Why Red Flag exercises are not indicative of aircraft performance

While many stealth proponents point to Red Flag exercises as proof of superiority of stealth aircraft, reality is, as usual, very different from official accounts. It is simple truth that exercises never can replicate reality perfectly; limitations must be placed to ensure safety of pilots and aircraft; other limitations are also in place which would not be in war, such as operational g limit being placed at 9 g for most modern fighter aircraft, despite many of them being able to pull 11-12 g turns (albeit at expense of airframe life). Further, all shots are simulated; and as many factors cannot be taken into account, or at least not completely, results are never as they would be in real world.

But there is more to that. Often, higher branches of military fall into reality denial for various reasons, including pushing for new projects. They have good incentive for that too, as successfully propagating expensive weapons secures them lucrative posts in industry after retirement.

To offer an example: while no missile in the world achieved Pk above 70% against literally defenseless opponents (70% is value for visual-range IR missiles in Falklands against opponent that did not have a countermeasures and did not attempt to evade the missile, trying instead to break missile lock by no longer useful tactics; BVR missiles never achieved more than 50% Pk in same conditions), in Red Flag Alaska Typhoons managed 16 “kills” from 18 simulated missile shots, a Pk of 90%, while 2005/2006 tests between the F-22 and the F-15 used Pk of 65%. However, against capable aircraft, BVR missile Pk can be expected to be less than 10%; with Pk in actual BVR combat being no more than 3-7%. Even if F-22 is carrying 8 BVR missiles, real world Pk for all 8 missiles combined will be 24-56% at beyond visual range – less, if fired in salvos. Aircraft usually used by agressor squadrons is the T-38 trainer, which can pull a maximum of 7,2 g and does not have a good EW suite (if it does have one at all).

Tactics used by agressors are nothing to write home about either, as they use outdated Soviet tactics (“damn the AMRAAM, full speed ahead”), and heavy limits are put by Air Force. Agressors also “simulate” older Soviet aircraft, newest being Su-27 and MiG-29, latter of which does not have shining turning performance thanks to high wing loading, or even older aircraft like MiG-23.

Further, no foreign aircraft ever played the agressor, while US fighters – excepting F-35 – have no IRST, and most have went without avionics upgrade in very long time; as such, most are incapable of jamming, or even detecting, AESA radars. As they cannot detect AESA radars, it is impossible – all “shots” being computerized and not physical missiles – to see where the shots came from, or even realize when they are under the attack. In real combat, however, missile trajectory is easily reconstructed by using missile warners and possibly IRST, and pilots (if competent) start maneuvering as soon as they come under the attack, lowering missile Pk significantly.

Actual force ratios are not represented either. Taking into account cost and sortie rate, 12 F-22 would be expected to face 102 F-16Cs, which means that F-22s in stealth configuration would still be outnumbered by time of the merge even if BVR missiles had Pk of 90%. Yet in all exercises where F-22 dominated, there was near-parity in terms of numbers, or relatively small Red Force advantage.

There is no representation of the fog of war, and fallibility of the IFF systems, both of which require the visual identification before attack can be made – and the F-22 has no IRST or other optical system, which coupled with its large size means that the advantage in engagement range is reversed in favor of the new European fighters (Rafale, Typhoon, Gripen E/F) or the Russian fighters equipped with the IRST (Su-30, Su-35).

Heavily-scripted Red Flag exercises are quite similar to the computer simulations which predicted and predict huge exchange ratio advantage for newer fighters. F-15A was predicted to have a 955 to 1 exchange ratio against the Russian MiG-21. F-14s missiles were predicted to have 100% Pk.

EDIT 2.11.2014.:

2005/2006 tests between the F-22 and the F-15 assumed:
a) a force ratio of 2 F-15s for each F-22 (a realistic ratio would be 2,2x advantage in procurement numbers * 2,19x advantage in sortie rate = 5 F-15s for each F-22)
b) a radar guided BVR missile Pk of 0,65 (it was 0,34 in Desert Storm against non-maneuvering (cooperative) targets with no countermeasures; incidentally, Pk of 0,65 gives the F-22 two salvos with Pk of 95,7% each, meaning that only one in 22 F-15s might come to the visual range, whereas Pk of 0,34 would give two salvos with Pk of 64,1% each, allowing one in 3 F-15s to the visual range – and that is assuming that they fired salvos instead of simple additive calculation of individual missiles, as in 0,65+0,65 = 100% Pk, or 3-4 targets shot down by each F-22, in which case 2 F-15s to 1 F-22 would result in no F-15s getting to the visual range)
c) perfect BVR IFF (in reality, only visual IFF – either through Mk I eyeball, binoculars, telescope or IRST – is reliable, and the F-22 does not have last two)

So it is quite obvious how seemingly not so large differences in Pk assumptions and force ratios can change results (in 5 F-15s vs 1 F-22 and radar missile Pk of 0,65, one in 5 F-15s would be getting to the visual range, with missile Pk of 0,34 one in 2 F-15s, and with missile Pk of 0,08, seven in 8 F-15s would be getting to the visual range).

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12 thoughts on “Why Red Flag exercises are not indicative of aircraft performance

  1. USAF aggressors use both the F-15C/D and the F-16C/D. They stopped using the F-5Es after the Adversary program was “temporarily” terminated after the end of the Cold War. The US Navy uses F/A-18As and F-5Ns equipping VFC-13, VFC-13 and VFC-111, as well as NSAWC (Top Gun and Strike University grouped together). I believe that Air Force and Navy ran ACEVAL and AIMVAL air combat exercises at Nellis AFB in the late 70s, and they determined that although the F-14 and F-15 were hard to beat in BVR combat, the exchange ratios against F-5Es nearly went even once their entered WVR combat, especially when the F-5Es were “armed” with simulated, all-aspect IR missiles. Also I remember there was a story about how F-5E aggressor pilots, sick and tired of being killed off at BVR by F-15 pilots, decided to have their aircraft fitted with Radar Detectors from Automobile stores. The next day after this was done, the kill ratios drastically changed in favour of the aggressors. In regard to military exercises it is no secret that they are scripted, but once someone throws away the script as Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Ripper did in Exercise Millennium Challenge 2002 , you not only see a good glimpse of how real weapons would perform in actual combat, but also the dodginess of the military hierarchy. So everytime you see exemplary performances in exercises it always has to be taken with a grain of salt because those good results help in the marketing. Scary when you think peoples lives are on the line if they have to rely on such weaponry.

    • T-38 is not the F-5, even though they use the same basic airframe. As a matter of fact, over 500 T-38s were in operation by USAF as of the 2012, and a new trainer (T-X) is being planned in part because of the T-38s inability to provide adequate opposition to the F-22 (part of that inability is caused by the maneuvering limitations, bigger part due to old RWRs used).

      “Also I remember there was a story about how F-5E aggressor pilots, sick and tired of being killed off at BVR by F-15 pilots, decided to have their aircraft fitted with Radar Detectors from Automobile stores. The next day after this was done, the kill ratios drastically changed in favour of the aggressors.”

      Thanks for the info.

      “In regard to military exercises it is no secret that they are scripted”

      To be fair, they have to be scripted in some way, but problem is that most of the time they are excessively scripted. Scripts should be of no greater complexity than “Force A has to take the Point X, while the Force B has to defend the Point X” or something like that.

      • You know what is funny is that trainer aircraft are often better choices than their supposedly more advanced aircraft.

    • “I believe that Air Force and Navy ran ACEVAL and AIMVAL air combat exercises at Nellis AFB in the late 70s, and they determined that although the F-14 and F-15 were hard to beat in BVR combat, the exchange ratios against F-5Es nearly went even once their entered WVR combat, especially when the F-5Es were “armed” with simulated, all-aspect IR missiles. Also I remember there was a story about how F-5E aggressor pilots, sick and tired of being killed off at BVR by F-15 pilots, decided to have their aircraft fitted with Radar Detectors from Automobile stores.”

      Makes you wonder what will happen with modern radar warning detectors … probably not what anyone expects except those who undertake realistic training.

      “In regard to military exercises it is no secret that they are scripted, but once someone throws away the script as Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Ripper did in Exercise Millennium Challenge 2002 , you not only see a good glimpse of how real weapons would perform in actual combat, but also the dodginess of the military hierarchy. So everytime you see exemplary performances in exercises it always has to be taken with a grain of salt because those good results help in the marketing. Scary when you think peoples lives are on the line if they have to rely on such weaponry.”

      Yeah I was talking to Picard on that one. US Carriers are not to be sunk in exercises too it seems. If you have the time to, look up what happened in some of the exercises with the Dutch, Australian, and Canadian navies. In these simulations, US carriers were indeed sunk.

      The real purpose of these exercises it seems is mostly to promote weapons systems or to promote the “we’re number 1” mentality.

  2. What surprises me is that America hasn’t gone for peer to peer data links, instead keeping to a inferior alternative, as far as I’m concerned, aka link 16 or equivalent? If Swedens Gripen would have used this capability at Red Flag I’m sure a real discussions would have incurred afterwards. It’s not even new technology, Sweden has had it since the sixties. As it is, there are no modern war scenarios at Red Flag and so, no use drawing any conclusions from them either.

  3. *As for you comment Andrei, I hereby beg us to agree to disagree 🙂
    The very first Gripen was built to just such specifications, including modularity, ease of repair at place, etc. So even though it may be that SAAB are presenting the newest version as having a totally new concept, to me it is the original one, now adapted to country’s that wants more than just defense. It’s a strange thing, but justifiable, that we all want to be able to hit back. We seldom envision our selves as the aggressor, but we still want the capability to do to him as he has done to us.

    Gripen, as it is, works perfectly for defense, it’s cheap modular and rugged. But not for attack, and that seems to hurt some peoples ideas of what is ‘right’. This new version may in some circumstances be able to retaliate, as in supporting bombers etc, although, all that seems ‘world war two’ to me. Personally I don’t expect a new world war to be the same. We have new capabilities, as long range missiles etc, and when attacking the aggressor I would expect such to be used, probably initialed by the aggressor as some last defense.

    If you go by defense then Gripen will work as it is, you get 4 aircrafts at least for one F35, just use them as they are intended.

    • Gripen was approved well already in Red Flag Alaska 2006 in the blue team and with datalinks, the red team with F-15 and F-16s had no chance. Everyone in the red team was “shot” down several times in most scenarios .

  4. Flying across the screen doesn’t count as a kill, A lock doesn’t count as a kill as you don’t know what the missile will do. Gun kills are MAYBE the only ones that count.

    • A lock typically does count as kill in exercises, though “attempts” are “made” to make it more “realistic” (BVR missile Pk assumed in exercises between the F-22 and F-15 was 65%), as for gun kills it depends on gun and how fast pilot reacts… revolver guns don’t need as long time to cripple or destroy aircraft as rotary guns do.

  5. Pingback: 2014 Red Flag Exercise | Time 4 Weight Loss

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