How many WW2-era aircraft could a single modern fighter jet shoot down with guns only?

Watched The Final Countdown again recently and was curious. In the film a then-modern (1980) USS Nimitz aircraft carrier accidentally goes back in time to December 6th 1941 and has a chance to prevent Pearl Harbor from occurring.

Now let’s say this scenario occurs where the Nimitz launches aircraft to intercept the Japanese first wave of 183 aircraft. For the American aircraft let’s say F/A-18’s are sent to intercept them (since they’re better dog-fighters than the Tomcats) and after firing their missiles at the first targets still have over a hundred of Japanese aircraft still in the air. Now have many aircraft could a single F/A-18 destroy with it’s 20mm gun alone?

I’ve seen conflicting reports on the effectiveness of high-speed aircraft against low-speed aircraft in dogfights. Either the F/A-18 would simply use radar control to shoot down aircraft from over a mile away with its guns alone, or that the F/A-18 would be too fast to effectively engage the targets. Would they be able to mop-up the Japanese aircraft getting 5 or more kills a piece, or would they only be able to get lucky hits in downing one or two aircraft using their guns?

Can he use his jet wash instead of guns?

Well, a bit of Googling shows F/A-18 cannon carries 520 rounds, so the upper limit is 520 kills, assuming that the bullets can be fired one at a time and each hits an enemy pilot in the head. (Potentially, each bullet could probably kill more than one pilot if they were lined up properly, but that’s just getting silly.) The lower limit is, of course, 0 kills if all bullets miss or hit uncritical areas. So that’s your range of possible values.

(There are probably way too many variables in the thought experiment to give any real, meaningful number but I’m thinking that the real figure would be much, much closer to the low end than to the high end.)

It would be a bad day for the Japanese First Air Fleet.

I knew this was Final Countdown driven from the title alone!

I don’t think the conflict would be the turkey shoot the movie implied. The speed difference makes gun kills more difficult. If you go fast, there’s a good chance you’ll miss. If you go slow, you could get sucked into a close-quarters dogfight, and the Zero could probably turn inside an F-18. Might even be able to down a few F18s. The jets would still win, but in the meantime, where are the bombers?

Even in 1980, they had the Phalanx, so I doubt many Japanese planes could get close to the Nimitz, even if they knew it was there, but battleship row would still be undefended and just as vulnerable as it was in 1941.

And then, of course, you have the same situation the movie ignored - where are you going to get more missiles and ammo? And jet fuel?

PS I love that movie. I should rewatch it!

I don’t pretend to have an answer to the OP’s direct question but it’s safe to say the number of Japanese planes to ever return to their mainland would be zero. According to wikipedia the attack force consisted of:

It’s possible that some of the subs might survive the Nimitz but none of the surface ships would. I rather doubt that any of the aircraft had the sort of endurance to land anywhere other than one of the Hawaiian islands or in the Pacific.

How fast can the crew get an F-18 rearmed and back into the air? … how slow does an F-18 fly with full flaps and landing gear down? … does the Nimitz stock nukes? …

The Wikipedia page for the M61 Vulcan cannon (the gun of choice for the F-14, F-16, F-18, and F-22, among others) claims (without citation) that it offers a user-selectable burst control, with a minimum of two or three rounds. So the upper bound on gun kills for one gun loadout would be 170-260 (depending on whether the min is 2 or 3 rounds). And of course this assumes perfect targeting by the pilot, pretty unrealistic even if you’re shooting at target aircraft that are flying straight and level.

Even if you were conservative with your ammo, I’d guess you’d run out of fuel before you racked up 170 kills.

Funny you mention that:

Somebody on another forum answering a similar question said that in the 1980’s the Nimitz class carriers didn’t actually carry that many Harpoon missiles which greatly limits their potential options. I know they have all sorts of other ground attack bombs to use instead but dedicated anti-ship missiles would be the best things to use against the battleships and carriers of the Japanese fleet.

There is a science fiction story where a NATO guy with a mach 2 aircraft time travels to WWI. He can’t fly slowly enough to hit the Germans, and the fabric aircraft won’t give a radar lock, so he just flies past them at Mach II and the fall apart.

I think that is a good point. They wouldn’t lose as much as Midway, but it would set them back quite a bit.

They can destroy every single one of them, ignore the aircraft, sink the carriers, maybe take out any Japanese vessels.

The Japanese aircraft have no hope whatsoever of preventing this

They could have GOB help make those ships disappear. After all, It’s The Final Countdown.

Yeah, Pearl still takes a beating but the goal should be:

  1. Sink the carriers
  2. Sink the surface ships
  3. Deal with planes/subs/support vessels

Losing all six of their carriers, as well as the planes and pilots, would have destroyed the Japanese navy’s ability to project power for the rest of the war. They had 10 aircraft carriers, IIRC, but losing 60% of them would have been a real loss.

I got that backwards, they “only” lost four at Midway. The IJN would be toast.

True the ability of warships to evade guided weapons is about constant, and WWII era ones and fighters covering them would have next to no capability to shoot down such weapons or even modern a/c delivering them at relatively close range (say Harpoons and Laser Guided Bombs respectively).

OTOH the ability of WWII prop fighters to evade attacks by modern fighters might prove annoying in some cases, even if the props posed little threat to modern fighters using correct tactics against them.

Historical combat between jet and prop fighters tends to suggest this. Jet fighters, MiG-15’s, unsuccessfully attacked prop fighters relatively often in the Korean War, besides the handful of celebrated cases in that war where props actually shot down jets (or at least made claims to have which were officially recognized by their side). These were jets of higher performance than the German Me-262’s in WWII which were very much on the short end of the stick in kill ratio v Allied prop fighters similar or same as those used in Korea. But still not the jet fighters of recent decades. The latter have much better gunsights in practice, though still in the general category ‘lead computing gunsight’ which Korean War jet fighters also did, besides their better aerodynamic performance.

There’s no particular reason to concentrate on enemy fighters if your own fighters and strike a/c can just avoid them with superior speed. That’s also a principal not completely removed from reality in air war history.

IIRC, in The Final Countdown, the Nimitz goes through the rift without any of its support vessels, which means it is still vulnerable to attack by IJN dive bombers and torpedo planes. Not to mention subs. So they would have to be careful to stay out of range of the Japanese fleet when setting up their attack. But otherwise it’s a curb-stomping.

  1. Warn Pearl of incoming. Make up a source, but warn them. That gives some people a fighting chance.
  2. Send fighters to disrupt the attack.
  3. Send attack planes to sink the Japanese carriers.

Could you just take out the bombers and ignore the Japanese fighters? You could probably take out 40 torpedo planes off the bat with just missiles. Then the rest of the Japanese planes would still be in the air for nearly 2 hours before hitting Pearl.

Plenty of time to either mop up the rest or force them to abort.

I think the only fighters were Zeroes, and they were probably carrying bombs also.

Here is a list of aircraft at Pearl Harbor.

Well, following the movie timeline, minus of course the reappearance of the time vortex/storm they still could have had a US senator who in the story was slated to be Roosevelt’s VP so presumably held some degree of sway. Get him on the radio with Pearl begging them to have everyone on full alert the next morning (Sunday the 7th) and just to sell the point ask them to look out a window while a few F-14s do a low level over flight of the base.

If every every anti aircraft battery on every ship in the harbor was manned and what ever air wing stationed at Pearl were fueled, loaded and waiting you wouldn’t need all too many Nimitz based planes to greatly lower the amount of damage the first Japanese attack wave could deliver. The rest of the Nimitz air wings go out to make coral reefs out of the Japanese attack fleet.

I spent a few minutes trying to see exactly what aircraft would have been on the Nimitz in 1980 but with limited success. I’m pretty sure the F/A-18 was still in development and had not yet been deployed but I believe there were some A-7 Corsair IIs on board. According the that wiki article possible armament loadouts include “Up to 30× 500 lb (226.8 kg) Mark 82 bombs or Mark 80 series of unguided bombs” and notes that “The radar also fed a digital weapons computer which made possible accurate delivery of bombs from a greater stand-off distance, greatly improving survivability.” I don’t think they’d need to over tax their stores of smart munitions when they could use some good old fashion dumb bombs at high sub sonic speeds yet out of range of antiaircraft cannons.

I’m sorta presuming we’d want the attack to still take place ensuring a US entry into the war, otherwise they could just sink the fleet a few hours before the attack was set to launch.