Air superiority in a European war in the next years (I)

I'm hesitant to write much about naval or air force affairs because both these domains are heavily coined by technology and thus fairly easily hidden secrets. Published information is often behind the actual state-of-the art by a decade or two (though not necessarily so behind the technological standard of the actually employed equipment) or simply meant as deception (often directed at the taxpayer, not potential adversaries).

Still, I'll finally lay out my thoughts on the topic of high-end conflict (opposing conflict parties are well-equipped and competent) air superiority in a series.

Let's look at the very central missile probability of hit issue in part I.

There are basically two important types of missiles in Europe nowadays. One type uses an active radar seeker as the primary terminal homing seeker. This tiny radar can pick up low reflexivity targets at short range only and its ability to identify, track and almost correctly measure (angles, distance) the target aircraft in face of countermeasures is very much in doubt. Countermeasures include onboard jammers, towed jammers/decoys, free-flying jammers/decoys, emitters on the ground and distant aerial jammers.
Missiles can also be countered by evasive manoeuvres, and most missiles with this kind of guidance are not among the most agile missiles (MICA RF being the exception). A good fighter's pilot may detect an incoming missile with his radar warning receiver and infrared and UV spectrum missile warners (these can even be fitted as upgrades, and there are even payload pylons doubling as missile warning sensor and countermeasures pods). IR/UV missile warners are not really effective once the missile's rocket burnt out, but then the rocket typically hasn't much agility left either, and its radar would still have treacherous emissions. One can give such an aware fighter pilot a very good chance to dodge the first such incoming missile, but the aircraft may have lost too much speed for a good chance to dodge another missile only seconds later.

Few missiles will hit-to-kill (impact in the target), so defeating the proximity fuse (typically either a radio frequency fuse or a laser fuse) is another countermeasure, and chaff may or may not be effective at this. Onboard radar jammers might at least affect radio frequency proximity fuses.
The missile type from this category (active radar seeker missiles) that's the most famous is the AMRAAM. Its track record in actual combat situations is small (statistically not really meaningful), but disheartening. Much less of the fired missiles did hit the target than in tests, and many of the targets were very easy ones with no means to counter the missile; such as aircraft without a functional radar warner.
It's important that this kind of missile is also becoming the area air defence missile type of choice for both land-based and warship area air defences (SAMP/T and Aster 15/30, ESSM Block 2, SM-6, CAMM).
Western air superiority hopes rest very much on this kind of missile (examples AIM-120A/B/C/D, MICA RF/EM, Meteor, R-77). The USAF rests on it especially much. Most of its dedicated fighters (F-15A/B/C/D) are old 1970's designs built in the 1980's. It has less than 200 modern fighters (F-22), and they aren't nearly as special at short ranges as at long ranges (and thus at high altitude), so they depend greatly on the lethality of this kind of missiles (AIM-120C/D).
A Western strength is that it has two different approaches to defeat such missiles. The F-22 stays at a distance and has low radar reflexivity, whereas the Typhoon, Rafale and Super Hornet/Growler depend much more on decoys and jamming.*

A second category of missiles uses passive infrared seekers and would typically be used at short range (usually within visual range, though such missiles can be shot at beyond visual range and lock on after launch). These infrared seekers have their window heated up too much if flying Mach 3 or higher for long distances, so they are typically slower and shorter ranged than active radar seeker missiles. MICA (a missile with exchangeable radar and infrared seekers) is the contact point between both categories. Infrared missiles are (save for maybe a RF fuse) immune to radar jammers and chaff, but additionally susceptible to the sun, flares and directional infrared countermeasures (the latter are blinding lasers and typically installed on transport aircraft).
The agility of these missiles (examples IRIS-T, AIM-9X, MICA IR, ASRAAM, R-73, Python 4/5) is high, but depends greatly on a still burning rocket engine (most of them use thrust vector control and/or large and high drag canards & stabilisers). This makes IR/UV based missile warners effective against them.
To use these IR-guided missiles is not preferred because it requires to get up close and personal with the enemy, and that's more risky than staying at a long distance. Such missiles had a mixed track record in the past, but this has become largely useless because very few of the modern types/versions were used in combat and no modern missiles were used against modern countermeasures in combat.

The first conclusion is thus that the air superiority expectations are incredibly uncertain because the wartime probability of hit of the main air combat and area air defence munitions are very much unknown. Anything from 0-90% probability of hit is imaginable, and I guess anything from 5-50% is realistic against modern fighters.
Even our air forces are most likely ignorant about the real probability of hit. They know their munitions and their countermeasures, but they have most likely no full understanding of the best non-allied countermeasures.
Air combat may see  fighters expending thousands of air combat missiles with very little fighter attrition to show, but they might also be supremely deadly. "Our" fighters may win an air superiority campaign with huge kill ratios, they may lose it with terrible kill ratios or have about balanced kill ratios. I don't know and every air force leader who's certain to know would be an arrogant fool because he doesn't know what he doesn't know - and he should at least know this.

The probability of hit will be rather higher against older, not heavily upgraded aircraft and against poorly maintained aircraft and against aircraft that were not designed for air combat. AWACS aircraft could carry heavy and voluminous countermeasures, but would likely still have very much below-average odds of survival against missiles. It is thus also possible that the newest fighters of both warring parties/blocs expend most of the the respective air combat missile inventories, and constitute an ever-growing share of their party's air force aircraft inventory in the process.

It needs to be noted that the inventories of modern air combat missiles are very small in many countries, even wealthy ones. The inventories could be exhausted within days of intense air battles. Older missiles would then need to be used, if they are still in stock and ready for use at all. Their probability of hit would be even worse.**

 S O

*: I actually don't know what countermeasures exactly the Russians rely on the most other than the classic radar warning receiver, jammer, chaff and dodging. Su-3x series aircraft are excellent at evading Russian-made missiles (Ethiopia-Eritrea combat reports).  One problem is that the Russians publish their countermeasure gadgets only once they're available for export. The PAK-FA/T-50 is the first Russian aircraft design to reduce the radar cross section much and thus become more difficult to lock on with tiny missile radars. This means the missiles would need to be led by course updates by radio datalink to the PAK-FA's vicinity - much more closely than against a Su-3x, for example. This emphasises the datalink as another vulnerability to countermeasures (radio jamming) and makes it harder to direct missiles with targeting data from very distant radars that have a large measurement error.
**: To build up huge stocks of modern missiles would be very expensive and might be wasteful if your fighters don't survive long enough to make use of these stocks. I wouldn't advise to build up large air-to-air missile stocks unless they could also be used by air defences.


  1. Air Power Australia has a lot of open source technical analysis which you may find interesting in this connection. Largely, your conclusions here match their analysis, so I'm thinking you may have already read through their materials.

    Some of the major takeaways there are that Russian airframes hang far more missiles and their weapons are generationally ahead of ours; so per engagement they'll probably loft more weapons which may have a higher pK. This will be quite concerning, and the sheer manouevrability of their airframes and brute force capacity of their sensor systems may prove decisive. In short, we really must not be complacent, and the F-35 is not a capable enough aircraft to hinge everything on. APA has a reputation for being "Frothingly anti-JSF" and is often dismissed out of hand, but I feel these critiques have not engaged with APA analysis and instead drank the Lockheed Martin kool-aid. I recommend you get a pot of coffee on and have a read. Fortunately, the city of New York has a greater annual budget than the Russian state (according to Mark Galeotti's quips) so their ability to afford sufficient numbers of high technology assets is still hindered.

    Another thing with stockpiling weapons, aside from your concern, is that they have expiration dates. Rotating stock is very much necessary and the weapons can't be repurposed to blow up mud huts as with ATGM in Afghanistan, and as their motors age their pK may decrease as a result of loss of efficiency or the possibility of malfunction. With aviation targets, the Finnish experience for training their air defence guys is that it's prohibitively expensive to make representative targets, so the real challenge for live fire exercises with those weapons - thus consuming stock close to expiration - is being able to find economical targets worth shooting at. Blowing up the equivalent of a DC-3 proves nothing.

    1. I know APA, and I know the reflexive dismissal of APA claims by many people - that's why I avoided APA here. The only overlap between this and APA is IIRC what I mentioned about AMRAAM combat record.

      About economy size and air force size & modernity; look at Sweden. You can get a mighty tip of the spear if you shorten the shaft. USAF spending goes in large part into airlift, tankers and strike package specialists. An air force with a focus on air defences and fighters is much more cost-efficient at least regarding air superiority on the defence.

    2. "An air force with a focus on air defences and fighters is much more cost-efficient at least regarding air superiority on the defence."

      Which, again, leads to your very good (recurring) points about the equipment/force structure needed for effective defense vs. those forces 'needed' for world wide great power games...