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Capability Ratings - Air
All aircraft are given a numerical rating to show their ability to fight other aircraft. This is commonly called "Air Superiority" and includes evaluating a number of other aircraft characteristics and equipment, as well as the sortie rate and readiness rate (how many, on average, are ready for action). A more detailed discussion of what creates air-to-air combat capability follows;
Perhaps the most decisive factor, once an aircraft is armed and in the air, is pilot skill. And these skills are obtained mainly by allowing pilots to fly their warplanes a lot. This lesson was driven home decisively in World War II when performance records of over a hundred thousand combat pilots could be examined. There was a direct relationship between a pilots success in combat and the number of hours he spent flying before joining a combat unit. At the beginning of World War II, Japanese pilots got 700 hours of flying time before going off to war. U.S. pilots for only 305 hours. By 1943, the growing demands on Japan's meager resources forced them to cut training hours back to 500. At the same time, America was able to increase it's training time to 500 hours. Japanese pilots were not nearly as successful in 1943 as they were in late 1941. In 1944, U.S. hours went up to 525 and Japanese fell to 275. At that point, the superiority of U.S. warplanes was obvious. By 1945, Japanese pilots got only 90 hours and the air battles had become decidedly one sided. Most new Japanese pilots were used to fly Kamikaze suicide missions. Today, complex modern warplanes require pilots to spend at least a hundred hours a year to maintain minimal skills. Better yet, 200-300 hours, but the new jet aircraft were expensive to run and for the last half century it's been a struggle to get the money for pilot's to fly a lot of training hours. Simulators, even PC based flight sims, help. But you've got to spend time in the air. A lot also depends on how the pilots spend their time in the air. During World War II and Korea, U.S. pilots trained to deal with the different tactics and techniques of their opponents. But in the late 1950s American pilots fell into the bad habit of training against each other. The Vietnam war showed that to be false economy and out of that experience came the Top Gun training program, where realism in air combat training was stressed. Not every nation gives their pilots a hundred hours a year in the air, and fewer still have programs like Top Gun. So even if a nation gets modern fighters, such as MiG-29s in North Korea or Su-27s in China, if they don't spend the money to keep their pilots in the air a lot, and build a realistic training program, these high performance jets will just be expensive targets for more experienced pilots in less capable aircraft. Over the last sixty years, better trained pilots (even when flying inferior aircraft) have regularly shot down ten or more enemy aircraft for each one their own side has lost. For the purpose of this chart, pilot skill have been assumed to be the same for all aircraft. But in the real world, the wealthier nations have better pilots even if all they do it let them fly more. In many cases, like Israel and the U.S., pilots also have the advantage of well thought out training programs. So if there's ever a war in the Taiwan Straits or Korea, don't be surprised if you see a disproportionate number of Chinese or North Korean aircraft going down in flames.
This includes radar (for finding distant targets and using long range missiles), fire control equipment (enables pilot to controls guns and missiles) and countermeasures (detects enemy radar use and approaching missiles as well as, in some cases, deceiving enemy radar and missiles). Different models of the same aircraft can have very different quality electronics. When aircraft are sold to a foreign air force, they often don't have the most powerful electronics available. Another aspect of electronics capability is not entirely electronic, and that is stealth (the ability to hide from enemy radar.) While some stealth can be achieved with electronic gadgets, the most successful stealth effects come from clever design of the aircraft's shape and the use of materials that will absorb radar signals. Other design tricks can reduce the amount of heat the aircraft's engines will make available to heat (infrared) detectors. If the enemy can't find you, he can't hurt you.
In the last half century, missiles have replaced guns as the principal air-to-air combat weapon. The capabilities of air-to-air missiles vary enormously. They all depend on some of the aircraft's electronic equipment, especially the long range missiles. These require the aircraft radar to find distant targets for the missile before launch, and some of the older missiles use the aircraft radar to stay in contact with the target. To put it more bluntly, two identical aircraft with pilots of identical skill can have very different air-to-air combat capabilities depending on the quality of missiles carried. The warplane with the better missiles and onboard electronics will be at least twice as effective as the aircraft with the lesser weapons.
This is not as important as it once was, given the growing importance of radars and missiles. With long range missiles, very little maneuverability is required. But when it comes to avoiding enemy missiles, and getting into position to return fire, maneuverability becomes an issue. Speed is not as important as it once was. With missiles, you rarely have enough of a speed advantage to escape a superior enemy, and enemy missiles. The most recent Russian aircraft (MiG-29, Su-27 and Su-37) have put a lot more emphasis on mobility. But many pilots, particularly those who have flown the MiG-29 and Western aircraft, feel the increased mobility will mean little in combat. On the other hand, the new US fighter, the F-22, has a "super cruise" feature that enables it to cruise at supersonic speed without quickly using up all its fuel. Super cruise enables a few F-22s, guided by long range radar on the ground or in airborne AWACS, to cover a much larger chunk of air space.
Durability and Maintainability
Car owners have noted that some models can take more punishment and require less maintenance and repairs than others. It's the same with combat aircraft. You can build a warplane with lots of range, maneuverability and other qualities, yet be a bitch to keep flying. Put another way, a warplane that is only able to fly once every three days will be less useful than one that can fly several times a day. Each time an aircraft takes off and performs a mission it has performed what is called sortie. Thus the overall measure of an aircraft's durability and maintainability is it's sortie rate. This is the number of sorties that can be flown over a certain period of time. Between sorties an aircraft must be checked out visually and electronically to see if all key components are operational or approaching failure. Fuel and munitions are loaded. The pilot must be briefed on the mission, which can take from a few minutes to over an hour. After a sortie, the same cycle must be repeated before another take off. You can cut corners in maintenance, which increases the risk of losing the aircraft and/or sending it up with some capabilities crippled. All aircraft have, in theory, the ability to fly several times a day. How many times a day they can actually fly depends on how the aircraft was designed, maintained and what kind of ground crew is currently tending to it. And then there is the sortie rate. There are basically two types of sortie rates; surge and sustained. Surge rate is flying as many times a day as you can and is typically used early in an air campaign to capitalize on the element of surprise. The sustained rate is what you can fly day after day for weeks or months. In a typical campaign, you would have two days of surge and many more days of sustained sorties. You might slow down to catch up on bypassed maintenance so you can surge again for a few days. Aircraft units often practice surging. A typical example is one American F?16 squadron, which used its 20 aircraft, forty pilots and very energetic and will trained ground crews to fly 160 sorties in 12 hours. This was an exceptional performance and not representative of combat conditions, where many aircraft would come back with combat damage. This also points out the need to have more pilots than aircraft, as the pilots are more fragile than the aircraft they fly. Most Western aircraft can fly three or more sorties per day for two or three days and one or two per day indefinitely as long as the spare parts and ground crews hold out. Western air forces practice high sortie surge tactics far more than less affluent nations. Israel has demonstrated the effectiveness of this practice in all its wars, as did the USAF during the 1991 Gulf War. For this reason, the number of aircraft and the quality of pilots are not the only factors that determine which aircraft are superior. Western air forces have long used high sortie rates as a key component of their air power. This is one reason why Western warplanes are so expensive. They are built to fly a lot, especially in combat. This means they are easier to maintain, despite their heavy use of electronics. It's a style of aircraft design that works. During World War II, the most glaring example of how well it worked was in the Pacific. Japanese aircraft were built for maneuverability and long range. But American warplanes were a lot more rugged, and more dependable. Early in the war, American pilots had to adjust their tactics to compensate for the better maneuverability of the Japanese aircraft. Russia also developed a unique style of aircraft design during World War II. Not having as many people familiar with mechanical things as Germany and America, they built aircraft that were simpler to maintain (and thus requiring fewer technicians.) While simpler aircraft were somewhat less capable aircraft, this worked for the Russians. They believed quantity could make up for quality and managed to make that work. But many poorer nations bought Russian aircraft over the last half century because of the easier maintenance. These nations were willing to sacrifice quality in order to keep costs down. This is one reason why Western warplanes tend to make short work of these air forces (Israel versus Arabs, U.S. versus Iraq and so on.)
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