Electronic Weapons: Secrets To Die For

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March 17, 2011:  The U.S. Air Force has been incorporating more electronic warfare into its Red Flag training exercises. This training attempts to accurately portray what kind of enemy tactics and equipment American pilots would encounter. More and more, however, the fighters are geeks, not pilots. Enemy electronic warfare has been a problem since World War II, but it has come to play a bigger role in combat since then. For example, the air force has spent a lot of time and money dealing with jamming of GPS signals (essential for most smart bombs) as well as jamming, or otherwise messing with, electronic communications and sensors (especially radars.) Exactly what electronic weapons and defenses, are simulated in Red Flag training is secret. Just letting the enemy know what you are preparing to defend against, and how, gives potential foes valuable information. So any details of the electronic side of Red Flag rarely gets any media attention. But the amount of this activity is on the increase, especially in the last decade. 

This is all part of a long trend. Using your own aircraft for "aggressor (or dissimilar) training" began in the 1969, when the U.S. Navy established the original "Top Gun" fighter pilot school. This was done in response to the poor performance of its pilots against North Vietnamese pilots flying Russian fighters. What made the Top Gun operation different was that the training emphasized how the enemy aircraft and pilots operated. This was called "dissimilar training". In the past, American pilots practiced against American pilots, with everyone flying American aircraft and using American tactics. It worked in World War II, because the enemy pilots were not getting a lot of practice and were using similar aircraft and tactics anyway. Most importantly, there was a lot of aerial combat going on, providing ample opportunity for on- the- job training. Not so in Vietnam, where the quite different Russian trained North Vietnamese were giving U.S. aviators an awful time. The four week Top Gun program solved the problem. The air force followed shortly with its Red Flag school. In the early 1980s, the Russians established a dissimilar air combat school, and the Chinese followed in 1987.

Over the last four decades, the two American training programs have developed differently, and the entire concept of "dissimilar training" has changed. The navy kept Top Gun as a program to hone fighter pilot's combat skills. The air force made their Red Flag program more elaborate, bringing in the many different types of aircraft involved in combat missions (especially electronic warfare.) But after the Cold War ended, it became increasingly obvious that none of our potential enemies was providing their fighter pilots with much training at all. In other words, the dissimilar training for U.S. fighter pilots was not a crucial as it had been during the Cold War. Actually, it had been noted that flying skills of Soviet pilots was declining in the 1980s, as economic problems in the USSR caused cuts in flying time. During that period, American pilots were actually increasing their   flying time. Moreover, U.S. flight simulators were getting better. American pilots were finding that even the game oriented combat flight simulators had some training value. So in the late 1990s, Top Gun and Red Flag found their budgets cut. But the programs remain, as does the memory of why they were set up in the first place. If we find that, say, China is continuing to improve its combat aviation, gives its fighter pilots more flying time and their politicians maintain a bellicose attitude towards the U.S., there will be a need to increase American Top Gun training. Because of the new Chinese "dissimilar training" effort, the U.S. Top Gun and Red Flag schools are being restored to their former prominence, sort of. The Chinese move is certainly a very meaningful one, as it shows that they are serious about preparing their pilots to fight, and defeat Taiwanese and American pilots. The Chinese are particularly interested in gaining an electronic edge. Dissimilar training is how that is done.

 


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