Nature of air to air combat
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Fighter aircraft exist to destroy other aircraft, and allow other aircraft to carry out their missions without interference from enemy fighter aircraft. That being said, there exists a colloqial – and incorrect – use of term “fighter aircraft” as being applicable to any tactical aircraft, even those that are primarly or exclusively designed for ground attack, such as the A-10 and the F-35. Task of the aircraft is to enable pilot to bring weapons systems in position for a successful kill.
You never make a big truck and tomorrow make it a race car. And you never can make a big bomber and the next day a . . . fighter. The physical law means that you need another airplane. . . . You should do one job and should do this job good.
—Colonel Erich “Bubi” Hartmann, GAP
Most important factor in aerial warfare is pilots’ skill. In every war, 10% of the best pilots score 60%-80% of the kills. In the 1939 invasion of Poland, few Polish pilots became aces in 225 mph open cockpit fighters while fighting against 375 mph Me-109s. During 1940 Battle of France, French and British did poorly in aerial combat despite having fighters that were technologically comparable to German counterparts – main difference was one of tactics and training. Namely, while Luftwaffe was using finger-four formation (a flight of four fighters organized into two pairs that allowed leader-wingman and mutual formation cover, first adopted by Finland in 1934 and used by German pilots in Spain in 1938), RAF still used a three-ship “vic” formation optimized for bringing greatest firepower to bear on bombers; this formation however was based on gross exaggaration of bombers’ capability for self-defense, and did not take escort fighters into account. Once RAF adjusted tactics, loss rate improved. British fighters were still at disadvantage if they were caught during climb, which did happen despite usage of radar for early warning; this, combined with inferior training and small numbers which caused fatigue of few avaliable pilots caused Luftwaffe to have an advantage in aircraft losses. But 50% of RAF pilots were recovered safely while 100% of Luftwaffe pilots were lost (dead or captured), meaning that pilot attrition worked in RAF’s favor, and due to pilot attrition Luftwaffe eventually lost the Battle for Britain. Another British advantage was their preference for grass fields, which allowed several fighters to take off in a line-abreast formation.
When US fighters started escorting bombers, large twin-engined P-38 was the least successful and had to be withdrawn from role due to being too visible, too inferior in both transient performance (turn onset, roll onset, acceleration) and instantaneous turn rate, and having too low roll rate. Two engines were also a survivability handicap. P-51D had better cruise speed and dive acceleration than German fighters, as well as comparable turn and roll performance. P-47 was larger and slower, but had unparralelled dive and roll performance. It could not however escort bombers to their targets, unlike the P-51 and P-38, and was thus soon relegated to ground attack missions. In fact, effectiveness in air to air combat was inversely proportional to cost: best performer was $51.000 P-51, followed by $85.000 P-47. $97.000 P-38 was by far the worst performer, and had to be withdrawn from air superiority and bomber escort missions in European theatre in spring of 1944, only continuing in photo reconnaissance missions. Its main disadvantages were slow cruise speed (275 mph vs 362 mph for P-51 and 365 mph for Bf-109 G-6), large size and sluggish transient performance as well as slow maximum combat speed (Mach 0,68 compared to Mach 0,75 for Bf-109 and FW-190). Two engines were a survivability handicap – if either was hit, aircraft was likely to be lost. In Pacific theatre it performed well, primarly due to superior training of US pilots by that stage of the war and its faster cruise speed when compared to Japanese Zero – 100 mph advantage over the Zero allowed it to achieve surprise bounces while avoiding a maneuvering engagement.
In the end, large Allied numerical superiority won the air war; Germans were loosing pilots faster than they could replace them (aircraft were being replaced at an adequate rate). Near the end of the war, they introduced the Me-262; a heavily armed aircraft designed around the most advanced technology avaliable, it was called “the most formidable fighter” that the world has seen to date. Its high cruise speed made it hard for enemy pilots to attack it once it was in the air, and allowed it to engage enemy fighters at will. But it changed little; US fighter pilots learned to catch them when taking off or landing, and tactics were developed that allowed turboprop aircraft to counter it in the aerial combat. In the end, Me-262s shot down 150 Allied aircraft for a loss of 100 Me-262s in air combat, of which 75 were shot down by fighters.
Against heavy bombers, Germans used a variety of armament. Results show that each 30 mm shell was 6 times as lethal as each 20 mm shell, but lower muzzle velocity meant that fire had to be opened from the closer range. Me-262s, whose primary task was attacking bombers, also operated in an old vic formation instead of a finger-four. Results also show how fundamentally wrong assumptions made by the USAAF bureocracy during peacetime were (a pattern that will repeat itself in every single war US fought after the WWII): USAAF assumed that head-on attacks on the bombers are impossible due to bombers’ speed advantage; tail armament can and must equal fighter’s firepower; manually-aimed turreted guns are more effective than fixed fighter’s armament. Yet by the 1943, bombers were slower, lower-flying and less heavily armed than fighters. Frontal attacks were commonplace, and flexible guns were 10 times less effective than fighter’s fixed armament. To quote RAND briefing: “It is easy for even large groups of smart people to get important assumptions wrong.”. Before escort fighters became avaliable, strategic bomber losses were between 10% and 70% per sortie.
In the night combat, which consisted entirely of stalking enemy bombers, main airframe characteristics required were good endurance and better sustainable speed than the target. There, twin-engined fighters proved useful even before the radar was installed on any of them. Luftwaffe had 350 night fighters by early 1943; despite none of them having a radar, they exacted sustained losses of 3-5% from night raids. First radars were installed on Luftwaffe fighters in early summer 1943, but at the same time twin-engined night fighters were augmented by several wings of radarless single-engined fighters. Combined with introduction of broadcast control, these measures increased RAF night bomber losses to 6,6% during the February 1944 “Big Week”, while USAFs daytime bomber losses were 6% during the same period.
Night combat actually followed same principles as day combat: surprise was primary factor, and IFF could only be established visually. Further, only single-mission specially trained pilots could be used effectively. World War II was also the first and the last time that significant night combat occured.
In Pacific, same principles applied. As Japanese (unlike US) could not replace pilots when they were inevitably lost, United States were eventually able to achieve superiority in both quality and quantity of pilots.
Tracer ammunition was sometimes used to help in targeting, but it often gave pilot away if first firing attempt was not successful, so many pilots had tracers removed from ammunition mix. Further, tracer trajectory alwas varies slightly from actual projectile trajectory, which can be misleading at the long range.
Another lesson from World War II concerns ground attack aircraft, but is relevant for fighters too. P-47 had very low lethality against German tanks, yet Germans considered it the best anti-tank weapon employed on the Western front. Reason was that the P-47 flew so many sorties that any movement by German Panzer forces guaranteed that the same will be attacked, just as any sortie by the Me-262s guaranteed that they will be attacked by superior numbers of Allied turboprops.
In the first two weeks of the Korean War, USAF F-80s have obliterated opposition consisting of slow, poorly piloted propeller Yaks. In November 1950, a flight of four F-80s encountered seven Russian-piloted MiG-15s and fought them to a draw. MiG-15s advantages in cruise speed, climb and acceleration meant that F-80s were outclassed, and first F-86s began appearing in December.
F-86s typically used fuel tanks to extend endurance to 80-100 minutes, allowing them to patrol the MiG valley for 45-50 minutes. Unlike MiGs, they were never under close control and all acquisitions were visual, giving them a substantial advantage, especially since F-86s tended to fly in numerous small formations as opposed to very large formations used by North Korean pilots. In direct comparision, MiG-15 had slightly better rate of climb, acceleration and level flight speed, while the F-86 had better speed in a dive and far superior transient performance (roll and pitch rates in particular) thanks to its hydraulic controls. While MiG-15 had an edge in maximum turn rate, tendency to spin at high angles of attack meant that this superiority was rarely to never used.
On average, F-86 achieved 0,34 kills per pass when lead computing gunsight wasn’t used and 0,30 kills per pass when it was used. At 20.000 feet, average of 0,51 kills per pass was achieved, dropping to 0,27 at 39.000 feet.
Exchange ratio favored multiple smaller, independent formations over a single large formation. Further, as total number of aircraft in the air increased, kill/loss ratio went towards the parity. Majority of fighters were also shot down unaware. But it was pilot performance that made the difference: US fighter pilots were far more skilled than their Chinese counterparts, with only few Russian pilots flying in Chinese formations showing similar level of skill and generally being able to match US fighters. While exchange ratio between US Sabres and Chinese MiGs might have been as high as 10 MiG losses for each F-86 loss, exchange ratio between Sabres and Soviet MiGs was around 1,3 MiG losses for each F-86 loss.
With advent of supersonic fighters and missiles, dogfight was declared officially obsolete. In fact, that argument was made even earlier than that – as soon as the F-86 got equipped with Sidewinder, maneuvering combat was declared a thing of the past. Development of the AIM-7 itself started in 1946, and both military and contractors claimed 80% to 90% kill rates for it and other radar-guided BVR missiles. As a result, the F-4 didn’t even have a gun, and neither it nor F-104 or F-105 had adequate maneuvering capability. Cockpit visibility was also very bad, essentially nonexistent to the rear, due to technological promise of BVR combat and tail-warning radar. But missiles turned out to be underperforming – they malfunctioned 50% of the time, and engagements happened exclusively within visual range as there was no reliable way to identify aircraft beyond visual range. IR WVR missiles achieved Pk of 15%, compared to 11% for BVR IR missiles and 8% for BVR RF (radar guided) missiles.
In Vietnam, F-4s large size and the fact that it was the only aircraft in the theatre that smoked allowed NVAF pilots to fire their IR missiles from the edge of the missile’s effective range, thus achieving advantage in the effective engagement range over the F-4 despite latter’s large and complex radar and BVR missiles. F-4 pilots had trouble detecting the enemy due to bad situational awareness resulting from bad cockpit visibility. Only advantages that the F-4 had over the MiG-21 were acceleration, rate of climb and persistence, primarly due to MiG-21s inferior engine. Still, necessity of visual-range combat led to modifications to improve F-4s dogfighting capability – primarly installing a gun and wing slats. Still, MiG-21 scored 2:1 against US fighters in Vietnam, with MiG-17 doing less well but still achieving favorable exchange ratio. Despite the presence of supersonic aircraft, combat happened at Mach 0,5-0,9. One of reasons was that cruise speed for all fighters was no greater than Mach 0,9, but also that pilots tend to fly aircraft to maximize the turn rate, for which lower speeds are required.
In 1966 Fairwind IV exercise, USN Phantom IVs faced old-model French fighters. At the very beginning, French airmen decimated US fighters while carrier was in process of recovering its fighters. As exercise progressed, it became clear that US aircrews were outclassed by French colleagues. This was especially problematic as exercise established requirement for VID to prevent the fratricide – and unlike US, French never stopped training for dogfight. Despite flying far older and “inferior” fighters, they always outperformed the US pilots. F-4 pilot Lieutenant Junior Grade John Monroe “Hawk” Smith quipped “We just had our collective asses handed to us by a second-rate military flying club flying a bunch of cheap, little airplanes by pilots who didn’t even hold down an honest sixteen hour-a-day job. We looked like a bunch of buffoons…”.
Israeli pilots in 1967 and 1973 wars preferred visual-range Mirage III to F-4, referring to the latter as B-4, due to Mirage’s smaller size and better agility. Other than that, few lessons can be drawn from these wars due to the fact that Israelis have fought Arabs – after 1973 Israeli 80-1 victory, General Mordecai Hod remarked that the result would have been the same had both sides exchanged the weapons. For the same reason, both Gulf wars are useless for drawing any but most general of lessons. That being said, there is one useful lesson: when the 1973 war is compared to the Vietnam war, it clearly shows impact of training on missile Pk. While US fighters achieved radar missile Pk of 10,9% (276 shots / 30 kills) against NVAF fighters in a 1971-1973 period, in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Israeli fighters achieved radar missile Pk of 41,7%, far closer to the 1991 Gulf War. This shows that opponent’s competence was a primary factor in missile performance. As a matter of fact, there was very little if any technological disparity between two sides in the Yom Kippur war, with Israel using F-4 Phantom jets against Arab MiG-21s and MiG-25s. In the Bekaa Valley war, Israeli Air Force outnumbered the Syrians 3:2.
In the 1971 Indo-Pakistani war, Pakistani F-86s achieved 6:1 exchange ratio against supersonic MiG-21s and Sn-7s and subsonic Hunters; only Gnat achieved exchange ratio advantage over the F-86, due to its smaller size and better acceleration. It should be noted that, in reality, majority of “supersonic” fighters are actually subsonic as they do not have useful supersonic endurance. Main reson for F-86s performance was superior training of Pakistani pilots.
In the Vietnam, Yom Kippur and Bekaa Valley wars, 632 radar-guided BVR missiles were fired for a total of 73 kills. Out of all BVR missiles fired, only 4 out of 61 BVR shots were successful. During the Cold War, radar-guided Sparrow missile has achieved Pk of 8% in visual-range shots and 4% in beyond-visual-range shots; this performance can be expected to continue against the competent opponent.
Between the 1975 and 1980, US Navy Fighter Weapons School (Topgun) instructors flying cheap F-5s consistently whipped students flying “more capable” – and definetly far more expensive – F-4s, F-14s and F-15s. In the 1977 AIMVAL/ACEVAL test, F-15 achieved 3,8 to 1 exchange ratio against the F-5 in one-on-one combat, but in 4 vs 4 combat exchange ratio was around 1 to 1. Another lesson was that the incremental hardware advantages tended to wash out as the opponents adapted, and human interactions were at least five times more influental on outcomes than test variables such as force ratio and initial conditions.
In the 1981, AMRAAM OUE (Operational Utility Evaluations) were conducted. Participants from operational squadrons conducted 1.200 engagements with 10.000 simulator sorties. Blue force had the BVR capability while Red force didn’t; yet it was situational awareness that had the most impact on outcome of the engagement as opposed to the hardware. It should be noted that pilot skill is the dominant factor in situational awareness as well as in all other factors, as clearly shown in AIMVAL/ACEVAL test as well as actual air combat through history.
In the 1982 Falklands war, British Harriers equipped with the AIM-9L achieved 19 kills in 26 launches, for a Pk of 73%. However, Argentine aircraft were fighting at the end of their operational range and so typically did not have enough fuel to attempt significant evasive maneuvering. Additionaly, they had bad rearward visibility, low cruise speed due to heavy external stores (majority if not all were heavily laden with bombs) and undertrained pilots. As a result, Harrier pilots were able to regularly execute a rear-quadrant attacks against unaware, and consequently non-maneuvering, targets. While Argentine aircraft were equipped with radar-guided Matra missiles, these did not shoot down any British aircraft; both lack of training inherent unreliability of radar-guided missiles were factors in disappointing performance of these missiles.
In both Gulf Wars (1991 and 2003), single-role aircraft have performed far better than multirole ones. Aircraft performance was independent of cost: expensive F-15 and cheap A-10 were the best performers in their respective roles, and was probably a result of optimization for one type of battle as well as pilot training. There were no gun kills for the first time in the history, but gun did provide a psychological factor of having a fallback option if missiles were expended. Also, despite Iraqi fighters having no ECM and typically failling to take the evasive action when being shot at, radar-guided missiles achieved Pk of 27,3% in the 1991 Gulf War. This was exclusively a result of malfunction in missile or fire control system; as it can be seen, missiles’ technological reliability has not improved at all since days of the Vietnam war. Yet there were only 5 confirmed BVR kills in the First Gulf War, despite radar-guided missiles accounting for 24 kills out of 85; most kills were from the visual range against nonmaneuvering targets (account of one such engagement can be read here). Further, air-to-air-only F-15Cs performed far better than average, achieving radar-guided missile Pk of 34% (67 shots for 23 kills) and IR missile Pk of 67% (12 shots for 8 kills), confirming the overwhelming importance of training in weapons’ performance. For comparision, US Navy’s F-14s and F-18s achieved radar-guided missile Pk of 4,8% (21 shots for 1 kill) and IR missile Pk of 5,3% (38 shots for 2 kills), yet no-one uses that performance as a ballpark for future missiles’ performance, indicating a willful misinterpretation (and misrepresentation) of data.
Survivability-wise, radar stealth proved to be a non-factor: F-117s flew exclusively at night while achieving 0% loss rate. Two A-10 squadrons that also flew exclusively at night suffered no losses, just like the F-117s. There is also an anecdotal evidence that Iraqi ground radars detected the F-117s. In the later Kosovo war, F-117s suffered two losses. If 1991 Gulf War and 1999 Kosovo War are combined, A-10 suffered 4 losses in 12.400 sorties (1 loss per 3.100 sorties) and F-117 suffered 2 losses in 2.600 sorties (1 loss per 1.300 sorties). 1 F-117 and 1 A-10 loss were not shootdowns but unrepairable mission kills. Altitude was also an important factor: as in World War II, kill zone was between 30 and 30.000 feet; F-117s never flew inside it, while A-10s had to make frequent excursions through it in order to use their gun in Close Air Support. In the 2003 Gulf war, only 1 A-10 was lost.
Despite the IFF, NCTR and AWACS, misidentified allied aircraft were lost to US systems as recently as 2003 Operation Iraqi Freedom. One Blackhawk was misidentified as a Hind by AWACS and shot down by a USAF fighter, and US’ own Patriot SAMs posed a greater danger to USAF aircraft than did Iraqi SAM systems, shooting down two Allied aircraft (a RAF Tornado that was misidentified – possibly as an Iraqi missile – despite multiple IFF transponders, and an USN F/A-18, again misidentified as an Iraqi missile) and locking onto, and in some cases firing, on many more. This was reciprocitated when an USAF F-16 used HARM to destroy a sensor dish of a Patriot that had targeted it. These cases clearly show that it is impossible to avoid fratricide even in a one-sided, comparably unstressful, war, and that visual ID is still the only reliable way of identifying targets.
In the end, as has always happened, new technological advances will add new possibilities, but will never negate the need for old-fashioned dogfight, and human factors – both one’s own and opponent’s skill, or lack thereof – still trump technology. Before the Desert Storm, Iraq never flew more than 240 sorties per day, typically far less than 200 sorties. Iraqi training lacked realism in either air-to-air or air-to-ground mode, and it rarely even attempted realistic force-on-force training. Coalition flew 2.100 combat sorties per day compared to Iraq’s 60 combat sorties per day; a 35:1 advantage. Iraq flew only 430 combat sorties in total, compared to Coalition’s 69.100 sorties, a 160:1 advantage for Coalition, as Iraq air force stopped flying alltogether some time into the war. This did not help, however, as Coalition flew 2.990 strikes against Iraqi aircraft shelters.
To quote USAF analysis of Iraq’s performance:
“…the overall performance of the Iraqi air force in Desert Storm in air-to-air combat was abysmal…Although Iraqi pilots sometimes started encounters with decent set ups, the consistent and overriding pattern evident in debriefs of kills by US F-15 pilots indicates a startling lack of situational awareness by their Iraqi adversaries. In general, the Iraqi pilots shot down did not react to radar lock-ons by Coalition fighters. They attempted very little maneuvering, either offensive or defensive, between the time when the intercept radar locked on to them and the time when they were hit by air-to-air missiles (or, …before running into the ground).”
Later on, AIM-120 has achieved 6 BVR kills in 13 launches. However, one kill was a helicopter; as a result, 5 kills in 12 launches gives a Pk of 42%. As before, targets were unaware they were being shot at; they were all flying straight and level, and did not use electronic countermeasures. Serb fighters also had inoperative sensors. All fights also involved numerical parity or US numerical superiority. On one occasion when a target was aware it was being shot at, it successfuly evaded 3 AIM-120Cs despite having no ECM. This clearly shows value of careful examination of combat realities, as humans always have a tendency to overestimate impact of any new technology (for a non-military example, see Ha-Joon Chang: 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, 4th thing, for discussion of relative importance of dishwasher and Internet).
When DACT was held between AdlA Rafales and Greek F-16s, Greek pilots prepared beforehand while Rafale pilots came unprepared. As a result, Greeks dominated the exercise despite Rafale being an overall superior aircraft even in early versions.
Any new technology can be countered by appropriate tactics (which can then be countered by countertactics). In 1298, English used the longbow to break Scots at Falkirk, and to similar effects against French in 1346 at Crecy, 1356 at Poltiers and in 1415 at Agincourt. But unlike French, Scots learned their lesson and in 1314 at Bannockburn used cavalry to rout English archers before they deployed. Similarly, RAF in Iraq used obsolete biplanes to deny usage of air bases to modern German fighters deployed to help Arab rebels; Luftwaffe soon had to withdraw. Fact is that, while technology can add new dimensions to warfare, it cannot change nature of the war. Human competence – training, cohesion, adaptability – is always a decisive factor in weapons performance and typically outweights other considerations, such as numbers and technology. As such, no technology should be evaluated without adressing its impact on users. It is also wrong to use new technology to solve old problems (e.g. radar stealth, LPI radar) and ignore new tactical possibilities opened by usage of new technology (e.g. IRST).
Even when fighting inadequatly-trained low-tech opponent and consequently achieving high missile Pk, having a gun provides a pilot with comfort of having a fall-back option if missiles do not work, or if range is too low for missiles to be used effectively (typically <1.000 meters). Having a gun also counters the possibility of the enemy using minimum range limitations to prevent a missile shot, as gun’s minimum safe usage distance is typically considered to be 150 meters, and maximum effective distance is typically ~1.800 meters. Further, gun is far less vulnerable to countermeasures than missiles are. Against a competent opponent, visual range combat will be par for the course: first because the visual ID will be necessary for engagement (though BVR VID is possible with the IRST, many fighter aircraft still do not have it), and second because BVR missiles will have Pk of no more than 11%, and oftentimes less, depending on the missile type and engagement distance.
You can have computer sights or anything you like, but I think you have to go to the enemy on the shortest distance and knock him down from pointblank range. You’ll get him from in close. At long distance, it’s questionable.
—Colonel Erich “Bubi” Hartmann, GAF
Denying a gun firing solution can be achieved by accelerating out of the gun’s range. If that can’t be done, then the enemy has to be kept out of the tracking area, typically done by a hard turn and roll (jinking). If the enemy is using radar-based gun tracking, or even just range finding, its performance can be seriously degraded through usage of chaff or ECM, and radar guidance is useless in cluttered low-altitude anvironment. Releasing flares may also break attacker’s concentraton. If the attacker is at 6 o’clock with little closure and inferior roll and acceleration performance, a barrel roll can be an effective defense.
Avoiding a missile requires excellent instantaneous turn rate and transient (particularly roll) performance. Aerodynamically controlled missiles typically offer ther best turn performance at their highest speed since they typically operate well below their corner speed. TVC is typically used for short-range missiles, and is particularly effective at high altitude. A rule of thumb holds that missile needs at least five times the g capability of that of a target, but it can be far more than that depending on various factors – g load in turn is function of a square of speed, so to match the turn rate of a 9 g aircraft flying at Mach 0,79 (450 kts at 40.000 feet), a missile has to pull 130 g at Mach 3, or 230 g at Mach 4. Typical WVR missile can pull 40-60 g at Mach 3, while typical BVR missile can pull 30-40 g at Mach 4. If missile manages to follow despite that (usually due to relative position of a missile meaning that it does not have to correct much for target aircraft’s maneuver), a rapid 180* roll followed by a turn will usually produce a wide overshoot as not only will aircraft now be in a position to beat missile’s turn capability, but missile guidance correction will naturally lag behind target maneuvers. Evading a BVR missile is easier than WVR one not only due to turn performance, but also because higher launch altitude of BVR missiles means that a vapor trail is typically produced, making a visual acquisition easier. Best possibility of missile evasion is at corner speed.
Typical evasion maneuver consists of placing a missile at 3 or 9 o’clock and flying at high speed in order to cause a missile to pull a lead, and pulling a maximum amount of g once missile gets close in order to achieve better turn radius and force an overshoot.
Long range air to air missiles are typically guided through either command guidance, which is doable by either a radar, IRST or RWR since missile is ordinarily guided along the line of sight between the target and the launcher, meaning that no range information is required; beam guidance, where missile follows the center of the guidance beam; and preset guidance, where missile automatically flies to a calculated intercept point. Preset guidance is the least useful one since it is only useful if target does not change direction of flight during missile’s flight time. Command guidance as mentioned typically uses command-to-LOS technique, but having two or more platforms using either radar, IRST or RWR to accurately calculate position of the target in 3D can enable usage of lead-intercept missile trajectory. This however requires sufficiently fast datalink and computing process as well as accurate information on relative positions of both target and aircraft doing the targeting. Guidance instructions to the missile are typically transmitted through a radio data link, which is susceptible to jamming. Trailling wires are resistant to jamming, but are not used since they severely limit missile’s useful range. Beam guidance can be provided by radar, optical system or sufficiently accurate (interferometric) radar warner, since it does not require range information. It does require missile to be maneuverable. While ballistic flight path requires preset guidance to be used, it is of little relevance since in such conditions, probability of hit against a maneuvering target is effectively zero.
Most effective type of guidance is the homing guidance, which can be passive, semi-active or active. Passive homing relies on emissions from the radar itself (typically visual, IR or EM ones). Semi-active relies on the energy reflected off the target – typically radar or laser – provided by the external source. In active guidance, missile illuminates and tracks the target. Active and semi-active guidance warn the enemy of the impending attack, and even without that problem, these types of guidance tend to be less effective than passive guidance. Indeed, the first AAM to score a kill in combat was heat-seeking Sidewinder missile in 1958. Passive and active homing missiles that require launch platform to maintain track for a significant period of time also put launch platform in jeopardy by limiting its maneuver options and making it a target for anti-radiation missiles if radar is used for the task. For all guidance types, clear sky is the ideal employment background, and clutter may cause a loss of target.
Radar guidance has many problems beyond clutter. Jamming can deny or break the radar lock, as well as deny the accurate range information, or even fake such information to induce wide miss distances. Rapid maneuvers can vary the radar return, making it harder for lock to be achieved and possibly breaking it once it is achieved. Several carefully-spaced targets can cause the missile to home in on centroid, leading to large miss distance on any individual target; early IR missiles had the same problem, but it should be eliminated with imaging IR guidance of new missiles. For this reason, radar guidance is only useful against targets flying straight and level – which usually means strategic bombers, though in some cases (incompetent pilots and/or inadequate warning equipment, as was the case in Gulf Wars) fighter aircraft can also fly straight and level even when being shot at.
Missile range in rear-quarter shots is about 1/5 of range in forward-quarter shots. This severely limits missile’s effective range since target can be expected to turn away from the missile if any but very short flight times are expected. However, rear-quarter shots are the predominant type of engagement since they allow fighter more time to identify the bogey while having better chance of maintaining surprise. Also, since launching the missile automatically means that at least approximate position of the aircraft is given avay, attack has to be carried from as small distance as possible to maximize probability of first shot being the lethal one. This in turn necessitates maintainig surprise for as long as possible, which then requires a rear-quadrant approach.
Missiles also tend to fare poorly in beam-quarter intercepts due to large possibility of detonation happening at far side of the target and doing no damage. At low altitude, ground clutter can cause a premature detonation of the missile. Altitude also has a major impact on missile range, with the same approximately doubling every 20.000 feet. From that it can be calculated that AIM-120D for example may have a maximum aerodynamic range of up to 180 km at 60.000 feet, but at typical combat altitude – 40.000 feet – it drops to 90 km, and at sea level it is no more than 22,5 km. Usable range is ~40 km at 60.000 feet, and ~20 km at 40.000 feet as target can be expected to turn away from the missile, and actual effective range is far shorter still. At 50.000 feet aerodynamic range is around 140 km, and effective range around 30 km. A 100-knot target speed advantage decreases the rear-quarter maximum range by 5-25 percent, again confirming importance of cruise speed – if a fighter 1 cruises at 40.000 feet and Mach 0,9 (515 kts) and fighter 2 at same altitude and Mach 1,2 (688 kts), then usable missile range drops to 11-18 km. It can also cause acquisition difficulties for radar-guided missiles, and in any case makes it harder for an unseen attacker to actually carry out an effective attack. Even when IFF issues were not a problem, there was no jamming and target did not tarke evasive action, no kill with a BVR missile has been achieved at ranges beyond 30 km. That being said, if firing parameters have been satisfied, and the missile does not malfunction, then an undetected launch is invariably fatal. In practice, at least two BVR missiles have to be launched even against the low-capability, unaware target, with some separation between the missiles.
If attacker does not have a gun, then defender can easily deny a missile shot opportunity by remaining inside the missile’s minimum range, and can turn a defensive position into an offensive one during a lag maneuver by turn reversal. If attacker does have a gun, however, then turn reversal results in a snapshot opportunity for the attacker. This also means that having one type of missile is not enough, since missiles with longer maximum range typically have longer minimum range as well, increasing envelope in which gun has to be used. If that envelope is too large, it may provide the enemy fighter with an effective immunity zone, in which both gun and missile shots are ineffective. This is made worse by the fact that missile’s minimum range increases as defender turns, and missiles’ minimum ranges provided by the manufacturers are for non-maneuvering targets.
Same calculations mentioned in missile evasion section are relevant for gun-only dogfight; speed has larger impact on turn radius than g. However, higher speed means more energy avaliable to trade for positional advantage, and best turn rate is invariably achieved at fighter’s corner velocity. F-16s corner velocity is at just over 0,6 Mach – 24* per second at 9 g with turn radius of 1.500 feet. For comparision, at 0,4 Mach it has turn radius of 1.500 feet but turn rate is 16* per second. To put this in context, 2* per second turn rate advantage allows the fighter to dominate the adversary if pilots are of similar proficiency, and a fighter with superior turn rate will dominate an opponent with inferior turn rate but superior turn radius. Most of the time, 1 g equals 3*-4* per second, which also makes vertical maneuvers important – downhill turn is tighter than the uphill turn with same g.
Better turn radius than the enemy may not be necessary to get a shot – lead pursuit is only necessary for gun shot, while pure pursuit is best for the missile shot and lag pursuit is best for approach. In a gun-only dogfight, lag pursuit should be used until fighter is within gun range (850 – 900 m). At that range, fighter should switch to the lead pursuit, and if necessary slow down through use of throttle, air brakes and out-of-plane maneuvers. However, radar-controlled gunsight always has some lag, and if target is jinking faster than sight could react, result is a highly accurate miss. Using pure pursuit for a gun attack always results in an overshoot.
While optical estimation of range and lead required a lot of practice even with assists, radar estimate was also far from ideal. At low altitude, ground return can render radar targeting unusable. Radars are also vulnerable to a wide variety of countermeasures, and defensive maneuvering can cause problems to radar. While problems are far lesser for gun firing solution than for radar guided missile one, and radar does cope well with steady-state maneuvers, lead correction is typically inaccurate. Thus a shooter has to maneuver within target’s plane of maneuver, causing the target’s apparent movement to be in a straight line. For this, turn rate has to be matched to LOS rate. But tracking shots typically are not advisable as they require pilot to remain in a steady state maneuver for some time. Further, enemy has to be kept within pilot’s field of view to avoid surprises, necessitating good over-the-nose visibility to allow a maximum amount of lead.
If bandit is outside the turn circle, even a tight defensive turn can allow bandit a gun snapshot. In that case, best action is to break suddenly out of the plane. On the other hand, if a pilot manages to get the bandit in such situation, he must be able to exploit a snapshot opportunity – this means that revolver cannon is a best weapon in such position as it can get lethal shot off very quickly. If bandit is outside the turn circle, there is a possibility for fighters to end up in scissors, which are typically won by the fighter which can slow down his forward velocity the quickest; delta wing fighters are in good position here because of delta’s high induced drag at high angles of attack. Lead turn favors fighter with better turn capability, which requires low wing loading and a good over-the-nose visibility so as not to loose track of the bandit. Pure and lag pursuit only requires similar turning capability. In a defensive turn, lift vector should be kept straight on the bandit.
Turn reversals are also effective guns defense maneuver, and if a fighter has better transient performance, several turn reversals can allow it to get into an offensive position. This was a popular maneuver in the F-86 community in Korea, and later in the F-16 community (called “The Snake”). Fighter also has to be able to bleed off speed rapidly to achieve lower turn radius during a flat scissors maneuver. Advantage in roll performance can negate opponent’s advantage in turn radius, but flat scissors are typically preferable maneuver for aircraft with lower wing loading. Variation are rolling scissors, where turn performance, roll performance and slow-speed control are crucial.
Head-on passes are problematic; best option is to turn level, or go either high or low. Mistakes that can lead to losing the dogfight are losing the sight of the bandit, insufficient g, poor airspeed control, bad lift vector control, failure to lead and trying to fight in the F-14 (or now the F-35). Level turn allows fighter to turn the nose towards the bandit, while vertical turn is useful for coming out of the sun at the bandit. If head-on pass is necessary, quick-snapshot capability is crucial, again pointing to revolver cannon as a best option if missiles are unavaliable. Missile shot should be used to force the opponent to break to the side. It should not be too early, else the opponent will have time to go back to the original heading, but too late missile shot gives the opponent a possibility of taking a shot of his own. If there are no missiles avaliable, one can either turn nose low, turn level or go straight into the vertical. Slice (nose-low lead turn) can be used to get nose on the bandit. Level turn is slower but allows the pilot to keep bandit in sight. Pull up to vertical can be used if it will get you between bandit and the sun, but it also gives the bandit a very hot target against the clear background plus the opportunity to gain an angular advantage.
When two fighter aircraft pass each other side-by-side, best option is to initiate a lead turn just as bandit passes 3/9 line. If bandit does the same, however, lead turn can degenerate into a Lufberry circle. In such situation, a fighter with better sustained turn performance will have an advantage. If there is not enough separation, fight will turn two-circle, though a pilot might force a one-circle fight in order to prevent the opponent from getting a missile shot if he himself is out of the missiles.
In multi-fighter fights, most important things are situational awareness and fuel. Fuel however does not mean total amount of fuel or even fuel fraction, but rather a number and type of maneuvers that can be executed with avaliable fuel. This shows value of having high thrust to weight and thrust to drag ratios, as fighter with a lot of thrust and little drag can stay in dry power (or at least lower afterburner setting) and run the opponent out of fuel even if said opponent has higher fuel fraction and/or greater total fuel capacity. Additional factor in multi-fighter fights is that steady-state maneuvers are suicidal; transient performance is paramount, and most if not all firing opportunities are very short in duration. Even in one on one situations snapshot capability is invaluable as the reasonably competent pilot can always deny a guns-tracking solution to an adversary in a similar aircraft as long as he has energy. As energy is always lost during a maximum turn, and fighter must not slow down too much, it is standard approach to trade altitude for positional advantage while maintaining energy. This means that having higher altitude than opponent at beginning of engagement is advantageous.
As fights are always multi-fighter (at least two pairs of two fighters, four in total), with possible presence of more fighters nearby, all fighters will have to keep the energy up while maneuvering unpredictably in order to avoid attacks from an unseen opponent. This means that fighters will typically use maximum turn and maximum acceleration, with little to no time spent between these two extremes (except when rolling, and even that will likely be done during a turn).
In the defensive spiral, one wants to achieve minimum acceleration, leading to usage of speed brakes, idle power, extended flaps and slats, and very high angle of attack. Ability to generate high induced drag is desireable. Ground however offers a hard limit, and when defender pulls out of the spiral he offers a very good snapshot opportunity to the attacker, if latter is equipped with WVR missiles or gun.
Energy advantage over the enemy is required if pilot wants to disengage, but as mentioned before, presence of missiles might cause disengagement to be unviable. Escape window is also highly sensitive to fighters’ relative positions and energies. Further, angular advantage is hard to impossible to maintain without having energy advantage, or at least same energy level as the opponent, since everything comes down to exchanging energy advantage for a positional advantage. This means that fighter has to have good ability to gain, keep, trade and recover the energy – basically, good climb rate and acceleration. That being said, higher thrust-to-weight ratio does not necessarily translate in energy advantage during a turning fight – lower wing loading or better thrust-to-drag ratio (which may be result of the low wing loading) may result in the lower TWR fighter having better energy performance. Energy fighter can also perform gun-and-zoom attacks if both fighters are out of missiles; these can be defeated if target can see the attack. If attack misses, however, roles can be easily reversed. Fighter with low wing loading will fight in horizontal plane and fighter with high thrust-to-weight ratio will fight in a vertical plane, but neither plane of fighting has inherent advantage over another, and low wing-loading plane can use tactics to counter zoom-and-shoot attacks by the high energy fighter even in a gun-only combat, in particular by making small angle gains while forcing the energy fighter to bleed out its speed through defensive maneuvering. There are problems, however: with energy tactics pilot may have trouble maintaining sight of the opponent, while slow-speed angle tactics leave fighter more vulnerable to an unseen attacker. Energy fighter is advised to make an effort to hide itself from the opponent by placing itself between the enemy and the sun, cruising at dry thrust and low g level to prevent formation of contrails and smoke, and keeping any active sensors turned off. If TWR is similar but one fighter has higher wing loading, lower wing loading fighter will almost certainly win if there is no significant disadvantage in roll performance or disparity in pilot quality. If wing loading is similar but one fighter has higher TWR, same result can be expected, and even moreso if one fighter has advantage in both wing loading and TWR. In all three cases, angles tactics are preferable to the fighter with performance advantage, while most useful piece of equipment for a disadvantaged fighter is a radio with which to call for help (unless disadvantaged fighter has better transient performance, in which case it is not really disadvantaged).
Acceleration is highest at 0 g, since there is very little induced drag. Parasite drag is also reduced, and in the high subsonic regime, critical Mach number is increased by unloading. However, engine design may limit the time that fighter can spend at such condition. A dive can increase acceleration even more through use of gravity, and best overall acceleration is achieved by a steep dive followed by an unloaded acceleration.
If fighter has both gun and missiles, then these weapons complement each other: missile prevents the enemy from simply using extension escape, while gun prevents the enemy from simply staying inside the missile’s minimum range. Even if missile does miss, evasion maneuver required may place the enemy in defensive long enough for attacker to be able to satisfy gun engagement requirements relatively quickly; similarly, threat of a gun shot can be used to force the enemy to bleed off the energy and attempt a straight-line escape, with fatal results. If fighter with only a gun is fighting against a missile-equipped fighter, pilot will want to stay within enemy fighter’s minimum missile range. Missile fighter will want to increase separation and use energy tactics. If the gun fighter has rear-quarter missiles however, increasing separation may not be viable, and presence of missiles in general limits usefulness of energy tactics, making angular (turn) tactics more important. This also means that fuel fraction and efficiency can often decide the fight, with one of fighters getting shot down while disengaging due to the lack of fuel.
STOVL fighters tend to have small wings and consequently high wing loading, with bad acceleration capability and persistence due to high frontal area causing high drag. They may use VIFFing in order to increase instantaneous turn load by about 1 g, but at extreme cost in terms of energy as forward flight will be carried out exclusively on inertia, requiring high TWR to accelerate afterwards – which they tend not to have. VIFFing also uses up a lot of fuel. Conventional fighter can use angles tactics to deplete STOVL fighter’s energy, and switch to energy tactics once STOVL fighter starts to use VIFFing. Pressing the attack is often unnecessary, as high fuel consumption in both classical maneuvering and VIFFing regime combined with typically low fuel fraction will cause the STOVL fighter to rapidly consume its fuel reserves and disengage, giving conventional fighter ample opportunity to shoot it down when it tries to retreat from combat.
Against helicopters, unguided rockets and gun with visual gunsight are the best options as they minimize impact of clutter. Attacks should be made from above. Bombs may be the best anti-helo weapon due to large lethal radius, but they require good ground-attack proficiency and may be suicidal if helo is equiped with IR AAMs. While radar-guided missiles are outright useless in such a scenario due to clutter and jamming effect of helo’s rotor blades, missiles with IIR seeker have good ability to distinguish target from the clutter
In the BVR combat, AWACS or ground based radar can point the fighter in the right direction, but ultimately pilot must be ready to get missile(s) off the rails as soon as bogey has been identified (IFF issues have been adressed earlier). If bogeys are staying passive, only possibility of identification is a visual ID via IRST, camera or eyesight. Best option for this is the stern conversion since it allows most time to ID the bogeys while minimizing the risk of getting detected and attacked if bogeys are hostile.
But even against a good pilot in a superior fighter, one can win if he forces the opponent to make a mistake. For this, one must be better pilot than his opponent – and good pilots are made exclusively by in-flight combat training (as opposed to simulator training). This means that ease of maintenance, reliability and low operating costs are the most important characteristics of a fighter aircraft. Today’s USAF F-22, F-35 and F-16 pilots get 8-10 hours of flight training per month, and USN pilots get 11 hours per month. AdlA Rafale pilots get 15 hours per month, while RAF Typhoon pilots get slightly more at around 17,5 hours per month. This can be compared to a minimum of 20-30 hours per month required for fighter pilot to be truly proficient, while 40-60 hours per month is ideal.
As far as leader-wingman support goes, best option is a “double-attack”, where leader and wingman support each other without actually flying in the formation. This reduces chances of detection by the enemy, and allows for coordinated multi-vector attacks. Separation between fighters in this situation should be on order of one or two turn radii at the typical cruising speed. When cruising, optimum separation should be maintained so that one fighter covers another’s rear blind spot up to maximum visual detection range; this obviously favors fighters with good rearward visibility, as fighters should also take care to maintain visual contact with one another. In case that one of fighters engages a bogey, his wingman (even if “wingman” is technically element lead) can move high above the fight to provide effective visual coverage and engage any possible hostile fighters trying to take advantage of lead’s preoccupation with an enemy fighter; this also allows wingman to increase his energy level if his intervention becomes necessary at some point during the fight. If leader looses too much energy, he calls for wingman’s intervention and goes to replenish the energy while wingman engages the bogey, denying it the opportunity to replenish the energy. If a two-pronged attack is pursued, best option is to engage bogey from different vectors so that an offensive or defensive action against one fighter in the pair places bogey into an unfavorable situation relative to a second fighter in the pair. Two-pronged attack can result in a Loose Deuce, a two-on-one dogfight in which engaged fighter typically sets up the bogey for an attack by the free fighter. In either case, bogey is fighting at severe disadvantage. Loose Deuce however means that second fighter cannot maintain proper lookout for possible enemy fighters, making surprise attacks by the same dangerous.
It is possible for one fighter to attack a two-fighter formation if he stumbles across it. In this situation, surprise should be used so as to eliminate one of bogeys immediately, rendering the resulting engagement a one-versus-one, and possibly allowing him to escape. Higher bogey might be attacked first since it has higher energy level, and such attack may allow quick snapshot against the lower bogey, which is typically leader. On the other hand, leader is typically more experienced pilot, making him more dangerous opponent in a follow-up dogfight. If surprise attack is not successful, engaged fighter should switch between targets quickly to prevent them from coordinating attacks, and can use either energy tactics or angular tactics. Both have their drawbacks: energy tactics make him too predictable, while angular tactics quickly deplete the energy, leaving him vulnerable.
In a two-versus-two scenario, it is already possible for a pilot to get overloaded with work, as he has to keep an eye on wingman and two enemies. For this reason, increased number of aircraft in a fight always means that exchange ratio goes towards the equality. Constant practice is vital – as pilot becomes more proficient at each task of his mission, it takes less effort to accomplish them and some eventually pass into an automatism. This means that there is more brainpower, and time, to devote to tasks that cannot be done automatically, and may reduce the time required for even those tasks. Thus, practice gives pilot an advantage in an OODA loop, and makes him more likely to survive in a standard multi-bogey scenario. But these skills are lost quickly, and must be practiced constantly. Easy operation of the aircraft, unrestricted cockpit visibility, clear, dependable communications and reliable, resillient aircraft construction all serve to reduce the workload, and may be as important as aircraft’s flight characteristics in combat. Increasing enemy’s workload by flying the very small and very maneuverable aircraft is also a plus.
Bracket can also allow for a surprise and increasing the enemy’s workload, since in a two-vs-two scenario, neither of the enemy pilots will be able to keep more than one enemy fighter in sight, while both attacking fighters will have all other fighters in the air in sight. If dogfight develops, one fighter can engage in a dogfight with the enemy, while wingman covers him and keeps track of – but does not attack unless necessary – the second bogey. Better turn performance can enable a free fighter to defeat attacks by a free bogey without engaging in a protracted dogfight. If necessary, free fighter can attack the bogey, while a previously engaged fighter becomes a free fighter. This however necessitates a good energy recovery ability, as previously engaged fighter is likely to be low on the energy. If there are two bogeys, both fighters can engage one bogey each, and keep switching between the bogeys while keeping high energy (a Loose Deuce variation). This allows fighter to engage even a superior-performance opponents, but Loose Deuce requires pilots to be highly trained to be effective.
Tactical turn is a best option for disengagement, but it requires a lengthy straight-line extension between the turns, which in turn requires good acceleration capability, and may not be an option when facing a missile-equipped bogey. High cruise speed is also a necessity in order to prevent a reengagement by the opponents.
Large formations, aside from being larger to detect, are also harder to maintain without accidents. This means that pilots will have to spend considerable time and effort in order to maintain the formation. As a result, small formations are optimum, and in some situations single-ship operations may be preferable, particularly if fighter is equipped with RWRs and IR sensors that can provide warning of attack from any direction. Ability to identify and attack the enemy at long range is also valuable in facilitating single-ship operations; detection alone is not enough. Another requirement is a substantial cruise speed advantage, which facilitates rear-quarter attack and makes the same attacks by the enemy more difficult, as well as making withdrawal more difficult. Small aircraft size, maneuverability and lethal weapon systems contribute to single flighter’s survivability. Jamming also increases effectiveness of singles as coordination between fighters becomes impossible.
Single fighter should fly at highest possible sustained speed, and use hit-and-run attacks while avoiding maneuvering engagements if at all possible. Attacks should be made from the rear in order to maximize surprise, which necessitates higher cruise speed than the target. Missiles should be of a fire-and-forget variety, as any guidance type that restricts shooter’s maneuvers after the launch is an undesireable, and oftentimes fatal, burden.
During First World War, Germans usually engaged in large formations for sole purpose of maintaining local superiority, but between the wars focus shifted towards bomber interception, a pattern that will almost invariably repeat itself in the Western air forces up until the present day (examples: P-38/P-47; F-104/F-105/F-4; F-14/F-15; F-22; EF-2000). This led to development of three-fighter “vic”. For fighter-to-fighter combat, however, a finger-four formation is optimal as it allows mutual leader-wingman support as well as support between sections. With a finger-four formation, tactics described previously can be used, with each pair acting as a single fighter. Advantage of a fluid-four formation is increased firepower, as well as the fact that each fighter of a pair can act independently if a situation calls for it. Using this doctrine, a four-plane division of F6F Hellcat fighters destroyed 50 Japanese fighters without receiving a single hit. Elements of section traded roles as engaged element and free element, earning it a nickname of “Valencia’s Mowing Machines”.
In modern enviroment, however, a fluid-four doctrine has to be used with greater spacing between fighters and less restrictions on a free element, as well as greater use of double attack and loose deuce. Against a superior number of fighters, it is hard to impossible to maintain coordination between pairs. Free element is also vulnerable to missiles. Three enemy fighters operating independently are also likely to wreak havoc against four enemy fighters in two formations, and greater number of formations means better support through presence. This is a basis of the “Gaggle” doctrine in which each fighter operates independently, and turning is kept to minimum. In general, a turn should not be continued past 90* in any single direction without a quick reversal. If a bogey cannot be shot within 90* of a turn, pilot should go look for another target.
When engaging, fighters should always maintain at least a parity in elements, if not necessarily single aircraft, but coordination between elements has to be maintained if gaggle doctrine is to be effective; otherwise, fluid-four might be more effective. Gaggle is also generally more effective if enemy has an equal or greater number of fighters. If enemy has less fighters, then a fluid-four formation should be used as it will allow increased defensive ability while still maintaining parity in offensive ability.
It is possible to combine small WVR-only dogfighters with large BVR radar-based fighters, in which case a modified vie can be used. Line-abreast arrangement might be used to employ broadside-style attack. Once dogfight is joined, large fighter should stay out of hassle as it will attract enemy fighters and force dogfighters to defend it. However, using dissimilar fighters often means that one type will suffer from reduced range and/or endurance. High-performance fighters will also typically have to withdraw first for fuel considerations, and may be limited in withdrawal speed if they are to remain with lower-performance wingmen.
In a defensive one-versus-many environment, single fighter must not engage in a protracted dogfight, and instead has to engage in hit-and-run attacks. Higher cruise speed than the enemy might be the best defense as it prevents or at least limits surprise attacks from the rear. Weaving might also be employed to increase probability of detecting such an attack, even at cost of combat radius and increased possibility of attack. Turns however should be limited to simply chacking the blind areas, primarly 6 o’clock low, and should not be so hard so as to bleed speed. Maximum sustained turn should be used, though combination of hard turn with rolling belly check and subsequent straight-line acceleration might be useful. This techniaue provides effective defense even against unseen missiles. Clouds can be used for defense against guns and IR missiles, but are not very useful against radar-guided missiles.
Drawing the enemy into SAM coverage is a useful defense technique, even if SAMs are on his side – radar-guided SAMs typically cannot separate friend from the foe, and bogey is not likely to continue attack through heavy SAM coverage. To defender however, facing SAMs is typically preferable to facing enemy fighter(s).
Optimum formation, as mentioned, is a division of two fighters as it is a best baalnce between offensive and defensive power, especially if there is no reliable speed or altitude sanctuary. If larger numbers are required, they should take form of independant or semi-independant two-fighter divisions. If a two-fighter section(s) come(s) across a superior number of enemy fighters, techniques described in one-versus-many section should be used. With multiple fighters, weaving is actually counterproductive to covering the rear area, meaning that fighters should fly at straight line at their maximum cruise speed.
When attacking a larger formation, surprise should be always sought. If surprise cannot be achieved, attack should not be pursued. In many-versus-many environment, fighters should operate in pairs or individually, using loose deuce or gaggle tactics.
Once air superiority has been established, fighter should turn their attention towards other enemy airborne systems – primarly ground attack aircraft, but also AWACS, tankers etc. Another task is escort of one’s own ground attack aircraft as same carry out attacks against enemy ground troops, air bases and other surface targets. As fighters will be cruising in the contested zone, possibly over the hostile area, fighter sweeps should be staggered so that an entering (fresh) element can provide support for a retiring element, as latter will not have enough fuel for a protracted engagement. This however creates IFF problems, especially at BVR, and calls for fighters to be equipped with sensors capable of quality visual IFF (such as imaging IRST).
AWACS, if present, can provide control for fighter formations. Close control may be preferable during fighter sweep missions if not too many fighters are present, but since it is easily saturated, broadcast control is typically a better option. Data links may be preferable to radios due to greater resistance to jamming, but tactics should not rely on presence of any electronic means of communication.
Strikes are carried out either low-level by small groups of bombers that follow separate paths to the target, relying on surprise for success; or at high altitude by a single large group of aircraft relying on ECM, escorts and bombers’ own defensive armament. Defense against strikes is carried out by either Combat Air Patrol, Ground Alert Interceptor, or combination of the two. CAP has the advantage of intercepting the enemy at greater distance from target, and is typically a must when facing strike aircraft carrying long-range standoff weapons. It is usually stationed at “choke points” through which low-flying attackers must pass, such as valleys, mountain passes, rivers etc. Effective range of far CAP is determined by number of fighters, sensor coverage and fighters’ time on station. Altitude is also a consideration: detection favors low altitude so as to achieve a look-up against the enemy, while endurance of jet fighters is best at high altitude. If multiple fighters are avaliable at any given CAP station, a Lufberry circle can be used to provide continuous sensory coverage. For a single fighter or a pair (there should always be at least two fighters per station), a figure-8 pattern perpendicular to threat axis is optimum. If enemy attack is likely, then fighters should cruise at maximum non-afterburning setting.
CAP should be backed up with ground-alert interceptors, which should provide primary defense against larger raids. With interceptors colocated with protected target, larger number can be kept on the ground, fuelled, armed and ready for action. They can also more easily amass to counter large attacks, and do not need good endurance or sophisticated sensors.
Attack against low-level attack aircraft is quite simple. Since such aircraft tend not to have good rearward visibility, turning off any active sensors to prevent detection by target’s warning systems in conjuction with a rear-sector approach should be effective in achieving surprise. Low-level penetrator, if he detects the attack, might drop a bomb to try and catch a pursuing fighter in weapon’s fragmentation pattern; hard turn to left or right should work in countering that tactic.
High-level attack aircraft typically fly in massed formations with fighter escort. In such situation escort should be neutralized first. Destroying escort fighters may not be necessary; simply forcing them to drop external fuel tanks and engage in heavy defensive maneuvering (usually involving afterburners) might relieve them of so much fuel that they will have to return home and leave bombers vulnerable to further attacks. If defending fighters consist of two types, smaller dogfighters should engage the fighters while large radar fighters engage bombers (which actually is their design mission). However, greater precision of modern weapons and smaller fleet sizes have led to reduced number of massed attacks.
Fighter sweep just before the attack can be an effective way of neutralizing enemy defensive fighters. Still, strike aircraft will require some form of escort. Types of escort are reception, remote, detached and close. Reception escort provides reinforcements when they are needed, and is used in combination with other types of escort. Remote escort fiels ahead of the strike package and clears the route of enemy fighters, but it should be close enough so as to remain engaged until the strike is complete. Detached escort is positioned around the escorted aircraft so it can attack enemy fighters before same manage to attack escorted aircraft, and additional elements can be positioned to the rear and above the rear elements of the detached escort, acting as a reserve and a guard for lower-flying rear elements. Flanking escorts can be positioned between forward and rear escort, depending on distance between these elements. If speed of the air group is less than fighter’s preferred cruise speed, weaving might be employed. Close escort attacks the enemy in the final stages of his attack, once the enemy fighters are within visual range of their targets. It can also serve as a backup for detached escort, filling holes in perimeter, providing reinforcements and attacking enemy fighters that have broken through. Remote escort and fighter sweeps are most important elements of the escort.
Box formation is good defensively as well as offensively, as any fighters attacking the lead pair will be attacked by a trailling pair, while fighters in the trailling pair can lend each other support. If an enemy formation is encountered, box can use a pincer attack, with each pair attacking from one side. Pincer is also a good tactic for a fighter pair, but requires considerable training, as it is easier to mistime the attacks at beyond visual range than it is within visual range.
Cross-lock is useful in countering enemy pincer attack. As bogeys turn inward in a pincer, each fighter attacks the bogey that is further away from him, crossing paths. If executed properly, each fighter should have a firing opportunity against both the bogey he is attacking head on, as well as a second bogey.
In 4 vs 2 head-on attack, a double pincer can be used, when enemy formation as a whole is caught in a pincer, and each of the bogeys is caught in a pincer as well as they separate.
Hook maneuver can be used to allow one fighter to VID the bogeys while another prepares for a BVR attack, or both fighters can merge with bogeys. The leader continues on a collision course, while wingman achieves large vertical and lateral separation from the leader, and accelerates to approach bogeys from the side.
Break-away can be used to confuse the enemy and get one fighter to the merge unobserved. In this scenario, wingman initially trails the leader very close until the enemy takes radar lock, then rolls over and pulls into a split S. If the enemy is using Doppler radar, this should make the wingman invisible, and will result in clutter problems regardless of which type of radar are bogeys using. Once aircraft is purely vertical, wingman pulls out to the original collision heading.
When intercepting an aircraft at BVR, forward quarter intercept is preferable to direct head-on intercept due to longer identification range and better weapons performance compared to a direct head-on intercept. It is however easy to counter, and mans that attacker is likely to be detected, especially if enemy fighter has forward-facing sensors such as radar or IRST. Stern conversion is preferable to maintaining surprise and allowing more time for target identification, but it reduces weapons’ range and is easier to counter by jinking. Both these conversions can be combined, with fighter firing initial salvo from the front, followed by a stern conversion and rear-qarter attack.
Large, visible air bases will get bombed or attacked by sappers. While speed, maneuverability and stealth enable aircraft to survive in the air, aircraft parked on the ramp of a typical air base has none of these characteristics. Between 1940 and 1992 there were 645 attacks on air fields, of which 384 were aimed at destroying the aircraft parked. 75% of the attacks used standoff weapons, while remaining attacks were penetrating (22%) or combined. Between 1940 and 1943, British Special Forces destroyed 367 Axis aircraft in North Africa. USAF in Vietnam quickly developed countermeasures against penetrating attacks, but no effective countermeasures against standoff attacks have been implemented up until the end of the war. During the Afghan War, guerillas used man-portable SAMs to shoot down Soviet aircraft when taking off and landing.
During invasion of Crete, RAF used revetments to protect fighters from indirect hits, but aircraft were eventually evacuated. Yet no attempt was made to render air fields unusable, and they were eventually captured and used by German invasion force transports. Revetments are also useful in limiting damage done if aircraft is destroyed by satchel charge. Same measures were used by USAF in Vietnam, as well as armored concrete shelters.
Air attacks are also a major threat. In fact, Allied air bases in World War II were subjected to attacks through the entire war – Germans bombed RAF air fields in the 1940 Battle for Britain, and in the 1945 they launched Operation Bodenplatte, destroying or damaging 500 Allied aircraft. Most of the Soviet Air Force was destroyed on the ground during Operation Barbarossa, and such attacks were commonplace through the entire war.
Again, Gulf Wars were an anomalous point – Iraqis were poorly motivated, uncreative and incompetent adversary, and made no effort at all to attack Coalition air bases, despite the fact that these air bases were closer to Iraq and Yemen than German air bases were to British lines in North Africa.
Reliance on fixed air bases not only increases vulnerability to attacks and possibility of enemy capturing the bases and using them for his own purposes, but also decreases flexibility and ability to generate sorties. STOL and rough basing capabilities are thus a must.
Yet US Air Force, and most European air forces (except Flygvapnet) operate under assumption that close and secure air bases will be avaliable in order to generate sufficient sorties. However, there is a number of threats that make typical air bases, as well as aircraft carriers, unviable. Ballistic missiles, bombers and cruise missiles can take out both air bases and ships; carriers are also under a very real danger of attack by submarines and fast attack craft. Ballistic missiles have range of 800-2500 km, while Flankers carrying ASCMs can attack ships 1.350 km from their bases. Missiles with submunition warheads could easily destroy 75% of the aircraft stationed at the typical USAF air base.
Fighters should be capable of flying from a two-lane highway. Lane width typically varies from 2,5 to 3,25 meters minimum width in Europe, with US Interstate Highway System standard width being 3,75 meters; same width is standard in most of European countries. Shoulder width in US is 3 meters on outside and 1,2 m on the inside, and in Europe it is 2,5 meters. This means that fighters should have wing span of less than 12 meters to be capable of flying from roads.
Measures of effectiveness
To condense the previous section, measures by which fighters will be compared are:
* impact on pilot’s skill
** maintenance downtime per hour of flight
** cost per flight hour
** single role or multirole
** easy operation in combat
* numbers in the air
** aircraft per billion procurement USD
** sorties per day per aircraft
*** sorties per day per billion procurement USD
* quick response to attacks and on-ground survivability
** STOL / dirt strip capability
** road basing capability
** time to climb to 10.000 meters
* ability to achieve surprise bounces and prevent being surprised
** ability to passively detect and identify the enemy
** be harder to detect and identify than the enemy
** cruise speed and persistance
** cockpit visibility
*** over the nose
*** over the side
*** blocked by framing
** sensors coverage
** aircraft signatures
** ability to keep track of the enemy/enemies during combat
* maneuvering performance
** roll onset
** pitch/turn onset
** instantaneous turn rate
** sustained turn rate
** combat persistence
** ability to achieve quick kills / vulnerability window during firing
** vulnerability to countermeasures
** probability of kill
** total onboard kills
Overview of measures
Impact on pilot’s skill
Pilot’s skill is the most important factor in fighter aircraft’s performance, and is decisive factor in achieving (or failling to achieve) surprise and positional advantage. Advantage in pilot’s skill can compensate for both numerical and technological disadvantage.
Since pilots get skilled through flying, maintenance downtime per hour of flight and cost per hour of flight are both important. Aircraft should allow at least 30-45 sorties per month during peacetime in order to allow for sufficient training.
Numbers in the air
Value of numerical advantage in a tactical situation is clearly shown in discussion of a “double attack” move – when two fighters engage one hostile, they can run him out of the energy while maintaining their own energy level by switching roles of engaged and free element. Alternatively, both fighters can use a pincer movement, so that the target fighter will be shot down regardless of what he does. This is equally true in the strategic picture, where few enemy fighters are likely to get worn out by the numerically superior opponent; greater number of fighters also allows them to engage more targets than the enemy may be able to protect, taking out support systems such as transport aircraft, tankers and AWACS.
Numbers in the air are compared by having a number of fighter that can be bought for the same cost (50 billion USD will be chosen in this case) multiplied by number of hours each of these fighters can be in the air per day.
Quick response to attacks and on-ground survivability
Since enemy will do anything he can to achieve surprise, aircraft should be able to take off and climb to typical combat altitude (30.000 ft / 10.000 m) as quickly as possible. Aircraft also must not use easily destroyed air bases. This means that wingspan should be less than 12 meters – preferably less than 10 meters – to allow easy road basing capability. Dirt strip capability is also beneficial, and STOL capability is a must.
Ability to achieve surprise bounces and prevent being surprised
Since, as discussed before, accurate rangefinding is not necessary for successful attack at either BVR or WVR, surprising the enemy at beyond visual range will be compared through ability to detect the enemy with passive sensors while avoiding being detected by the enemy’s own passive sensors. Cruise speed is also important since rear-quadrant approach is preferable for surprise; it will be considered as maximum speed on dry thrust. RCS reduction measures have negligible effect against VHF radars, so they are not advantageous even when enemy has help from ground radars.
Visual signature depends on aircraft size and color. Smoke is also important, but most modern fighters do not smoke heavily enough.
Roll onset depends on roll inertia and wing response to control surfaces. Roll inertia itself partly depends on wing span. Acceleration can be compared through maximum climb rate. Deceleration depends on induced drag.
Instantaneous turn rate depends on lift-to-weight ratio and thus can be compared through wing loading; however, usage of high-lift devices (LERX, close-coupled canards) can have major effects on instantaneous turn rate. Sustained turn rate is function of lift-to-weight, lift-to-drag, thrust-to-weight and thrust-to-drag ratios.
Persistence can be approximately compared through fuel fraction; however, if fighter aircraft has to use afterburner far more often than the opponent, then it will likely run out of the fuel first, regardless of the fuel fraction or total fuel capacity. Fuel fraction should be at least 30%.
Total onboard kills can be calculated through number of missiles / gun shot and probability of kill per trigger squeeze for weapons carried (0,31 for revolver gun, 0,26 for rotary gun, 0,15 for IR WVR missile, 0,11 for IR BVR missile, 0,08 for RF BVR missile). Weapons should be able to achieve kills from minimum range to maximum VID range, and be relatively resistant to countermeasures. Weapon should also be capable of achieving a kill within 3-5 seconds; radar guided missiles need 10-15 seconds, IR missiles need 5-7 seconds, and guns need 3-6 seconds.
BVR missiles’ maximum usable range is 20-40 km, and accurate rangefinding may not be necessary for a BVR attack, depending on missile type. They can almost invariably be defeated with an adaptive S turn, if same is timed right.
Countermeasures help aircraft survivability, and should be designed to counter IR and radar-guided missiles. They include hard turns and turn reversals, chaff, flares, decoys, jammers.
Aircraft to be compared
Comparision will be limited to “modern” fighters, that is, those which had first flight in 1980 or later. Fighters which fit the criteria are:
Impact on pilot’s skill
Pilots should fly at least 30-45 hours per month. However, it is also important that it does not cost much, as aircraft that is costly to fly may get its flight hours slashed even if it is technically capable of meeting the requirement.
Eurofighter Typhoon should have maintenance downtime of 9 hours per hour of flight, thus achieving a maximum of 72 hours per month. With 18.600 USD per flight hour, 72 hours will cost 1.339.200 USD, while 30 hours will cost 558.000 USD.
Dassault Rafale should have maintenance downtime of 8 hours per hour of flight, achieving a maximum of 80 hours per month. As Rafale costs 17.000 USD per flight hour, this results in a per-month cost of 1.360.000 USD. 30 flight hours per month will cost 510.000 USD.
Saab Gripen has maintenance downtime of 10 hours per hour of flight. This gives a maximum of 65 flight hours per month. Gripen costs 4.850 USD per flight hour, giving a cost of 315.250 USD per month of operations, while 30 flight hours would cost 145.500 USD.
F-22 has maintenance downtime of 45 hours per hour of flight, allowing it to fly a maximum of 15 hours per month. Cost per flight hour is 48.820 USD, giving a cost of 732.300 USD per month. 30 flight hours per month would cost 1.464.600 USD, but cannot be achieved.
F-35 has maintenance downtime of 50 hours per hour of flight, allowing it to fly a maximum of 14 hours per month. Cost per flight hour is 32.000 USD, giving a cost of 448.000 USD per month. 30 flight hours per month would cost 960.000 USD, but cannot be achieved.
Tejas has maintenance downtime of 72 hours per hour of flight, leading to 10 hours per month. Cost per flight hour is expected to be 4.000 USD, giving a cost of 40.000 USD per month, while 30 flight hours per month would cost 120.000 USD. Lower cost may be due to the lower wages.
JF-17 has maintenance downtime of 30 hours per hour of flight, leading to 24 hours per month. Cost per flight hour is 4.000 USD, giving a cost of 96.000 USD per month, while 30 hours per month would cost 120.000 USD. As with Tejas, operating it in Western air force would likely increase costs per flight hour.
Su-30 has maintenance downtime of 32 hours per hour of flight, leading to 22 hours per month. Cost per flight hour is 15.000 USD, giving a cost of 330.000 USD per month, while 30 hours per month would cost 450.000 USD. Again, operating it in Western air force would likely increase costs per flight hour.
I wasn’t able to find numbers for the J-10 and J-11. J-11s should be similar to the Su-27. As such, J-11 will be assumed to have maintenance downtime of 15 hours per hour of flight, leading to 45 hours per month.
From above data it is clear that only Gripen, Rafale and Typhoon allow pilots to fly the required number of hours per month. Rafale’s and Typhoon’s downtime figures are not entirely certain, but I decided to give them benefit of the doubt, just as I gave the F-22 and F-35 in terms of cost per flight hour. Out of three aircraft that adequately fulfill the requirements, Gripen has by far the lowest operating cost per hour, allowing pilots to either fly more often and/or for greater number of aircraft to be procured for the same number of flight hours per pilot. If money is not an issue, then Rafale may have the advantage, but that is uncertain. Tejas may achieve somewhat better results than Gripen, but only if its maintenance downtime can be reduced to Gripen’s level.
Numbers in the air
Unit flyaway costs in FY2014 are as follows:
Eurofighter Typhoon – 129,2 million USD
Dassault Rafale – 92,7 million USD
Saab Gripen – 43 million USD
F-22 – 277 million USD
F-35 – 174 million USD
HAL Tejas – 30 million USD
JF-17 – 21,3 million USD
J-10 – 41 million USD
J-11 – ???
Su-30 – 75 million USD
Su-35 – 65 million USD
Thus following numbers can be acquired with 50 billion USD:
Typhoon – 387 aircraft, 929 sorties per day
Rafale – 539 aircraft, 1.437 sorties per day
Saab Gripen – 1.162 aircraft, 2.535 sorties per day
F-22 – 180 aircraft, 94 sorties per day
F-35 – 287 aircraft, 135 sorties per day
Tejas – 1.666 aircraft, 548 sorties per day
JF-17 – 2.347 aircraft, 1.817 sorties per day
J-10 – 1.219 aircraft
Su-30 – 666 aircraft
Su-35 – 769 aircraft, 484 sorties per day
Here, JF-17 has a major advantage in number of aircraft procured, due to its very low acquisition costs. However, its high maintenance requirements (according to the admittedly not most reliable information I have been able to find) mean that it is disadvantaged compared to Gripen when it comes to the actual measure of effectiveness – that is, number of aircraft in the air. On the other hand, if JF-17 is assumed to have maintenance downtime equal to that of the rather similar F-16 – that is, 19 hours per hour of flight – then its number of sorties per day goes up to 2.816, a value somewhat higher than Gripen’s. That being said, cost of Eastern fighters might be higher when produced in Western acquisition/production system, leading to the lower numbers than noted.
Quick response to attacks and on-ground survivability
Aircraft should have wingspan of less than 10 meters and be capable of takong off and landing within 450 meter distance (NATO definition of STOL). Climb rate should be as high as possible.
Eurofighter Typhoon can take off within 300 meters with air-to-air loadout. Initial climb rate is 315 meters per second (200 in Swiss eval configuration), and wingspan is 10,95 meters.
Dassault Rafale can take off within 400 meters with air-to-air loadout. Initial climb rate is 304,8 meters per second (250 in Swiss eval configuration), and wingspan is 10,8 meters.
Saab Gripen can take off within 350 meters with air-to-air loadout. Initial climb rate is 254 meters per second (200 in Swiss eval configuration), and wingspan is 8,4 m.
F-22 can take off within 400 meters with air-to-air loadout. Initial climb rate is 279 meters per second, and wingspan is 13,56 m.
While I couldn’t find the F-35As takeoff distance, its high wing loading, heavy weight, low thrust-to-weight ratio and draggy airframe mean that it is unlikely to even approach, let alone match, STOL performance of any of the above aircraft.
HAL Tejas has takeoff distance of 1.700 meters. Initial climb rate is 200 meters per second, and wingspan is 8,2 meters.
JF-17 has takeoff distance of 610 meters. Initial climb rate is 249 meters per second, and wingspan is 9,45 meters.
J-10 has minimum takeoff distance of 350 meters. Wingspan is 9,75 meters.
J-11, being a Su-27 copy, can be expected to have takeoff distance of 650 meters and initial climb rate of 300 meters per second. Its wingspan is 14,7 meters.
Su-30MK has minimum takeoff distance of 550 meters and initial climb rate of 355 meters per second. Wingspan is 14,7 meters.
Su-35 has minimum takeoff distance of 450 meters and initial climb rate of 280 meters per second. Wingspan is 14,7 meters.
As it can be seen, only aircraft that fulfill all requirements are Saab Gripen and J-10, both single-engined close coupled canard delta fighters. That being said, J-11, Su-30 and Su-35 should have very good dirt strip capability, thus compensating for lack of road basing capability.
Ability to achieve surprise bounces and prevent being surprised
Visual and IR signature should be as low as possible, while cruise speed should be as high as possible while not using even low afterburner due to the consequential massive increase in IR signature. Sensors should be completely passive with good coverage as usage of active sensors warns the opponent, and canopy should allow for good visibility in horizontal, over the nose and over the rear.
Eurofighter Typhoon is 15,96 meters long with 10,95 m wingspan, and can supercruise at Mach 1,5 with 6 missiles. Primary sensor is PIRATE IRST with 90/145 km detection range against subsonic fighters and 40 km VID range, while secondary sensor is CAPTOR radar. Both cover only frontal sector, with PIRATE having 140* field of regard. Canopy allows roughly 193* vertical visibility (189* once canopy framing is accounted for) and 360* horizontal visibility (again somewhat less once canopy framing is accounted for). Missile warning system uses active pulse-doppler radars.
Dassault Rafale is 15,3 meters long with 10,8 m wingspan, and can supercruise at Mach 1,4 with 6 missiles. It is also the only fighter on the list with significant IR signature reduction measures. Primary sensor is OSF IRST with 80/130 km detection range against subsonic fighters and 45 km VID range, while secondary sensor is RBE-2 radar. Both cover only frontal sector, with OSF having cca 145* field of regard. Canopy allows roughly 196* vertical visibility (186* once canopy framing is accounted for) and 360* horizontal visibility (again, somewhat less once canopy framing is accounted for). Missile warning system uses passive IR sensors.
Saab Gripen is 14,1 meters long with 8,4 m wingspan, and can supercruise at Mach 1,08 with 6 missiles. It does not have IRST, with only other sensor capable of independently detecting aircraft at beyond visual range being radar – which, being active, destroys surprise and reveals Gripen’s presence to all enemy fighter aircraft with competent RWRs within few hundred kilometer radius; for this reason, it will be kept shut down. Canopy allows roughly 191* vertical visibility (186* once canopy framing is accounted for) but with poor rearward visibility (around 5* above horizontale is blocked by the airframe), albeit with very good over-the-nose visibility. Horizontal visibility is around 337*. Missile warning system is active, with pulse doppler radars most likely being used.
F-22 is 18,9 meters long with 13,56 m wingspan and can supercruise at Mach 1,72 with 8 missiles. Like Gripen, its only sensor capable of detecting passive targets at BVR is radar. Canopy allows roughly 189,5* vertical visibility, but with poor rearward visibility (around 5,5* above horizontale is blocked by the airframe). Horizontal visibility is cca 350*. Missile warning uses passive IR sensors.
F-35 is 15,7 meters long with 10,7 m wingspan, but its visual signature is increased by frequent occurence of wingtip vortices. Its cruise speed is Mach 0,95 with 4 missiles. While it does have the IRST, it is optimized for ground attack, with field of view and wavelengths used being unsuitable for air-to-air role. Canopy allows roughly 190,6* vertical visibility (around 184* once canopy framing is accounted for), but with poor rearward visibility (7,37* above horizontale is blocked by the airframe). Horizontal visibility is around 336*. Missile warning system uses passive IR sensors.
Tejas is 13,2 meters long with 8,2 m wingspan. Its cruise speed is somewhere below Mach 1, either clean or in combat configuration. It does not have IRST, with primary sensor being radar. Canopy allows roughly 175* vertical visibility (around 165* once canopy framing is accounted for), but with very poor rearward visibility (15,5* above horizontale is blocked by the airframe). Horizontal visibility is around 323*. Missile warning system is a combination of IR and UV sensors.
JF-17 is 14,9 meters long with 9,45 m wingspan. Its cruise speed is most likely around Mach 0,9. It has no IRST. Canopy allows roughly 172* vertical visibility (167* once canopy framing is accounted for), but with very poor rearward visibility (18,5* above horizontale is blocked by the airframe). Horizontal visibility is around 320*. Missile warning system is a combination of IR and UV sensors.
J-10 is 15,49 meters long with 9,75 m wingspan. Its cruise speed is most likely subsonic due to high drag of chin intake combined with close coupled canards. In basic version at least it has no IRST. Canopy allows for 360* horizontal and ~165* vertical visibility (~154* vertical once canopy fairings are accounted for). Missile warning system is radar-based.
J-11 is 21,9 meters long with 14,7 m wingspan. Cruise speed is most likely subsonic. It has no IRST. Canopy allows for ~158* horizontal and 189* vertical visibility (~182* vertical once canopy fairings are accounted for). Missile warning system is UV based.
Su-30MK is 22 meters long with 14,7 m wingspan. Cruise speed is most likely subsonic, though it could be somewhat past Mach 1. Primary sensor is OLS-30 IRST, while secondary sensor is radar. Both cover only frontal sector. Canopy allows for <154* horizontal and 174* vertical visibility (~167* vertical once canopy fairings are accounted for). Rearward visibility is alarmingly poor (22* above horizontale is blocked by the airframe).
Su 35 is 21,9 meters long with 15,3 m wingspan. Cruise speed is Mach 1,2. Primary sensor is OLS-35 IRST with 50/90 km detection range against subsonic fighters, while secondary sensor is radar. Both cover only frontal sector, with OLS having field of view of +-90* in azimuth (for 180* field of regard) and +60/-15* in elevation. Canopy allows for 158* horizontal and 174* vertical visibility (~167* vertical once canopy fairings are accounted for). Rearward visibility is poor (7* above horizontale is blocked by the airframe).
Overall, Dassault Rafale is the best in this regard as it has comparably small visual and IR signatures while having robust passive sensors suite, high cruise speed and good cockpit visibility. Eurofighter Typhoon is the second best. All other fighters are let down by either too large visual and IR signatures, too limited situational awareness (inadequate passive sensors and/or cockpit visibility), too low cruise speed, or some combination of the factors mentioned. Typhoon, Rafale, F-35 and possibly Flanker variants are the only fighters on the list capable of identifying other aircraft at beyond visual range distances.
In actual war, there is little opportunity for sustained turning. Emphasis is thus on transient performance, instantaneous turns, acceleration and combat persistence.
Typhoon has comparably low roll onset rate as canard vortices do not energize wing tips – its roll onset rate is inferior even to that of the F-16. Another factor is wing span of 10,95 meters. Pitch onset should be better than conventional tailed aircraft due to the longer moment arm of the canard, though it is at best comparable to that of close coupled canard aircraft. Maximum climb rate is 315 meters per second, while wing loading of 290,8 kg/m2 at combat weight ensures good instantaneous turn rate. Thrust to weight ratio of 1,26 at combat weight also allows it to achieve very good sustained turn rate. Fuel fraction of 31% is borderline inadequate.
Rafale’s placement of canards, which are close coupled to the wing, means that outboard canard vortices energize wing tips regardless of the angle of attack. This results in excellent roll onset rate at all flight conditions, allowing aircraft to be flown with rapid reversals of flight directions instead of rolling pulls. Canards also create an area of low pressure on forward part of the wing, which results in a significant pitch-up tendency and consequently in rapid pitch onset rate. Maximum climb rate is 305 meters per second, indicating very good acceleration, while wing loading of 275 kg/m2 at combat weight gives it instantaneous turn rate unmatched among Western fighters, especially when combained with close-coupled canard’s favorable effects on wing lift at high angles of attack. Thrust-to-weight ratio is 1,2 at combat weight, and allows it good sustained turn rate, especially when combined with its very high lift to drag ratio. Fuel fraction is borderline adequate at 33%.
Gripen also uses close-coupled canards, which confer it most of the same advantages as they do for Rafale. Presence of canard dihedral and lack of wing anhedral might harm the roll onset rate, but this is at least partly countered by relatively small wing span and single-engined configuration. Canards also help pitch onset and instanatneous turn rate. Maximum climb rate is 254 meters per second, showing inferior acceleration compared to other two Eurocanards, while wing loading of 286 kg/m2 at combat weight means very good instantaneous turn rate. Thrust-to-weight ratio is only 0,93 at combat weight, harming its sustained turn rate, and fuel fraction of 28% is inadequate for useful combat persistence.
F-22 uses a conventional wing-tail configuration coupled with thrust vectoring. As a consequence, roll onset rate will not be as high as for Rafale or Gripen, since vortices from LERX only energize inner portion of the wing (as can be seen here), and also due to the F-22s large wing span. Thrust vectoring does help with pitch onset rate, but instantaneous turn rate is still limited by lift. Climb rate is unknown, though acceleration is likely to be at least adequate. Wing loading at combat weight is 313,5 kg/m2, allowing good instantaneous turn rate. High thrust-to-weight ratio of 1,29 allows for a very good sustained turn rate when thrust vectoring is not used, but fuel fraction of 29% is inadequate for useful combat persistance.
F-35 also uses a conventional wing tail configuration, but without thrust vectoring. Its roll onset rate will be average at best, as will the pitch onset rate. Acceleration will be low due to high-drag airframe and low thrust-to-weight ratio; best figure I could find give it climb rate comparable to the Gripen C. Instantaneous turn rate, on the other hand, will be unacceptably low due to the high wing loading of 427,9 kg/m2 at combat weight coupled with very traditional aerodynamic configuration and relatively inefficient high-lift devices (F-35 lacks the full LERX present on the F-22). Comparably low thrust-to-weight ratio of 1,07 at combat weight, combined with high drag (consequence of fat body and high wing loading) means that its sustained turn rate will be low. While its fuel fraction of 38% is extremely good, its lacking performance means that the F-35 pilot will have to burn fuel at very high rate, thus eliminating most, if not all, benefits such fuel fraction might have in terms of combat persistence.
Tejas uses a tailless delta configuration. Its roll onset rate will be good due to relatively low wing span, but still inferior to close-coupled canard configurations. Pitch onset rate is likely to be average. Climb rate of 285 meters per second shows overall good acceleration. Its low wing loading of 247 meters per second should result in good instantaneous turn rate, but low lift-to-drag ratio inherent in canardless deltas as well as relatively low thrust to weight ratio mean that its sustained turn rate will be comparably low, and earlier stall onset caused by lack of canards might reduce instantaneous turn rate to values comparable to those of Eurocanards (and possibly even slightly inferior). Fuel fraction of 27% is clearly inadequate for useful combat persistence.
JF-17 uses a mostly conventional configuration. As a result its roll onset rate will be average or somewhat better than average, while pitch onset rate will be average. Climb rate of 249 meters per second means that its acceleration is comparable to that of Gripen, most likely due to the interference drag between wing and horizontal tail. Wing loading of 326 kg/m2 at combat weight gives good instantaneous turn rate, while thrust-to-weight ratio of 1,08 at combat weight, while comparably low, should give adequate sustained turn rate. Its fuel fraction is clearly inadequate 26%.
J-10 uses a tailless close-coupled canard delta wing ventral inlet. This will allow it good roll onset and pitch onset rates. Maximum climb rate is 285 meters per second, indicating overall good acceleration. Wing loading at combat weight is 307 kg/m2, allowing it good instantaneous turn rate, and its TWR of 1,2 allows it good sustained turn rate. Fuel fraction is adequate 32%.
J-11, being a Su-27 copy, has relatively sluggish roll onset rate due to the large wingspan and widely placed engines. Pitch onset rate should be better than most other fighters with exceptions of Eurocanards. Maximum climb rate of 300 meters per second indicates very good acceleration, while wing loading of 359 kg/m2 at combat weight allows it barely adequate instantaneous turn rate. Its thrust-to-weight ratio is 1,15, indicating an adequate sustained turn rate in relation to the instantaneous turn rate. Fuel fraction is excellent 36%, though it might not be usable as a matter of course.
Su-30MK has same problems as the J-11, though MKI version is able to somewhat counter it with thrust vectoring (MKK version does not have TVC). Usage of thrust vectoring should also allow the MKI version to achieve higher pitch rates than the standard MK or MKK version, albeit at the massive cost in energy as portion of thrust that helps achieve rotation will not be avaliable to counter the drag. Both versions have climb rates just above 300 meters per second, indicating very good acceleration, while wing loading of 325 kg/m2 indicates an adequate, though not world-beating, instantaneous turn rate. Thrust-to-weight ratio of 1,24 indicates good sustained turn rate, while fuel fraction is a very good 34%.
Su-35 also has thrust vectoring engines, helping it improve pitch onset and roll onset rates, but former can only be improved at great risk to the aircraft in combat. Climb rate is 280 m/s, indicating acceleration inferior to the Su-30 as well as Rafale, Typhoon, J-11, J-10 and Tejas. Wing loading at combat weight is 377 kg/m2, indicating comparably low but still borderline adequate instantaneous turn rate. Thrust-to-weight ratio of 1,24 indicates an adequate sustained turn rate. Fuel fraction is excellent at 38%.
Again, Dassault Rafale is the best of fighters compared, with Saab Gripen close second. In fact, Rafale’s advantages over Typhoon (and most other fighters compared, with exceptions of Gripen and J-10) are identical to those that the F-86 enjoyed against the MiG-15 in Korea: far better transient performance which allows it to outmaneuver the opponent even if same has advantage in traditional metrics such as wing loading. Fact that Rafale also has the lowest wing loading of all fighters compared is just an icing on the cake, and low wing loading compared with overall low drag in turning flight and adequate thrust-to-weight ratio mean that it is likely to come close, or match, any other fighter’s sustained turn rate while surpassing their instantaneous turn rate (in fact, maximum sustained turn rate for Rafale and F-22 is identical at 28 degrees per second; and while Typhoon has higher thrust-to-weight ratio than Rafale, Rafale’s better lift-to-drag ratio resulting from lower wing sweep, lower wing loading and use of close coupled canards should be enough to reduce or eliminate Typhoon’s advantage). Rafale’s acceleration, though not the best, is adequate.
(Pk: 0,31 revolver gun, 0,26 rotary gun, 0,15 IR WVR missile, 0,11 IR BVR missile, 0,08 RF BVR missile; all of this is at WVR, and at beyond visual range Pk is 0,066 for RF BVR missile from which it follows that it should be 0,09 for IR BVR missile)
Typhoon has internal BK-27 revolver cannon with 150 rounds, as well as 12 hardpoints capable of carrying missiles. Standard loadout is 6 RF BVRAAM and 2 WVRAAM. BK-27 can fire 13 rounds in first 0,5 seconds. This gives a throw weight per burst of 3,38 kg, with 0,51 kg of that being HEI, and a total of 11,5 bursts. As such, total number of onboard kills is 4,35. BK-27 is good dogfighting gun due to fast acceleration and relatively heavy firepower, even though maximum rate of fire is low. As far as missile armament goes, IRIS-T is likely the best WVR missile in the West, while AIM-9 is the most numerous. ASRAAM, with maximum range of 50 km, can serve as an impromptu BVR missile. It can also use RF AIM-120 BVRAAM.
Rafale has internal GIAT 30 revolver cannon with 125 rounds, as well as 12 hardpoints capable of carrying missiles. Standard loadout is 4 RF BVRAAM and 2 IR BVRAAM. GIAT 30 can fire 19 rounds in first 0,5 seconds. This gives a throw weight per burst of 5,23 kg, with 1,76 kg of that being HEI. Total number of gun bursts is 6,6. Combining all together, number of onboard kills is 2,59 (2,71 if RF missiles are replaced with IR ones). Due to its heavy firepower, fast acceleration and high rate of fire, GIAT 30 is the best dogfighting gun in the world. Rafale’s primary missile, MICA IR, is a hybrid WVR-BVR IR missile with range of 80 kilometers.
Gripen has internal BK-27 with 120 rounds, plus 6 hardpoints capable of carrying missiles. Standard loadout is 4 RF BVRAAM and 2 IR WVRAAM, though MICA IR can be used as BVRAAM as well. BK-27 can fire 13 rounds in first 0,5 seconds. This gives a throw weight per burst of 3,38 kg, with 0,51 kg of that being HEI, and a total of 11,5 bursts. Total number of onboard kills is 3,48. Like Typhoon, it can use IRIS-T, and also AIM-9. It has advantage in that it can use MICA IR BVRAAM in addition to the standard active RF AIM-120.
F-22 has an internal M61A2 rotary gun with 480 rounds, plus a maximum of 12 missiles. Standard loadout is 6 RF BVRAAM and 2 IR WVRAAM. M61A2 can fire 37 rounds in first 0,5 seconds. This gives a throw weight per burst of 3,74 kg, with 0,41 kg of that being HEI, and a total of 12,97 bursts. However, effectiveness of the gun is severely compromised by the requirement for trap doors to open prior to firing, which adds 0,5 s delay. Even so, I will assume 0,26 kills per trigger squeeze, giving the F-22 a total of 4,15 onboard kills. So far, AIM-9 and AIM-120 are the only missiles F-22 is capable of using. AIM-9s effectiveness is limited by the fact that it also needs trap doors to open, while AIM-120 is not very effective due to being a radar-guided missile.
F-35 has an internal GAU-22/A rotary gun with 180 rounds, plus a maximum of 10 missiles. Standard loadout is 4 RF BVRAAM. GAU-22/A can fire 16 rounds in first 0,5 seconds. This gives a throw weight per burst of 2,94 kg, with 0,49 kg of that being HEI, and a total of 11,25 bursts. As with the F-22, effectiveness of the gun is severely compromised by the requirement for trap doors to open prior to firing, which adds 0,5 s delay. I will still assume 0,26 kills per trigger squeeze, giving the F-35 a total of 3,25 onboard kills.
Tejas has an internal twin-barrel GSh-23 gun with 220 rounds (110 per barrel) plus 6 hardpoints capable of carrying missiles. Standard loadout is 4 RF BVRAAM and 2 IR WVRAAM. GSh-23 can fire 30 rounds in the first 0,5 seconds. This gives a throw weight per burst of 5,25 kg, with 0,57 kg of that being HEI, and a total of 7,33 bursts. This gives it a total of 2,89 onboard kills.
JF-17 has an internal twin-barrel GSh-23 gun plus 7 hardpoints capable of carrying missiles. Standard loadout is 4 RF BVRAAM and 2 IR WVRAAM. GSh-23 can fire 30 rounds in the first 0,5 seconds. This gives a throw weight per burst of 5,25 kg, with 0,57 kg of that being HEI. Unfortunately, as I was unable to find anything about JF-17s gun ammunition capacity, a total number of onboard kills cannot be estimated.
J-10 has an internal 23 mm twin barrel gun plus 11 hardpoints. Standard loadout is 2 IR WVRAAM and 4 RF BVRAAM. As with JF-17, lack of data prevents an accurate estimate.
J-11 has an internal 30 mm GSh-30-1 gun with 150 rounds plus 10 hardpoints. Standard loadout is 2 IR WVRAAM and 8 RF BVRAAM. Gun can fire 15 rounds in the first 0,5 seconds, giving a throw weight per burst of 5,85 kg, with 0,73 kg of that being HEI, and a total of 10 bursts. This gives a total of 4,04 onboard kills.
Su-30 has an internal 30 mm GSh-30-1 gun with 150 rounds plus 12 hardpoints. Standard loadout is 2 IR WVRAAM and 8 RF BVRAAM. Gun can fire 15 rounds in the first 0,5 seconds, giving a throw weight per burst of 5,85 kg, with 0,73 kg of that being HEI, and a total of 10 bursts. This gives a total of 4,04 onboard kills. It has a combination of IR WVRAAMs as well as IR, AR and RF BVRAAMs. R-27T (IR BVRAAM) has range of 63 km, R-27ET of 104 km and R-77 of 80 km. Anti-radiation R-27EP has range of 130 km.
Su-35 has an internal 30 mm GSh-30-1 gun with 150 rounds plus 14 hardpoints. Standard loadout is 2 IR WVRAAM and 8 RF BVRAAM. Gun can fire 15 rounds in the first 0,5 seconds, giving a throw weight per burst of 5,85 kg, with 0,73 kg of that being HEI, and a total of 10 bursts. This gives a total of 4,04 onboard kills. It has a combination of IR WVRAAMs as well as IR, AR and RF BVRAAMs. R-27T (IR BVRAAM) has range of 63 km, R-27ET of 104 km and R-77 of 80 km. Anti-radiation R-27EP has range of 130 km.
Overall, Dassault Rafale has the best gun of all fighters compared, with Gripen and Typhoon close second. Only fighters which have effective BVR missile are the three Eurocanards and Russian Sukhoi variants. R-27 and R-77 missiles have similar ranges to MICA IR and ASRAAM (63 and 80 km, respectively, vs 80 and 50 km). However, R-27 weights 250 kg and R-77 weights 175-190 kg, compared to MICA’s 112 kg and ASRAAMs 88 kg, thus limiting their maneuvering performance. Wether MICA IR or R-77 would be a better option depends on maneuvering ability of targets being engaged, one’s own sensory abilities and preferences; generally, R-77 is better suited for engaging larger, heavier targets, primarly due to its heavier warhead (22,5 vs 12 kg). If target is unaware of being attacked, then superior destructiveness of the R-77 can be a valuable asset; but if target has an effective missile warning system, MICA would be a better option due to its maneuverability – and in that case, it would be preferable to attack from as short distance as possible to minimize target’s reaction time and maximize missile’s maneuvering capability.
A major plus to the R-27/77 when it comes to the long-range engagement is the fact that, unlike Western missiles, both R-27 and R-77 have an anti-radiation version of the missile, which could force the enemy to shut down their radars (assuming they were thick enough to turn radars on in the first place), and is far less influenced by weather conditions. Only Western anti-radiation AAM ever developed was Hughes Brazo, which made it to the conclusion of the very successful test program, but was cancelled despite (or more likely, because) of its success. (Note: success in testing does *not* indicate success in combat).
While Typhoon is cimparably expensive to operate, it is still less so than many other modern fighters. It is also easier to maintain than most twin engined fighters, except for Rafale, and can provide adequate number of training sorties. However, its high unit price means that it is lacking when it comes to providing aerial presence, and it has less than ideal road basing capability.
While it has adequate passive sensors suite and cockpit visibility, active missile warning system might alert the opponent on short range (assuming that enemy’s RWR is capable of detecting very short wavelengths used by the MAWS). It does have adequate cruise speed of Mach 1,5, but its two EJ200 engines consume 9.054,64 kg per hour at maximum dry thrust. This means that it consumes half of its internal fuel load within 16,4 minutes of supersonic cruise, allowing it to cover 417,6 km. Cruising at lower supersonic speed can extend endurance, but it will reduce distance covered.
In dogfight, it is handicapped by its comparably large size and inferior transient performance, particularly sluggish roll response. It does have very good instantaneous and sustained turn rates and acceleration, but it is still primarly a (bomber) interceptor while Gripen and Rafale are dogfighters. Its missile and gun armament is well suited for both visual range and beyond visual range combat.
Rafale is also comparably expensive to buy and operate, but less so than Typhoon. It is also easier to maintain than any Western twin-engined fighters. It can provide adequate number of training sorties. As with Typhoon, however, it is expensive, and does not have very good road basing capability.
It has excellent situational awareness, including completely passive missile warning system and good cruise speed of Mach 1,4. However, its two M88-2 engines consume 7.762,56 kg per hour at maximum dry thrust, consuming half of Rafale’s internal fuel load within 18,24 minutes of supersonic cruise, allowing it to cover 464,4 km.
In dogfight, it has excellent transient performance thanks to its close coupled canard configuration. Its instantaneous turn rate is excellent, and it has very good sustained turn rate and acceleration. Its missile and gun armament is well suited for both visual range and beyond visual range combat, and gun in particular has comparably heavy firepower.
Saab Gripen is the cheapest of Western fighters in both acquisition and operating costs. While it has very small visual and IR signatures, its situational awareness is lacking due to the inadeqate rearward visibility and lack of IRST. It also has comparably slow cruise speed of Mach 1,05. Its RM-12 engine consumes 6.929,24 kg/h at maximum dry thrust, thus consuming half of Gripen’s fuel load within 10,39 minutes and allowing it to cover 188,9 km. It also has road basing capability.
In dogfight, it has good transient performance due to its close-coupled canard configuration. It also has excellent instantaneous turn rate, albeit sustained turn rate and acceleration are markedly inferior to other two Eurocanards. As with Typhoon and Rafale, its missile and gun armament is well suited for both visual range and beyond visual range combat, though it is limited in latter by lack of IRST.
Just as Gripen is the cheapest, F-22 is the most expensive of Western fighters. It has very large visual and IR signatures, and lacking situational awareness due to inadequate rearward visibility and lack of IRST. This is somewhat compensated for by its high cruise speed of Mach 1,72. However, its two F119 engines consume 17.055,2 kg/h at maximum dry thrust, thus consuming half of the F-22s fuel load within 14,42 minutes and allowing it to cover 451,06 km.
In dogfight it has very good acceleration and pitch onset rates, but roll onset and instantaneous turn rates are not as good as those of Rafale and Gripen. Its sustained rate should also be good. Its armament is unsuitable for both dogfight or BVR engagement, though a limited number of hardpoints present on wings might mitigate the dogfight performance problems somewhat.
F-35 is very easy to detect visually or with IRST, as it is large, has massive IR signature and is incapable of supercruise. Unlike F-22, it does have IRST, but its rearward visibility is even worse, and IRST itself is optimized for detection of ground targets. Its cruise speed of Mach 0,95 is slower than any other modern Western fighter. Fuel consumption of 11.252,2 kg of fuel at dry thrust allow it to maintain that speed for 22,08 minutes while spending half of its internal fuel. This allows it to cover 381 km.
In dogfight, it has sluggish acceleration, likely average pitch and roll onset rates, and inadequate instantaneous and sustained turn rates. Its armament is unsuitable for both dogfight or BVR engagement.
Tejas is a relatively small aircraft, with consequently small visual and IR signatures. It is not capable of supercruise, has bad rearward visibility and has no IRST. Fuel consumption of 6.503 kg/h at dry thrust allows it to maintain maximum cruise speed for 11,34 minutes while spending half of its internal fuel.
In dogfight, its low wing loading will provide it with high instantaneous turn rate. Roll rate and roll onset rate should be adequate, though not world beating. Acceleration is good. Its armament should be adequate for dogfight, though not for BVR engagement.
Like Tejas, JF-17 is a comparably small aircraft incapable of supercruise with poor situational awareness. It should have average turning and adequate transient performance. Armament is adequate for visual range engagements only.
J-10 provides adequate force presence and road basing capability. It has good cockpit visibility, but lack of IRST harms its ability to achieve surprise, and its active missile warning system may warn the opponent of J-10s presence at short range.
Its maneuvering performance is good thanks to adequate wing loading and thrust-to-weight ratio, relatively low wing span and close coupled canards. Transient performance in particular should be better than most other fighters compared here (with exceptions of Gripen and Rafale). Acceleration is also good. Armament is adequate for visual range engagements.
J-11 should have dirt strip capability. Its cockpit visibility is lacking, but it does have IRST and passive MAWS. Large size does harm its ability to surprise the opponent. It should also have adequate maneuvering performance with exception of roll onset rate. Armament is adequate for visual range engagements.
Su-30 is comparably expensive to buy and operate, limiting its force presence and ability to provide adequate number of training sorties. Latter is actually impossible to achieve due to high maintenance downtime. It does have good on-ground survivability.
Large visual and IR signatures harm its ability to surprise the enemy, while its own ability to detect surprise bounces is limited due to inadequate rearward visibility.
While it may be capable of achieving adequate transient performance, it can only do so at high cost in energy. This problem is somewhat mitigated by good acceleration and high fuel fraction. Armament is adequate for both visual range and beyond visual range combat.
Su-35 is comparably expensive to buy and operate, limiting its force presence and ability to provide adequate number of training sorties. Latter is actually impossible to achieve due to high maintenance downtime. It does have good on-ground survivability.
Large visual and IR signatures harm its ability to surprise the enemy, while its own ability to detect surprise bounces is limited due to inadequate rearward visibility.
While it may be capable of achieving adequate transient performance, it can only do so at high cost in energy. This problem is somewhat mitigated by adequate acceleration and high fuel fraction. Armament is adequate for both visual range and beyond visual range combat.
Some of above figures may be somewhat misleading, in particular when comparing Eastern fighters to Western ones. Main reason for Tejas, JF-17 and J-series having low acquisition and operating cost as compared to Gripen are lower wages in India, Pakistan and China, though at least some of these aircraft could have somwahat lower acquisition and operating costs than Gripen even when operated by same air force.
Gripen’s MTBF of 7,6 hours is superior to the USAF’s best of 4,1 hours.
Better measure of ability to regain the energy might be time to 10.000 meters, but maximum climb rates are easier to obtain.