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

Topic this time: Pure fighter vs. fighter combat
(no AEW&C, no air defence assets on the surface)

First, a few basics.
Missiles have a no-escape zone / engagement envelope. A target aircraft in this envelope won't be able to run away from the missile or (I'm actually not sure about the exact definition) not even be able to dodge the missile if its guidance works fine.

This no escape zone becomes larger the higher the launch platform flies at the time of launch, the faster it flies towards the target, the longer ranged the missile is (which is an intricate topic, but published ranges are unreliable info anyway) and the lower the target is. It helps if the target moves towards the launch platform, but that may change during the engagement sequence. It also helps if the target is slow (such as an AEW aircraft that cannot run away at supersonic speed; the E-2 Hawkeye and Saab 340/2000 Erieye systems are worst at this).

Fighter pilots prefer to have a range advantage, for this keeps them quite safe as long as they have situational awareness and stay cautious. Let's assume perfect visibility (both friendlies and hostiles see all aircraft) and exactly equally-ranged missiles in use with both sides (a kind of ceteris paribus case).
A fighter pilot would strive to fly fast and as high as possible towards his target to give his missile the most possible kinetic and potential energy, and he would turn after the missile's launch and run as quickly as possible away from the enemy so their missiles don't catch him. Such a technological and information symmetry situation would lead to an excessive consumption of munitions, as pilots would launch missiles at the limit of the engagement envelope (rarely within the no escape zone) for their own safety,and equally cautious behaviour of the enemy fighter pilots would set the missile's probability of hit to about zero. I discussed this earlier already
Reality is not quite as extreme, but might come close if the opposing fighter forces are similar in quality and quantity. 

Such ranged combat makes flanking important. A close two-plane formation that gets pincer attacked by two individually flying fighters would be at a severe disadvantage, being able to run away from both threats' missiles at the same time. Well, there are two methods against flanking attacks; all-round defence (won't work here unless the fighters can defeat the missiles without outrunning them) and line formations.

So fighter forces may set up a line of individually flying fighters, maybe 20 fighters spaced over a 500 km front. To maintain such a fighter line 24/7 would require about 80-100 fighters.
But a single such line wouldn't be enough. You would want to have two lines behind each other, or in other words one line of two-fighter formations with each one advancing fighter (looking to the enemy with his radar) and one withdrawing fighter. Essentially, the two aforementioned activities of a single fighter, with phase shift. This way the advancing fighter could turn and run immediately or a while after launching missiles, while the second fighter then turns towards the enemy, picks up the target with his forward-facing sensor and gives the missile midcourse updates by radio so it gets close enough to the target to pick it up with its own tiny radar.
Breaches in this line could be closed by increasing the spacing, reorganising the pairings and temporarily giving way a bit (maybe 50-100 km) until reinforcements make up for the losses.
Now we're at about 200 fighters needed for nothing but maintaining a maybe 500 km wide 'front line' in the air 24/7. Add reserves for attrition in the air, reserves for attrition on the ground, reserves just in case the opposing forces switch the tactic and try to overrun with 100+ fighters in the air at a time. And of course, you also have a scenario with obscene consumption of missiles costing a million Euro or more apiece. Even NATO would be hard-pressed to amass a force of 300-400 top modern fighters (Typhoons and Raptors - multi-role missions would likely be preferred for the other modern combat aircraft) to maintain such a tactic for a week. Such a 'front line in the air' is thus rather unlikely even though it might be the outcome under specific circumstances. A single line of interceptors is sensible in scenarios such as MiG-31 advancing against incoming B-1B bombers deep in Russia, though. Another reason are the influences of two more air war factors, AEW & air defences.

A lack of a 'front line in the air' means that relatively forward ground forces could not feel well-protected by friendly fighters even if there's air superiority. Air superiority would rather be regional and temporary. Brigade commanders might request air cover for periods of great vulnerability (such bas a road march), but short of one bloc mostly annihilating the opposing air power one couldn't expect the ground forces to be safe without them having effective air defences of their own. This is similar to "rear area" support forces being compelled to provide 24/7 360° security for themselves if there's no defended front line on the ground and hostiles can infiltrate to the rear at acceptable risk.



  1. The no escape zone is the area from which an tagret cannot turn away and outrun the missile, but it might still be able to out maneuver the missile, assuming it can turn fast enough and has enough time left to react.
    As far as I know there is no missile capable of turning as tight as to garantee the target can't outturn it.

    1. The late Pythons, IRIS-T and AIM-9X may be able to reliably catch 9g turning targets until burnout. This begs the question whether the hypothetical ability to turn (at low altitude) with 11 g (Typhoon with Libelle suit, possibly also as pre-programmed evasive manoeuvre without further pilot input) would render those 'anti 9 g target' missile designs much less effective. At high altitude the pilots is less of a limiter, while low wing loadings may be a decisive advantage and thrust vectoring becomes more important as well (not losing any of its effectiveness, while canards & fins do so in thinner air).

      IIRC missiles need a much higher g turn capability than their targets to intercept them. Something like 42 g needed to catch a 9 g target, with some missiles capable of 70 g et cetera.
      I simply forgot the exact figures, but the published figures aren't trustworthy anyway.

      In the end, it's likely as it was since 1915: Most (~80%) single seat fighter pilots who are shot down didn't see it coming, they were surprised. That's why I mentioned the missile warner stuff in such great detail in part I.

  2. Modern guidance techniques have much lower lateral acceleration requirements. In some cases the required lateral acceleration is 2.5x the target acceleration or lower.

    Trying to "out jerk" a modern missile is probably not going to be successful unless the missile is in a "low" dynamic pressure flight condition.

    You can find more info in "Modern Homing Missile Guidance Theory and Techniques" By Palumbo et al. It is available at online at the John's Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory website. Figure 11 is particularly relevant. Note that a warhead reduces the lateral acceleration requirements of the missile.