According to media reports, during the US military's Northern Lightning exercises that ended in early September 2016, their F-35A fighter jets carried out beyond-visual-range (BVR) attack and hit down several F-16C fighters without any injury to themselves. This triggered a debate on close-range air combat VS BVR air combat.
The main form of modern air combat has evolved from close-range combat to BVR combat nowadays. Is close-range air combat still useful in the future? This is a hot topic.
Proponents: Close-range air combat will exist for a long time
Close-range air combat won't retreat from history. With the continuous improvement of equipment and technologies, beyond-visual-range (BVR) combat capability is enhanced, but it cannot apply to all combats.
All countries should actively explore the laws of close-range air combat, attach importance to studying the application of its tactical theories, carry out training of modern close-range air combat and continuously enhance the capability in that aspect.
It's not easy to win in BVR air combat
Systematic combat limits BVR air combat in many ways. Modern air combat is no longer the confrontation between aircraft, but the competition in the systematic strength of both sides.
If their systematic combat capability differs too much and battlefield information is "transparent in one way only", the side with information disadvantage will have much more probability of encountering BVR attack because of the powerful interference and online attack, the largely shortened detection distance of aircraft-borne radar, the shrinking attack scope, and the serious interference in identification of friend or foe (IFF), electronic confrontation and commanding communication.
If the two sides are neck and neck in systematic combat capability and battlefield information is "transparent in both ways", the fight over information supremacy will be extremely fierce.
The commanding information system on each side is likely to fail due to electronic interference or online attack from the other side, and air combat may turn into air-air confrontation. If BVR attack cannot achieve the expected result at that time, it will naturally turn into close-range air combat. Medium-range missile isn't always a crack shot, and BVR attack doesn't always hit the target.
First of all, the hitting accuracy of medium-range missile is only 73 percent limited by missile technologies, even lower in realistic conditions due to multiple external factors.
Second, human operation affects the hitting accuracy too. Some pilots are well-trained but some are not, not all of their real-combat operations are accurate, and misoperation may make the medium-range missile miss the target.
Third, modern warplanes are better at dodging BVR attacks, which further lowers the hitting accuracy of medium-range missile. Airplane has better maneuverability and consequently is more able to dodge the attack by medium-range missile, and modern warplanes are all equipped with advanced omnidirectional radar warning system and electro-optical jamming device, which help them detect the incoming medium-range missile in advance, so they can interfere in the attack with electro-optical jamming or avoid it, thus effectively undermining the hitting accuracy.
During the Gulf War, the US Air Force launched AIM-7M and AIM-120 medium-range air-to-air missile for BVR attack under the condition of "one-way transparency", but the hitting rate was less than 30 percent.
Technical revolution injects new vitality into close-range air combat
With the continuous improvement of equipment and technologies, close-range air combat in modern conditions is no longer what it was in the traditional sense.
First, its form isn't limited to stern attack. Compared with second-generation airplane that uses aircraft gun for stern attack, third-generation aircraft's extreme turning angular velocity is twice or thrice faster, its minimal turning radius is almost halved, and the effective firepower coverage can extend to 6,000-8,000km. These, coupled with the cooperation between helmet-mounted sight (HMS) and High-Angle Off-Boresight (HOBS) missile, reinforce close-range air-to-air missiles' capability of launching HOBS attack and revolutionize the form of future close-range air combat.
Second, modern close-range air combat combines the characteristics of traditional medium-range and close-range air combats. According to the "three-phase" theory of "medium and long-range, medium to close-range and close range", the medium-to-close-range shift takes place at 15-10km. As air-to-air missile and airborne fire control technology are making continuous progress, the longest attack range of the new-type close-range air-to-air missile is 15-10km, which largely overlaps with the optimal attack distance of medium-range missile, so both medium-range and close-range missiles can be launched in this overlapped area. As the shooting range of close-range air-to-air missile gets longer, close-range air combat will have more characteristics of medium-range air combat.
Third, close-range air combat has become more intense and complicated than ever. Constant technological innovations have lifted modern air weapons to a height never reached before, and modern close-range air combat features more intense confrontation, more complicated environment and faster situation changes than before because of the diverse attack approaches, extensive attack scope, omnidirectional attacks, consistent range shift, sustained overload maneuverability and swift offense-defense change.
Since medium-range and close-range air combats are largely overlapped in information and firepower and they shift to each other quickly, the two opposing sides, after one or two rounds of medium (long) range engagement, will shift from medium to short range in an instant, providing a large space for the use of offensive-defensive tactics. The instant change of combat situation will also give the side that stands at a disadvantage in medium-range equipment and technologies more space to turn the passive situation into an active one.
Opponents: "Bayonet" fight is declining
With the IT development, update of combat concepts and change of combat forms, close-range air combat, especially the "group fight in air" in the WWII, will not reappear. It will only be applied in local small-scale warfare or special missions, and at an extremely low probability. In the foreseeable future, "bayonet-style" combat won't be a regular approach of air combat, nor is it a wise option.
Battles can be settled at medium or long range
Situation perception is the key to winning an air combat, as Sun Tsu said, "know the enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a hundred battles and win them all".
IT approaches such as data link enable the pilot and even the entire commanding chain to perceive the air combat situation more quickly and comprehensively, so that they can implement tactics and achieve the combat intension at medium or long range.
The advanced avionics system gives fourth-generation aircraft obvious advantages in situation perception. At present, the main fighter jet used by various countries in the world is still of the third generation. Although some of them are not equipped with advanced avionics system, they can still perceive the situation rather comprehensively through integrated IT means.
In the Red Flag 16-1 exercises by the US military, the Royal Australian Air Force's (RAAF) F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which was fitted with the active electronically scanned array radar (AESA radar), sent air images to third-generation F/A-18A/B Hornet after detecting a threat. Therefore, even if the Hornet pilot didn't detect the enemy fighter on the radar, he was able to identify the target and engage in battle in advance.
Advanced medium-range air-to-air missile has proven its combat efficiency in multiple real combats. The fourth-generation medium-range air-to-air missile is an excellent weapon against enemies under complicated electronic confrontation conditions for its high hitting accuracy, good stealth performance, strong anti-interference capability and resistance to target turn-off.
All advanced fighter jets today carry medium and long-range air-to-air missiles. For instance, the medium-range air-to-air missile AIM-120 equipped in F-15, F-16 and F-22 has a shooting range of up to 80km, and the R-77 fitted in Su-27 can shoot up to 150km. During the Gulf War, BVR air-to-air missile shot down more aircraft than close-range air-to-air missile, and air combat wins in several local warfare later were mostly attributed to BVR air-to-air missile. Its combat benefits made people pay more attention to its R&D, which in turn further enhanced its combat performance.
Account book for close-range air combat
Some held that when the two opposing parties are comparable in such aircraft capability as information means, situation perception and interference approach, they will move from medium and long-range to close-range air combat eventually.
It's true that in a realistic combat, fighter jets on both sides may move from medium and long range to close range. The question is that if neither side has absolute advantage in the performance or number of aircraft or the performance of missile and other weapons, isn't close-range air combat more like a game of "eggs hitting each other"? The cardinal combat principle is always hitting the enemy's weakness with your strength, so the best choice at this moment is retreat rather than engaging in close-range combat.
In addition to tactical considerations, the cost effectiveness and survival rate are also important factors for making such a decision. According to a government evaluation in the US, the unit price of F-35A fighter jet with regular takeoff/landing is about $120 million, and its average flying cost is about $24,000 per hour, 10 percent higher than F-16. Flight training and combat cost a lot of money in all countries, and it's known to all that the cost for pilot training is measured with gold. The US and Turkish air forces held the Red Flag and Anatolian Eagle exercises in order to guarantee survival rate. Compared with close-range air combat that involves enormous input, low-cost and high-reward solutions are more welcome.
Close-range air combat is no longer indispensable
The emergence and application of combat theories such as the "five-ring theory" and "stand-off operation" is changing the outlook of traditional warfare, and combat purpose can be achieved today without hand-to-hand fighting.
The "five-ring theory" jumps out of the stereotype of "having a fight" with the enemy and advocates hitting the nail on the head at first try. In fact it's very rare to see blood in air combat. In Operation Desert Fox, the Kosovo War and Operation Enduring Freedom, the US troops always observed the "five-ring theory" and attacked the enemy's strategically sensitive, fragile and key links at first try.
"Stand-off operation" makes fighting easy but meeting difficult. As long-distance weapons and equipment develop rapidly and destructive depth keeps lengthening, hand-to-hand fight is no longer necessary. When applying the "stand-off operation" tactic, the air force doesn't directly engage with the enemy but launches attacks from a long distance. In the War of Falklands, two attacker planes of the Argentine Air Force launched two Exocet anti-ship missiles 20km from the British fleet and sank the Sheffield destroyer.
It's worth noting that the US military recently put forth the "operation cloud" concept, which uses cloud technology to integrate combat platforms, sensors, weapon systems and other air combat resources to maximize the effect of long-distance air combat and leave the enemy in a passive situation where it cannot see or hit the attacker and has no time to react.
Moreover, in future warfare, new-concept weapons such as laser energy will be capable of accurate destruction from the air, and one strike will destroy the enemy without fail. Facts tell us that close-range air combat is getting less and less important and necessary.