Hi everyone, I'm relatively new here, but have been reading these forums for a few months now. I thought I'd jump in and post something to see if it
stimulates some debate, must admit I'm a tad nervous by how it will be received, but anyway, here goes!
This post has been prompted by the myriad of posts that debate the superiority or otherwise of something related to military aviation. I've seen
posts debating which aircraft is better than the others, which is the best missile, who would win a dogfight, who has better pilots. While the debate
is obviously useful and interesting, few people seem to have taken a systems approach when analysing such information. This article is intended to
provide an insight into why I think such an approach is useful. I don't intend to provide an answer to the questions, but hopefully members of the
community will consider my points, and move away from the Russia is better than US, AMRAAM is better than ADDER mentality.
Unfortunately, this will be the answer to a lot of the debates that people have here. It is difficult to generalise a specific comparison into this
missile is better, that aircraft will beat that aircraft etc. The nature of air combat is fluid, dynamic and there are so many variables that on any
given day, at any given altitude, with any given pilot, the result may change considerably. However, when utilising a system approach to analysing
military aviation, a clearer picture can be provided, and some conclusions drawn.
So, where do we start?
Lets start with the constants. We generally know the weapons, radar, EW fits, rough platform capabilities that an aircraft has. For example,
Australian F/A-18's uses the APG-73 radar, the ALR-67 RWR, ALQ-126B jamming pod, AAS-38 FLIR and targeting pod, can drop LGBs, can employ the AMRAAM
and AIM-9M (and will soon be able to employ the ASRAAM), and is scheduled for upgrades including a Helmet Mounted Sight and Link 16 capability. So, is
this enough to say it is better, worse or equivalent to a MiG-29? Certainly not. Simply comparing the AMRAAM to AA-12 will not work either in
determining what is the better weapon (depending on your source, both are quoted as having better ranges than the other. So that really doesn't
help). For each system within a system, there is a counter of some description. Lets have a look at each in turn.
Broadly, there are three types. Active, Semi-active and IR guided. When looking at active missiles, just because a missile is active does not mean it
is equivalent to another active missile. For example, does the missile receive datalink updates from the host radar until it goes active? What type of
seeker does the missile have? Is it capable of tracking an aircraft that is conducting beaming manoeuvres (flying perpendicular to the missile seeker
in an attempt to remove the doppler shift the seeker needs). How about look down situations where ground clutter may affect the seeker? Does the
missile use a single stage boost or have a sustain motor after the initial booster burns out (this will affect range, and more importantly,
manoeuvrability in the end game for longer range shots). Does the target aircraft have an EW suite that may be effective versus the missile? And so
on. Simple range figures are only the start. On figures, remember that only those with appropriate access know the true figures. Gunrunners tend to
exagerate (either up or down) depending on the situation.
Semi-active. Not too many of these things around these days, the AA-10A and C excepted. And there is a reason for this. While the accuracy is
generally good, the reliance on the host aircraft radar is a major limitation in the air combat environment of today. If the host radar can be
effectively jammed (either by the enemy aircraft, or standoff jammers) then the missile probability of kill is reduced. Also, the missile has to be
supported all the way to the target, unlike active missiles, which once they go active, the launching aircraft can abort flow away, then decide to
recommit or simply leave the engagement. If the missile is active, it would be a brave pilot who does not react, and this will likely result in the
semi-active missile tracking being lost (I'm talking one on one here. Multiship engagements will be covered shortly!). So, once again, you can't
simply say that the AA-10C is better than AMRAAM because of its range, you have to caveat it with a systems philosopy when making such a claim.
IR missiles are very similar to the above, and I'm sure most people have got my drift. Seeker type is important here, countermeasure rejection
capability (will a single flare seduce it? Does the pilot get an indication of what the seeker is tracking, or does he simply get a tone?). Off
boresight capability is very important in the WVR environment. Previously, pilots relied on the position of the enemy aircrafts nose to get a feel for
when to defend with flares, and whether they were winning or losing. With Helmet Mounted Sights, this simply isn't true anymore. So what is the
capability of the host platform to get a high off-boresight shot off? What is the manoeuvrability capability of the missile should this occur. And so
I think it was Admiral Gorshkov who said (and I'm paraphrasing) the winner of the next major war will be the one who best exploits the
electro-magnetic environment. This remains the case for a conventional air versus air campaign. I've already highlighted the importance in
determining if EW self protection suites are effective versus the enemys radar and radar missiles. If it is, then even if the enemy has a superior BVR
capability, if you can jam him sufficiently, you may be able to get in close enough to get into the visual arena, where you may in fact have an
advantage. Tied into this is realising you are targeted by an enemy. This is where the Radar Warning Receiver comes into play. Realising you are
targeted (or just as importantly, untargeted) means you can decide whether you can get into range for a shot undetected, or if you have to get the
hell out of there as quickly as possible! If, however, you don't have the relevant "trons" programmed into your system, you could be blissfully
flying straight towards the visual arena thinking you are winning, when in fact the other guy has already turned around because his active missile has
gone active. Cue fireball and much embarrassment...
Beyond this, we have the support EW functions. Are you flying with standoff jamming support that will confuse or seduce the enemy? Do you have AWACs
support? Are the enemy Early Warning radars functional? Can the enemy operate autonomously without GCI support? Does the enemy have a Link capability
where they can share targets and information with ground or other air stations (a wholly passive intercept may be possible if so until the last
possible second when the advantage has been made). And so on. I won't labour the point, but EW is critical on the modern battlefield, and a
comparison of aircraft and systems is simply incomplete without it.
The major variable
The major variable in all this is the pink thing sitting in the cockpit. It has been said that at the end of the day, if you put a monkey in the
cockpit of an F-15, nothing much has changed. Very harsh, and obviously untrue (F-15 pilots tend to have more body hair...). Joking aside, the
training and capabilities of the pilot will be THE major determining factor in an air to air engagement. What is his training? How many hours a year
does he fly? What ground support does he get from maintenance, intel, admin, GCI etc? Can he employ the aircraft system to the fullest extent of its
capabilities, or does he get swamped in a high pressure, lethal environment? Can he recognise if he is winning or losing? Can he interpret and use his
radar effectively? Does he believe in his cause? Does she have highly restrictive ROE that won't allow her to employ her weapons at max range? Hell,
has he had enough sleep, or have they been bombed night after night for the last forty two days. There is a reason that the Iraqi Air Force put up no
resistance during Iraqi Freedom, and I don't believe it can simply be because they thought they would be shot down. Every fighter pilot in the world
thinks they are better than the adversary, regardless if they fully appreciate their own and enemy capabilities. Hopefully this section highlights the
crucial role that the pilot plays in determining the overall capabilities of an aircraft platform. Without that, you simply have figures, and not a
true qualitative assessment. And for the record, F-15 pilots are amongst the best in the world.
And finally, numbers and tactics and so on...
Tying everything together, what sort of basic elements do the air force employ? Do they operate under close GCI control, or are they autonomous if
necessary? Do they support as elements? Do they employ weapon time out range enhancing manoeuvres (called F-pole) to lower the advance rate towards
the enemy and possibly deny her a shot? Have they trained to employ the right flare sequence versus an IR missile? Does the wingman start sobbing when
he loses sight of his lead? Overall, the systems approach to analysing air combat capability comes down to this. An aircraft, one on one, may lose say
80% of its air combat sorties versus any given aircraft. But turn the situation into a 4 v 4, have one of the four carry a self protection jammer
while the others load up on BVR missiles, whack in some standoff jamming, link capability, and effective GCI control, and the results may change
So, in conclusion
My intent was to generate discussion about how our community debate the relative merits of aircraft and weapons systems. I believe a systems approach
would better serve us as it provides a qualitative assessment not just int terms of numbers (which I contend don't really tell us anything), but in
terms of the overall employment and capabilities of the system. It is country specific, and sometimes even region specific (an Australian F/A-18 pilot
will not necessarily employ his Hornet the way a USN Hornet guy would). I leave you with a couple of thoughts.
1.Quantity has a quality all of its own.
2.On any given day, luck will ensure that the highly sophisticated, multi-million dollar aircraft with the worlds best fighter pilot on board is taken
out by a pot shot from a farmer in a field with a rusty shot gun if the conditions are right.
The above is by no means comprehensive. Warhead size, fusing, radar and EW suite coordination, IRSTs etc are other factors I can think of. I'm sure
others can add to my list, but I wanted to throw a few things out there that I believe will assist our and discussions. I look forward to continued,
friendly, spirited debate. And despite what I've said above, my vote for the most beautiful (and best!) aircraft in the world is below.