Missile Outliers

I’ve looked at missile outliers in Command and real life.

From what I’ve read, just one AMRAAM has been successfully dodged from an optimal firing position. Looking up more of the “Kosovo Slammer Dodger”, and reading about the engagement in detail gave me a fuller appreciation.

The context is like this: Capt. Mike Shower fired an AMRAAM (which missed), launched a second missile, stated by some sources to be an older and less capable AIM-7[1]. Whatever it was, the context was that of a shot to keep the enemy on the defensive. This worked, and the third and final shot (of an AMRAAM) hit home.

The other AMRAAM misses involved either “insurance shots” where more were fired than turned out to be necessary or shots at extremely long range (where the lack of maneuverability is obvious no matter what the missile).

One thing that makes AMRAAM PK even blurrier is that the sample size is so small that a single incident could make its on-paper hit percentage much higher or lower. You don’t fire missiles to look good on the stats sheet, you fire them to destroy the target. This context has also given me more appreciation for the F-35’s seemingly small missile capability-if its LO features and sensors give it the ability to better set up an optimal shot, then the PK noticeably improves.


[1]Mixed loadouts were indeed carried during Allied Force, as shown in this picture taken during the operation.

Of course, my “favorite” outliers are missiles against low-capability targets. These include Sea Darts against a 707-turned recon plane in the Falklands and AIM-7s against an Iranian C-130 in the Tanker War. These have the mitigating factor of extreme range, but still show that you can’t spell “missile” without “miss”.

So, with real outliers out of the way, I’m trying to remember my Command unlucky/lucky missile rolls.

One I still vividly remember is missing with three out of four MK48 ADCAP torpedoes against a North Korean minisub that never saw anything (BuOrd strikes again!). Another more recent one is a novice proficiency Catalina taking seven (albeit early) SAMs to bring down, while in the same engagement, the identical Sea Slugs one-shotted several proper combat aircraft.

Finally, although not containing an unusual roll, an embarrassing incident (well, embarrassing to the Raptor crews at least) happened in a scen where F-22s were present, but the one air-to-air victory was scored by an A-10.

Weird stuff happens.

Hindsight is 20/20-The JSF Bargain

Hindsight is always twenty-twenty. In light of recent struggles with military projects, I decided to write this hypothetical op-ed. One of my chief inspirations was a forum post where people were talking about the cancelled Space Shuttle as this hideous missed opportunity-why, it was a reusable craft that could pay for itself with commercial launches! The fun was that while we know now that the “self-funding” goal was too ambitious, someone who never had to experience it wouldn’t.

Now for what never was:

OP-ED: The missed opportunity.

The US Navy’s carrier decks have never been more diverse. A state-of-the-art carrier wing houses an air superiority squadron of Lockheed F-24 Hellcats, a squadron of A-6F Intruder IIs, and two squadrons of F-14 Super Tomcats-themselves divided into the 21st Centruy F-14E “Tomcat 21” and the mildly upgraded F-14Q “Quickstrike”. In practice, most carriers house “leftover” F/A-18 Hornets and F-14 “legacy” Tomcats, adding to the logistical backlog.

On land, the F-23 Kite now enters service as the US Air Force’s mainline air superiority fighter, despite having less powerful missiles and radar than the Navy’s F-24. The US operates four different air superiority fighters, four ‘multirole’ jacks of all trades, two specialized close-support aircraft, and two specialized “deep-strike” aircraft.

To find out this situation is not difficult. One need only look at the post-Cold War overcapacity in military aviation, and the desire of the military-industrial-complex to avoid any downsizing. Sen. Shaun Winters and Rep. Bill Morgan, the chairmen of the Appropriations and Armed Services Committee, both hail from New York-and both are very, very, good to Long Island-centered Northrop Grumman.

The A-6F was the most egregious example of the triumph of pork over common sense. Not only was it a simple update of an old, subsonic plane designed in the 1950s, but in terms of role, it clashes with its own successors. The Super Tomcat offers very similar performance and range in an agile, supersonic fighter body, and it is even made by the same company in almost the same location.

Grumman themselves were cool to the A-6F, feeling it could jeopardize the Super Tomcat and feeling the burden of producing still more aircraft. The real support came from the subcontractors and parts suppliers-all healthy donors to Winters’ and Morgan’s campaigns, and spread farther than just Queens and Nassau.

Thankfully, A-6F production stopped. But the looming gap in fighter quantity is fast approaching. Nothing is in sight to replace the thousands of aging F-16s-except maybe the Super Tomcat. Carrier crews will have to juggle parts for five types of airplane, and the taxpayers will be denied a true ‘peace dividend’.

And that is without the effects this aero-naval spending spree has had on the rest of the military. The Army’s much-ballyhooed “LI-21” plans for more of a focus on light infantry exist in large part because the buildup has hacked away at its budgets.

There was one spot of hope. The Defense Department initiated a “Joint Strike Fighter” program. This would provide inter-service commonality of parts, and, with twenty-first century computer design, make true multirole stealth planes that could serve equally well on carriers, VTOL amphibious ships, and conventional airbases. Both the capability and savings would have been immense compared to the current hodgepodge of souped-up Vietnam designs and one-trick ponies foisted on the actual military.
Naturally, Winters wasted little time in attacking the JSF program, and succeeded in killing it.

In Defense of the F-4

In the frequent criticisms of the F-35, it is often compared to the F-4 Phantom, another “do-everything” plane that ended up being used in all roles for both the US Navy and Air Force. The idea goes that since the F-4’s performance ended up being poor, so will the the F-35.

An example can be seen in this op-ed.

“What is fascinating is that the same argument was made almost 50 years ago about the F-4 Phantom, a twin-engine fighter designed for air superiority and reconnaissance. It was first sent into battle without an internal cannon — because of the Pentagon’s optimistic assumption that the new generation of air-to-air missiles made close-range air duels a thing of the past.

The result was that outdated North Vietnamese MiGs were able to shoot down these Phantoms in dogfights, which the Pentagon had planned not to have. So the Phantoms had to be equipped with the very guns once considered unneeded. The Navy then had to create the Top Gun program to teach what had become a lost art of aerial dogfighting.”

This is a huge oversimplification, and also ignores the context that illustrates just how revolutionary the F-4 turned out to be. While not minimizing its imperfections, a closer look at the Phantom shows that it not only that many of the criticisms are unfair, but also that it acheived something more than the sum of the parts.

The Gun Debate

The legend goes “super-tech Pentagon thought that the Phantom didn’t need a gun, so it suffered until the gun was finally brought back”. The truth is much more complex. Marshal L. Michel’s Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam mentions both that pre-war, many crews actually supported losing the gun. And there was a justification even during the early phases of the war-that a cannon would just make fighter crews try to get into dogfights with agile MiG-17s that, gun or not, would not end in the F-4s favor.

The justification was flawed, but it was still there, and was not just mere technological hubris. (Incidentally, the Americans, Europeans, and Soviets all built gunless interceptors in the same time period, showing that this trend was not unique to the Pentagon.)

But even with the gun, most of the kills went to missiles. The platforms on both sides that scored their kills with guns-the American F-105 and North Vietnamese MiG-17, did so because they had no choice. F-4 guns, both the jury-rigged external pods and internal models, offered some opportunities but did not change the basic dynamics of aerial combat. The malinged AIM-7 scored the bulk of American victories, and the AA-2 Sidewinder copy was the North Vietnamese weapon of choice.

In 1972, gunless Navy F-4s, backed by air combat training, excellent radar support in their area of operations, and largely facing weaker MiG-17s, scored their best group of kills yet. Air Force F-4s with guns, facing a larger and better-trained group of MiG-21s, initially foundered, with kills dropping to a negative ratio even by the USAF’s own admission. There is more to it than those initial claims, but it shows that the cannon was no cure-all.

Beyond the Gun

Beyond the stories of the gun, the dogfighting losses, and even the record of the F-4 in Vietnam as a whole, the context of its birth shows its true power.

From World War II to the 1960s, military aircraft development was a frenzied rush. Jets were appearing and getting faster and faster-aircraft were contorted into strange shapes as designers tried to take advantage of the possibilities. Aircraft would enter service, be slammed into rapid production runs that were as much to make up for the very high accidental loss rates as they were to build up the numbers, and then quickly drop out almost as soon as they went in.

There were lasting successes, like the A-4 Skyhawk. But these were drowned out by the mixture of flashes in the pan and utter duds that dominated 1950s tactical aviation. Enter the F-4. The plane began service as a fleet defense interceptor, to shoot down attacking aircraft and missiles threatening the carrier. Thus it was meant to operate in a more BVR-friendly environment (over the water with lavish radar backing) and was unlikely to close to gun-range. Yet it ended up making history in a different role.

Through its journey into becoming a multi-service, multirole “good enough” plane, the Phantom achieved something that had been lacking for much of the jet age-stability. The plane would be a fixture on American carrier decks and air bases alike for two decades, and remained in service with foreign customers for considerably longer.

Through the F-4’s imperfect and somewhat inadvertent pioneering of the multirole aircraft, it set the stage for deliberate designs to follow. Having the ability to both engage in the aerial combat role of a fighter and carry a large and/or long distance payload was extremely important. Pioneering the use of both radar missiles and smart bombs that are now ubiquitous, it provided a needed building block for those game-changers.

And its own service was not a terrible one. In addition to Vietnam, it served effectively in the Arab-Israeli and Iran-Iraq Wars. Among American pilots, even after its vulnerabilities through nearly a decade of war were revealed, it had its staunch defenders. (The book Sierra Hotel has an anecdote where F-4 crews were skeptical of the F-15, believing that having only one pilot would vastly limit its situational awareness. While the latter plane would certainly prove its worth, this was not the reaction of people who wanted to junk the wrecks they were forced to fly in).
In spite of its weaknesses, the F-4 was a capable, versatile product of the technology of the time that brought American jet fighters out of a chaotic childhood into a measured adulthood.