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Which aircraft is best? A systems approach.

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posted on Jan, 6 2005 @ 02:01 PM
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.

It depends...

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 on.


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 dramatically.

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.



posted on Jan, 10 2005 @ 04:40 PM
I like your post a systems way to do this would be interesting but going full ssadm will take a LONG time so for now thinking.

It has to be said to do ssadm you would really need to compaire two airforces and the weps av to the both. You certainly couldn't do it world wide.


posted on Jan, 10 2005 @ 04:50 PM
Hi RAB, thanks for the response, I thought no-one was ever going to say anything. Was wondering if I had wasted my time!

You're right, it is specific to a given situation, air force vs air force. And it does take a bloody long time to do. But the rewards are worth it. The reason I brought it up is because most discussion revolves around "The F-22 is better because it can go X Mach" or "The Su-30MKI is better because it can do X alpha." Figures like these don't give the full story of the true capability. The days of an aircraft winning a war, in isolation of all other systems, simply isn't as true as it was back in the 40's and 50's. Aircraft now are built around the entire weapons system, and are designed to complement and enhance its effectiveness. My intent was to make people think a little deeper about why a certain capability, whether it be BVR, WVR etc is focused on in an aircrafts design. It is generally because perceived weaknesses can be mitagated by other parts of the system.

Anyway, thanks again for taking the time to read my lengthy diatribe!

posted on Jan, 10 2005 @ 06:44 PM
This thread has been needed all along. I don’t know what you are trying to say in the 2nd post but most pilots of competent and capable airforces train their pilots to overcome their weaknesses... one wouldn’t think twice about taking an F-14 into a knife fight, let along with a Mig-29 but they where all over German '29s a few years back. It goes to show that training is by far the most effective weapon in modern air combat.

Another example is the superiorly trained Russian pilots in Mig-15s... Remember Mig Ally? Remember the hard time USAF and USN pilots had with a select few Mig-15s? Those most of the time where though to be the superiorly trained Russian pilots and not the chinese or Korean pilots that where poorly trained.

[edit on 10-1-2005 by ChrisRT]

posted on Jan, 10 2005 @ 07:29 PM
An interesting post, but I think you're overlooking some very important considerations.

The best airplane is not the one which goes fastest, has be best ASE suite, look-down/shoot-down radars, loiter times, etc.

The best airplane is the one that people buy.

Pilots don't buy airplanes, bean-counters and politicians do.

And that means the really key driver is program cost.

Program cost is not just the unit cost of an airplane, but includes the logistics tail (spares, training, test equipment). Program cost also includes the non-recurring engineering and production costs. Either of these can come close to doubling the price of the airplane, which means that the defense minister of Elbownia will not spring for it.

Here's an example of the logistics killing a superior airplane.

NG (it was just "Northrop" back then, IIRC) dropped over a billion bucks of their own money in turning their ratty old F-5/T-38 into the F-20 Tigershark, one of the sweetest fighter aircraft around. It had a flyaway cost of about 5 megabux US a copy and would deploy from idle to 40 thousand feet in about 105 seconds.

And no one bought any. Why not?

Because the Air Force had invested a lot of money into what they and everyone else conceded was an inferior airplane, the GD F-16 Falling Falcon, or Lawn-Dart.

[Q: How do you get an F-16 for fifty thousand dollars?
A: buy a hundred acres of desert near Luke Air Force Base -- and wait.]

The Air Force had invested bazillions of dollars in spare parts, three-tier depots, training, and tooling for the F-16, and didn't want to invest in another complete set of spares for another airplane.

So Northrop figured it would sell it to foreign governments who hadn't bought a new fighter and were looking around.

"Sorry", said the various Air Forces, "we aren't buying these airplanes unless the US Air Force picks some up, because if they do, we know you will keep them in spares and other goodies like block mods for years or decades to come."

"Besides", said these foreigners who aren't the least bit dumb, "if the USAF buys some of these airplanes, they will have to pay some of the integration costs for the upcoming armaments, which means we won't have to pay 20 million dollars to integrate next year's air-to-air missile in them".

And the US Air Force said, "No".

So everyone went with the dog-a$$ General Dynamics (now Lockmart) Lawn Dart and there're a bazillion of them flying around in just about everyone's air force.

Now ask yourself:

Why did the UK, the Netherlands, Singapore, South Korea, Israel, Egypt, the UAE, and Japan choose the AH-64 over its competition? Idon't think the Apache Longbow is all that much better, especially wen you factor in the flyaway cost.

Why didn't the Rooivalk or the Kamov ever make the initial downselect in any of these procurements? They are both good helicopters!

Why did Turkey choose the Bell Whiskey Cobra and why did they cancel the program?

Why did Australia choose Eurocopter and are now suing the French over breach of contract?

You can make a great argument by saying that the Canadian CF-105 was one of the greatest aircraft of its day, but it wasn't.

And the reason was that, as a production fighter .... never existed.


posted on Jan, 11 2005 @ 02:16 AM
Right to do this pick two airforces that may in the real world come up aginst each other.

In my mind i personally think India and pakistan. But ideas and feed back will be good.

I'll post the structure and how I'm going to work this l8ter. Along with all sources that I'll use.


posted on Jan, 11 2005 @ 08:57 AM
right so we start of with India and Pakistan...lets clear one thing for sure..both AFs IMHO have highly trained fighter pilots and are probably better at flying the aircraft they've acquired than the nations that sold it to them in the first place!!

I am Indian and yet I consider the PAF to be equally well trained/professional as compared to the IAF so lets get the training scenario out of the way...

In terms of bulk no. of aircraft the IAF has about a 1000 planes while the PAF has about 350...HOWEVER in any mobilization (unless circumstances force otherwise) the max odds will be 2:1 in IAF's favor because the indians will not mobilise their ENTIRE AF to deal with the pakis...

safter clearing those aspects I have a question to ask ...? Are we looking at this from the point of an "aircraft vs. aircraft" thing or is it an "which AF will eventually gain air superiority"...??

Another factor (which may change soon) is that paki anti aircraft/missile systems are definitely more advanced than the Indian counter parts as of NOW...

IF its an Aircraft vs. aircraft thing then its mainly:

F-16 vs. MiG 29/ Su30...IMHO Su 30 MKI would be superior so im not going to consider it)

All the other aircraft will be a "mop-up" by the victor of the above match up...

If its a AF vs. AF thing then lets analyse in terms of strategy and deployability..

Looking as these pics of AF bases it is evident that no matter what unless a quick ceasefire is reached, the PAF WILL be overwhelmed in a matter of time due to sheer numbers and will eventually lose air superiority..
So lets stick to the aircraft vs. aircraft approach guys

To check which bases house what kind of aircraft go to

and look up the maps in ordre of battle. Just click on the bases to see what they hold..and btw the PAF map is a bit outdated they have a couple of more bases up north at least..
Start of with F-16 vs. Mig 29, a systems approach..

[edit on 11-1-2005 by Daedalus3]


posted on Jan, 11 2005 @ 09:31 AM
Ok in that case india and pakistan maybe the wrong choice. Ideally we need two airforces that are evenly (ish) matched.

As you say India would just bomb the hell out of the pakistan airforce on day one.


posted on Jan, 11 2005 @ 11:20 AM
No not really the superiority would only be attained after say a few days or a week even...and if the pakis were to launch a surprise attack and bomb the hell of the forward bases then it would take sometime for the IAF to regroup and launch from inner bases..
And if teh pak army used their anti air capabilities wisely..the war might be not be so one sided after all...I look at it this way....If one is to strategise a paki stalemate to the indian forces then it would be like playing a strategy computer war game at the 'expert' difficulty level. Plus the pakis always have the nukes to fall back on...they can pretty much target any part of India except maybe the far east and the islands in the arabian sea and the bay of bengal...

But a better even match IMHO would be the IAF and the PLAAF sowhy don't we explore that avenue? Actually India is in quite a rough neighbourhood if you ask me...Heres the PLAAF bases location map..If you compare it to the IAF base map you'll actually see that the IAF has more bases at the Indo-China border than the PLAAF too...

So the match ups here are:
Mig-29 vs Su 27/J-10
Su 30 MKI vs Su 27/J-10/Su-30MKK
Jaguar/MiG 23-27 vs..??
MiG 21 vs. J-8
MiG 25 vs. ??
LCA vs. J-10 ...??
Tu-22M vs. ..??
(IAF acquiring Tu-22M in 2005-6)

No. of aircraft deployed into the theatre I assume would give the chinese a max numerical advantage of 1.5:1 or 2:1 considering them not mobilising ALL their aircraft mostly based on the eastern seaboard....
Figther pilot training/professionalism I definitely rate the IAF/PAF above the PLAAF..
Air defence systems...China has better stuff than India as of now but India's most probably buying the PAC-III its been offered so it should even up that area...
Also would we see a naval air ware with the IN moving its two carriers (currently both carrying Harriers) and the Gorshkov (Induction 2006-7) which carries MiG-29k/Su30MKI...???

So the naval scene could also turn out as:

Harrier vs. ??
MiG29k vs. Su30MKK
Su-30MKI vs. Su-30MKK
What other aircraft does the PLANAF have in a intercept/bomber role??

I guess we might have a "topgun" on our hands..

Would the US just wait and watch all this??

[edit on 11-1-2005 by Daedalus3]

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