finnbarr Webster / Getty Images)

The F-18 Hornet also features a fly-by-wire system, advanced navigation and other similar features. However, one sets it apart. Canted vertical stabilizers allow for the F-18’s extremely high angle of attack, giving pilots the ability to perform high-G pull-ups à la Top Gun (1986). On top of this, it was designed with leading-edge extensions, which allows pilots to remain in control of the aircraft while at high altitudes.

The F-18 was also built with the intention of needing reduced maintenance, meaning less downtime is required between missions. Finally, the aircraft was also one of the first to use multifunction displays, which allow pilots to switch between fighter and attack roles (or both) with the push of a button.

F-16 vs F-18 – Need for speed

General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon in flight
General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon with the Turkish Air Force. (Photo Credit: Muhammed Enes Yildirim / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images)

Both the F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-18 are supersonic jets capable of reaching incredible speeds. However, they do differ ever so slightly. The F-16 can reach a top speed of Mach 2 – twice the speed of sound. The F-18, on the other hand, can reach Mach 1.7-1.8.

The aircraft also have different engines for different combat environments. The F-16 is a single-engine aircraft equipped with a Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-220 turbofan engine, while the F-18 uses two General Electric F404-GE-402 turbofan engines.

Survivability is greatly affected by the number of engines an aircraft has. If an F-16 loses its lone one, the pilot has no choice but to eject before the fighter nose dives. F-18s, on the other hand, can survive on one engine if the other is lost, enabling the aircraft to safely return back to the aircraft carrier.

F-16 vs F18 – How do they fair in aerial combat?

McDonnell Douglas F-18 Hornet in flight
McDonnell Douglas F-18 Hornet. (Photo Credit: LCPL John Mcgarity / USMC / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Combat is where the F-16 Fight Falcon and F-18 Hornet truly take off. As one of their most important roles, an aircraft’s ability to engage in heated combat and dogfights isn’t just about gadgets or design – it’s life or death.

Both are capable of air-to-air, air-to-ground, reconnaissance and surveillance missions. Several slight differences help define this. The F-18 has a range of 1,253 miles, vs the F-16’s 1,260 miles. The F-16 has a higher ceiling at 55,000 feet, compared to the F-18’s 50,000 feet.

The F-16 can stay in the air for much longer without refueling. It’s also much faster and maneuverable, and can withstand higher Gs when compared to the F-18. Its smaller size and bubble canopy cockpit giving the aircraft increased visibility, a key factor in determining the outcome of a mission.

Pilot sitting in the cockpit of a General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon
General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon. (Photo Credit: Jeffrey Allen / USAF / Getty Images)

One study analyzed dogfight victories by looking at the correlation between who was able to get “eyes on” their targets first and the outcome of the engagement. Typically, whoever first saw their opponent had an immediate advantage, and a wider range of visibility combined with a smaller aircraft meant the F-16 would have a better chance of locking eyes first.

The F-18’s size, however, is handy when it comes to firepower. With nine hard points for mounting weapons – the F-16 only has six – and the ability to carry more 20 mm rounds, the F-18 can be both fast and deadly when put in the proper situations.

F-16 vs F-18 – How maneuverable are these advanced aircraft?

General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon in flight
General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon. (Photo Credit: Master Sgt. Benjamin Bloker / USAF / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Speed and firepower are only half of what makes an aircraft successful in combat. The ability to maneuver through the air, around enemies and obstacles, can make all the difference when pursuing an enemy – or outrunning one. The F-16 Fighting Falcon can handle maneuvers up to 9Gs, giving it the ability to quickly change directions at incredible speeds (and angles).

The F-18 is close behind with 7.5Gs worth of maneuverability. Its thrust-to-weight ratio and dual engines also help make it a powerful opponent in a dogfight.  All in all, both the F-16 and F-18 can get the job done.

F-16 vs F-18 – Firepower is where it’s at

Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet on the flight deck of the USS Nimitz (CVN-68)
Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet on the USS Nimitz‘s (CVN-68) flight deck. (Photo Credit: Alberto Pizzoli / AFP / Getty Images)

Air Intercept Missiles (AIMs) are a key part of combat for modern aircraft, but the F-16 Fighting Falcon originally didn’t have any radar-guided missiles. It wasn’t until the Block 15 ADF version was released in 1986 that it was able to fire the AIM-7 Sparrow.

Other air-to-air missiles carried on the F-16 include the Lockheed Martin/Raytheon AIM-9 Sidewinder, MBDA R550 Magic 2, Raytheon AMRAAM, MBDA Skyflash and ASRAAM, and Raytheon Sparrow. Ordinance is fired from nine different hard points and launched using Raytheon LAU-88 launchers, MAU-12 and Orgen bomb ejector racks. The port wing contains a 20 mm General Electric M61A1 multi-barrel cannon.

The F-18 could carry radar-guided missiles from the get-go, as it was designed to replace an attack aircraft and defend aircraft carriers. The same armament equipped by the F-16 is used on the F-18, but additional weapons, like Maverick missiles, Joint Stand-Off Weapons, Joint Direct Attack Munitions and Paveway Laser-Guided Bombs, are also at their pilots’ disposal.

Time to decide which is the better aircraft

Aerial view of military aircraft parked on a runway
Photo Credit: aviation-images.com / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

Despite all their differences, the F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-18 Hornet are both cutting-edge, dependable and lethal. Some say it has less to do with the aircraft and everything to do with who flies it. One Air Force traffic controller shared his opinion on the best pilots in the military:

“[The Navy pilots] are very precise flyers. 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 flying PERFECTLY on it the whole time. […] They were just… better.”

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Certain aircraft are also more suited to different scenarios. An F-16 would be a better choice for long-range missions that require more speed and maneuverability, while the F-18 would provide more firepower and offensive capabilities in a combat scenario.

Elisabeth Edwards

Elisabeth Edwards is a public historian and history content writer. After completing her Master’s in Public History at Western University in Ontario, Canada Elisabeth has shared her passion for history as a researcher, interpreter, and volunteer at local heritage organizations.

She also helps make history fun and accessible with her podcast The Digital Dust Podcast, which covers topics on everything from art history to grad school.

In her spare time, you can find her camping, hiking, and exploring new places. Elisabeth is especially thrilled to share a love of history with readers who enjoy learning something new every day!

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