BVR and Russian roulette

Beyond visual range (BVR) will remain the raging controversy in air combat until a definitive, modern air war — which nobody wants — proves which side is correct.

The Air Power Australia group, which defiantly wears its pro-F-22/anti-F-35 bias on its sleeve, make a strong case today against BVR, breaking down the odds of failure at each step in the BVR kill-chain.

  1. Active missile confirmed on launch rail — 0.1% (chance of failure)
  2. Search and track radar jammed — 5%
  3. Launch or missile failure — 5%
  4. Guidance link jammed — 3%
  5. Seeker head jammed or diverted — 30%
  6. Chaff or decoys seduce the seeker — 5%
  7. Seeker chooses towed decoy — 5%
  8. Aircraft out-manuevers missile — 40%
  9. Fuse or warhead failure — 2%


The question is simple: Even if it is technically possible to destroy an opponent’s aircraft beyond a pilot’s visual range, is it now or will it ever become tactically feasible?

Pierre Sprey, a co-father of the A-10 and F-16, adamantly says no. The fog of war and the complexity of air combat dictates that pilots must wait until their targets come within visual range before they can be shut down. Even if they dare to fire, the chances of a BVR missile kill are too small for the strategy to work.

But the US Air Force corporately says yes, a sentiment echoed by the makers of the F-35 Lightning II, which its supporters will likely concede is optimized for the BVR fight.

To be sure, since 1991, the USAF has fired 13 AMRAAMs to achieve six BVR kills, a 45% success rate, according to this Rand air power study. But Rand’s analysts note that these shots have come against inferior or unsuspecting opponents, and offer no confidence that an engagement with modern Su-30s would bear similar results.

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14 Responses to BVR and Russian roulette

  1. Mike 27 January, 2009 at 4:28 pm #

    You said there wouldn’t be any math!

    I don’t buy it. The analysis looks flawed, probably deliberately skewed, for example:

    5 Seeker head jammed or diverted — 30%
    6 Chaff or decoys seduce the seeker — 5%
    7 Seeker chooses towed decoy — 5%
    8 Aircraft out-manuevers missile — 40%

    Five and six are different ways of stating the same thing. If the seeker is diverted (5) how is that different than (6) decoys seduce the seeker

    Six and seven are are different ways of stating the same thing. If the decoys seduce the seeker (6) how is that different than seeker chooses decoy(7).

    Also, what all counts as out-manuevering the missile? If you’ve jammed it or decoyed it, does that count?

    I’m hardly a defender of the F-35 but color me unimpressed with this analysis.

  2. Obamanite 27 January, 2009 at 4:35 pm #

    Never mind that Sprey was already proven wrong by the USAF’s tactics during Dessert Storm and later over the Balkans, when most kills were BVR (and against more than a handful of Mig-29s, among others). In the case of Air Power Australia, which is STILL arguing in favor of Australia getting the F-22 despite the fact that there is far less chance of that country getting the Raptor than their calculations of a BVR kill, it is plainly idiotic for them to be arguing this point in order to favor the F-22 when, if they are correct, then wouldn’t it make a hell of a lot more sense to buy hoards of dirt-cheap, son-of-Mig-21 fighters with nothing but a gun and at most four HOBS missiles instead of a handful of expensive-as-all-holy-hell Raptors with six AMRAAMs each which together, according to APA’s calculations, give one Raptor a sure shot of killing just one enemy aircraft BVR, or about a 50% chance of shooting down two? So, if today it costs about $150 million to buy one Raptor, why not purchase ten $15 million austere fighters per every F-22 instead? Or even just five $30 million, super-duper-maneuverable, son-of-(F-16)-(X-31)? With logic like this, APA may deduce a mere 17% chance of a BVR kill, but with a 100% likelihood of shooting themselves in the foot…

  3. Dave 27 January, 2009 at 6:09 pm #

    Nothing new there, the Sparrow (AIM-7) was known as the ‘Great White Hope’ in the Vietnam war with a poor Pk due to missile reliabilty and the Rules of Engagement (ROE) that said a pilot had to identify an enemy visually before engaging which negated the length of time availabe to engage. In the first Gulf War many Sparrows were launched without killing the target, I don’t have the figures to hand but it was not impressive at all. So historically BVR missiles have never been that great, even the ‘Baby Seal Clubber’, the AIM-120 AMRAAM has a Pk of less than 50%, all scored against targets which were electronically unaware they were being attacked.
    The point about Sea Harriers in the Falklands War scoring so many kills is that the Argentinians never used flares or any other form of counter measures, so yes the AIM-9L did well and worked as advertised but under favourable tail chasing engagements. There is however one point that has not been raised and that is the drive to enable BVR missiles to be fired at longer ranges. He who has the biggest, longest stick can fire first and force an enemy from the offensive to being defensive and that will always be an advantage in any air combat situation. With the expected range of Meteor to be somewhere in the 60nm-100nm bracket and backed up by ASRAAM, the pair will be a formidable combination and I would expect them to compare comfortably against the SU-35 and all it’s permutations of BVR missiles.

  4. Matthew G. Saroff 27 January, 2009 at 7:58 pm #

    The real name of the game in air-to-air combat is, and has always been, superior situational awareness.

  5. Georgetown Student 27 January, 2009 at 10:34 pm #

    Their math may also be wrong.
    Ignoring the questionable numbers, and conclusion:

    Probability for success (1 – chance of failure):

    1) .999
    2) .95
    3) .95
    4) .97
    5) .70
    6) .95
    7) .95
    8) .60
    9) .98

    Multiplying those all together, I get a probability of success equal to .325 or 32.5 %

    Either my numbers are wrong, or their math is wrong. And, if their math is wrong, that would put their argument in a very unstable position.

    Furthermore, the sheer number of 5% figures given signals to me, at least, that they’re guessing, with no factual basis behind their figures. If they want to argue against the F-35, which, in the end, is entirely futile, they should get better or more convincing figures.

  6. Georgetown Student 28 January, 2009 at 2:11 am #

    Well, turns out their numbers are right, if one uses the figures on their website, not the figures quoted in the DEW Line blog above.

    But, I have a further question for the Austrailian Air Power enthusiasts:

    Can an aircraft effectively maneuver whilst carrying a decoy? Will the aircraft be able to effectively maneuver, if its carrying a full war load?

    Apart from the redundancies, they have no data to back up the chances used, and, in fact, my math shows that their “conclusion” is in fact dependent upon the numbers that, essentially, made up.

  7. Obamanite 28 January, 2009 at 2:14 am #

    Dave -

    You are wrong regarding the Sparrow’s performance during Dessert Storm. I don’t have the figures on hand but it performed far better than it did in Vietnam and, indeed, Sparrows achieved more kills than did Sidewinders. This I know for a fact.

    As far as Amraam achieving kills against targets that were unaware they were under attack… DUH! That’s the entire point of stealth and why it is expected that the Amraam’s Pk when used by the Raptor should be quite formidable indeed, as the Raptor will be launching it faster, higher and closer to the target, within the missile’s NEZ (which is possibly the principal reason BVR missiles fail in practice, that is, when used outside their NEZ), with the missile going active at the last possible moment so that the target aircraft has little chance to maneuver and/or employ ECM and/or decoys, all of which should add up to a much higher Pk as compared to an Amraam launched by, say, the F-15 or F-16. In short, an Amraam, especially an AIM-120D with a two-way data-link, launched by a Raptor is an entirely different animal than an Amraam launched by any other aircraft.

  8. Obamanite 28 January, 2009 at 2:36 am #

    Georgetown Student -

    Precisely. As you say, APA’s numbers are entirely “made up.” But, again, I find it amusing that they use their figures to argue for the F-22, when in fact they’re arguing for the Mig-21.

  9. Bern 29 January, 2009 at 7:26 am #

    Obamanite -
    It’s not so much that they’re arguing *for* the F-22 (which they very much like), but that they’re arguing *against* the F-35. The RAAF long-term plan is to get rid of all combat aircraft except the F-35. Now, if your Pk for BVR missiles is low, then you’ll end up in a knife fight. An F-35 against an Su-30 series in a knife fight? Well, it seems the money is mostly stacked one way, and it wouldn’t be good for the RAAF.
    The F-22, on the other hand, has all-aspect stealth combined with the ability to take the fight in close when needed – didn’t they score 144:0 against F-15s in an exercise in Alaska? How much of that was BVR and how much was WVR? I seem to recall a quote from an F-15 pilot at the time that was something like this: “we can see the F-22, but we can’t lock on to it”. The F-35, on the other hand, doesn’t have much in the way of rear-aspect stealth, so once it’s been out-manoeuvred, it’s in big, big trouble.

  10. Sven Ortmann 31 January, 2009 at 1:27 am #

    “Never mind that Sprey was already proven wrong by the USAF’s tactics during Dessert Storm and later over the Balkans, when most kills were BVR (and against more than a handful of Mig-29s, among others).”

    Not really, as analysts usually expect a fair fight when they discuss the merits of a design.
    The Iraqi planes were 60′s or 70′s technology and faced by 80′s technology. Those planes had no 80′s technology jammers, nor did they have comparable pilot training.
    Finally, the pk of Sparrow in Desert Storm wasn’t all that great and Sparrow has a fundamentally different guidance than AMRAAM.

    The Balkans 1999 experience saw almost no enemy air combat and isn’t empirical evidence, but merely anecdotal evidence. The equipment was again unfair, as was pilot training; a mix of 80′s and 90′s equipment versus 60′s and 70′s equipment – most MiG-29 did not take off.

    Both campaigns lacked the tools of a modern adversary, like AEW, onboard jammers, ground-based jammers, enemy fire&forget MRAAMs, 200+ flying hours for pilots and such.

    I’m confused by the preference of the F-22 by the Australian Think Tank despite their emphasis on WVR air combat. Much smaller and cheaper fighters would be more efficient for WVR combat – at least in a defensive role.

  11. Sven Ortmann 31 January, 2009 at 3:18 am #

    “according to this Rand air power study”

    I am interested int his study, but I cannot find a link.

  12. Mat 14 April, 2009 at 2:31 pm #

    Late reply, but anyways

    @Sven and Obamanite:
    The RAAF cannot use any small combat plane as their backbone. Every potential hostile airbase would be out of range of such small combat planes and thus impossible to attack. With small combat planes the RAAF had a combat area extending some 200 or 300 nautical miles from the Australian continent. This means they could barely cover the southern coast of Papa New Guinea. That’s not an option really.

  13. Best Radar Detector 23 July, 2010 at 7:37 pm #

    Never step over one duty to perform another.

  14. Luanna Kosack 16 August, 2010 at 12:36 pm #

    I don’t believe it’s a First Amendment issue either. However, I do believe it’s a Fifth Amendment issue and a Tenth Amendment issue and at most, this should be a state matter

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