Murphy's Law: Top Gun Mutates For F-35

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May 3, 2017: With the arrival of the F-35 fighter the U.S. Air Force and Navy pilots are facing a training problem, one they have encountered before. The first time was during the 1960s when the air force and navy aviation suffered unexpectedly high combat losses because their aircraft and pilots were not prepared for the lower tech Russian aircraft used against them over Vietnam. The initial solution was for fighters to be again equipped with cannon because the new air-to-air missiles were not yet reliable enough to replace the “old fashioned” cannon. That did not change the situation a lot and that led to a solution that did work. This was the concept of using your own aircraft for "aggressor (or dissimilar) training." This began in 1969 when the U.S. Navy established the original "Top Gun" fighter pilot school. As the years went by the air force and navy acquired more Russian warplanes to use for training in addition to using Western fighters equipped and flown in the same manner as the potential opposition.

But in the 21st century the 1960s solution did not work as well. This is becoming a serious problem as more air force and navy pilots prepare to switch from F-18s, F-15s and F-16s to F-35s. These transition pilots are finding that Top Gun type training needs much better adversary aircraft because potential foes (China and Russia) have improved their tech considerably since the F-22 arrived and the law, literally, has to be changed so the military can use adversary aircraft equipped with the advanced tech (like AESA radars and more complex electronics in general). One aspect of this problem is that the military uses commercial firms to supply aircraft and retired (and very experienced) military pilots to fly the dissimilar aircraft. Current laws prohibit the commercial firms from obtaining the high-tech fighters required to adequately challenge F-35 and F-22 pilots. Using the more advanced dissimilar aircraft is also more expensive and the senior air force and navy leadership now understand that this is an essential cost. But there is general agreement that these changes are needed. Apparently Israeli experience with their F-35s have reinforced the call for more realistic Top Gun opposition.

This is a relatively recent problem. The F-22 began development in the late 1980s, first flew in 1997, and entered service in 2005. The F-22 has performance that was (and still is) far superior to that of any other aircraft in service. The combination of speed, advanced electronics, and stealth technology has created such a decisive advantage that F-22s are often matched up against as many as six F-15s to ensure their pilots face a challenge during training. So why is the F-35, with somewhat lower performance, causing such a commotion? The problem is that because of high cost only 187 F-22s were built. But more than 20 times as many F-35s will enter service, many of them with allied air forces. For the dissimilar training to work the F-35 has to face aircraft that can realistically mimic what the latest Russian and Chinese fighters are capable of.

All this began in the 1960s when it was realized it was the only solution for the poor performance of American pilots against North Vietnamese pilots flying Russian fighters during the 1960s. 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.

Since the 1970s 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 as 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 Soviet Union 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.

Because the Cold War was over and no similar foe had appeared, in the late the 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. Now we find that China is continuing to improve its combat aviation, giving its fighter pilots more flying time. Chinese politicians maintain a bellicose attitude towards the U.S. and it is accepted that there is 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 were 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. Dissimilar training is how that is done.

 


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