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Last Updated: Mon Jan 27 11:18:09 UTC 2014

Deedle, Deedle, Deedle, BANG!
The Paradigm Shift in Air Superiority

Carlo Kopp
First published in Australian Aviation
December 1999

The air superiority game is one which has a lengthy and colourful history, with many successive generations of airframes, weapons and tactics. What is characteristic of paradigm shifts in air superiority is that they are invariably driven by one or another technological advance, which providing a decisive capability advantage in some area, produces corresponding adaptations in other areas.

When the only air to air weapon was the gun, development focussed on better guns, and better airframes and propulsion to bring the gun to bear on its target. This pattern was well established by the end of the Great War, but by the fifties, a new weapon emerged, which would change the game forever. It was the guided missile.

The guided missile was predicted to render fighters obsolete by the early sixties. This is now proven rubbish, and proponents of this idea, such as Duncan Sandys in the UK, well and truly are in immersed in egg.

What the guided missile did achieve is the rapid and continuous evolution of airframes, propulsion, sensors and tactics to match the evolution of missile performance.

The all weather radar guided Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile is now a mainstay of both air defence and air superiority combat operations. It spawned large and heavy fighters with powerful air intercept radars, and together with the Surface-Air Missile (SAM) provided the impetus for the development of stealth.

The clear sky heatseeking Within Visual Range (WVR) missile has always been primarily an air superiority weapon, used by fighters to kill opposing fighters. It has driven fighter development toward ever increasing agility, to provide the earliest opportunity to shoot the opposing aircraft, over an increasingly wide performance envelope.

Until a few years ago, WVR missiles were good, but could be defeated by aggressive manoeuvre if not launched under optimal conditions, they could also be successfully decoyed or jammed, and required excellent instantaneous manoeuvre performance to get an early firing opportunity. With the deployment of 4th generation missiles such as the Archer, Python, ASRAAM and AIM-9X, this is no longer true. All of these missiles can be cued using helmet mounted sights, all have huge "no escape" zones, indeed some can engage a pursuing target, all are difficult to jam, and all have significantly greater range than earlier WVR weapons, in some instances challenging the performance of older radar guided BVR missiles.

Radar guided BVR missiles have also evolved dramatically, and now are becoming extremely difficult to defeat by manoeuvre or jamming. Moreover we are beginning to see the first air-air anti-radiation seekers, which will home on an opposing fighter's air intercept radar, and we are also seeing air breathing BVR weapon proposals. An air breathing BVR missile will have double or triple the range of a pure rocket missile of similar size, as it need not carry the oxidising agent in its propellant, it sucks it in as it flies.

What we can expect to see in the coming two decades is the deployment of WVR missiles with further improved speed, agility, range, jamproof seekers and supporting sensors such as radar homing receivers, infra-red search and track (IRS&T) equipment, and helmet mounted sights which may include helmet mounted thermal imagers. Such missiles will be extremely lethal and virtually impossible to defeat, unless you swat them out of the sky with a laser beam (the USAF are working on this, too). The BVR missile of the next two decades will also be faster, much longer ranging, more autonomous, and harder to jam or outmanoeuvre.

We can also expect to see the first generation of hybrid seekers, combining anti-radiation and or radar homing with heatseeking guidance. Such missile seekers are virtually impossible to jam as they will continuously compare the quality of sensor outputs, and select that which is providing the best quality signal. If one is jammed, it switches to the other, and vice-versa, frustrating virtually any conventional jamming strategy.

With high speed, low smoke motors, low frontal radar signatures, and passive or low-probability of intercept seeker techniques, an inbound missile will be hard to detect with sensors or by eyeball, and the victim will have little if any warning of impending impact.

It is fair to say that we live in the decade during which the air-air missile has finally matured, and is close to reaching its full potential as an air superiority weapon. It is by no means the end of the game plan in air to air weapons. The USAF New World Vistas technology survey published last year indicates that another weapon is reaching the level of development where it can move to deployment in the next two decades. This weapon is the high power laser cannon, capable of burning a hole through an aircraft's skin at several miles of range, under visual clear sky conditions.

Whilst the first operational laser weapon to deploy (cca 2005) will be the USAF's YAL-1A anti-ballistic missile weapon, mounted in a nose turret in a dedicated B-747 airframe, a large weapon with perhaps 300 km or greater range, it is the forerunner of a whole new family of air combat weapons. It is only a matter of time before the technology is well understood, compacted in size, and made robust enough for wider deployment. Laser beams travel at the speed of light, and cannot be dodged or evaded.

In the face of a mature missile threat, and the possibility of early directed energy weapons cca 2025, conventional air superiority models begin to break down. Once the opponent has acquired you, he can shoot you and most likely, kill you. Exchange rates then become a function either of superior sensors and missiles, used at standoff ranges, introducing a whole can of worms to do with Rules of Engagement, or other measures must be sought to improve survivability. Clearly throwing expensive fighter assets into a Somme style attrition warfare meat grinder is not going to win an air war, unless you have twice as many expendable aeroplanes and pilots as your opponent has. With the slow production rates typical of modern high tech weapons and expensive and time consuming training of scarce aircrew (what fraction of any population has the talent to even get through the training required to become a fast jet pilot ?), this is a losers' strategy.

The technology however does exist to deal with this problem, and has existed for almost two decades. It is stealth.

Stealth means suppressing the radar cross section and infrared signatures of an aircraft to the point where it cannot be detected until it is several miles away, or even closer if we factor in lower performance in air intercept radars and missile seekers, compared to large ground based equipment. As a result, a stealthy aircraft can approach to weapons launch range without its opponent knowing it is there, launch its weapons and then vanish again.

No matter how good a conventional fighter is, and how good its missiles and sensors are, an engagement flown against a stealthy fighter aircraft is a no win proposition. The whole engagement can be summarised as "Deedle, deedle, deedle, BANG !". Your warning receiver blares away, you crank your head around to figure out what is happening, and you die as the inbound missile blows you to little pieces. It is indeed as simple as that. Situational awareness is everything in the first-shot-is-the-killing-shot game, and stealth takes away that situational awareness completely.

This is indeed why the F-22 Raptor is a revolutionary rather than evolutionary fighter. Certainly its basic high manoeuvrability aerodynamic design is evolutionary, its supercruise is also arguably evolutionary, but its use of stealth is clearly revolutionary. The combination of superior energy manoeuvrability, supersonic cruise and stealth is an unbeatable combination. Stealth denies the opponent awareness of the F-22, while the aircraft's superlative thrust-to-weight ratio and high speed allow it position itself and close for a kill before its victim can react.

Given the tremendous tactical advantage that follows from this, the F-22 can only be defeated by another, better F-22-ski. Since the Russians are up to two decades behind in stealth materials and shaping techniques, and do not have the money to catch up in a hurry, it is unlikely that we will see a viable competitor to the F-22 for several decades to come. Therefore the F-22 is as close to unbeatable as one can get, in the next few decades.

The curious thing about the F-22 debate is that it has wholly been focussed upon the aircraft costing cca 35% more than an F-15E. Political critics of the aircraft in this author's view sound more like characters from "Alice in Wonderland" ! Indeed, there would be a simple resolution to this problem. Critics should strap into an F-15 air combat simulator and fly against another pilot in a simulated F-22. After they have "died" in ten or twenty consecutive engagements, then they should reconsider their position. Deedle, deedle, deedle, BANG !

If we consider what the F-22 provides against every other contemporary air superiority fighter, and any evolved variants thereof, it is quite clear that the F-22 is virtually unbeatable in the next three decades. If we also consider that the F-22 builds upon the USAF's unassailable lead in stealth technology, it is clearly a superb long term investment for any air force which fields it. The pioneering efforts of Ben Rich's (Lockheed) and John Cashen's (Northrop) development groups during the late seventies and early eighties have already yielded some outstanding dividends in the F-117A and B-2A. These groups then produced the YF-22 and YF-23. The USAF's production F-22 extends the tremendous potential of stealth into the air superiority game, with the result that the F-22 is without doubt the most lethal fighter aircraft ever planned to enter production.

The issue for the ADF to consider here is whether to make a large long term investment into established fighter technology, which has reached the end of its technological potential, or to invest in the technology which will follow it. Committing to established fighter technology is committing to a paradigm nearing the end of its life. Committing to stealth is gaining entry into the new model of air warfare.

It is, in summary, a simple question: should we as a nation spend our precious defence dollars on the technology of the past, or the technology of the future ?

The latest generation of heatseeking dogfight missiles, typified by the Israeli Python (depicted), the ASRAAM, the AIM-9X and the Archer, have huge no-escape zones by traditional standards, are virtually impossible to defeat by manoeuvre, and have highly jam-resistant seekers. Whoever gets the first shot away is likely to kill his opponent. We can expect the next generation of such missiles to provide more range, speed, multi-mode seekers (anti-radiation, radar, heatseeking), and higher manoeuvrability, further enhancing lethality against conventional fighters. The only robust long term defensive measure is therefore stealth, which denies an opponent the opportunity to shoot first, and significantly impairs the seeker performance of any missile which is launched (Rafael).

Despite its superficial resemblance to the F-15, the USAF's new F-22A has one fundamental attribute which places it well above any other existing fighter aircraft - STEALTH. Combining an blend of second generation (faceting/planform alignment) and third generation (blending) stealth shaping techniques, and modern absorbent materials, the F-22A can be expected to have the radar signature of a small bird or large insect. It carries an APG-77 low probability of intercept (LPI) radar, which is virtually undetectable by an opposing fighter aircraft. Unseen on radar and unheard on a radar warning receiver, the F-22A can stalk its prey silently and attack with total surprise, firing up to eight internally carried missiles. It is without doubt the most lethal and survivable fighter aircraft ever built.


by Carlo Kopp

The emergence of stealth technology in air superiority fighters fundamentally changes the basic rules of the game.

The conventional model of air combat has traditionally been based upon the idea of using advantages in fighter manoeuvre, climb and acceleration performance to get a positional advantage in order to fire a missile, or at close quarters a gun, to destroy the opposing aircraft. With first and second generation heat-seeking and beyond visual range (BVR) radar guided missiles, which had poor kinematic performance and turn rates, a fighter needed to typically manoeuvre for several minutes to position itself for the killing shot. Whilst early radar guided missiles could be used in head on engagements, their performance against turning targets was poor. Early heatseekers had to be shot up the opponent's tailpipe to lock on to the engine exhaust. Therefore fighters would have to engage in often complex manoeuvres, until the opponent was positioned for a shot.

The emergence of all-aspect heatseekers, typically third generation weapons, as well as more capable radar guided missiles, expanded the engagement envelope significantly. Whoever got their nose on the opponent first could get the first shot off and if not win, certainly force the opponent into a defensive manoeuvre costing position and energy, and therefore set the opposing fighter up for another shot, most likely a lethal one.

With the latest fourth generation heatseekers, such as the Archer, Python, ASRAAM or AIM-9X, helmet mounted sights allow early shots even from geometries which would be impossible to exploit with older weapons. Moreover, modern active radar homing BVR missiles have a fire and forget capability, once launched and actively homing, they can be left to fend for themselves. With such weapons the chances of a "mutual" kill can be quite high, ie two fighters enter an engagement, fire their missiles, and shoot each other down. This in turn forces pilots to shoot as early as possible, cutting time for target identification. Missile speed, target identification capability and pilot response times become important determinants of success in this game.

Stealth changes the tactical environment in fundamental ways. The first result of stealth is that the opponent cannot see the stealthy fighter on radar, or detect its radar on a warning receiver. Therefore, the stealthy fighter can locate, identify and stalk its opponent without being detected. A stealthy fighter can therefore exploit von Richtoven's fundamental axiom, approach its victim undetected and shoot from six o'clock before the opposing fighter even knows it is there.

To fully exploit its technological advantage, the stealthy fighter will therefore need to adopt hit-and-run ambush tactics and avoid being drawn into a "turn-and-burn" knife-fight-in-a-phone-booth. At ranges inside 3 miles, a stealthy fighter loses its basic advantage of undetectability, as it may be tracked visually, and an opposing fighter's radar and missiles can detect it and track it.

Therefore a stealthy fighter will maximise its survivability and lethality by staying outside its opponent's visual engagement envelope, positioning itself for a shot and then shooting a fire-and-forget missile.

Because the conventional fighter will have no idea of where the stealthy fighter is, it will not have the option of choosing an advantageous opening geometry in an engagement. It may detect the stealthy fighter at ranges similar to eyeball detection range. A stealthy fighter can therefore choose the opening geometry to its advantage, for instance by approaching from the aft quarter.

In basic defensive counter-air scenarios, where a fighter CAP is being vectored to engage known inbound hostiles in a BVR head-to-head high-noon shootout, the stealthy fighter can shoot multiple rounds at multiple hostiles before it is detected by the hostiles.

In offensive fighter sweeps into hostile airspace, the stealthy fighter can ambush defending CAPs or GCI controlled interceptors in whatever engagement geometry is most favourable. Where rules of engagement mandate visual ID of a target before firing, stealth still provides an advantage as the stealthy fighter can approach from a six o'clock low position undetected. Because tail warning radars and aft facing fire control radars, such as those on advanced Flanker variants, have much inferior detection range performance to forward facing fire control radars, the stealthy fighter will in most situations not be detected until it is too late.

A conventional air superiority fighter with equal or better aerodynamic performance against a stealthy fighter is unlikely to get an opportunity to exploit that performance to its advantage. Performance can only be made use of where the opponent is seen and can therefore be manoeuvred against. An opponent unseen cannot be engaged.

Statistics from previous air wars suggest that most aircraft lost in combat did not see the SAM or fighter that attacked them. Caught by surprise, the pilot either did not or could not react appropriately and was in turn hit.

With a stealthy air superiority fighter, an opponent faces this fundamental problem in every engagement. He is disadvantaged in reaction time in every situation, and if the pilot of the stealthy fighter exploits his advantage systematically, the conventional fighter will lose almost every time.

There is no historical parallel for this. Therefore, the established doctrine for air combat tactics is largely obsoleted. Only should the pilot of the stealthy fighter choose to be drawn into a turn-and-burn dogfight, or do so by poor choice of engagement geometry, does the conventional fighter have a chance of success in the engagement.

Therefore, trivial comparisons of manoeuvre performance between conventional and stealthy air superiority fighters are quite meaningless. Capability can only be measured in the context of a suitable air combat doctrine for the stealthy fighter. Should this doctrine be designed to exploit stealth to its fullest, then the conventional fighter will suffer overwhelming losses in almost any scenario.

A US observer commented some years ago that stealth was a "zero-sum game". There is only one winner in an air battle between a force of stealthy fighters and a force of conventional fighters. Stealth will rule the air battle.

Fifty three years ago, Maj. Tommy McGuire, number two ranking USAAF Pacific fighter ace in WW 2, noted "It is always the one you don't see that gets you". With stealth, this is the fundamental truth.

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