Viewpoint: No Single Answer To Air Combat Questions

By Bill Sweetman
Source: AWIN First
July 23, 2013
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“A fighter pilot patrols the area allotted to him in any manner he sees fit. When he sees the enemy, he attacks and kills.” What makes it likely that Manfred von Richthofen really said that is the sentence that follows it: Alles andere ist Unsinn. Anything else is nonsense.

The Red Baron (see photo) may be a face on a pizza box, but the best way to get 21 contradictory yet absolute opinions is still to ask 20 fighter pilots . Case in point: reactions to Sergey Bogdan’s display on the Sukhoi Su-35S fighter at the Paris air show. Bogdan’s explanations of the combat relevance of the maneuvers, no matter that they were flown low and slow by a lightly loaded aircraft, did not stop a lot of comments about “air show tactics” and their irrelevance to combat.

But the Soviets did not build weapons to thrill showgoers but to kill people and break their stuff, a practical philosophy that remains in effect in the era of Mr. Putin. It was the Soviets who delivered the last big technological shock in the air combat world, which happened after the Cold War, when people realized just how quickly the combination of the agile R-73 missile and a helmet-mounted sight could decide a fight. There is a reason why the AIM-9X emerged as fast as it did. It’s called “panic.”

Today, 20 air forces, including Russia’s, have 21 opinions as to what an air campaign between two equally matched adversaries would look like.

Europe’s tacticians and engineers, in the 1980s, produced simulations such as Joust (from British government researchers at Farnborough) that pointed to a complex long-range air battle as a result of better radar and active-radar-homing missiles, with fighters shooting and then “cranking” to avoid return fire. Typhoon’s supersonic maneuverability and the late adoption of active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar (because of off-boresight performance limits) have their roots in this work.

So does the MBDA Meteor ramjet-powered air-to-air missile, designed to rectify a perceived deficiency in the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range AAM: Against a simulated “Super Flanker,” alerted and evading, its effective range was drastically less than its brochure maximum because the target could run it out of energy. Along with wide-angle AESA radar, it is the future of long-range combat with the Typhoon and JAS 39E Gripen .

MBDA’s newly unveiled Guidance in Uncertain Shooting Domains (GUS-D) software is the latest innovation in this sphere. Using more accurate modeling of missile and target performance, it aims to give the pilot a better idea of when the missile can be allowed to “go autonomous,” freeing the launch aircraft to take full evasive action.

The U.K. and Sweden have been supporters of infrared search-and- track (IRST) systems (AW&ST July 1, p. 26) and are being followed by the U.S. Navy. The Russians were early IRST enthusiasts, seeing it as a counter-jamming tool, although it is emerging as a counter-stealth measure.

The Su-35S also has wide-angle radar , IRST and long-range IR missiles—suggesting that Russian tacticians also foresee complex long-range engagements—but as Bogdan pointed out at Paris , they also see combats decaying into low-speed knife fights where super-maneuverability may decide who gets the first shot.

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