Saturday


F-16 Fight Falcons operated by the PAF.

In the discussion that resulted from my post Air Superiority in South Asia, one comment posted brought my attention to rumors that Pakistani F-16s had humbled Eurofighter Typhoons at the Anatolian Eagle Exercises. After receiving the comment I did some reading about this, and in my response to the comment tried to sum up what I had discovered. At that time, I regarded the issues raised by the comment and what has been written about the episode as an open question, and to a certain degree matters like this will always remain an open question. However, I have learned a few things since I last wrote about this, and what I have learned reveals a pattern. While a single incident can always be an outlier, a pattern reveals reveals something more than this. One expects a pattern to repeat. If a pattern repeats, measures can be taken ameliorate the repetition if desired. On the other hand, if we discern a pattern and fail to take action, we are culpable for the consequences of such repetition if it is unwelcome.

The incident in question was at Exercise Anatolian Eagle 2008. Anatolian Eagle exercises have been taking place for ten years now, several times per year, at Konya, Turkey. The website for the exercises bills them as the “#1 Tactical Training Center of the World.” After the 2008 exercises a PAF (Pakistani Air Force) pilot was quoted as follows:

“NATO pilots are not that proficient in close-in air-to-air combat. They are trained for BVR (Beyond Visual Range) engagements and their tactics are based on BVR engagements. These were close-in air combat exercises and we had the upper hand because close-in air combat is drilled into every PAF pilot and this is something we are very good at.”

Much has been written about this since, and there has been no definite identification of whose Eurofighter Typhoons the Pakistanis engaged. Originally they were reported to be RAF jets, then Italian jets, and then others. And it has been claimed that there were no times when the Pakistanis engaged any of these Eurofighter Typhoons. I am not in a position to settle the various accounts that are to be found on the internet, but other matters can shed some light on the reported incident.

I previously cited The DEW Line blog, which included a comment that sought to place the Pakistani claim in context:

“The PAF and RAF aircraft were conducting DACT – Dissimilar air combat training. PAF were the Blue force. RAF were the Red force. Red force was meant to die and was representing a particular threat for the purposes of the exercise, this threat was not the RAF and the Eurofighter’s full capability or even their tactics.”

And another comment reiterated some of the points of the earlier comment:

“Just to build on Aussie Digger’s comments, a well-placed source has told me the following: ‘None of the RAF Typhoon pilots involved in Ex Anatolian Eagle recalls undertaking Basic Fighter Maneuvers with Turkish air force F-16s flown by Pakistan exchange pilots.’ So if a ‘kill’ is claimed, it took place under exercise conditions where it was supposed to happen, and from distance but within visual range; not dogfighting!”

These seemed like reasonable claims to me, but there is a larger context that I mentioned above, which suggests a pattern. That pattern is a tension between technology and training. Although in historical terms, jet fighters are very young, with only about sixty years of operational experience, the design and operation of fighters has already gone through several cycles. At one point in the cycle, technology is emphasized, and at another point in the cycle real-world experience in training is emphasized.

The USAF has long emphasized technological solutions to combat problems, and this is to be expected because US technology gives the USAF an advantage over other forces. However, this advantage admits of exceptions. USAF desire to push the technological envelope led to the F-4 being fitted with missiles (the Sparrow and the Sidewinder) and no gun at all when air-to-air missile technology was still rather new and not yet robust or entirely dependable, especially when you are depending upon it for your life. These F-4s fought against Soviet MiGs of the North Vietnamese air force and often found themselves at a disadvantage in dogfighting as a result of their lack of guns. Part of the problem were rules of engagement that required visual identification of targets, which defeats the purpose (and advantage) of non-line of sight missile technology.

There is a detailed monograph on this by Steven A. Fino, formerly available on the internet, but now unaccountably unavailable. Fortunately, I downloaded it while it was available (I don’t always remember to do so). I will only quote a few sentences, but the whole document is a revelation:

As MiG activity increased during the remainder of April and May 1966, several American pilots continued to follow the Feather Duster advice and tried to avoid entering a turning engagement with the MiGs. Sometimes, though, they could not; during the course of an engagement, multiple MiGs could often force the F-4 to turn to defend itself, forcing the Phantom crews to discard their approved combat solution. Despite this emerging combat reality, many pilots let their faith in missile technology and published tactics unduly influence their opinions of air-to-air armament. Most continued to categorically dismiss the potential value of a gun on the F-4.

And a page later:

Because the F-4C did not have a gun, nor were there any plans to add a gun to the platform, the Air Force focused its efforts on improving the “poor” performance of the F-4‘s missile armament. The substandard results were difficult to ignore. From April 1965 through April 1966, the primary armament of the F-4, the AIM-7 Sparrow—the weapon that had guided the aircraft‘s design and development—had accounted for only one kill, downing a MiG-17 on 23 April 1966. To address the problem, the Air Force appointed a special team of USAF and F-4/Sparrow specialists to travel to Southeast Asia to personally review the weapon system‘s combat performance and “recommend the required actions necessary to enhance success of future Sparrow/Sidewinder firings.”

“ALL THE MISSILES WORK” TECHNOLOGICAL DISLOCATIONS AND MILITARY INNOVATION: A CASE STUDY IN US AIR FORCE AIR-TO-AIR ARMAMENT, POST-WORLD WAR II THROUGH OPERATION ROLLING THUNDER by Steven A. Fino (p. 85 and following)

Fino isn’t the only one to cover this ground. Fino cites Clashes: Air Combat over North Vietnam 1965-1972 by Marshall L. Michell III. I first learned of this indirectly from Chasing Shadows: A Special Agent’s Lifelong Hunt to Bring a Cold War Assassin to Justice by Fred Burton and John Bruning. This book also cites Marshall L. Michel’s book.

Burton and Bruning also tell the fascinating story of lack of US success against Soviet MiGs, and the skullduggery involved in transporting a captured MiG-21 from Israel to the US for study. The disproportion in kill ratios was so great that there was very real fear that the NATO-Warsaw Pact confrontation in Europe would be lost by NATO because of the apparent impunity with which Soviet MiGs defeated the best technology of the US. While both the USAF and USN did rather poorly against MiGs initially, USN aviation opened their Top Gun school, made changes to pilot training and began to score significantly better kill ratios against Soviet MiGs than the USAF. A mission by the USN to “help” the USAF failed miserably due to inter-service rivalry.

At about the same time as the USAF was doing miserably against Soviet MiGs in southeast Asia, the Israelis were doing quite well against Soviet MiGs operated by Egypt, Iraq, and Syria — Soviet client states in the region armed with the latest and greatest MiG-21s. The same MiGs that were disproportionately killing USAF jets in SE Asia were in turn being disproportionately killed by the Israeli Air Force (IAF) mostly operating French Mirage III fighters.

Dassault Mirage III at the Israeli Air Force museum.

I can’t do justice to this interesting story here — the reader is encouraged to follow my references and get the details for yourself — and we can’t narrow the complexity of these diverse situation to a single cause, but there is a common thread that distinguishes the successful forces in air combat, and this is (not surprisingly) doctrine that emphasizes air-to-air combat and pilot training that puts this doctrine into practice. This may sound too obvious to even to say, but at this crucial time (late 1960s to early 1970s) in the development of the supersonic fighter jet, US pilots were being taught and trained to depend on missiles, and their jets didn’t even have guns to engage enemy fighters in close air-to-air combat.

The F-4 with its weapons load: lots of bombs and no bullets.

Disproportionate fighter kills, moreover, are not historically unprecedented. In fact, fighter kill ratios can be so one-sided that it is shocking to see the numbers. If you look at the list of fighting aces from the Second World War, it would be rather understating the obvious to note that it is dominated by Germans. The number one fighting ace of all time, Erich “Bubi” Hartmann, had 352 recorded kills to his credit. The highest scoring US Ace of the war, Richard I. Bong, had 40 kills.

While part of the German dominance of fighter aces in the Second World War may be due to engagements on the Eastern Front, where it could not be expected that what remained of Soviet industrial plant could produce anything close to the technical mastery of German fighter planes, but this cannot be the entire explanation. German fighters were also engaged on the Western Front. it would be an interesting project to break down kills ratios on the Eastern and Western Fronts. Probably someone has already done so.

An interesting footnote to Erich “Bubi” Hartmann’s career, after he spent ten years in Soviet gulags after he refused to fly for newly communist GDR, coincides with the period discussed above. Hartmann opposed the adoption of the US F-104 Starfighter by the Bundesluftwaffe and was forced into retirement in 1970. His warnings about the F-104 technology proved to be well-founded, as it killed 115 German pilots in non-combat missions. Again we see a pattern: US hubris over its technological advantage turns to tragedy with the same sad inevitability that upotian dreams result in dystopian nightmares when put into practice.

With these lessons and examples in mind, I have a completely different perspective on the statements made by the unnamed Pakistani pilots. Western air forces, with the money for new jets and their technological advantage, continue to rely disproportionately on this advantage, while other air forces invest in their human capital, not least because that is their advantage, and that is what they can do given their financial limitations.

Much has been made of the on-board technology of the F-35, which promises to be the most technologically advanced fighter ever built. It is especially proficient in delivering precision weapons to a distant target beyond line of sight. But we have seen this before. The USAF does not have a good record in preparing close in air-to-air combat doctrine and training its pilots to engage in such combat, and US pilots have not distinguished themselves in the disproportionate ways that some peoples have distinguished themselves in close air-to-air dogfighting. One suspects that the familiar pattern is being repeated.

It now seems to be entirely creditable to me that the Pakistani pilots, drilled in close air-to-air fighting were entirely capable of humbling western fighter pilots whose training and equipment has diverged from the nitty-gritty of air combat. Of course, none of this would matter if you could engage and destroy your target when it is still over the horizon and you never have occasion to engage in close air-to-air combat. But can this be done so reliably that air-to-air combat can be consigned to history, like chariot races?

The question now becomes precisely parallel to the question I asked when considering the vulnerability of carriers given the developments in carrier technology and doctrine since the great carrier engagements of the Pacific Theater during the Second World War. In that case I answered that developments in carrier technology have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary, so that while the accidents (and I use this term in the sense of Aristotelian metaphysics) of combat engagement between carrier strike groups will change over time, the essence of such conflict nevertheless has remained invariant over time. Since carriers were vulnerable then, if the essence of the combat situation is invariant over time, carriers are vulnerable today. Q.E.D.

I make the same judgment here: the changes in fighter technology from the introduction of fighter aircraft in the First World War to their current iteration today has been a gradual and evolutionary development without revolutionary breaks in technology, despite the naming of fighters in “generations” which contributes to an image of revolutionary technological change with each new generation of fighter aircraft. Because of the evolutionary development of fighter technology, tactics, and doctrine, accidental features of air combat (like air speed) will change, but the essential features of air-to-air combat will be retained despite accidental change.

For the record, I do not deny the possibility of a game-changing technology that would result in revolutionary change and an essential change in air combat, and I will go so far as to say that precision weapons systems are close to attaining this status, but they are not there yet. Any air force that relies on technology to the detriment of drilling in close air combat will find itself at a disadvantage despite its technology.

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