Air Combat And Technology

Any model of air combat needs to address the effect of weapons on the opposing forces.  In the Dupuy Air Combat Model (DACM), this was rifled bullets fired from machine guns, as well as small caliber cannon in the 20-30 millimeter (mm) class.  Such was the state of air combat in World War II.  This page is an excellent, in-depth analysis of the fighter guns and cannon.  Of course, technology has effects beyond firepower.  One of the most notable technologies to go into active use during World War II was radar, contributing to the effectiveness of the Royal Air Force (RAF), successfully holding off the Wehrmacht’s Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.

Since that time, driven by “great power competition”, technology continues to advance the art of warfare in the air.  This happened in several notable stages during the Cold War, and was on display in subsequent contemporary conflicts when client or proxy states fought on behalf of the great powers.  Examples include well-known conflicts, such as the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, but also the conflicts between the Arabs and Israelis.  In the Korean War, archives now illustrate than Russian pilots secretly flew alongside North Korean and Chinese pilots against the allied forces.

Stages in technology are often characterized by generation.  Many of the features that are associated with the generations are driven by the Cold War arms race, and the back and forth development cycles and innovation cycles by the aircraft designers.  This was evident in comments by Aviation Week’s Bill Sweetman, remarking that the Jas-39 Grippen is actually a sixth generation fighter, based upon the alternative focus on maintainability, operability from short runways / austere airbases (or roadways!), the focus on cost reduction, but most importantly, software: “The reason that the JAS 39E may earn a Gen 6 tag is that it has been designed with these issues in mind. Software comes first: The new hardware runs Mission System 21 software, the latest roughly biennial release in the series that started with the JAS 39A/B.”

Upon close inspection of the DACM parameters, we can observe a few important data elements and metadata definitions: avionics (aka software & hardware), and sensor performance.  Those two are about data and information.  A concise method to assign values to these parameters is needed.  The U.S. Air Force (USAF) Air Combat Command (ACC) has used the generation of fighters as a proxy for this in the past, at least at a notional level:

[Source: 5th Generation Fighters, Lt Gen Hawk Carlisle, USAF ACC]

The Fleet Series game that has been reviewed in previous posts has a different method.  The Air-to-Air Combat Resolution Table does not seem to resonate well, as the damage effects are imposed against either one side or the other.  This does not jive with the stated concerns of the USAF, which has been worried about an exchange in which both Red and Blue forces are destroyed or eliminated in a mutual fashion, with a more or less one-for-one exchange ratio.

The Beyond Visual Range (BVR) version, named Long Range Air-to-Air (LRAA) combat in Asian Fleet, is a better model of this, in which each side rolls a die to determine the effect of long range missiles, and each side may take losses on non-stealthy units, as the stealthy units are immune to damage at BVR.

One important factor that the Fleet Series combat process does resolve is a solid determination of which side “holds” the airspace, and this is capable of using other support aircraft, such as AWACS, tankers, reconnaissance, etc.  Part of this determination is the relative morale of the opposing forces.  These effects have been clearly evident in air campaigns such as the strategic bombing campaign on Germany and Japan in the latter portion of World War II.

Dealing with this conundrum, I decided to relax by watching some dogfight videos on YouTube, Dogfights Greatest Air Battles, and this was rather entertaining, it included a series of engagements in aerial combat, taken from the exploits of American aces over the course of major wars:

  1. Eddie Rickenbacker, flying a Spad 13 in World War I,
  2. Clarence Emil “Bud” Anderson, flying a P-51B “Old Crow” in European skies during World War II, flying 67 missions in P-51Ds, 35 missions in F-80s and 121 missions in F-86s. He wrote “No Guts, No Glory,” a how to manual with lots of graphics of named maneuvers like the “Scissors.”
  3. Frederick Corbin “Boots” Blesse, flying a F-86 Sabre in “MiG Alley” in North Korea close to the Chinese border,
  4. Several engagements and interviews of aces from the Vietnam War:
    1. Steve Ritchie, who said “Surprise is a key element.” Previously discussed.
    2. Robin Olds – a triple ace in both WWII (P-38 and P-51) and Vietnam (F-4), and the mastermind of Operation Bolo, a fantastic application of deception.
    3. Randy “Duke” Cunningham and William P “Irish” Discol, flying an F-4 Phantom, “Showtime 100”, and up against North Vietnamese MiG-17s.

An interesting paraphrase by Cunningham of Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron’s statement: “When he sees the enemy, he attacks and kills, everything else is rubbish.”  What Richthofen said (according to, was “The duty of the fighter pilot is to patrol his area of the sky, and shoot down any enemy fighters in that area. Anything else is rubbish.” Richtofen would not let members of his Staffel strafe troops in the trenches.

The list above is a great reference, and it got me to consider an alternative form of generation, including the earlier wars, and the experiences gained in those wars.  Indeed, we can press on in time to include the combat performance of the US and Allied militaries in the first Gulf War, 1990, as previously discussed.

There was a reference to the principles of aerial combat, such as the Dicta Boelcke:

  1. Secure the benefits of aerial combat (speed, altitude, numerical superiority, position) before attacking. Always attack from the sun.
  2. If you start the attack, bring it to an end.
  3. Fire the machine gun up close and only if you are sure to target your opponent.
  4. Do not lose sight of the enemy.
  5. In any form of attack, an approach to the opponent from behind is required.
  6. If the enemy attacks you in a dive, do not try to dodge the attack, but turn to the attacker.
  7. If you are above the enemy lines, always keep your own retreat in mind.
  8. For squadrons: In principle attack only in groups of four to six. If the fight breaks up in noisy single battles, make sure that not many comrades pounce on an opponent.

Appendix A – my own attempt to classify the generations of jet aircraft, in an attempt to rationalize the numerous schemes … until I decided that it was a fool’s errand:

  • Generation Zero:
    • World War II, 1948 Arab Israeli conflict
    • Blue: Spitfire, P-51 Mustang,
    • Red: Bf-109, FW-190, Mitsubishi Zero/George
    • Propeller engines, machine guns & cannons
  • First Generation:
    • Korean War, China & Taiwan conflicts
    • Blue: F-86 Sabre,
    • Red: MiG-15, Me-262?
    • Jet engines, swept wings, machine guns & cannons, early air-to-air missiles
  • Second Generation –
    • 1967 and Cuban Missile Crisis
    • Blue: F-100, F-102, F-104, F-5, F-8
    • Grey: Mirage III, Mirage F1
    • Red: MiG-19, MiG-21
    • Multi-mach speeds, improved air-to-air missiles, but largely within-visual range (WVR), early radar warning receivers (RWR), early countermeasures.
  • Third Generation:
    • 1973 Arab Israeli Wars, Vietnam War
    • Blue: F-4 Phantom, F-111 Ardvark, F-106?
    • Grey: Mirage III
    • Red: MiG-23, MiG-25, Su-15
    • Look-down/Shoot-down capability, radar-guided missiles, Beyond Visual Range (BVR), Identification Friend or Foe (IFF), all-aspect infrared missiles.
  • Fourth Generation:
    • 1980’s Cold War, 1990 Gulf War, 1982 Lebanon, 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War
    • Blue: F-15 Eagle, F-16 Viper, F-14 Tomcat, F/A-18 Hornet
    • Grey: Mirage 2000
    • Red: MiG-29, MiG-31, Su-27/30
  • Fourth Plus Generation:
    • 2003 Gulf War, 2011 Libiya
    • Blue: F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, F-15 improved (F-15E, F-15I, F-15SG, F-15SK…)
    • Grey: Eurofighter Typhoon, Rafale
    • Red: Su-35S
  • Fifth Generation:
    • Marketing term used by aircraft producers
    • Blue: Adanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) = F-22 Raptor, Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) = F-35 Lightening II
    • Grey: Grippen?
    • Red: PAK-FA Su-57, J-20
  • Sixth Generation – the current frontier
    • Blue: Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, UAS ?
    • Red: ?
    • Grey: Two seat, Twin tail “drone-herder”?
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Geoffrey Clark
Geoffrey Clark

Geoffrey Clark is a data modeler, database architect and business analyst primarily in the supply chain, transportation and logistics industries. He is an avid war gamer and budding defense analyst. Lucidata Informatics provides database design services, as well as data products, deployment and update services.

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  1. Are there any statistics for hit rates in combat for the weapons used by 4th and 5th generation fighters?

  2. The differentiation between 4th to 5th Gen. aircraft does not make any sense, at least not without considering “overlapping”. The Gripen, Rafale and Eurofighter are based on the same technology, these nations arms industries cooperate and keep close contact. The engine is even a modified GE variant. German, French and British evaluations give them a similar combat rating.

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