How to Defeat the Air Force's Powerful Stealth Fighter | Danger Room | Wired.com

The fast, stealthy F-22 Raptor is “unquestionably” the best air-to-air fighter in the arsenal of the world’s leading air force. That’s what outgoing Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz wrote in 2009.

Three years later, a contingent of German pilots flying their latest Typhoon fighter have figured out how to shoot down the Lockheed Martin-made F-22 in mock combat. The Germans’ tactics, revealed in the latest Combat Aircraft magazine, represent the latest reality check for the $400-million-a-copy F-22, following dozens of pilot blackouts, and possibly a crash, reportedly related to problems with the unique g-force-defying vests worn by Raptor pilots.

In mid-June, 150 German airmen and eight twin-engine, non-stealthy Typhoons arrived at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska for an American-led Red Flag exercise involving more than 100 aircraft from Germany, the U.S. Air Force and Army, NATO, Japan, Australia and Poland. Eight times during the two-week war game, individual German Typhoons flew against single F-22s in basic fighter maneuvers meant to simulate a close-range dogfight.

via How to Defeat the Air Force’s Powerful Stealth Fighter | Danger Room | Wired.com.

No, despite the impression you might get from Danger Room, the F-22 isn’t a turkey. The F-22 was designed explicitly to avoid the “knife fight” and go for the long range kill. Its high speed and high altitude, in addition to making it a much tougher target, also impart range to its main battery, the AIM-120 AMRAAM missile. The entire philosophy behind the F-22 was “see first, shoot first, kill first” in an effort to avoid the type of maneuvering fight that had previously been the norm in air to air combat.

The article of course notes that while this has long been the ideal of Air Force tactics, it hasn’t really been the case for most of the history of missile armed combat. But the raw numbers are a tad deceiving.  While technology and rules of engagement in Vietnam and other conflicts of that time led to the requirement of visual identification before engagement (leading to a turning fight), by the time Desert Storm rolled around, BVR engagements were the norm. And while the early Sparrow missiles were poor at the dogfight engagement, again, by Desert Storm, they were far more reliable, and accounted for the vast majority of air-to-air kills. And with the introduction of the AMRAAM right after Desert Storm, the trend has accelerated. To the best of my knowledge, every USAF kill post-Desert Storm has been via AMRAAM.

To be sure, BVR engagement isn’t perfect. Witness the shootdown of two US Blackhawks in the norther No-Fly zone in 1994 (actually, one of those was shot down by an AIM-9).

The Typhoon’s large delta wing and canard planes make it a formidable opponent in the turning engagement. Now, the F-22 is no slouch there, either, but in that environment, you are entering the realm where training and native ability begin to override technological aspects of the airframes. Further, without access to the rules of the training engagements, it is impossible to tell how much the set-up favored one side or the other. But let’s just say that sending the Germans up to get clubbed like baby seals again and again wouldn’t provide them much in the way of valid training, which is kind of the point of having exercises in the first place.

12 thoughts on “How to Defeat the Air Force's Powerful Stealth Fighter | Danger Room | Wired.com”

  1. You’re right. Clubbing Germans like baby seals doesn’t really provide anyone with very good training, and it’s not like we’ll ever need to do anything like it again. After all, we taught them a solid lesson in 1914, and they haven’t bothered anyone since then. There’s just no need to ever remind them that it can be done at need.

    Also, and you did touch slightly on this at one point, didn’t they proclaim the era of the dogfight to be well and truly over back about the time the Phantom hit the scene?

    1. Sure, there’s definitely a place for training for WVR fights.

      But the trend in the last 20 years is very clear. That fight will become the exception, not the rule. Technology has caught up with the promise of long range engagements.

      In Desert Storm, there was ONE turning engagement, and it was only a two turn fight. And take a look at the threat platforms- They’re optimized for a long range engagement also.

    2. BVR is great … so long as you’ve got a declared war zone and you can kill anything in it that doesn’t squawk friendly, or if you’ve got the political willpower to accept the risk of killing something that didn’t need to be killed, just because it was in the wrong place at the wrong time – c.f., VINCENNES.

      1. Sure, you can find exceptions. But you need to prioritize how you spend your training time.

        Do we want to spend all our time training on having Raptors doing VID on airliners breaching the ADIZ, or focus on air supremacy?

    3. Train the way you expect to fight, because you can expect to fight the way you train.

      If you’re optimizing your jets for BVR and training to fight that way … but your political leadership doesn’t have the stomach for accidentally shooting down an airliner or two, then your knife fights are not going to go so well. If the enemy knows that you’re relying on your long range punch to end the fight without having to get close and nasty, then they’re going to find a way to force close and nasty.

  2. Of course critics insist the Raptor is a titanium turkey.

    Reason being it is the ONLY Fifth Gereration fighter in the skies today. They insist the russians and chicoms have their own “superior” warbirds, trumping up their capabilities in both stealth and avionics. Critics insist the Raptor cannot compete against the latest Forth Generation Plus fast movers . . . but that is because they LOATHE the fact the Raptor carries American markings. They harp on development problems, as that is their passive-aggressive means of attacking the United States. This is especially the prefered method from the critics who live here.

    It should be noted the most vocal critics are not aviation experts, but political pundits.

    If purchased in the numbers required, she could be as low as $50mil per airframe.

    If used correctly, she will sweep the skies of all who challenge her.

    “It is not the crate, it is the man who flies it.” Adolf Galland. But General Galland was smart, he wanted a squadron of Spitfires, then he wanted a single Mustang.

    We have a crate and the men and women who can fly them.

    And knowing that chaffes the socialist liberals something fierce . . .

  3. In the Red Flag’s featuring our allies we don’t play with everything we have at our disposal. There’s a lot of different things at play not to mention that Combat Aircraft is a Brit magazine and they will trumpet any perceived triumph over Uncle Sam as loud as they can. Danger Room isn’t the most reliable non partisan source as far as that goes either.

  4. As I recall, back in the 1980s, when the F-15 and F-14s were supposed to rule the sky and be unstoppable, one side figured out how to shoot down the other. As I recall, and I got this from a Tomcat guy off of Carl Vinson (and for a 10 year old kid that was the biggest superstar I could meet short of Joe Montana), I think the F-15s were downing the the Navy fighters because they were using something that wouldn’t work in real combat (apparently the radar receivers that you bought to avoid the CHP back in the day worked really well at picking up emissions off the Tomcat or something like that). But the thing was, that didn’t make the fighter any less. It just meant that under a controlled condition, there was a way to game the system.

  5. The irony here is that -for all the talking about close-in dogfighting- both the Navy and the Air Force have traditionally employed ambush tactics (zoom & boom) and dissimilar strategies to defeat their opponents.

    A P-40 could beat Zeroes via ambush tactics, while the Navy developed the Thach weave. Oddly enough, most of the real fighting against the Japanese (i.e. when they still had many good pilots) was performed by the older F4F. The F6F didn’t reach the fleet until September 1943.

    The Lightnings had several rules for fighting Zeros:
    -stay above 20,000 feet
    -avoid steep climbs
    -avoid circle combat/maneuver combat
    -keep your airspeed over 300mph indicated

    The -38 had a speed advantage over the Zero, which gave the pilots the ability to engage/disengage at will.

    Robert Johnson, in his autobiography Thunderbolt! had this to say:

    With our first missions pending, we were taken under the wing of Royal Air Force pilots who were experienced veterans of battles with the Germans. The R.A.F. pilots warned us that the German fliers were excellent, that their fighters were as good or better than anything else flying in Europe. They left no doubts but that the Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs could match on an equal basis anything that England or the United States had available—and as tactfully as possible they revealed their impression of the Thunderbolt as a sitting duck in the European air war.

    This wasn’t the first time that we had listened to doubts as to how the Thunderbolt might acquit itself against the speedy and maneuverable German fighters. Always before, we had passed off the remarks as no more than proof of the speakers’ ignorance of the Thunderbolt’s tremendous performance. But these pilots were combat veterans; they knew the Germans, and what they could do in the air.

    “Now, look,” one Spitfire pilot told us, “likely the Thunderbolt is a fine machine. But it’s too big and it’s too heavy to mix it up with the 109’s and the 190’s. You’d never turn with a Jerry, so don’t ever make the mistake of trying to get away with it. The second you go into a tight turn with a 190, he’ll cut right inside and get you dead to rights.”

    Oh, wonderful! Just the news we needed most to hear. We argued vehemently with the British pilots; an argument which, we hoped, would result in a less dire forecast of the Thunderbolt’s failure in combat. To no avail. “Look, fellows,” another pilot said. “We’re flying the Spit Mark Five. She’s a beautiful fighter, and an angel at the controls. But the truth is that the Focke-Wulf 190 has been running us ragged. The 190 can outclimb us, and can dive faster. It packs a heavier wallop than the Spit; after all, the Jerry has four cannon and two heavy guns on his side. The only thing the Jerry can’t do is to turn inside us, but in every other respect the 190 has it all over the Five. When we get the new Spit Nine, we’ll have a much better airplane, but right now, believe you me, we’re having quite a go of it.”

    [snip]

    Soon after our instruction in tactics from the Royal Air Force, two battle-scarred Spitfires landed at our base, flown by American pilots from the Eagle Squadron. Both men -had seen considerable combat, and we dragged them to the side to fire questions at them. Again we received the same discouraging answers. The Thunderbolt was too big. The Thunderbolt was too heavy; it couldn’t climb; it couldn’t turn. The only way to fly combat in the Thunderbolt was to stay at extremely high altitude, at least 25,000 feet and above, in order to take advantage of the P-47’s excellent supercharger. The German fighters, we were warned, would outclimb, turn inside, and fly circles around us.

    Let me know when this starts ringing a bell… 🙂

    As we all know, the Jug ended up creaming the opposition, and many of those victories came from using competitive strategies/dissimilar tactics, just like in the Pacific. In fact, Johnson later tells how he managed to beat a Mark 9B in mock combat. With the “unmaneuverable” Jug.

    1. The only bad thing about the Jug was its short legs. Jug pilots lost a lot of guys, but that was because of the type of fight they were in. The Jug was actually the most decisive weapon of the ETO.

    2. I gotta disagree with you there, QM.

      Without the Jug, we’d still have had plenty of other mass-produced fighters available. Without the Sherman, we would have been screwed. I’d put the deuce-and-a-half up there with the Sherman, too.

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