Warplanes: The Unreported Revolution In Air Combat


June 29, 2013: One of the major, and little mentioned, revolutions in air combat is the availability of more powerful and reliable helmet mounted displays and sights. This enables a pilot to “look and shoot” as well as keep their heads up more of the time and more quickly make decisions in air-to-air combat. This dramatic change has not gotten much publicity because there has been such little air-to-air combat in the last few decades. But in realistic training exercises the difference has been noted. This has been documented in detail (and classified) in the United States because since the 1970s, American combat pilots have done regular training in instrumented air space, where every move by aircraft and decision by pilots is recorded. This provides all sorts of data on how the aircraft and pilot performance has evolved over the decades. The new helmets have turned out to be a major innovation in air combat.

One of the best examples of this is the new (introduced last year) version of the American JHMCS (Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System). The JHMCS II allows the user to fire at weapons wherever their eyes are pointed, no matter what direction the helmet is pointed. This new version uses better hardware and software to track the movement of the pilot's eyes. The new JHMCS is better balanced and much more comfortable to wear and use. The new version is more reliable and cheaper as well. Still, a JHMCS II costs about a million dollars. It's an expensive way to cover your head. The cost of JHMCS includes additional equipment to be installed in the cockpit, training, and technical support.

The JHMCS also allows a pilot to see critical flight and navigation information displayed on his visor. Sort of like a see-through computer monitor or Head Up Display. This enables the pilot to look around more often without having to look down at cockpit displays or straight ahead at a HUD (Head Up Display). This kind of freedom gives an experienced pilot an extra edge in finding enemy aircraft or targets and maneuvering to get into a better position for attacks. JHMCS is also useful for air to ground attacks.

Systems like JHMCS have been very effective but JHMCS II is lighter and easier to wear (weight was a major problem in the past), easier to use, and more reliable (if you don't bump into the canopy). The Israelis firm Elbit took the lead in developing this technology and made many technical breakthroughs with their earlier DASH (Display and Sight Helmet) system. Elbit teamed up with American firms to develop and market JHMCS, which is largely an improved DASH system.

The first helmet mounted sights were developed in South Africa in the 1970s. The Russians noted this development when they lost several jet fighters in Angola to South African pilots using the helmets. The Russians went to work and five years later had one of their own. It proved very effective and scared NATO air forces when the Russian helmet was demonstrated by German fighter pilots from the former East German (the Germanys united in 1991) against experienced American F-16 pilots. Israel was the first Western air force to develop one of these helmets and is still a leader in the field.

In the last three decades these helmets have come to handle more data and chores while also being easier to wear. But these helmets are still heavy. That's why the better balance of JHMCS II is important. Even so, six years ago the U.S. Air Force introduced a new neck muscle exercise machine in air force gyms frequented by fighter pilots. This was because the new helmets weighed 2 kg (4.3 pounds), which was about fifty percent more than a plain old helmet. That extra weight may not seem like much but when making a tight turn, the gravitational pull (or "Gs") makes the helmet feel like it weighs 17.3 kg (38 pounds). You need strong neck muscles to deal with that. For decades now fighter pilots have had to spend a lot of time building upper body strength in the gym, in order to be able to handle the G forces. Otherwise, pilots can get groggy or even pass out in flight, as well as land with strained muscles.

Before the helmet mounted displays and aiming systems were available, pilots had to keep checking instruments in the cockpit and use fixed targeting systems. Not having to keep looking at the cockpit displays saved valuable seconds in jet fighter combat that was often over in less than ten seconds. Repeated combat exercises (and actual combat) between pilots with the helmets and those without has made this unequivocal. It’s been a revolutionary development in air combat.

In the air combat community the innovation is recognized as real and, for those not using it, a deadly disadvantage. To make the most of tech like this you must allow your pilots to spend hundreds of hours in the air practicing with the helmets. This is one reason why China and Russia adopted the more expensive Western style of training pilots over the last few decades.





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