Interceptors vs. wonder weapon fighters

I did recently think about I would attempt to out-fox a F-22 using a fighter like F-16. My idea seems promising to me for defensive purposes.

It was basically about the process of closing in to the F-22 for a dogfight with IR missiles. That's (as far as I observed discussions about this topic) usually considered as an action that requires high speed and the ability to survive AMRAAM missiles by evasive maneuvers and ECM.

The F-22 seems to be an analogy to battlecruisers; battlecruisers had originally the purpose to overmatch enemy armored cruiser and protected cruisers from beyond their range. A superior speed and superior effective range all-round were the tools - the original battlecruisers (H.M.S. Invincible class) were rather weak in close-in combat and had little armor.
The F-22 seems to be similar; difficult to find and track at long ranges, able to keep a long distance to its opponent (unless the tactical situation reduces the freedom of action) by supercruise and able to fire at very distant targets with supersonic medium range missile launches and a long-range radar.
The F-22 is agile at short range, but clearly not optimised for dogfights; even if it was, it would still be less efficient than cheaper modern aircraft in dogfights.

That's why it's so important for an enemy to close in; a classic challenge also for cruisers against battlecruisers and for battleships with thin deck armor (Hood) against battleships with strong deck armor (Bismarck). It's difficult, but military history tells more about naval combat that didn't look ideal for battlecruisers than about ideal battlecruiser actions like the Falklands.

Back to the F-22; the challenge against such an aircraft (as previously against aircraft like F-2 and F-1) is to close in to improve the odds.
My (defensive) idea was to not do that against the strengths of the F-22; air-to-air combat. Instead, let the F-22 close in - and be no aircraft, but a piece of metal on the ground while doing so.
STOL Fighters could land on many places (normal roads with a platoon-sized security, inspection and refueling team) and wait/hide there till enemy combat aircraft close in.
A quick take-off, real quick afterburner ascend, they could close in from below (dead radar angle) using IRST for a non-compromising lock on to the target and commence close-in fight with infra-red guided short range missiles (IRIS-T, Python5, R-73, ASRAAM and similar).
Regular and reserve airfields would only be used for efficient maintenance, not as full bases in a classic sense.

In art of war terms this would be a tactic that avoids the enemy's strength, employs surprise and uncertainty to its advantage and attacks the enemy where and when he's most vulnerable - and finally be an elusive target again, hiding till the next opportunity.

That doesn't require any sensor, weaponry or defensive suite for medium range combat - possibly a real cheap aircraft. Small & old fighters with upgrades like IRST, new SRAAMs and thrust vector control with high authority autopilot could do that job.

An historical analogy to such an interceptor use was the Bachem Ba 349 "Natter" concept (which added vertical launch and was pretty close to a surface-to-air-missile).

My concept also fits suspiciously well to that laid out by Col. Robert Dilger & Pierre M. Sprey (father of the YF-16) in their chapter "Reversing the Decay of American Air Power" in a new book.

This fighter is 30 percent smaller than the F-16 with vastly better acceleration and turning performance. It will be, by a large margin, the hottest performing and most maneuverable fighter in the world – both subsonically and supersonically. Size is 18,500 pounds gross weight with a current in-production engine of 32,500 pounds thrust, or more. It will be able to accelerate to supersonic speeds going straight up without using afterburner. Electronics will be cutting edge, all-passive with 360-degree infrared and radar warning gear.

An interceptor tactic instead of patrol fighter tactic would superficially look like a reversal back to WW2 tactics, and the high rate of climb plus the costs of medium range air combat equipment could be the rationales for it.

The concept doesn't help an air force that has a mostly offensive disposition, though. It's defensive - as interceptors always were - and there's absolutely no reason why NATO air forces should highlight such potential tactics.

The concept has its weaknesses, of course. The landing must not be observed or else the fighter needs to be moved to keep the surprise effect and uncertainty. It would be a quite specialized asset and rival(/complement) classic long-range air defenses in its employment.

Let's take this as a reminder that there's no silver bullet or wonder weapon - no matter how much you spend on it. A smart opponent will often be able to counter your strengths and reduce them to a level far below the expectations raised during the wonder weapon's procurement.

Photo: Swiss F-5 fighter taxiing through a village between runway and cavern bunker at the reserve airfield Turtmann.


  1. Hmmm... So you take for granted that stealth technologies on the Raptor won't be so reliable.
    Also, Raptor missions will probably follow strategic bombings to ensure air superiority: do you think VTOL aircraft could operate effectively after large bombings on a
    air bases?

    (I 've always signed as) Paolo S

  2. Many photos of imaging infrared seekers have been published meantime - infra-red stealth means to hide the heat of engine and avionics, but it cannot match the IR signature of the sky or of landscapes.

    Imaging infrared seekers are now capable enough to be quite camera-like, not just heat seekers. That prevents according to unclassified information that the F-22 can be stealthy enough in IR to be immune against thermal sensors (and officials never claim it anyway). It doesn't look like the background - and would look very unlike the background if even (especially) if it had no IR emission at all.

    About the airfield issue; you don't need anything more than flat, hard surfaces and a few trucks to operate an aircraft if you organize for distributed air wing ground organization.

    I served in a fighter wing - our mechanics needed nothing bigger than a jeep to do their job. Changing engines is the most difficult thing - and requires no more than a kind of wheelchair for turbofans.

    The Sardinia deployment teams only needed a few pallets in a Transall transport plane.

    Long story, short conclusion; you need no real airbases, and even the most difficult aircraft maintenance activities need no more than a few truckloads of equipment.

    Distributed ground ops of fighter wings are not very efficient in personnel/plane ratio - but easily possible.
    A distribution down to one ground platoon/company per flight would be possible and result in up to hundreds of tiny hidden improvised airbases.

    Some countries actually prepare a lot for similar activity; Soviet planes were prepared for grass airfields, the Swedes are great with their many reserve airbases and low maintenance, Germans had their Autobahnen as reserve airfields and the British were extreme with their Harriers - closer to army helicopter operation than to fighter airbases.

  3. I've seen better photos, but at the end of this article is one example:

  4. Thank you, Sven!
    You are always smart, clear and... grounded!

    Paolo S

  5. I was just passing through. Great blog.
    Your concept here was very interesting... Because if you can achieve that type of proximity to an F-22 undetected you might get near parity.
    However, my question is... How are you able to track the F-22 well enough to allow your F-16 to launch right underneath it? You would need a really good track on the F-22 (and intact command + control) to allow your F-16 to launch in such a small window. Not to mention that any such tracking system would definitely be under attack by other F-22's, B-2's and all manner of cruise missiles.
    Additionally, consider that even if your F-16 launches into 1 F-22's blind spot it might be seen by another F-22 lagging behind. Their radar is networked. What one sees.. they all see.
    I'd be interested in your answer since you seem very knowledgeable about IADS systems.
    Again great blog.
    Evan V.

  6. OK, the use of multiple waves is complicating. It's also difficult to pull off. The fighter flights would want to maneuver freely (which creates unavoidable gaps), and intervention with BVR AAMs is difficult if the opposing fighters in front close in with each other quickly.
    The real problem for the staggered tactic is quantity - you need many, many fighters to pull that off. That's exactly one of the F-22 weak spots.

    Data links are no silver bullets - they're resistant, but not immune to ECM. Much of our technology would fail if it faced proper countermeasures. We just face the lucky (and misleading) situation that proper countermeasures aren't really wide-spread. Certainly not in near-medieval Afghanistan or in Iraq (which was embargoed since 1990).

    Integrated air defenses with large communication and emission requirements are probably a poor path for powers that face enemy air superiority and enemy SEAD capabilities.
    National IADS like Iraq's appear to be outdated to me.

    Mobile clusters of air defense systems with temporary cable communication lines, passive sensors as radar backups, decoy radars and hard kill missile defenses even against ARMs are more like state of the art.
    Ultra long range SAMs against IRS and standoff jamming aircraft help as well.

    The greater flaw in my concept is probably that you need no fighter if you can spot the plane above your position - a missile like Aster with IIR seeker, MICA VL with IIR seeker or IRIS-T SL would most likely suffice (unless the target has DIRCM).

  7. But how will you acquire the F-22?

    And suppose you are able to do so then instead of launching some aircraft close to f-22 you might as well make use of SAMs.They have better acceleration and less logistics issues.

    Infact thatś how SAMs are used i.e for surprise effect.Once they track you its hard to outrun them or outmaneouver them.

  8. The F-22 is a low observable aircraft, not stealth aircraft and certainly not invisible.
    Its smallest radar cross section is believed to be the frontal one, the belly should have a much higher (probably by an order of magnitude) RCS.

    History has never seen a wonder weapon that completely fulfilled expectations (except nukes, of course), and I see little reason to buy into the "F-22 will not be seen by radar" story.
    The F-22 will be difficult to spot by radar at long distances (especially by the tiny radars used by fighters), but tracking is usually easier than initial spotting and short range is an entirely different affair.

    LO aircraft merely reduce the range at which they can be detected.

    Finally, ground radars can use much more radar frequency bands for good effect than fighter radars (because ground clutter is no problem if you look up and ground radars can have large antennas).
    The F-22 (initially ATF) was designed as fighter, and as such was optimised against modern aircraft radars. Radar absorption materials don't have equal performance against all wavelengths - the compromise was most likely in favor of air/air specific radars.

    The key problem is the public relations work and patriotism that makes people believe that the F-22 is immune to radar. It's certainly not. Instead, it has a reduced RCS that's troublesome for enemy radars at long range and the tiny MRAAM radars in general.
    The LO feature shall make its effective combat range superior (and likely does so) - that means enemy fighters have the greatest disadvantage till they have closed in.

  9. My simplest criticism of this tactic.
    To defeat this plane, we will allow it to fly over us. This plan seems to have some exploitable flaws...

    If one was forced to undertake this tactic I would simply do it with air to ground missiles, preferably that didn't require an emitter for targeting, and was hidden before launch. A image of a individual VLS coming out of what looked to be sewer grate or something comes to mind as a evocative thought.

  10. Well, most nations don't optimize their military forces for a defense against the USA and have fighters that can be used to good effect in other conflicts.

    This was a tactic for the effective use of such existing hardware, contrary to the dreams of some F-22 fans.

  11. "Instead, let the F-22 close in - and be no aircraft, but a piece of metal on the ground while doing so.
    STOL Fighters could land on many places (normal roads with a platoon-sized security, inspection and refueling team) and wait/hide there till enemy combat aircraft close in."

    First, the vstol fighter would have to see the F-22 in the distance and know that it was an F-22 and know its flight path. Second, when V/stol fighters do vertical takeoffs and landings, it cuts their range by around 80%. Check figures of Harriers range when they use vertical take offs compared to normal takeoffs to see an illustration of this.

  12. I didn't write VSTOL but STOL - "short take-off and landing".

    The interceptor itself wouldn't need to "see" the F-22 until in weapons range, there's still such a thing as other sensors and radio communications.

    The F-22 isn't invisible. It just creates problems for known radars and reduces the detection ranges for radar and old infra-red sensors.

  13. Could the VSTOL aircraft be replaced by a small UAV fighter that has the advantage that you can "man" it with your fighter aces as required?
    I think that such fighter UAVs with external information support (ground stations, reconnaisance aircrafts, satellites) would be a nice addition to existing missiles.

  14. High performance UAVs don't tend to be much cheaper than normal aircraft. The cockpit is only a small part in terms of volume, weight, drag and procurement price, after all.

    The point of this blog post was to point out that a concept such as F-22 is seriously vulnerable (if it leaves the preferred mode of combat), too.

  15. OK, sure an unmanned aircraft with the exact same capabilities as the manned fighters wouldn't be less expensive. I suggest a much lighter UAV fighter (that compares like a midget submarine to a submarine) with very limited armament, including a machine gun, and dependant on external information with only an integrated camera (with IR spectrum), perhaps the same radar as on anti-air missiles and a laserpointer for direction and distance for very close combat (possibly also for tracking turbulences caused by the low-observeability aircraft). The engine can be a low-maintenance rocket for one way use (making this rather a modern Natter) with a parachute for landing. You must be able to have lots of them for not much more money than for example a Patriot missile. It'll be very challenging to attack the F-22 with this craft. But the operation of the craft is meant to offer a better chance of success than a missile attack because the human operator is very capable at running an algorithm to look through any countermeasures. A serious problem can be the communication in case of jamming or hacking.

    UAVs have one great advantage over manned aircrafts, you can switch the operator/pilot at the drop of a hat. Wherever UAVs are in combat you can concentrate fighter aces on that very spot while routine flights can be handled by less talented pilots. You're certainly right about high performance UAVs being expensive, but switching the operator in my opinion can more than pay off for that decision. There's a drawback, flying a remote piloted aircraft is not possible with radio silence.

    I would rather envision UAV fighters as flying sensor irritation through imitation and light missile platform with structural strength for very high-g maneuvers, but the barest minimum of electronics, making them helpless without short range information transfer from a friendly manned aircraft with which they normaly cooperate as personally programmed "wingman". They can possibly be operated by a far-away specialist via communication with the "mother-aircraft".

    A task for different UAVs (even more simplified A10s) would be "returning long range cruise missiles" with short communications whenever a pattern for required action is detected. These are meant to fly low and use mostly passive detection (cameras) or non-sophisticated radar in order to be as inexpensive as the manned aircraft they are modeled upon.

  16. I'm no fan of such drones. There's little reason to believe that a missile or a manned fighter couldn't do the job as well or as poorly, and they'd be less experimental.