Lon Nordeen reviews the current stock of western air superiority fighters, air-to-air missiles carried and similar systems in service and under development by China and Russia
Air superiority brings up images of fighter aircraft swirling around the sky in classic dogfights but during the past twenty years there have been relatively few engagements where fighters have shot down other aircraft.
The US Department of Defense defines air superiority as “That degree of dominance in the air battle of one force over another which permits the conduct of operations by the former and its related land, air and sea forces at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing force.”
Many of the air-to-air engagements of the recent past have taken place during regional confrontations, air-policing and anti-terror operations. However, the situation could change in the future if tension between nation states increases, and as large numbers of advanced fighters and longer-range air-to-air missiles enter service with air arms around the world, especially China and Russia.
US and coalition strike aircraft have been flying over Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade and Syria since 2014. There have been some close calls in the skies over Syria, Iraq and the near east region as jets, helicopters, transports and UAVs from many nations operate in close proximity. Fighter pilots from the US, Israel, Syria, Jordan and several other air arms have shot down UAVs.
Turkish Air Force F-16 pilots actively defended their nation’s airspace, shooting down a Russian Su-24M Fencer on November 24, 2015, a Syrian MiG-23 Flogger on March 24, 2014 and a Mi-17 Hip helicopter on September 17, 2013.
The most recent air battle took place on June 18, 2017 when a US Navy pilot, flying an F/A-18E Super Hornet assigned to Strike Fighter Squadron 87 (VFA-87) from the USS George H W Bush (CVN-77), shot down a Syrian Su-22 which was attacking friendly forces operating near Tabqah, Syria. A Pentagon spokesman said two Super Hornet pilots: “saw the Su-22 approaching … it was carrying ordnance. They did everything they could to try and warn it away. They did a head-butt manoeuvre, they launched flares, but ultimately the Su-22 went into a dive and it was observed dropping munitions and was subsequently shot down.” Reportedly the pilot fired a short-range AIM-9X Sidewinder infrared-guided air-to-air missile that missed. Then the pilot followed up with a radarguided AIM-120 AMRAAM that downed the Su-22 - the pilot was seen to eject. Two days later a US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle shot down an Iranian-made Shahed 129 UAV over Syria.
The air situation became more complex after October 2015 when Russia deployed aircraft and advanced air defences to Syria and began flying combat operations with helicopters and jets. The Russians called the June 18 shoot down a: “massive violation of international law” and vowed that any aircraft belonging to the US-led coalition flying west of the Euphrates over Syria, “will be tracked by Russian ground and air anti-aircraft defence systems as air targets in the areas where Russian aviation is on air combat missions in the Syrian sky”.
Modern warfare usually involves major air campaigns comprising multiple air operations taking place at the same time with the goal of achieving air dominance. For example, during Operations Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector over Libya, air superiority, reconnaissance, air defence suppression, strike, airbase attack, air-to-air refuelling, maritime surveillance and strike missions ran in parallel.
There are many factors that influence an air superiority campaign; first, and arguably foremost, the quality of the fighter aircraft and its weapons (air-to-air missiles and guns) plus support to keep fighters in the air. They are just the tip of the spear and without its welltrained personnel to monitor airspace and vector fighters into action, radar, datalinks and combat detection and information systems, the spear point is useless. Refuelling tankers, the location of the battle zone in relation to blue-force airfields or aircraft carriers and other elements also need to be factored in.
Air combat results during the major operations of the 1990s were very much in favour of western forces. For instance, in the Gulf War of 1990-1991 the score was US-led coalition 33 v Iraq 1, Iraqi no fly zone actions 1992-1994 US-led coalition 4 v Iraq 1 UAV, and Kosovo in 1999 NATO-led coalition 5 v Yugoslav Air Force 0. Credit for the lopsided results was attributed to better fighters and air-to-air missiles, better trained pilots and also superior situational awareness provided to coalition pilots by AWACS, datalinks and similar information systems.
However, the trends are shifting. At a hearing of the US House Armed Services Committee, Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, held in Washington DC on July 13, 2016, US Air Force Air Combat Command commander, General Hawk Carlisle remarked: “America cannot effectively wield its military as an instrument of national power without the means to control the skies”, Carlisle added: “Today’s air superiority mission rests upon a mix of fourth- and fifthgeneration fighters, supported by a highly refined command and control network, and flown by the world’s best trained airmen … our competitors have made progress in the quest to match and counter American aerial capabilities … we are witnessing the emergence of advanced aircraft such as the T-50 [Su-57] from Russia and the J-20 and J-31 from China”.
Senator John McCain - Chairman of the US Senate Armed Services Committee included the following in his committee’s report for hearings on February 26, 2017: “For the last 25 years, our adversaries have gone to school on the American way of war. And with focused determination, they have invested in, developed, and/or fielded the capabilities to counter it - [including] - large numbers of modern fighter aircraft, including some fifth-generation platforms, armed with capable air-to-air missiles that in some cases outrange our own…”
Fighters of the jet age have evolved though at least five generations. Each new generation of fighters incorporated improved performance, sensors and from what’s deemed the third generation, a mix of air-to-air missiles (AAMs) and guns. With each generation, the fighter and its associated sensors and AAMs have become more sophisticated, more capable - and more expensive. This has meant that governments have only been able to afford to buy and field fewer aeroplanes.
These high powered manoeuvrable aircraft – usually stealthy – with advanced avionics, networked data fusion and multi-role capability are designed to be difficult to detect and track with the intention of improving survivability rates in contested airspace. Fifthgeneration aircraft will be used to ‘kick in the door’ on the first day of battle to make way for less stealthy machines, dealing with enemy fighters and integrated air defence systems (IADS). Fancy perhaps, but surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and guns have killed far more aircraft than air combat over the past 50 years.
In 2005 the US Air Force’s F-22 Raptor was the first fifth-generation fighter to enter service, but only 195 were built. It has now been joined by the F-35 Lightning II, with about 290 delivered at the time of writing from a planned 3000+ for the United States, the UK, Australia, Denmark, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, the Republic of South Korea and Turkey. Russia’s Sukhoi Su-57 [formerly referred to by its T-50 PAK FA test designation] is an interesting twin engine fifth-generation fighter now in the advanced stages of development and testing. The first T-50 made its maiden flight in 2010 and the first deliveries to the Russian Air Force are expected in 2018. The type is seen as the eventual replacement for the MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27/Su-30 Flanker-series of fourth-generation fighters. However, the Su-57 is already proving to be very expensive and it is unclear how many Russia will be able to afford. In China, the large, twin-engine Chendgu J-20 stealth fighter first flew in 2011 and entered service in late 2017. China is also developing the Shenyang J-31, a smaller twin-engine fifth-generation fighter that first flew in 2012.
Other fifth-generation fighter aircraft are still in their early stages of development. Japan’s Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin stealth technology demonstrator first flew on April 22, 2016. A production standard version could eventually replace Japan’s F-15 Eagles and serve alongside its F-35A Lightning IIs, the first of which arrived at Misawa Air Base in late January 2018. India has been trying to develop an indigenous fifth-generation fighter, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) has been working with Sukhoi and other Russian firms for years; nothing has materialised yet. HAL is also working on a new fighter dubbed the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft, a medium-sized fifth-generation aircraft intended to replace older jets in Indian Air Force service. AMCA has been in development since 2008 and optimists hope the first one may fly in 2018. South Korea’s KF-X development programme started in 2016 with the goal of developing a fifth-generation fighter design for the air forces of the Republic of Korea and Indonesia. In 2011 Turkish Aerospace Industries committed to design a twin-engine fifth-generation fighter. Known as the TAI TFX, this programme is reportedly funded and in development.
Fighters are so expensive that they are expected to last decades and go through several upgrade cycles. For example, the US Air Force FY2017 request to upgrade the F-22 fleet included software load Increment 3.2B to be installed this year. This will add the AIM-120D AMRAAM and AIM-9X air-to-air missiles, implement open mission systems to allow integration and fielding of fifthto- fifth and fifth-to-fourth communication systems interoperability, helmet-mounted weapons cueing and GPS M-Code upgrades for the Raptor. Interestingly, a report by the US government’s Inspector General released on March 21 gave more details of the F-22’s Increment 3.2B software, which it said had fallen 28 months behind schedule by 2014.
According to the report, the F-22 System Program Office based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio adopted an agile software development process called Scaled Agile Framework. The process was adopted to speed up implementation of operational flight program (OFP) software for the F-22. The concept enables OFP software updates, much smaller than those previously released for flight testing under multi-year blocks, to be released every 12 weeks. The F-35 Lightning II Joint Program Office is reportedly adopting a similar framework for further developing the strike fighter’s software, an interesting development so late in the development cycle of the F-35, but one that will no doubt be adopted by the US Department of Defense and industry which are already working on so-called sixth-generation fighters, manned and unmanned.
The US Air Force and US Navy are developing the Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) family of advanced fighters to continue air superiority in the late 2020s and early 2030s. The US Joint Chiefs of Staff has approved the capabilities documents and Congress funded billions of dollars for air superiority studies for land and carrier-based platforms and systems. US Air Force Director of Advanced Requirements, Major General Paul Johnson stated: “There is every likelihood it’s going to be some sort of family of systems, and hopefully it will be a mix of old and new”.
Like fighters, air-to-air missiles have developed through five generations of overall capability and performance (see panel).
Air-to-air missiles generally can be divided into three major groups; short-range, usually infrared-guided, designed for close-in combat, medium-range, often radar-guided, for use at night and in poor weather and long-range for beyond visual range engagement. Today these categories are ever more blurred; the Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM and MBDA MICA can both be fired against close-in targets while the MBDA ASRAAM and Raytheon AIM-9X are effective out to medium range; the AIM-9 was originally designed as a short-range missile.
”Look at our adversaries and what they’re developing, the PL- 15 and the range of that weapon … how do we counter that and what are we going to do to continue to meet that threat?”
General Hawk Carlisle, former commander of Air Combat Command
A majority of the air combat victories of the past 50 years involved short-range airto- air missiles such as the American AIM-9B and AIM-9M Sidewinder, Russian Vympel K-13A (AA-2 Atoll), Israeli Rafael Python family and French Matra Magic-series. One of the greatest surprises for the West at the end of the Cold War, was the capabilities of Russian MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker aircraft armed with the Vympel R-73 (AA-11 Archer) missile, and pilots equipped with helmet-mounted-sights which gave Russian forces a major advantage in any potential close-in air combat.
To counter the Russian advantage US, NATO and Israeli authorities lost no time in starting to develop helmet-mounted cueing systems and agile short-range air-to-air missiles such as the Israeli Rafael Python IV, US Raytheon AIM-9X Sidewinder, MBDA’s ASRAAM and the German Diehl BGT Defence’s IRIS-T.
Other air combat victories of the jet age have been achieved using an aircraft’s cannon or medium/long-range air-to-air missiles; the US Raytheon AIM-7 Sparrow family, Hughes (later Raytheon) AIM-54 Phoenix, Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM, French Matra Super 530 and Russia’s Vympel R-23/R-24 (AA-7 Apex), and R-40 (AA-6 Acrid). The introduction of fourth-generation fighters equipped with improved radars and more advanced air-to-air missiles in the 1980s enabled longer-range air combat engagements.
Many factors come into play for effective employment of an air-to-air missile. First, the target must be detected by radar, electrooptical, infrared or fused data. Second, the target must be identified by radar, identification friend or foe and/or noncooperative target recognition systems, off board sensors fed via datalink (such as Link 16) or other means. A fighter pilot must go through a series of tasks to achieve success: searching, sorting, identification of targets, shooting missiles (and/or evading them), re-engagement, dealing with the close-in combat phase and finally disengagement.
Data fusion is one of the major advantages that some fourth- and alll fifth-generation fighters have over legacy jets, the new avionics simplify the battle management process.
”Gaining and maintaining air superiority to enable joint force operations in 2030 and beyond requires a new approach.”
Conclusion of the US Air Force Air Superiority 2030 report
Stealth or low-observability is touted as a key advantage. Starting with the F-117 in the 1980s, fourth- and fifth-generation fighters (and future platforms) are designed to be harder to detect and track with air- or ground-based radar systems.
The study titled Trends in Air-to-Air Combat: Implications for Future Air Superiority by Dr John Stillion released in 2015 by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment concluded: “Trends suggest that over the past five decades, advances in radar and other sensor technologies, missile capabilities, and communication technologies allowed pilots to search effectively much larger volumes of sky and engage targets at ever-increasing range. Most modern air combat engagements were initiated before the aircraft were within visual range with a commensurate decrease in the frequency of maneuvering combat”.
Even with all the systems integrated on modern fighters, the odds are that a pilot will be surprised and forced to react and/or fight in a visual air combat scenario. Training and experience are essential, but pilots must also have the right systems to fight in this arena - agile air-to-air missiles, helmet-mounted cueing systems, missile approach warning systems, decoys and electronic counter measures.
After an air-to-air missile is launched the target aircraft might become aware of the situation and turn away or activate countermeasures. During the first Gulf War, several Iraqi fighter pilots successfully used manoeuvre and flare decoys to evade missile attacks by US Air Force F-15s. More recently, the Syrian Su-22 pilot shot down turned and deployed flares which might have decoyed the AIM-9X before the kill-shot from the AIM- 120 AMRAAM.
Despite improvements to the systems designed to provide situation awareness, there is still serious risk of fratricide when air-to-air or surface-to-air missiles are fired. In a terrible incident over northern Iraq on April 14, 1994, US Air Force F-15C Eagle pilots flying in support of Operation Provide Comfort, operating under the control of an E-3 Sentry AWACS, shot down two US Army Black Hawk helicopters, killing 26 US and allied personnel. The F-15 pilots, AWACS crew and command staff were all sure the targets were Iraqi Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters violating the no-fly zone.
Even with datalinks and improved guidance sensors, how can you be sure, after flying out 100 miles, the target detected and tracked by a long-range air-to-air missile is an enemy fighter and not an airliner?
Information superiority: critical for future success
More than 75% of pilots shot down in air combat since World War One were caught by surprise. Achieving a victory with an air-to-air missile after an unobserved entry into the fight works most of the time, unless the opposing pilot is warned and can rapidly turn around a bad situation. Truly in air combat, better information (situation awareness) means improved options for success and survival.
The network used to support the fighter includes a multitude of systems which collect, collate and analyse information and rapidly disseminate the data to battle commanders and pilots. Once information superiority is achieved combat can commence - if the rules of engagement are met.
Speaking at a Pentagon briefing on August 11, 2016, US Air Force Chief of Staff, General David Goldfein said: “When I hear about [the comparison between] an F-35 versus a J-20, it’s almost an irrelevant comparison …the F-35 starts comparing information, it starts preparing symbology [to place] on the pilot’s helmet-mounted display before the pilot even climbs the ladder. That symbology is replicated not only on the displays but across the network of everywhere it’s joined.
Unlike any other fielded fighter jet, the F-35 can share what it sees in the battle space with counterparts, which creates a family of systems…fifth-generation technology, it’s no longer about a platform, it’s about a family of systems and it’s about a network, and that’s what gives us an asymmetric advantage”.
However, during testimony to the US House Armed Services Committee, Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee on June 18, 2016, US Air Force Major General J D Harris stated the United States’ near peer adversaries were closing the gap with US forces in technology, weapons and airpower capabilities, including datalink technology.
Looking to the future
Tomorrow’s air-to-air missiles will increase the range of possible engagements, increase the volume of no escape zones and add many new capabilities. China’s PL-15 appears to have improved propulsion to achieve longer range. The European Meteor has ramjet propulsion, providing greater range and sustained energy. Russia has fielded the long-range Vympel R-37M (AA-13 Arrow) air-to-air missile which features a rocket booster that gets jettisoned but increases the missile’s range to a reported range up to 400km (220nm) from a cruise profile.
A hint of future air-to-air missile development work has been cited as the main reason for continued US and allied investment. During a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, on September 15, 2015, the then commander of Air Combat Command, General Hawk Carlisle remarked: “Look at our adversaries and what they’re developing, the PL-15 and the range of that weapon … how do we counter that and what are we going to do to continue to meet that threat?”
One option that the US is investing in, is smaller advanced air-to-air missiles to allow fighters more shot opportunities. This is one of the concepts for the Small Advanced Capabilities Missile (SACM) now being developed by Raytheon.
Concerned about adversary advancements, the US Air Force invested in a major study called Air Superiority 2030, which was released in 2016. The report concluded that: “Gaining and maintaining air superiority to enable joint force operations in 2030 and beyond requires a new approach.
This approach requires strategic agility through experimentation, prototyping, and agile acquisition strategies. If successful, this strategic agility will provide future commanders with options through fielding of an integrated and networked family of capabilities in the Air Superiority 2030 force structure. Stand-off and stand-in forces will work together to provide effects at the desired time and place, enabling the Air Force to fulfill its fundamental responsibility to provide air superiority in 2030 and beyond in support of joint force objectives”.
The trend toward beyond visual range air combat will likely increase due to the enhanced command and control, data fusion and networking. Advanced fighters with unmanned aerial vehicles flying as virtual wingmen, reduced signatures, high performance, tactics and electronic warfare will shape the nature and outcome of future air-to-air combat.
Computers are now so powerful that they can war-game potential air combat engagements and predict probable outcomes. This allows for tailoring of aircraft, sensors, weapons and new innovative tactics and countermeasures. Further in the future, laser, particle beam or similar energy weapons could replace guns and missiles. Deployment of an operational system is years away, but these systems would dramatically change the nature of air combat giving the first nation to field such a weapon a huge advantage. AI