29 March 2012

The Future of Air Combat?

F-15C firing the AIM-7 Sparrow

"Our plan was to kill these guys at long range and leave. J.B. (number 3) and I locked them up with AIM-7's and we were ready to shoot at about fifteen miles when they maneuvered again and both our radars broke lock. As they came back to the south again, my wingman (Pitts) locked up the leader, and I got a lock on the trailer. But our closure rate was so great, and they were so close, not to mention twenty-thousand feet below us, that we just couldn't get a face shot on them. As we got into the merge, the lead bandit started a big right hand turn, while the trailer just spit right on through, heading south, and left the fight. Pitts rolled over and split-S down towards the lead bandit. The other guy was going to be out of range before I could do anything about it. So I rolled over and covered Pitts as he went for the Iraqi fighter. J.B. and Willie stayed high to support us. Cherry rolls in behind this guy and starts shooting missiles. He shot an AIM-9, and AIM-7, another AIM-9, and finally another AIM-7. He had a couple of missile failures, (we never figured out why) and the Iraqi was doing a pretty good job of evading. It was a MIG-25 Foxbat and, though he wasn't maneuvering that hard, because they can't turn that hard, he was putting out a lot of chaff and flares. I also shot an AIM-9, but it was Pitts' second AIM-7 that got him. As soon as it hit him the enemy pilot punched out. My sidewinder also guided and hit him, but the guys had already punched out. We watched the MIG fireball through the low haze layer and hit the ground."
19-Jan, 1991, four F-15C USAF vs two MIG-25 Iraq.

The above is an excerpt from: ...And Kill MiGs, Air to Air Combat From Vietnam to the Gulf War (third edition), Squadron/Signal Publications, Lou Drendel.

The 'Big' MiG-25 Foxbat. This example is the MiG-25RB.

How any future jet fighter (and its pilot) can mitigate immense closure rates under compressed timeframes is difficult to contemplate. Most initial engagements are nearly always head-on, to avoid the merge. If there's a glitch, attacker-defender will be on-top of each other in moments.

This is the reason helmet-sighting will be so critical.

Under actual combat conditions - modern air-to-air engagements can easily see (regardless of number of aircraft involved) 50% of all (all) missiles fired: fail to hit their targets (on both sides) - for all reasons.

Again from Lou Drendel:

"He turned from east to south to north (270 degrees) and now I was behind him about 9000 feet back and started to launch missiles. I shot and AIM-9, an AIM-7, an AIM-9 and another AIM-7. I can remember thinking after the second AIM-9…”what the #%@! is it going to take to knock this guy down?!!” He was doing a world class job of being defensive. The last AIM-7 went right up his tail pipes…”

“We started shooting shortly after locking them up. Draeger’s first AIM-7 was a ‘motor-no-fire’ (the missile came off the rail but the motor failed to fire) so he quickly launched second AIM-7, which appeared to guide. I fire one AIM-7 at my guy shortly afterwards. At about the same time Till (number four) fired an AIM-7 but his missile went hung (did not come off the rail). Rodriguez (number three) fired an AIM-7 just as Till fired a second time…”

Historical evidence strongly suggests that highest missile kill-probabilities for medium-range missile BVR shots - are at ranges roughly ½ to 1/3 the publicly stated 'Operational Range.' American aircrews typically did not release (fire) their AIM-7 (medium range class missile round) until target distances had closed to roughly 12-15 miles (target closing head on) despite "operational range" published for later versions of the AIM-7 out to thirty (30) miles.

All fire-and-forget class missiles require mid-course update after "fox" from the attacking aircraft radar to engage at range. Yes, one can be fire in an 'instant-on' mode of the rounds own seeker-head, brevity code “Pit bull” but:
  • The radar on the missile round is much less powerful than that of the launch aircraft.
  • There is only finite internal battery-power in the weapon for flight control surfaces, and electronics.
  • Is typically done closer to minimum side of a missiles engagement envelope.
The AIM-54 Phoenix missile used only by the F-14 Tomcat, was also a fire-and-forget class weapon similar to AIM-120 or Vympel R-77.

[Above] Iranian F-14A Tomcats. Aircraft '3-6079' underway with two AIM-54 Phoenix missile rounds.

On 15-May 1981, during the Iran-Iraq war, an Iranian F-14A-GR Tomcat fired an AIM-54 at a MiG-25RB Foxbat - at long range, roughly head-on. The MiG did not react (know) it was under attack until the Tomcats AWG-9 transmitted its 'mid-course update data-burst' to its AIM-54 (while the Phoenix was still in mid-flight before the AIM-54s own terminal homing radar went active). The Foxbats ECM gear picked up this transmission (this AWG-9 transmission-data-burst was less than 2 seconds) and the MiG pilot executed a powerful maneuver that defeated the AIM-54 shot (only just). The Foxbat and Tomcat were to have a further series of spectacular engagements during the war.

This was over 27 years ago.

Modern or future combat jets most certainly will be equipped with a Threat Warning System that listens for a AIM-120 mid-course update data-burst from say an AN/APG-77.

From here two (2) things could happen:

First, Threat Warning System triggers automatic release of expendables: chaff and flares. Second, defending pilot then initiates a defensive "Beaming" / "Beam-turn" / "Doppler Turn" maneuver to attempt to defeat the AIM-120 shot.

This type of cat-and-mouse 'Doppler deception' mechanics played out over-and-over during Desert Storm in 1991 to break attacking aircraft radar locks. A good radar-set will re-acquire the target and establish a new ‘track-file’, but it’s not a guarantee especially under the compressed time-frames during an intercept.

Argentine Mirage III EA.

Royal Navy BAE Sea Harrier FRS

If F-22 Raptor is to be flown at high altitude, at supecruise speed verses planes like Sukhoi Flanker - a situation similar to what occurred in the early stages of the Falklands conflict could emerge? Argentine Mirages stayed at high altitudes while Royal Navy Harriers remained at medium-low altitudes, (neither-side content to give away his advantage) in what is best described as a series of 'non-engagements'.

The designers of all modern fighters equip them with defensive chaff and flare systems. Even F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lighting II have these defensive suites.


...because they work.

Novator KS-172

In a future scenario - an opponent need only scare-off AWACS and tanker aircraft with say KS-172/KS-31 class weapons?

[Below] Libyan aircraft footage over the Mediterranean. Footage are of MiG-25P/PD, Su-22M and MiG-23 (Flogger-E) respectively:

To really understand the magnitude of what is occurring, the link below is an extended audio of an engagement with Libya on 4-Jan 1989, over the Gulf of Sidra. During a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) mission of two F-14A Tomcats from VF-32, (Gypsy flight) off the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) determine the intent of a pair of Libyan MIG-23 Floggers. Pay close attention to the pitch of USN aircrew voices as the engagement unfolds and US Navy and Libyan aircraft snake toward each other. Listen carefully to the radio communication chop during high-g maneuvers: "I'm in hard starb...!"

Click on link then scroll down to bottom-right, select ‘MP3’ just under 'Download MP3 File': http://www.ka8vit.com/sd/shootdown.htm

The skill required to operate, coordinate,  and employ complex aircraft - under the compressed time-frames of immense closure rates - cannot be overstated.

Aircrews must train to both exploit a technical superiority and train so not to rely on it. The rest of the world may not cooperate to allow you to employ "a technical advantage" including ones own government, due to Rules of Engagement or Air Tasking Order.

The future of air combat must rely as in the past: on aircrew training, skill at the dogfight, the right equipment, the element of surprise,  and yes - even some dead luck - to get home.

Your thoughts?

- All media found here is for descriptive purposes and is owned by their respective parties -


  1. .//saintkatanalegacy08 August, 2009 08:54

    very good analysis. *thumbs up

  2. The future of air combat is a swarm of UCAVs.

  3. Hi Jackbid,

    Absolutely. The Swedes have been looking at “the automated wingman” for Gripen. SEAD would also seem a natural role? One concern might be maintaining electronic link(s) with friendly drones in any future hostile peer/near-peer RF environment? Might this be mitigated by the degree of drone autonomy? True, UCAV is almost certain to have growing roles in the future force equation.

    - The Boresight

  4. I think you could expand analysis to build a hypothetical vehicle designed to get to the merge with a modern fighter like the F-22 or F-35.

  5. Hi Anonymous,

    Effectively the merge is nearly a certainty – despite what global missile manufactures claim (and claimed since the 1950s). The closure rates are too high, weapons malfunction too frequent, IFF too uncertain, defensive maneuvers and counter measures - too many. Dead luck / Luck of the Draw - too pervasive.

    Lockheed’s F-22 and F-35 will change - not one of these.

  6. "The skill required to operate, coordinate, and employ complex aircraft - under the compressed time-frames of immense closure rates - cannot be overstated."

    Indeed. I recently wondered why the Tomcats didn't fire on the 2nd Flogger sooner (from BVR) in the 1989 Sidra incident, so I listened to the recording again. Shortly after the 2nd Sparrow leaves the rails at 10nm ("Fox1 again"), we hear "Locking him up", so I assume they were also attempting to lock onto the 2nd MiG with an AIM-7, before closing quickly to visual range. Scary engagement.

  7. Hello Boresight,

    While a swarm of UCAVs are definitely the endgame of air combat, I had briefly seen the Lockheed Martin concept titled: Miss February.

    Miss February seemed to have a cockpit of sorts, and is stated to be the first in the "6th generation" group of fighters.

    What do you make of this?

    1. Hello Boresight?

    2. I think February is Lockheed’s art concepts in response to the Boeings F/A-XX pictures for the Navy. Hopefully the United States military, the Secretary of Defense and the DoD have learned its lesson after the F-4, F-111, and F/A-18 - to stop trying to build ‘one-plane-does-all’ and return to building dedicated aircraft for the various mission sets.

    3. Oh how could we forget the Lockheed F-35 program! Another shining example of continued Pentagon group-think of ‘one size-fits-all’ design – all well and fine if the aircraft are $20-50 million a copy and act as an airframe replacement for F-16. But that’s not what we’re going to get. Per-copy cost and wing-loading are both too high. Don’t have Lockheed build your fighters. Lockheed is very good at transport and specialty niche aircraft – however Lockheed never mastered the jet fighter. Even their successful P-80 was already outclassed by the time it entered service by the MiG-15.

    4. Dear Obrescia,
      May i ask what is the source that you adopted on to publish such this information? if you relied on Tom Cooper and acig.org, I'd like to show you that all that came to their reports or books totally false claims and just allegations no more, The MIG-25's entered the service in the Iraqi air force later 1981 and the Soviets tried to delay the delivery of the deal, the reason behind a purchase the MIG-25's in Iraqi air force is to protect the nuclear project, called or known by IrAF as (Project 777), the site was destroyed during 1981 in 7 of July by Israel AF, in that time the MIG-25 were not found in the Iraqi military arsenal to protect the project.
      So how's that even possible to shot down Iraqi MIG-25 on 15-May 1981 (during the Iran-Iraq war) and the air craft wasn't delivered yet ?!?, the whole story about MIG-25 VS F-14A totally fake, nothing happened like this, and during the eighth years of Iran-Iraq war did not get any clash between the two type of the aircraft "definitely".
      And Iraqi air force lost 37 aircraft during the eight year war against Iran by air engagements no more that, and register a single loss by AIM-54 by prisoners pilots who had returned later.

    5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    6. Hi Skyfalcon,

      Thanks for writing.

      And the source of your information would be?


    7. Dear Obrescia,
      My source is the leaders of the former Iraqi Air Force and the fighter pilots who involved in that war, please feel free if you have any further question.

    8. Grumman F-14 instructors that trained Iranian pilots in the late 1970s say now that the Iranian Air Force kicked the hell out of the Iraqis. My understanding is that the Osprey material in based in interviews of Iranian pilots and digging through mountains of Iraqi records - after the war. Where can one read the material you state? Is it open source? Publisher?
      - The Boresight

    9. Dear Obrescia,
      After the military operations on Iraq in 2003, Iranians took advantage of the absence of Iraqi institutions and began to publish their false stories online or by books to cover their failure during the eight years of war, however if the Iranians claim victories in the air then let them show it up to the public by real videos or photos (not just claim or TV porgrams by interviewing some pilots and then claim what they want) because everybody can make claim not that even hard.
      Here i can guarantee to you the Iranian air force has no single video of one second to prove their abilities in any air operation or air strikes inside Iraqi territory for any target during eight years of war which is mean they were completely curbed and even if that happened you will find them shot down by Iraqi interceptor aircraft or air defense.
      In opposite Iraqi air force were attack Iranian targets far hundreds of miles and air refueling depth inside Iranian territory any where any time since the first day of the war without an interception by the Iranian aircraft such attacking (Neka Power Plant, Mazandaran, Iran) and (Larak Island, Hormozgan, Iran) and many others, this is the definitive evidence to the weakness of the Iranian Air Force, so if the Iranian AF were really active and their F-14 achieved a great success in the sky as they claim then where it was hide from these air strikes!?
      I will prove my comment by dozens of videos circulating on the Internet that prove these Iraqi air raids..
      Note please each video includes almost six or more than air strikes footage.
      Iraqi air force strikes on Iran 1:
      Iraqi air force strikes on Iran 2:
      Iraqi air force strikes on Iran 3:
      Iraqi air force strikes on Iran 4:
      Iraqi air force strikes on Iran 5:

      And here you can see Iran air force achievement,



      And there is other.

    10. Hi SkyFalcon,

      Iran appears to have gone to great lengths to keep the F-14 flying – even today. So the aircraft must have had some success during the war. Iran was to be a base of operation for the United States in a war with the Soviets – so Iranian training/equipment reflected this. Osprey material show many many photographs of F-4D/E striking targets deep into Iraq. F-14 were held basically for a defensive role. That there are many videos of Iraqi aircraft striking Iranian targets only backs up Osprey claims that Iran faced thousands of Iraqi air strikes. We don’t see any inconsistencies with these videos and the Ospreys material. No aircraft or weapon system is 100% effective – and Iran did indeed have enormous problems (during the war) keeping their F-14s flying to be sure.

      - Boresight

    11. Dear Obrescia,
      Before the start of the war with Iran, the Iraqi pilots have had an excellent training and very well experience for two reasons,
      First we faced the best pilots in the sky during Arab Israel conflict, and we have to remind here the Israeli pilots one of the best pilots plus the "North War" and during all that time since 1967 until 1980 Iraqi air force were continuously in higher level of training to their pilots to face Israel air force any time, so all this experience and the training developed to counter Iran at the end.
      At the beginning of the war the Iranian F-14A participation were rare, limited to the protection of the capital Tehran and oil tankers in the south, and most of the Iranian F-4D/E & F-5 photographs obtained by the Iranians after the occupation of Iraq in 2003, it was reserved in Iraqi air force archive through Iranian aircraft that were shot down. that's why Iran had no enough photographs to show it up during the eighties and nineties consequently appeared after 2003

    12. Hi SkyFalcon,
      We suggest you read Osprey’s Combat Aircraft 49 and 37. We think you’d be pleasantly surprised. Cooper acknowledges the skill of Arab air forces and indeed read his Osprey’s Combat Aircraft 44. Also please have a look at some of our reference material:

      - Boresight