US superiority at risk

(The following appeared as the lead Comment article in Flight International, 5 February 2013)

The US Air Force must invest in technologies if its fleet of aggressor aircraft is to accurately replicate the air forces of potential adversaries. History shows that air combat skills are highly perishable, and constant vigilance needed to maintain fighter pilots’ skills.

During the Korean War, a veteran force of USAF pilots flying the North American F-86 Sabre achieved a lopsided 10-to-one kill ratio against the Soviet-built Mikoyan MiG-15. The Sabre pilots racked up that impressive kill ratio not because the Sabre outclassed the MiG-15 – in many ways, the MiG was the superior aircraft – but because the US pilots had superior training and experience compared to the rookie North Korean and Chinese aviators flying the Soviet machines.

However, over the skies of Vietnam two decades later, the USAF slipped to a dismal record, with a kill ratio only slightly better than two to one. Over Vietnam, much more sophisticated US fighters were being shot out of the sky by comparatively simple Soviet-built MiGs. This was partly attributable to a lack of realistic training against a representative threat, particularly for within-visual-range combat. The US Navy rectified the problem by introducing dissimilar air combat training. By the war’s end, its kill ratio had climbed to 8.33 to one, while the USAF continued to wallow.

After Vietnam, the USAF instituted a number of initiatives to ensure its aircrews were ready to take on enemy aircraft. These included the Constant Peg programme, for which Russian-built MiGs were acquired to train US pilots using real Soviet tactics. The service also stood up conventional Aggressor squadrons using US-built aircraft to train friendly forces more broadly to face enemy aircraft using enemy tactics.

Those efforts paid dividends over the skies of Iraq, where the USAF achieved a record of 39 kills for no losses against relatively modern Soviet-built jets. This suggests that pilots need the opportunity to train against realistic threat presentations using real enemy tactics – or the Vietnam debacle could be repeated.

The Lockheed Martin F-16 airframe is able to provide a reasonable facsimile of threat aircraft such as the Russian-built Su-30 Flanker series, but the older Block 30 and 32 versions used as aggressors do not have the equipment to accurately simulate the current-generation enemy weapons. To change that, the USAF needs to fund upgrades, as well as to think about how to train pilots to face emerging threats such as Russian and Chinese stealth fighters.

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