by Austin Bay
June 20, 2017
The recent downing of a Syrian Air Force jet by a U.S. Navy Super Hornet fighter has produced another political confrontation between the U.S. and Russia. Until passions ebb, Australia has withdrawn its air units from the American-led coalition.
Kremlin accusations of American aggression are propaganda. Syria is small. When a plane is aloft, every major nation with aircraft engaged in Syria has the technology to track it. The U.S., Turkey, and Israel have it; so does Russia. Russian forces knew the location of the Syrian jet and knew it had attacked an area with U.S. personnel.
The Navy jet intercepted the Syrian in order to protect Americans on the ground. It enforced a red line of a sort. If the Assad regime attacks U.S. personnel, expect a military response.
Further escalation is unlikely. Washington and Moscow are discussing ways to avoid future clashes -- "de-confliction" is the buzzword.
However, the incident itself is uncommon. While air-to-air combat between manned aircraft has not disappeared, it has become rather rare.
Air-to-air battles where adversaries challenge the aircraft and pilots of the U.S. and its closest allies are especially rare. In November 2015, a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 violated Turkish airspace and ignored repeated warnings from Turkish interceptors. So the Turks shot it down. The Russians, however, weren't really challenging the Turks to a fight. They were brazenly ignoring Turkish air space.
Where have the dogfights and aerial aces gone? In the strict WW1 sense of the term, to dogfight means opposing pilots engage in air-to-air combat maneuvering within visual range of one another.
Obviously, technology has evolved. Air to air combat can occur well beyond visual range. Air to air combat today involves the pilot getting into a position to shoot at an enemy aircraft with an appropriate weapon, be it a gun or a type of missile.
Pilot training, experience, maintenance, command and control, electronic warfare and up-to-the-second accurate intelligence also matter. Air to air combat is plane on plane, but today it is also military system versus military system.
In the 1991 Gulf War, Iraqi aircraft came up to fight, at least initially. The U.S.-led coalition shot down 36 Iraqi aircraft in air-to-air combat while losing one plane; American pilots and the U.S. system overwhelmed Iraq.
This lopsided result echoed the 1982 Lebanon War's air-to-air results. Israeli pilots shot down an estimated 85 Syrian aircraft without losing a single plane.
Critics warn that Iraq and Syria were second-tier opponents. The disparity in air-to-air kills, however, still leads would-be enemies to think twice.
Even superior systems don't always get it right. The Korean War's MiG Alley featured nail-biting dogfights. Jets piloted by American pilots tangled with Communist jets like the MiG-15. There's evidence first-tier Russian mercenaries flew for North Korea. In the 1950s, senior U.S. Air Force officers bet that future air-to-air engagements would be fought with missiles. They thought aerial dogfighting was passe. Then North Vietnamese pilots proved them wrong. The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy corrected the institutional error by training pilots to dogfight and by making certain newer U.S. aircraft, like the F-16, which were agile and maneuverable.
The Pentagon prefers to destroy enemy planes on the ground by striking enemy air bases with cruise missiles or bombs. Fewer enemy planes in the air means American pilots have fewer air-to-air targets. Jamming radars and spoofing electronics also disrupt enemy air operations.
Since spring 1944, offensive operations to destroy enemy airpower, superior pilots and superb technology (to include the electronic warfare edge) have allowed the U.S. to dominate airspace in a battle zone. Adversaries and outright enemies, however, are improving their weapons, techniques, and training. Russia is using Syria as a training and testing ground.