An Affair of the Mind

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.


But the F-35 airplane America has bought and its defenders planned to sorta-kinda use it in this way, if only to justify it.   If it works will be quite revolutionary. Any wargame between a Eurofighter class airplanes and a swarm of UCAS or information dominant opponents results in a complete massacre. Ideally the forward edge of US airpower would consist of UCAS aircraft supported further back by tankers, long range missile platforms and information assets.   Such a combination would easily sweep the field.

Of course Stillion could be getting it all wrong. As Malcolm Davis of the National Interest writes, once the situational awareness dominance goes away the remaining uncoordinated aircraft will be toast. They will have lost their key edge and just be slow targets lugging around disconnected computers.

The underlying basis for current assumptions about the ascendance of long-range air-to-air combat and the demise of the dogfight is that U.S. and allied forces will always have a clear and sustainable ‘knowledge edge’ over any adversary in a manner that bestows superior situational awareness to permit unrestricted use of BVRAAMs. In this regard, the true success of the F-35 in tactical air-to-air warfare may in fact depend on an ability to preserve a knowledge edge at the strategic level in the face of determined efforts by future adversaries to decisively win an information battle at the outset of any future conflict.

General Dai Qingmin, PLA, states that a key goal of the PLA’s approach to INEW is to disrupt the normal operation of enemy battlefield information systems, while protecting one’s own, with the objective of seizing information superiority. Therefore, winning in the air against the PLAAF may be determined as much by which side wins these information warfare campaigns, as through success in tactical beyond-visual range air to air engagements. Imagine no data links between the F-35s and the AWACS; AESA radars on an E-7A Wedgetail spoofed; ASAT attacks that bring down strategic communications or computer-network attacks that strike logistics or which jam GPS signals, and the first shots fired are not missiles but satellites silenced by computer hackers or ground-based jamming. Furthermore there will be an incentive to strike quickly and decisively, with an information ‘battle of the first salvo’ effect emerging. Without the flexibility bestowed by these systems, the F-35 pilot must rely on on-board sensor systems such as its AESA Radar and Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS) to detect, track and engage targets which increase the detectability of the aircraft and potentially bring the F-35 into the envelope of an opponent’s within visual range systems.


This means intangible information assets have become as important as battleships and aircraft carriers in December, 1941.  A Chinese “Pearl Harbor” strike against US satellites and information systems could be conducted without killing a single American. But would the public react the same way? Would an administration similar to the current  regard that as casus belli? Or will it ignore it like the OPM hack and just move on?

There will be no burning battleships, no tattered fluttering flag waving defiantly in the smoke filled sky.  The reality of modern day information combat is that China can win a war without killing a single person or disrupting a single reality TV show. What if America could lose World War 3 and not even know it, especially if it relies on its politicians to tell it an attack has occurred.

This is already an issue. Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon reports that “the United States will continue to suffer increasingly damaging cyber attacks against both government and private sector networks as long as there is no significant response, according to a recent US intelligence community assessment.”

Disclosure of the intelligence assessment, an analytical consensus of 16 US spy agencies, comes as the Obama administration is debating how to respond to a major cyber attack against the Office of Personnel Management. Sensitive records on 22.1 million federal workers, including millions cleared for access to secrets, were stolen by hackers linked to China’s government. …

Last week, Adm. Mike Rogers, commander of the US Cyber Command, said the increase in state-sponsored cyber attacks is partly the result of a perception that “there’s not a significant price to pay” for such attacks.

Privately, administration officials said the assessment appears to be an indirect criticism of the administration’s approach to cyber attacks that has emphasized diplomatic and law enforcement measures instead of counter-cyber attacks.

The bottom line is that the F-35’s combat utility is partly dependent on whether the US is willing to embark on a long term strategy of using and depending on informational capabilities.  If information warfare and not dogfighting is the wave of the future, it may destabilize the world in ways we only dimly understanding. Scientists are already warning against the next “nuclear proliferation” danger, the “arms race in artificial intelligence”.


Scientists and tech experts – including professor Stephen Hawking and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak – warned Tuesday of a global arms race with weapons using artificial intelligence.

In an open letter with hundreds of signatories, the experts argued that if any major military power pushes ahead with development of autonomous weapons, “a global arms race is virtually inevitable, and the endpoint of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow.”

Some people have argued in favor of robots on the battlefield, saying their use could save lives. Such weapons are still years away.

But the scientists warned that, unlike nuclear weapons, once they are developed they will require no costly or hard-to-obtain raw materials – making it possible to mass-produce them.

“It will only be a matter of time until they appear on the black market and in the hands of terrorists, dictators wishing to better control their populace, warlords wishing to perpetrate ethnic cleansing, etc.,” the letter said.

Our political class does not excel in managing artificial intelligence.  It is superlative however in expanding artificial stupidity.  To return to the question: is the F-35 a good replacement for the F-16? Perhaps Stillion doesn’t provide the answer, but it is equally fair to say perhaps that’s not even the question.

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