Air Combat- Past and Future

Critics of the F-35 went bonkers when David Axe posted about one isolated test flight where the F-35 had issues maneuvering against an F-16.

Of course, that’s based on an assumption that future air combat will be conducted in a manner similar to the dogfights over North Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, where fighters maneuvered hard to get into a narrow cone behind their opponent, and a visual ID was required before engaging. The caterwauling over the lack of a permanently installed gun on the Marine and Navy versions also leans heavily on the assumption that modern air to air missile will work just about as well as their 1960s counterparts.

Guess what? Times change. Pull out your cell phone. Look at it. How many of you have a 6th generation iPhone or Galaxy? It’s pretty incredible, right? A tad more advance than, say, this:


Why would you assume that phones improve, but air to air missile technology doesn’t?

And the assumption that future air to air tactics will be like those of Vietnam also ignores (willfully and studiously) the fact that the Navy and the Air Force used the lessons of Vietnam to fundamentally change our entire approach to air to air warfare.

Here’s a homework assignment- watch all four of these videos. It’s about 40 minutes.





Wigs is one of the most respected fighter pilots to come out of the Tomcat community.

And here’s Bio, another highly respected member of the community.

When I joined my first F-14 squadron in 1981 (VF-24), the A-model was still relatively new and some US Navy squadrons were still flying Phantoms. The potential threats that we most often trained for were the MiG-17 and MiG-21, which were not match of a threat beyond visual range (BVR), but could be a handful if you got engaged within visual range (WVR). Since we always expected to be outnumbered, and with the lessons from the air war over Vietnam still fresh, we spent a lot of our training fuel and time on ACM – air combat maneuvering, or dogfighting.


When we started to get serious about the threat, especially when the AA-10 Alamo arrived, we realized we had to employ AIM-54s against enemy fighters. So of course we began to train with them. I think the capability was in TACTS all along, we just never used it. Fortunately the Navy introduced the AIM-54C in 1987, when we really needed it. The Charlie corrected many shortcomings of the Alpha, in both outer air battle and closer-in tactical environments. With its long motor burn time, large warhead, and radar improvements, the AIM-54C was a tenacious missile. Again, it is too bad it doesn’t have a combat record.

One of the coolest visuals I remember was from TACTS debriefs at Fallon, when a division of Tomcats launched AIM-54Cs against simulated Fulcrums at 30-plus miles. A few seconds after launch the debriefer rotated the view from overhead to horizontal, and there were four Phoenixes performing their trajectory-shaping climbs. AIM-54s were not 100% kills, but they sure started to reduce the threat as scenarios developed.

Air combat has changed in the 40 years since Vietnam.  The single most common tactic in air to air combat today, world wide, is the “in your face” long range Beyond Visual Range radar guided missile shot.

That means that the key to success in air to air combat is seeing the other guy before he sees you, and having a weapon that can exploit that sensor advantage. The APG-81 AESA on board the F-35, coupled with off board sensors such as E-3 Sentry or E-2 Hawkeye, will give the F-35 an increased probability of “first look” while the relatively stealthy airframe will delay an opponent the chance to lock up.

Am I still critical of the F-35 program? You bet. The decision to give the Marines a supersonic jump jet drove just about every aspect of the design of all three variants, and imposed compromises and costs that have greatly hampered the entire program. But that doesn’t mean the jet is an utter catastrophe.

Every fighter program is always criticized. You may not recall this, but the newspapers just about ran out of ink writing articles about what expensive disasters the F-14 and F-15 were. How’d that work out?

10 thoughts on “Air Combat- Past and Future”

  1. RE: Why would you assume that phones improve, but air to air missile technology doesn’t?

    Right back at you – why would you assume bad guy EW and ECM hasn’t improved as well? What stays constant is that human eyes and dumb bullets can’t be jammed and are as lethal now as they always have been. The gun’s simplicity is its best asset.

    We can also talk about munition stockpile and replacement – both at the shooter and theater level. Cost is a not irrelevant factor, too.

    Second, regardless of technology, warfare is first dominated by political considerations. The fact that politically driven ROEs can neuter BVR abilities is just as often “willfully and studiously” ignored by missile advocates. Considering the USAF’s poor record of confirming targets even visually before shoot-downs, its not inconceivable that posturing against a peer foe in a high-stakes situation would see extremely tight ROEs including even off-board visual confirmation to confirm what the pilot thinks he sees.

    It is the opening-days, jousting-turns-into-combat situations that I worry most about with the F35 in regards to its air-to-air issues. America’s newest, most expensive tactical aircraft taking big losses in the opening days of a conflict could have devastating political effects. I don’t think anyone still doubts that an F35 put into a close fight against current SUs or clones *will* lose. That seems pretty pathetic for the aircraft destined to replace every other tactical fighter and attack plane except the F-22.

    Pray we stay at BVR and then run away just doesn’t instill too much confidence.

    Finally, if we are so confident in our missile tech and our own ECM abilities, the logical course is away from tactical jets altogether. Load up 767s with dozens of AMRAAMs and AIM9Xs and dominate the airspace far longer than any small jet could. After all, the missile does the dogfighting now, not the aircraft, right? The ample space provides for not only munition carriage (AA and AG) but computing power for EW and ECM that allows for electronic shaping that is far more agile than any physical stealth the F35 has. Slap some USMC livery on, let it drain a couple of KC-130s and stage it out of CONUS and you’ve obviated the need for STOVL tac-air in Marine air wings. 🙂

    1. The US hasn’t relied on positive VID for over a quarter century. And worldwide experience has been that engagement ranges are increasing (though not as much as you’d think by advertised max ranges of missiles). Further, experience has shown that while ECM and countermeasures are improving, they’re still not capable of neutralizing the BVR missile.

      As to the kinematics of the launch platform, it is somewhat important. Both for missile performance, and to counter the enemy’s salvo.

    2. Over a quarter century? Not quite.

      *Two* USAF eagle drivers visual IDed, on orders from AWACs, U.S. Blackhawks as Hinds and then shot them down. As I said, requiring offboard confirmation of what USAF pilots think they see is not such a radical idea. The Marines in AAVs in Nasirah that were IDed by A-10 pilots as “pickup trucks” before destroying them with mavericks would probably also agree.

  2. That is all well assuming enemy won’t adapt – they can use stealth too, deeming radar useless and getting us abck to square one aka eyeball mk1… or massive multisptral jamming/emp…
    no matter how far the tech on battlefield improves infantry still is perfecting close quarters dorr-to-door fighting – because from Stalingrad to Tet ot Falujah it has been proven that it happens
    so air dogfight will happen again

  3. I don’t want F-35B and F-35C to have an internal gun for AtA. I want them to have a close air support weapon they can’t leave behind at the base.

  4. Too bad we dropped long range AAMs with the retirement of the F-14/AIM-54.

    Maybe we’ll buy Meteors from Europe, or build our own equivalent. Someday.

    1. I hope so! The Meteor’s NEZ is supposed to be significantly larger than the AMRAAM though. Since we’re starting to face very sophisticated defenses and aircraft from potential foes, adding an even longer reach to our aircraft–especially the non-stealthy ones–is one of the things I really want to see, against both air and ground targets.

  5. The whole F35/BVR thing seems to rely on the assumption that prospective enemies will never develop their own stealth aircraft or sensors as capable as ours. I call BS.

  6. The idea that we’re going to keep things at arm’s length forever is simply a pipe dream. If the move towards stealth continues, we’re going to find ourselves back to WW2 style aerial combat, if not Western Front ca 1917 with jets. We build an Ac that can’t survive a furball, then we’re going to lose pilots and a war.

    The criticism that the F-35 is a poor dogfighter have been around for some time. There never has been anything from the testing program to refute the criticism. were I a pilot running the risk of being stuffed into an F-35 cockpit, I’d be worried.

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