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.

Drendel, Lou. ... and Kill MIGs: Air to Air Combat from Vietnam to the Gulf War. N.p.: Squadron Signal Publ., 1997. Print.
The 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 tailpipes…”

“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 afterward. 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 the 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 midcourse-update after "fox" from the attacking aircraft radar to engage at range. Yes, one can fire in an 'instant-on' mode of the rounds own seeker-head, brevity code “Pitbull” 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 the 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 four AIM-54 Phoenix, two AIM-7, and two AIM-9 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 excellent 'Sirena' RWR/ECM gear picked up this transmission-sequence (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 an AIM-120 mid-course update data-burst from say AN/APG-77.

From here two (2) things could happen:

First, the Threat Warning System triggers the automatic release of expendables: chaff and flares. Second, the 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 supercruise speed versus 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.

[Above] 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: new tests of the R-37M - AA-13 'Axehead.' The missile engagement range could be between 150–398 km (80-214 nautical miles). Not a good development for Western AWACS and air-tanker crews.
[Below] Libyan aircraft footage over the Mediterranean. The footage is MiG-25P/PD, Su-22M, and MiG-23 (Flogger-E) respectively:

To really understand the magnitude of what is occurring, the link below is 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...!"

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 as 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 on 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?

[Be advised that Google has deleted this original writing dated 2009 - scholarship purposes require the original publish date to be retained - Original publish date has been time-stamped in the comment section, however]

- All media found here is for scholarship and research purposes and protected under U.S. Internet ‘Fair Use’ Law -


  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, 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. Hi Skyfalcon,

      Thanks for writing.

      And the source of your information would be?


    6. 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.

    7. 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

    8. 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.

    9. 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

    10. 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

    11. 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

    12. Hi SkyFalcon,

      MiG-25RBs entered service as first, with No.84 Squadron, in late 1981/early 1982.

      So the MiG-25RB downed on 15-May 1981 by F-14A (from Iranian F-14 units in Combat) may have been “pre-delivery” Soviet flown machine (in Iraqi colors) on a shake down mission. We are looking into. What we found so far…

      The first group of Iraqi pilots was trained on MiG-25Ps at Krasnovodsk in the USSR in 1979-1980; the second (for MiG-25RBs) at Tammuz AB (Iraq) in 1980-1981, and third group (for MiG-25PDs) at Krasnodar in 1981-1982.

      The Americans (before 1979) and Iran knew Iraq ordered MiG-25s however - did not consider the Iraqis capable of flying such machines. At the time MiG-25 was entirely new-unusual in the Middle East and flown by (see Egypt in 1971-1972, then 1973-1974, and Syria 1976) by Soviet pilots. July or August 1980, a ship arrived in Basrah to deliver crates with MiG-25s at Wahda AB (former RAF Shoibiyah), 45km outside that city.

      Neither the Americans or Iranians were subsequently able to follow related developments carefuly enough. The Iranaian Revolution didn't improve monitoring of related developments easier. On the contrary: US intel services have lost a number of highly important ELINT/SIGINT and radar stations in Iran.

      Sometimes shortly after the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, reports about 'Russians flying MiG-25 from Basrah' appeared. These were Soviet pilots doing post-delivery & assembly test flights of the MiG-25s destined for Iraq.

      Since 1958 Russian aircraft for Iraq were shipped to Wahda, and officially still in Soviet possession. Only after assembly and successful test-flights were they handed over. Iraqis always insisted on such procedure. It seems now, that the Iraqis took over the first few MiG-25PUs and even their MiG-25RBs without any problems. These were delivered according to specifications agreed in the contract for their order. However, when the Iraqis inspected the first few interceptors, they had to realize that these were 'vanilla' MiG-25Ps, even though the contract specified MiG-25PDS(export), equipped with Smerch 2A and compatible with R-60MKs. Thus, they simply refused to take these aircraft. Correspondingly, the Soviets were left without a choice but to store these MiG-25s at Wahda, It is also possible that the Soviets remained at Wahda, to assemble all the MiG-25PUs and MiG-25RBs. In the meantime, the war broke out and Moscow declared an 'arms embargo' on Iraq. So, the MiGs remained at Wahda, packed in their 'as for transport' condition. The situation changed only in early 1981, when Moscow agreed to deliver the necessary equipment for their upgrade to PDS(e) standard, and to send a team of engineers to do the necessary work. The rest is 'history' as they say.

    13. hi SkyFalcon,

      Iraqis were flying four MiG-25RBs even before their first unit was officially declared operational.

      Similar happened with their second Foxbat unit: this was flying combat sorties already in 1983-1984, but was officially established only in 1984 or 1985.

      - Boresight

    14. It's all about the pole. Time to range not just range. If a missile can get to 20 miles faster than a 30 mile missile can achieve impact then you wriggle and worm until the intercept geometry (as goes the intercept, so goes the fight) denies him the HCA needed for a positive lock-on or runout within ASE limits as fuzing.

      In this, the notion of the notch is just that. If you are out of clutter, you can track targets at 90` HCA and while the /quality/ of the track is not as good, it will put enough SARH energy on the target airframe to punch a Sparrow through it. In some cases (Soesterburg F-4E vs. Bitburg F-15A, late 1970s) the ability to use TISEO or TCS to provide steering data to the missile before it picked up CW from the target allowed for zero-track engagements which were quite a nasty surprise to early F-15As without the ALR-56 upgrade to cover CW illumination.

      Back to F-Pole. The AIM-54 is a dog of a missile. The A model with it's analogue autopilot to /hours/ to tweak to the point where the famous 110-70nm shot could be achieved and even then the weapon's short boost and long sustain meant a flyout of almost 170 seconds for an average mid course velocity of about Mach 2.6. Against a fighter target, this kind of prolonged midcourse is all but untenable as the missile must transit at very high altitude and essentially dives down on the target to regain critical terminal performance (later AIM-54C/C+ missiles switched from the Rocketdyne to a new motor which was 'all boost' and achieved Mach 4+ before burnout).

      The weapon was called 'The Buffalo' for this very reason in that it took forever to get going but once the stampede started...

      The problem with this then becomes calculating missile position vs. the target so that aspect doesn't go negative and cause the weapon to have to curve back against it's own track to hit. Pre GAINS, this was all but impossible.

      The AIM-54A was again, only about a 16G weapon and the AIM-54C was about a 21G weapon so you didn't have to work the stick too hard to defeat it.

    15. Today, we are looking at ramjets GPS enabled strapdowns as well as non-radar specific tethers across the board and while this doesn't save the weapon from prolonged runout, it does allow it to remain at lower altitudes where it can retrain cross track maneuver capabilities in midcourse while having significant E-Pole 'break into this, will you!' terminal energy.

      Most, like the Meteor are going to be variable throat, throttleable so that Mach 2-3 midcourse turns into a Mach 3-4 endgame.

      Ramjets of the Meteor type do not like negative AOA, it chokes the inlet and leads to temperature spikes in the solid propellant as it goes anaerobic for a time. This may be able to allow a threat with a good EWMS/MAWS/Brilliant Decoy (Brite Cloud, ALE-70 etc.) to scoot out of the seeker FOV. But at the same time, MEMs antennas and dual spectrum seeker will increasingly 'generate doppler' through the rapid cycling of multiple antenna lobes like a super monopulse system, rendering beaming maneuvers largely bunk.

      In this, you also have to remember that a target increasingly _does not_ have to kill you with their own weapon or hang around to guide it.

      Shooter-Illuminator allows a trailing jet to perform generic updates for a section wingman launched missile. Or to provide midcourse to an SM6 coming screaming down from the blue after a launch as much as 400km away.

      This is how you fight in the middle of an active GBAD where deflecting the airframe a lot really is not a good idea.

      If we ever yank our heads out, it should also be noted that LCID an the MALI concept is very amenable to 'lead sweeps' of MCALS launched micro-fighters which simply dogpile the heck out of a defensive CAP or QRA launch, as much as 500nm down range and 100nm or more ahead of the package.

      This is where you get your WIW kills which really hurt the enemy morale because it happens right over their base. And there is little or nothing even an S-300/400 class system can do about it. Because even if they can see the converted decoy, the drone costs less than the 9M96 SAM does.

    16. Great input!! Thank you ! Yes, all “fire-and-forget” will need a mid-course update data transmission from a friendly asset(s) if one has any hope of hitting anything under actual combat conditions. This transmission need to be powerful enough to the receiver on the weapons in flight can get a good instruction signal. These signals travel and the speed of light. An adversary can pickup this signal and respond (countermeasure window) before your weapon arrives. Meteor will have the same issue.

      - Boresight


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