VTAS and Agile

At the end of the Cold War both Germanys were allowed to re-unite, and the East German military was absorbed by the West German military. Some surprises were handed over in that year, among them the first MiG-29s for NATO, complete with its unexpectedly jamming-resistant radar and a deadly combination of a helmet-mounted sight and a very agile dogfight missile, the R-73 (NATO code AA-11 "Archer").
This was a major shock, for with this combination of helmet (to tell the missile where to look at to find a target, movable infrared seeker in the missile (to enable it to look left, right or up - where Western dogfight missiles couldn't search for targets) and rocket engine thrust vectoring (to make the missile agile enough to reliably catch 9g agile fighters despite their evasion attempts, at least until the rocket burns out) the MiG-29 represented a very different approach to within visual range (WVR) air combat than the West had pursued, and this approach was found to be superior. On top of that, the MiG-29 itself was manoeuvring about as well as the best Western fighters.

The West had relied much more on aircraft performance and on its lead in beyond visual range missiles. The AIM-120 "AMRAAM" was entering service at that time.

The West had been proud of the F-16's agility, even the French praised the Mirage 2000's agility, which was in some regards superior and in others inferior to the F-16's. Much research of the 1980's was aimed at even more agile aircraft, with lots of control surfaces - and the Europeans had settled on Delta-Canard fighters as their next generation of fighters mostly for considerations about agility.

The Americans settled instead on more expensive ATF fighters (eventually F-22 Raptor") that - while manoeuvrable due to up-down thrust vector control - were primarily meant to achieve surprise through radar stealth, beyond visual range tactical dominance by supercruise and lethality through the AMRAAM. European Delta-Canards promised to be much-loved by pilots for classic dogfighting, but the F-22 promised to be much-loved by pilots because they feel confident to survive a conflict and be dominant in those.

Unlike the Russians we seemingly never had the idea to move the offensive agility from the platform into the munition. Except we* did.

Back around 1970 the United States already had a helmet sight, similar to the Russians. It fell probably out of use because the Sidewinder's seeker didn't allow to exploit the potential of such an approach and the radars became better at helping the Sidewinder to lock on.

The United States also had two programs for R-73-like missiles going on- AIM-82 and AIM-95. The AIM-95 had a weird method of mounting (in tubes), but other than that it was most convincing with movable all-aspect IR seeker and thrust vector control.

AIM-95 Agile
This missile was very expensive, but no doubt would have been worth the expense.

Now it's very much possible to blame the AIM-95's demise on politicians, but in my general distrust to authority and in light of world-wide research insights on bureaucratic behaviour I think it's very much possible that the failure to get WVR right by ourselves in the 1970's and 1980's was driven by an overemphasis on platforms and by the pilot's perspective. After all, air forces promote pilots (especially fighter pilots) well above proportion to general ranks compared to officers on other career paths.
It may have been a case of principal-agent problem with the agent's preferences leading into a wrong way. A little push here or there was likely enough to derail the West from the superior approach to WVR air combat. Instead, we looked at platform agility (without decisively beating the Soviets on it).
_ _ _ _ _

This is eerily similar to how navies emphasize platforms (ships). The Royal Navy had largely ineffective submarines for decades, but was proud about the subs' performance and low noise. Too bad their torpedoes were utter crap, even the guided one that took decades too long to almost mature.

The U.S.Navy was first obsessed about nuclear propulsion and missiles, recognising late that those missile armaments would be easily overwhelmed and nuclear propulsion was unaffordable and of little use for surface ships. Later it obsessed about the marvel of the AEGIS combat system, but overslept the initial feasibility of active radar homing air defence missiles by two decades.

Or the ASROC rocket that carries a lightweight torpedo by several nautical miles quickly. It turned out that European navies knew that ASROC was a poor design. ASROC flew a ballistic, uncorrected trajectory and by the time the lightweight torpedo arrived on the sea's surface a 30 kts fast submarine could easily have dodged to a quite faraway place - at least compared to the small effective engagement radius of the Mk 46 lightweight torpedo. The Europeans thus designed very different and seemingly less efficient and more clumsy designs such as Malafon and the Australian-designed Ikara. Those were guided by radio, allowing for corrections of the torpedo delivery based on the latest sonar data. The USN was proud of its Spruance ASW destroyers, but the actual ASW munitions delivery was at best mediocre for decades with rather poorly equipped helicopters and the simple ASROC rockets.

Nowadays the United States Navy is waking up to the fact that its ship-to-ship missile armament hasn't been improved much since the 1970's. It's still the Harpoon missile, whereas Russia has a wide range of anti-ship missiles, ranging from a Harpoon equivalent to a subsonic missile that launches a supersonic second stage for the terminal attack phase, a supersonic missile in Harpoon's size class and supersonic missiles much or much, much bigger than Harpoon.

It was similar with the early air forces. Precision guided munitions for air attacks on ships were experimented with during the First World War already. Guided torpedoes - and thus the general idea of guiding a munition into the target - were already known in the 1890's!**
Now what was the aviator's idea of bombing accurately if machinegun fires from the ground made flying very low too risky? Dive attack, of course. A pilot's answer to the problem that required a suitably modified platform. An electric engineer's answer was rather a guided munition, of course. Guided bombs proved to be more accurate than dive bombing by an order of magnitude by 1943 already (also less demanding on the aircraft design, less demanding on pilot training, allowing for lighter and thus ceteris paribus both faster and more agile aircraft).
_ _ _ _ _

This is but a short blog text and I merely provided anecdotes, but it might be worthwhile to guard against a possible institutional bias of armed bureaucracies that's in favour of platform performance and users' answers to problems. Sometimes -though not always- the better answers may lie in better munitions.


*: Mostly the United States, but there were some efforts for example an agile seeker in Germany et cetera.
**: Apology for not knowing about those when I wrote the page from the previous link. 

edit August 2016: I suppose I should mention that the British had a very, very similar project as the AIM-82 and AIM-95 projects; Taildog / SRAAM.


  1. https://defense-and-freedom.blogspot.com.es/2016/06/vtas-and-agile.html

    That text reminds me a fact (unless Germany gives us a surprise about its aircraft replacement... and months have passed from the last news I know about it): Once all Panavia-Tornado will be scraped in a few years...there will not be "heavy fighters" in Western Europe (nor bombers)... And I think it will be a strange situation (USA, China, India, Russia,... even Japan have heavy fighters -are all wrong?-)

    If better ammunition could be a very good answer... then be capable of launching more ammunition in less travels seems a good proposition (platform agility is also a good thing to have -> the faster you can position the aircraft to fire it's ammunition the better... and physics is also very important -> with more energy the same ammunition could have better range: in a Canadian study -if I remember well- they theorized that the same ammunition (Air-surface) could have a 40% increased ranged when launched from a F-22 that when launched from a F-35).

  2. There is a good argument to focus on the platform, it is easier to upgrade the ordnance.

    Not an expert but there are sources that claim that BVR weapons are easily defeated in peer combat.If that is true, the F 35 will never be good.

    The best CAS aircraft is still the A10, despite all the guided ordnance.

    1. Seriously, I care about the American fixation on A-10 and CAS even less than about the neverending tracks vs. wheels debate.
      CAS is badly overrated.

      But yes, AMRAAM has a horrible track record in real combat, even against opponents who had no ECM or even no functioning radar warning receiver. Newer versions may be better, but MICA RF rather has a reputation for having a worse radar than AMRAAM, and nobody knows how Meteor will work out.

      Air defences have historically fired up to hundreds of missiles per kill, and BVR air combat missiles may very well end up being as poor.
      The likely proliferation of 360°x360° passive sensors like DAS as upgrade packages in the 2020's will make surprise against fighters very, very hard even with passive seeker missiles.

    2. I agree that one shouldn't expect CAS to solve all tactical issues, but when CAS is needed far better results are achieved by the pilot solution then the engineer one.
      Sometimes they are right.