Murphy's Law: The Look and Shoot Revolution


June 1, 2023: The United States is providing Ukraine with F-16s, which is eager to have them because the F-16 is easier and cheaper to operate than its Cold War Russian counterpart, the MiG-29. The F-16s have a modern glass cockpit, where a few flat screen touch displays replace the older mechanical switches. The F-16 also has a superior radar and fire control system as well as a modern DASH (Display and Sight Helmet) for pilots. The Ukrainians know about DASH because the Soviet Union introduced DASH for Mig-29s in 1985. The U.S. Air force did not get around to adopting this tech until 2003. In 1991 Ukraine became independent and inherited some MiG-29s and the Soviet era ZSH DASH helmets. While the MiG-29 was very agile and, when operated by a trained pilot using a DASH helmet, was a formidable combat aircraft, the aircraft was expensive to maintain. Some MiG-29s were upgraded with glass cockpit and electronics similar to the F-16, but the Russians could never get the pilot (user) interface to work as effectively as in Western warplanes. The larger and less expensive to maintain Su-27/30 aircraft were preferred by export customers but Russian pilots preferred the more maneuverable, especially at slow speeds, MiG-29.

Despite its theoretical advantages, the MiG-29 has a much less impressive combat record than the F-16. The two aircraft fought each other in the air in the late 1990s over Kosovo where F-16s downed two MiG-29s while F-15s downed three. Between 1982 and the present MiG-29s have shot down six aircraft, lost 18 in air-to-air combat and lost one to ground fire. Between 1979 and the present F-16s have shot down 76 aircraft, lost one in air-to-air combat and lost five to ground fire.

About 1,600 MiG-29s were built since it was introduced in 1983 and many export customers were dismayed at the high cost of maintaining the aircraft. Most countries using MiG-29s then could not afford to pay what was required to keep their MiG-29s operational. In the 1990s Ukraine was one of them but that changed after Russia attacked Ukraine in 2014 and seized Crimea and parts of two eastern provinces (the Donbas). After that Ukraine found the resources to keep more of their Soviet era warplanes operational. They also came to realize that equivalent Western aircraft, especially the F-16, were cheaper to maintain. The MiG-29 was the Russian response to the then-new F-16 and F-15 fighters. The American aircraft were easier to use for pilots and maintainers and clashes between MiG-29s and F-16s usually resulted in Mig-29s losing. This was the case before F-16 pilots received DASH helmets. Then, as now, pilot experience is a more of a factor in air combat than what equipment each aircraft has. Since 2014, and especially since the Russians invaded in February 2022, Ukrainian pilots are getting a lot more flight hours. This has enabled them to prevail in air combat but they also knew they would be even more effective with F-16s or other similar Western fighter aircraft.

Because of the pilot experience factor, the Americans were not even aware of the true capabilities of modern Russian aircraft until the early 1990s, after the Soviet Union collapsed and Soviet controlled East Germany merged with NATO member West Germany. The U.S. Air Force had an opportunity to test the Mig-29s against American jet fighters. When flown by experienced German Air Force pilots, the MiG-29 and its ZSH helmet mounted targeting system proved more formidable than the Americans expected. This was due to the maneuverability of the MiG-29 and pilots using a DASH helmet. The many MiG-29s the Americans had shot down previously were flown by inexperienced pilots.

Over the last two decades the Americans have invested heavily in DASH technologies. American pilots have been using DASH helmets since 2003 and continually upgrading them. The U.S. Air Force recently spent $400 million buying a new AV-2 DASH pilot helmet. The AV-2 was winner of a 2022 NGFW (Next Generation Fixed Wing Helmet) competition between three helmet manufacturers, including GENTEX, which has provided most of the DASH helmets for fighter pilots since the 1980s. DASH helmets are a big business with over a dozen separate markets for helmets. The AV-2 is for jet fighter pilots and is lighter, easier to use and can accommodate more new features.

Combat pilots don’t all use the same DASH type helmet. Attack aircraft and helicopter pilots require helmets specialized for their jobs. The most demanding category is fighter pilots, who benefit the most from lighter, more expensive and more capable in general, helmets. Not all fighter aircraft pilots use the same helmet. For example, F-35 pilots fly aircraft that behave differently than most fighters. This is particularly true for naval aviators operating from carriers. For example, in 2018 U.S. Navy finally got an upgrade to the F-35 version of the JHMCS (Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System) that fixed a serious problem that was only noticed once less experienced F-35 carrier pilots began using JHMCS during night carrier landings (“night traps”). Carrier pilots did not begin using the F-35s on carriers until 2014 and the pilots involved were veteran carrier pilots who found the F-35 JHMCS worked fine and these veteran carrier pilots adapted to it quickly. But once new carrier pilots, with less than a few dozen night traps, began flying the F-35C carrier version there were reports that at night some green light leaked from the JHMCS in such a way that it was difficult to see the landing lights on the carrier deck that pilots had to constantly check to make a successful night trap. For F-35C pilots with more than a few dozen night traps this was not considered a major problem but for novice F-35C pilots it was seen as a potentially fatal distraction, especially during night traps carried out in bad weather. Until the problem was fixed only carrier pilots with fifty or more night traps could perform night traps with the F-35C.

That problem has been fixed by using OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) displays in the JHMCS helmets in place of the older LED tech. The first of these OLED versions went to the F-35C pilots with fewer than 50 night traps and eventually, all F-35C pilots had them. OLED was a planned upgrade for JHMCS and aircraft flight instruments in general, but there was not a lot of urgency for the more powerful F-35 version of the JHMCS. This version had a lot more data available on the helmet visor and was used differently than other versions of JHMCS.

The LED light leak problem was one of the things noted as a minor problem to be fixed eventually, after a major advance in the design of these helmets appeared in 2012. This new version entered service as JHMCS II and, like JHMCS I, allowed the user to fire weapons at wherever their eyes are pointed, no matter what direction the helmet is pointed. This new version did everything the older version did but faster and with less effort by the pilot. Version II used better hardware and software to track the movement of the pilot's eyes. The new JHMCS was better balanced and much more comfortable to wear and use. The new version was 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 their 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 was lighter and easier to wear (weight was a major problem in the past), easier to use, and more reliable, especially if you don't bump into the canopy. The new AV-1 helmet is lighter still and more capable in general.

The Israelis firm Elbit took the lead in developing this technology and made many technical breakthroughs with their earlier DASH system. Elbit teamed up with American firms to develop and market JHMCS, which is largely an improved DASH system. This also led to the F-35s JGMCS and the current AV-2.

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 these 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 Germany's 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.

Since the 1980s 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 was important. Even so, shortly after September 11, 2001, 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. The AV-2 helmet weighs about 40 percent less than most current models.

Before 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 this more expensive Western style of training pilots over the last few decades.

In 2015 the U.S. again upgraded the JHMCS II "look and shoot" helmet displays used by F-35, F-15, F-16 and F-18 pilots. The F-35s also got the latest version (the U.S.–Israeli HMDS, Helmet-Mounted Display System) included a new VR (Virtual Reality) feature. These new helmets can display graphics in real time and the VR feature enables the helmet display to show what is beneath the aircraft (via six infrared cameras on the fuselage beneath the cockpit) when the pilot looks down with this VR feature turned on. This can be very useful in combat, ground attack or simply landing. This feature proved particularly effective when operating at night. HMDS is also closely integrated with the very capable F-35 avionics and thus will enable the F-35 to be the first modern jet without a standard HUD (mounted above the cockpit instruments in front of the pilot).

Basic features of these "look and shoot" helmet displays include information displayed on the visor, and sensors in the helmet, which enables the pilot to look at the target (either another aircraft, or something on the ground) and fire a weapon (missile) that will go after the target being looked at. Recent upgrades allow the pilot to also put "head up display" (HUD) information on the helmet visor visual system. This is a big advantage in air combat, where it's always been a problem having to look down at some display or instrument reading, and take your eyes off the surrounding airspace. This makes it safer for pilots (especially when flying on the deck, at high speed) and in combat. Another recent enhancement allows each pilot to customize what information is shown on their helmet visor.

These helmets are one of the major, and little mentioned, revolutions in air combat. Enabling a pilot to “look and shoot” as well as keep their heads up most of the time and more quickly make decisions in air-to-air combat is a big deal. 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 airspace, 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.




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