The controversy surrounding the F-35 is fundamentally an extension of the debate over what a future fighter should be. Recently the aircraft made news when it was officially announced that the airframe couldn’t dogfight worth a damn. The standard riposte is that dogfighting as a form of aerial combat, stopped being relevant a long time ago.
Perhaps the best advocate for dogfighting-is-dead point of view isn’t a paper for the F-35 but a paper which argues that air combat is fundamentally changing. Perhaps the F-35 is not the best tool for coming era, but neither is the super-dogfighter many in the public seem to crave. In a PDF article titled Trends in Air-to-air Combat, John Stillion of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments argues that the era of pointing the airframe at moving point in space is over. It never really existed. Even during the age of gun kills, most victories arose from a dominant situational awareness and the ability to initiate the fight and disengage at will. The dominant importance of getting in first did not change in Vietnam.
detailed analysis of 112 air combat engagements during the Vietnam War conducted by the U.S. Air Force (USAF) in the 1970s concluded that 80 percent of aircrew shot down were unaware of the impending attack. Surprise, the tactical outcome of superior SA, is so important to success in air combat that it is assumed in the modern USAF air combat mantra of “First Look, First Shot, First Kill.” Despite vast changes in aircraft, sensor, communication, and weapon capabilities over the past century, the fundamental goal of air combat has remained constant: leverage superior SA to sneak into firing position, destroy the opposing aircraft, and depart before other enemy aircraft can react
Being seen first is usually a death sentence, especially in an era of high off-boresight, long range missiles. Stillion notes that since Vietnam it’s been missiles all the way. The last gun kill by anybody was in 1988.
the use of guns in aerial combat virtually ended after the Yom Kippur War in late 1973. Out of 498 victory claims since that time, 440 (88 percent) have been credited to AAMs and only thirty to guns.39 The last gun kill of one jet combat aircraft by another occurred in May of 1988 when an Iranian F-4E downed an Iraqi Su-22M with 20 mm cannon fire.
Also of note is the near-disappearance of the rear-aspect-only IR missile victories and the reduction in proportion of victories achieved by all-aspect missiles such as the AIM-9L/M. Over the past two decades, the majority of aerial victories have been the result of BVR engagements where the victor almost always possessed advantages in sensor and weapon range and usually superior support from “offboard information sources” such as GCI radar operators or their airborne counterparts in Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) aircraft. This is significant, as it suggests the competition for SA is heavily influenced by the relative capabilities of the opponents’ electronic sensors, electronic countermeasures (ECM), and network links between sensor, command and control (C2), and combat aircraft nodes
In the first Gulf War, all coalition kills were scored via missile, and it’s only air to air loss was an F/A-18 to another BVR missile fired by an Iraqi Mig-25. Interestingly the less air combat depended on individual skill, the greater the American advantage in integrated combat systems proved to be. The US air to air kill ratio in Vietnam was 2:1. By the first Gulf War it was 33:1. The death of the dogfight, he argued, worked wildly in America’s favor.
Today, with missiles able to shoot directly behind a fighter, maneuver is completely secondary to situational awareness, Stillion argues. The next step is to carry trends to their logical conclusion and let unmanned aircraft carry the weapons leaving the stealthy, manned fighter to control them. This division of labor is driven by the fact that unmanned aircraft can outperform and out-turn any conceivable manned fighter. Physics guarantees it.
If the future air combat environment consists almost exclusively of BVR missile duels or, eventually, directed-energy weapons engagements, achieving a decisive SA advantage will increasingly depend on the relative ability of the opposing sides to acquire and process longrange sensor data and rapidly integrate it with offboard information provided via data networks.
One way to think about the end of dogfighting is to consider directed energy weapons. You can’t outturn a laser, not even in principle so you let the unmanned vehicles do the actual shooting. But how do you control what might be called a pilot’s tactical swarm? While artificial intelligence can create increasingly capable unmanned aircraft, keeping a man in the loop requires putting him as near the action as possible. Data lags and latency make it impossible to control an air fight over the Pacific, for example, from an airbase in the US.
Your only chance is to control it from a flying, stealthy computer, like an F-35 positioned to the rear of the swarm. Interestingly enough, this provides another ground for criticizing the F-35. The optimal “mother ship” for a UCAS (Unmanned Combat Air System) is a stealthy, bomber sized platform with dozens of very long ranged air to air missiles controlling its own swarm. From this point of view the real problem with the F-35 isn’t that it can’t dogfight, but it is too small and short legged to do the job right.