Murphy's Law: June 28, 2001

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Air Force generals around the world are increasingly worried about the growing capability of American long range air-to-air missile technology. It's not just that the American long range missiles (especially the AMRAAM) are the most capable, but that the Americans have additional technology that gives pilots the confidence to make those long shots. The most obvious technology is the AWACS aircraft, which can keep track of all aircraft in the battle area and confirm for U.S. pilots that the aircraft way out there is hostile. But a less well known technology is found in the radars of the most modern U.S. fighters. This item is called JEM (Jet Engine Modulation) and it can detect the unique radar return each type of jet engine gives (based on how each engines compressor blades operate.) This radar on an F-15, for example, has an electronic library of JEM signals and can tell the pilot quickly if the aircraft 40 kilometers away is an F-16 or an Su-27. The latest Western aircraft, like the F-22 and Typhoon have other advantages. They are better designed to make supersonic turns. This means that when faced with an enemy aircraft firing long range missiles, an F-22 can get it's shot off then make a high speed turn and get farther away from the enemy missile, thus decreasing the missiles ability to hit the target. This brings up another little discussed aspect of air to air missiles; their rocket motors quickly use up their fuel (in a few seconds at most) and go the rest of the way on momentum. That means these missiles are slower at longer ranges. This enables an aircraft that knows the missile is coming (most modern aircraft have "missile detectors) to outmaneuver a long shot. With current missiles, a shot beyond 40 kilometers can be avoided if you know it's coming. This gives less well equipped air forces a fighting chance. Using the latest short range (up to 15 kilometer range) heat seeking missiles (the Israeli Python or Russian R-73 Archer, both available on the open market) you can take down an F-22 if you can get close enough. Indeed, any old clunker of a fighter (like a MiG-21) carrying R-73s can zap an F-22 if it can get within range (about 8 kilometers). To counter this, and make the long range shots more effective, the latest aircraft (like the F-22) are equipped with real time datalinks. Thus what one aircraft in a group can spot with it's radar, all can see on their screens. This enables four or more F-22s to keep an eye on an enormous amount of air space. It allows the group to get one of it's aircraft close enough (under 30 kilometers) from the enemy to get off long range missiles) while the others fire long range shots to keep the hostile warplanes from getting too close. Most worrisome, especially to wealthy nations like the U.S., is how vulnerable their expensive F-22s are if the enemy comes up with some clever new technical angle. It's very much a war of wits up there, and the sharpest minds get to live.


 


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