Murphy's Law: June 11, 2001

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The Death of Dogfighting; The classic aerial dogfight is on the way out, and most of us haven't really noticed. For the first half century of air-to-air combat, chasing enemy fighters, maneuvering to get a good shot with your machine-guns or cannon, was the most effective form of combat. This was the classic style of air warfare. But starting in the 1960s, missiles entered the picture. At first, most of the missiles were used much like the earlier weapons; get on the enemy's tail and put a missile up his butt. The first, and most successful, of these "tail chasing" missiles was the U.S. Sidewinder. After half a century of upgrades, the Sidewinder is still one of the most widely used and successful missiles. But the AIM-9 Sparrow appeared the same time the AIM-7 Sidewinder did. The Sparrow was a longer range missile that was radar controlled. The pilot picked up a target on his radar and fired the Sparrow in the general direction of the target, guiding it most of the way. When within a few thousand meters of the target, a sensor in the Sparrow takes over, closing in for the kill. One shortcoming of this was the need for the attacking aircraft to keep the enemy aircraft on his radar screen until the Sparrow finally connected with the target. The first aircraft brought down by the Sparrow was in 1965, over Vietnam. But for the next two decades, long range missiles had one major shortcoming; pilots didn't trust their ability to identify an enemy aircraft at BVR (Beyond Visual Range.) Fear of hitting a friendly aircraft caused pilots to prefer going in close, confirming the identity of the target and using machine-guns or Sidewinders to attack. 

Pilots fears were finally addressed in the 1980s with the introduction of the AWACS aircraft. The large, four engined AWACS carried a radar that could keep an eye on all aircraft for several hundred kilometers around. While not perfect, it added enough clarity to the situation to make pilots confident that their BVR attacks were not going to bring down friendly aircraft. 

During the 1991 Gulf War the change was clearly underway. There were 39 U.S. air-to-air kills. The Sidewinder got 25 of them, the Sparrow 11. The traditional air-to-air weapon, machine-gun, got none. The A-10 ground attack aircraft nailed two helicopters with it's 30mm anti-tank cannon, and one Iraqi aircraft was maneuvered into the ground (a not unusual method over the history of air warfare.) While only 12.6 percent of the Sidewinders fired scored a hit, 28 percent of the Sparrows did. 

After the Gulf War, the Sparrow was replaced with the AMRAAM, a missile that was essentially "fire and forget" (during the final few kilometers the attacking aircraft did not have to keep a radar lock on the target.) A new generation of pilots are flying who fully expect to do most of air combat at BVR. This is the U.S. Air Force doctrine. But the dogfight isn't dead yet. Most modern fighters (including the new F-22) still carry cannon and Sidewinders. This is not the result of excessive caution, but knowledge of how hairy air combat can get. The Wild Blue Yonder is a big place and no radar is perfect. Enemy aircraft can sneak in from behind mountains, hills, forests or radar jamming. The chance of finding your self within visual (and Sidewinder) range of enemy aircraft is still a very likely possibility. Moreover, short range missiles like the Sidewinder have acquired new abilities. Until the 1980s, you had to be in a narrow arc behind an enemy aircraft before the heat sensing seeker on the Sidewinder spotted the hot exhaust of the target aircraft. But that arc has gotten wider and wider as better heat sensors were developed. Now you can be flying past an enemy aircraft and your missile will pick up not just the jet exhaust, but the warmed up surfaces on the aircraft. Launch your missile and it will do a 180 and take off after the target. New fire control equipment includes a helmet mounted sight that will let the missile know what you are looking at. Hit the fire button and your Sidewinder-on-Steroids goes wherever you were looking and chases after the target.

Naturally, it's not as simple as that. As missiles became smarter and more capable, devices were developed to give the target a better chance of survival. For the short range heat seekers, flares have been a popular, and effective, antidote. If you are being chased by a Sidewinder, pop a few flares and the missile will go after the hotter heat source (the flare.) Some missiles now have microcomputers in them and a library of various heat sources. This will cause the missile to ignore most flares and continue after the aircraft. This, in turn, has produced more types of flares. Bottom line is that there is no perfect weapon, there are always countermeasures. Even without flares, pilots can sometimes outmaneuver a heat seeker. Electronic countermeasures are also effective against BVM missiles, as is violent maneuvering. As with the heat seekers, there's a constant tug of war between the seeker technology and countermeasures. 

Victory will still go to the better trained, not the better armed pilots. Even BVR missiles require a pilot who knows how to best use his radar and get into a position to fire the most effective shot. This is even more the case with close range heat seekers. But well trained and well equipped pilots have a tremendous edge. While not all air forces agree with the USAF on the dominance of BVR missiles, it takes skilled and lucky pilots to get close enough to American aircraft to dogfight. And the better trained American pilots still have an edge in that department. They simply spend more time in the air practicing, and this is an edge that can only be matched by equally diligent training.

Dogfighting isn't quite dead yet, it probably never will be. But more and more, victory goes to the side that can reach out BVR and touch the enemy first with an AMRAAM. 

 


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