The Reign of a Bug and a Snake: How the F/A-18C and the F-16CM dominate DCS World
Updated: May 4
If you find yourself going to public servers in DCS World, you will find all sorts of people flying their favorite modules. Places like Hoggit's Persian Gulf at War, Growling Sidewinder's Open Conflict, Through the Inferno and the 4YA servers are the most popular ones as of the time of writing, with relatively high average player counts no matter the time of day. It is in places like these where one can take a glace at what the "average DCS player" flies, and it is only logical that some trends will start to show up.
Evidently some of these trends will change overtime but for the past couple of years there have been two planes which have taken Digital Combat Simulator by storm. These two are the F-16CM "Viper" and the F/A-18C "Hornet". Go to the servers I mentioned previously and it will be evident that both of these modules surpass the others in terms of numbers. A lot of people seem to have taken a liking to these planes, myself included. But why? Today let's try to rationalize some of the possible reasons as to why these aircraft dominate DCS World.
THE DEFINITIVE JACKS-OF-ALL-TRADES
The multirole nature of these aircraft is, most likely, one of the main reasons behind their popularity. If you buy a Hornet or a Viper, your mission set is not set in stone. You can go against a swarm of enemy fighters, do close air support, reconnaissance, long range strikes and precision strikes. All of that with a single module? Sounds like a dream come true.
Does this mean that these two are the best at every single role? Not by a long shot. If we were to talk about the king of beyond visual range (BVR) air to air (AA) engagements, then there is little that the F-14A/B has to envy from these modules. The same goes for more niche tasks like the dedicated low altitude air to ground role (AG) and anti-ship role which would be better served by module like the AJS-37 Viggen. But that is the point. You do not need all that specialty when you can do everything well enough. As the saying goes: "a jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one"
Both of these modules are more than capable of holding their own in almost every single scenario possible. There really is no compromise when it comes down to their armament. I have seen F-16s go on Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) mission and then running a Close Air Patrol (CAP) right after they have struck their target. I have seen Hornets hit an entire airbase by themselves and later dealing with the interceptors that were sent to dispose of them. Hornets and Vipers engaging an enemy fleet together is not a rare occurrence.
They are also capable of being some of the best air to air platforms in the sim. The Hornet is infamous for being able to carry 10 AIM-120s, which is one of the best missiles in-game. The Viper has an unparalleled thrust to weight ratio, too. This allows it to lob missiles at distances that are only rivaled by what the F-14B can do with its Phoenixes. This is not a measure of realism or accuracy, it is just about the capabilities that these modules have in-game.
THE "BANG FOR BUCK" RATIO
This is an aspect which is usually not taken into consideration by more avid flight sim aficionados. Our hobby is an expensive one and when someone new to this world, there is a very important decision that they need to take: "Which module do I buy?" or "What should I spend my money on?" This is a question that which has an infinite amount of answers. Each person will have their own priorities and needs that lead them to choose an aircraft. For someone who is confident that they will be playing DCS World or any other simulator for a prolonged period of time, it is easy to just choose what they like at the moment and then get something else later. But, what happens when the person in question does not even know if they will be playing this simulator in the next 30 days?
It would make sense for this person to get something that can show them what DCS has to offer. Two modules fit this definition perfectly: F/A-18C and F-16CM. The Hornet, in particular, offers every single mission set and situation possible, including being able to land and take-off from carriers. The same is applicable to the Viper, excluding carrier operations. At this point it is a matter of buying something with more bang for your buck, and that is exactly what these modules offer: A full perspective of the depth and richness of modern air operations in DCS World.
As stated previously, both the Hornet and the Viper offer some of the best that DCS has to offer in terms of system modeling and depth. They are very easy to get started with but they are relatively hard to master, demanding you to read and research about their systems. You can cooperate with other aircraft with your datalink and targeting pod. You can do everything.
Does this mean that these are the perfect starter aircraft? Yes and no. But, would you prefer having the capability of being able to learn something with what you own or having to buy another module just to have the chance of doing it? I will leave that up to you to decide.
GLOBAL MILITARY AVIATION LEGENDS
This is an intangible and emotionally-driven aspect, but it is one that certainly affects how we perceive aircraft. This will require me to get a little more personal. When I was little, I always got to see my country's F-16As and Bs fly by my house every time that we had a national holiday. When I look at the sky I can always see those distinctive silhouettes flying above me, a formation of three F-16s in a delta formation with their engines roaring and shaking the windows. It is only natural that I have grown attached to these machines, is it not? I might not be a supporter of my current government but those "Dragones" are one of the only military assets that make me feel something for my country.
Seeing as the F-16 is one of the most common 4th generation fighters in the western world, I am certain that many others around the world have that same attachment. A memory of happier times when we would watch these planes soar high above at breakneck speeds, shaking the very ground we stood upon. This does not only apply to younger people, but to older ones too. Which should be evident by the time these aircraft have been in service.
Unsurprisingly, airshow teams could also be a part of the reason behind the fame that these two aircraft have. The Thunderbirds and the Blue Angels fly the Viper and the Hornet respectively, with only the Blue Angels having changed to Super Hornets recently. Thousands upon thousands of kids and adults around the world have seen these demo teams perform incredible maneuvers with unbelievable precision. The same can be said about the RCAF's Demo team, the Turkish Solo Viper Demo, BAF's Solo Display Team, RSAF's Black Knights and the HAF's Zeus Demo! All of which take these aircraft to their absolute limit.
Additionally, we cannot overlook the role that media plays in these attachments. Movies and TV series almost always depict the "good guys" with F-16s or something that looks like them and, whenever there is a carrier usually a Hornet follows shortly after. Of course, the elephant in the room here would be Top Gun's star: the Tomcat. It is obvious that the Tomcat is not only an aviation legend, but also an icon of aviation media. The same principle applies, it is this fame and perception we have of the aircraft that makes buying a full simulation of them that much likely. Which is is why a lot of people have bought the cat, too. Aside from it being one of the most complete and polished modules currently in the sim.
That being said, the Tomcat does not really fit into the "bang for buck" category. It is one of the most expensive modules in the game and its usual discounts during a sale are lower than both the Hornet and the Viper. Furthermore, while it is capable of performing both air to air and air to ground missions, it lacks that full multi-role functionality even while having the Jester AI companion helping you out on your missions. Its weapon and mission set is very limited too, in comparison to the Hornet and Viper. It is one of my personal favorites, but I can understand why both the Hornet and Viper are more popular with the average DCS player. This does not mean that it is a bad beginner aircraft, quite the opposite, it is excellent due to jester AI managing all the systems for you.
These three aircraft are icons and legends, but both the Hornet and Viper have a much more visible trail in the minds of aircraft fanatics all over the world. A fact that is backed by the amount of countries that have bought these aircraft, keeping them in combat roles to this very day and for decades to come. It is this presence and visibility that have engrained these airframes into our minds, making it so that it is much more likely for us to gravitate towards them.
THE REIGN OF A BUG AND A SNAKE: A DESERVED ONE
When it comes down to it, we will all like what our preferences lead us to and to what our life experiences have made us believe is the right choice. This "reign" of the Viper and the Hornet is not going to be everlasting. DCS World is a very dynamic sim in which aircraft are added constantly, all of them fitting a certain niche. It just happens to be that both of these aircraft fit well into most niches, lending themselves to be must-buys for any player.
I do sense that a challenger to this reign is fast approaching, one that has been preparing itself to become either the next ruler or a new member of this ruling council. An aircraft as capable as these two but with some inherently unique features that make it familiar but distinct enough to the point that it can be a justifiable purchase for owners of the current ruling modules.
The Strike Eagle is screeching and hunting for prey. We will just have to wait how complete and in which state this new bird of prey will launch.
About the author:
Santiago "Cubeboy" Cuberos
Longtime aviation fanatic with particular preference towards military aviation and its history. Said interests date back to the early 2000's leading into his livelong dive into civil and combat flight simulators. He has been involved in a few communities but only started being active around the mid 2010's. Joined as a Spanish to English translator in 2017, he has been active as a writer and the co-founder of Skyward ever since. Twitter | Discord: Cubeboy #9034