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:

from-backpack-transceiver-smartphone-visual-history-mobile-phone.w654

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.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4CHjwF-rHM]

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QQvhGAuVSpk]

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-r9-gP_cbao]

 [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9faWNV867w]

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?

Did you see the gorilla? TACTS, TOPGUN and NTC

Remember this video from a couple years ago?
[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vJG698U2Mvo]

Here’s a half hour documentary about the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center, home to the famous TOPGUN course for fighter crews.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CgB07fiDQXs]

The video is apparently about a decade old, with the SuperHornet just coming in, and the F-14 just heading out.

Unlike the 1986 movie, at the real TOPGUN, much of the focus is on the brief and the debrief. One of the key tools used in debriefing the students after a hop is TACTS. The Tactical Air Combat Training System allows TOPGUN to show an engagement in its entirety, either on a gross scale, or down to very fine detail. The positions, heading, altitude, speed and other information on every participant in a fight is shown.

As a student is flying a mission, they’re trying to accomplish the goals for that mission. When they return to be debriefed, they’ll very often forget key incidents, misremember the timing of others, or just never notice something critical that occurred during the mission. They simply didn’t see the gorilla.

But with TACTS, they have to face the harsh truth. And that makes learning easier.

The National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, CA has a similar approach, though for Army ground troops. Each vehicle has equipment to report its location, while the entire battlefield is under video surveillance, and radio transmissions are recorded for future reference during the debrief (which we Army types call an AAR, or After Action Review).

Key questions in an AAR are typically, what were you supposed to do, and what did you actually do? Many times, people are surprised to learn how poorly they understand the first question, and even more surprised to learn they don’t really remember rightly what they did. That’s why tools that can help accurately recreate the battle are so powerful as teaching aids.