Warplanes: July 18, 2001


Combat between fighters a decade from now will be considerably different than it has been since Vietnam. A new generation of fighters (Gryphon, Rafale, Typhoon, F-22 and the Russian PAK-MA) will be stealthy (making it harder to get a missile hit), smarter (better able to keep track of the aerial battlefield), and faster (able to maneuver at supersonic speeds, rather than switching between slow-and-maneuverable or fast-but-can't turn). The key improvement, however, will come in air-to-air missiles, which can be easily refitted to thousands of existing aircraft. Even a MiG-21 could be dangerous given the right missile and a new radar. New radar and computer technology will give astounding confidence in Beyond Visual Range target identification and confirmation. This is critical, as the F-22 gives up 90% of its combat performance if forced to identify a target visually before shooting it. The key aspect of the new missiles is "remaining energy at maximum range". Although few realize it outside of the fighter community, most current missiles burn out their fuel long before reaching the target and simply coast the last few kilometers, maneuvering by the force of the wind over their control vanes. The new generation of missiles, of which the European Meteor may be the best example (assuming it delivers on its promised performance) will still have fuel at the end of their run and be able to use powered maneuvers for the terminal attack maneuver. Current aircraft know that if engaged at the maximum range of enemy missiles, they will have no problems outmaneuvering them. This will no longer be the case as the "no escape zone" expands steadily. Most modern battles take place between 15 kilometers and 40 kilometers. Closer than 15 kilometers, you come within range of the harder-to-dodge heat-seeking missiles; beyond 40 kilometers, the radar-guided missiles will simply lack the energy to beat a fighter's evasive maneuvers. The new radar-guided missiles will have virtually the same probability of a kill at 80 kilometers as they have at 15 kilometers. Meteor even has a two-way datalink to confirm that it has hit the target, since the pilot would not be able to tell if he scored a hit or not. Meteor is superior to the US AMRAAM, and Boeing has signed on as a partner to market it to US forces, but the US has shown little interest. The F-22, the Air Force insists, is so superior to other fighters that it becomes the booster for AMRAAM, improving that missile beyond Meteor's capabilities. The F-22 can out climb any fighter, and if it launches an AMRAAM from high altitude and supersonic speed, the missile gains 50% in range and 100% in lethality. Modern target acquisition uses "non- cooperative target recognition", which identifies the enemy aircraft by counting the revolutions of their engine compressor fans. F-15s had most of the air-to-air kills in Desert Storm because they had modern Identification Friend of Foe systems and the new radars. F-14s had IFF but not the new radar, while F-18s had the new radar but an older IFF; both types had to get AWACS confirmation for beyond-visual-range shots. Typhoon will have a radar so advanced it can recognize the shape of the target aircraft, while the F-22 will have passive systems able to identify the owner of an aircraft by the electronic signals it gives off. F-22 pilots, who have done most of their tactical training in simulators, have developed a tactic they call "super-cranking". In this tactic, the F-22 fires a beyond-visual-range missile shot, then suddenly makes a supersonic turn away from the enemy. Cranking is not a new tactic (it costs any missile fired in return much of its range) but doing a crank at supercruise speeds quickly takes the F-22 out of the range of any enemy missile. Another new tactic is to have two fighters work together and use their radars in concert. One fighter uses its radar dish to transmit jamming, blinding the enemy, while the wingman uses his radar to launch missiles. Tactical datalinks will allow an aircraft beyond missile range to pass targeting data to other aircraft (with their radars turned off) which are much closer to the enemy. This is known as a silent attack. Datalinks are an improvement over the old concept of one pilot telling another by radio where the enemy is. Datalinks are faster, harder to jam, and put the data directly into the other fighter's fire control system. The masters of datalink aerial combat are (surprisingly) the Swedes. They adopted datalinks in 1963 for the J35 Draken (Dragon), expecting that the Soviet Horde would destroy or jam their ground control stations in the first attack. An improved system went into the JA37 Viggen (Lightning) in 1984 and the JAS39 Grippen (Gryphon) has an even more improved system. The Swedish system was a major secret (pilots could not mention it on the radio) not known until the Cold War ended. A typical advanced tactical datalink is virtually jamproof and can link aircraft 500 kilometers apart. The Swedish system links four fighters; US systems link more than that (although the actual limit is secret). Sweden is building fourteen two-seat Gryphons (originally conceived as trainers) into dedicated information warfare aircraft. The rear seats of these aircraft have no flight controls, leaving room for sensors and communications gear. One mission for this aircraft would be to coordinate a group of fighters sneaking up on target, while another mission would be for the back-seater to control all of the radars in the fighter group to coordinate their data. These special information warfare aircraft will also have the ability to receive data from satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles. No one really expects unmanned aircraft to replace air superiority fighters, as the human brain is able to deal with more complex situations than a computer. Such drones could, however, be used to provide extra missile shots (with the rear-seater firing their missiles by remote control) or to attack enemy air defenses. Heat-seeking "dogfight" missiles are also getting better. While they have already advanced to the point they can see a target head on, new imaging infrared seekers will put even more targets at risk. New heat-seekers can even engage at 20 kilometers, beyond visual range. While nobody talks about it because it's not that "sexy", the key improvement is new materials for the seeker's "window" which do not heat up at supersonic speeds, blinding the missile. The new heat-seekers can track targets almost to one side instead of just directly ahead, and helmet-mounted sights will allow pilots to engage targets in a much wider area. This would allow aircraft to fly across the enemy approach path and still get shots, eliminating the need to move forward from an assigned barrier position. Aircraft would no longer need to "maneuver for a shot" which means many more shots will be taken, and with new (smarter, faster, more maneuverable) missiles, more shots will score hits. In a recent mock air campaign, Israeli fighters equipped with such missiles and sights "won" 220 out of 240 battles with US Marine Hornets. With high-off-boresight heat-seekers and helmet-mounted sights, a MiG-21 would be on a even footing with an F-15 or F-22. Cannon will still be important because missiles have a minimum range and any pilot facing a gunless enemy would simply try to get close to avoid a missile attack. Aerial gun combat is rare; Israeli F-16s have a total of five gun kills while Pakistani fighters claimed only two in the recent border skirmishes. The F-22 retains the venerable 20mm gatling of the F-15, and the Joint Strike Fighter will carry a 27mm cannon. The Navy had intended not to put guns in its JSFs but is now re-examining the issue. The Marines, with weight problems on their vertical-take-off JSFs, picked a gun that could be mounted or removed depending on the mission. All of the modern Russian and European fighters retained a gun, although the British will apparently leave these out of their second batch of Typhoons (but only to save money, they say they want the guns but cannot afford them).--Stephen V Cole




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