The Limits of the Fishbed in Command

The introduction of what I call “tethered intercepts” has gone a long way to increasing the viability of the MiG-21 (and its closest western counterpart, the F-104) in Command.

For what a tethered intercept is, I’ll let this dev video explain.

Even with tethered intercepts, the lightweight third-gen fighter has very real limits. I’ve been testing those limits.


An Iraqi fighter, the guinea pig. (The original photo caption said it was a MiG-21 but the cockpit shape makes it look like it could be an F-7)

This started as part of my on-and-off “Rollback” series, where Iraq decides to sacrifice its fleet of MiG-21s. For both that and for a last-ditch effort (in either 1991 or 2003), I was curious to see how they’d fly.

Against a “Big Blue Blanket”, they were toast. Against small groups, with low proficiency, they occasionally got an endgame calc in and even more occasionally scored a victory, but were still ultimately toast.

Upping the proficiency only slightly improved matters.

Note that assuming such a mission is possible at all (beyond game mechanics) depends on the willingness of the pilots to fly such a dangerous operation. For the truly fanatical, determined, and/or naive, it’s possible. But for an already demoralized, broken force, it’s not.

Lua and the event editor enable the possibility of such a mission, although programming in dozens of MiG-21s is not the same as programming in a half-dozen Su-27s (as I did in one previous scenario with random options).

Export Possibilities-Fighters

In Command, the scenario editor doesn’t just limit the player to historical arsenals. Units that appear under one country’s list can easily serve in another’s-not just for substitutes, but for ahistorical additions to their armed forces.

Now, I’m going to focus on fighter aircraft here.

One of the most common and easiest-implemented export potential is late Soviet surplus. Much of this was exported already to get some value out of them in the post-1991 downturn. Here, it can become even more prevalent. Whether you use the “Soviet Union-1991” or “Russia-1992” listing generally doesn’t make much difference. I generally prefer the former to signify its nature, but that’s just a personal opinion.

Besides the usual MiG-29s and Su-27s, one of my scenario concepts even had the oddball export of MiG-23MLDs (in one of those “Hey, look at the low sticker price, we got a ton of planes for-hey wait a minute”) moments.

Of course, you can use new-built planes as well, with advanced Su-30s and the like, for a more difficult opponent/different style.

China has the J-10 for present scenarios, the J-31 for futuristic/what if ones, and even the J-8, which historically was offered for export but got no takers.

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With Western planes, you have American F-16s, and for really high-end cases, F-15s. The Viper is interesting in that one can use the Egyptian and Iraqi models to simulate a downgraded export version with AIM-7s only. Mirages, Eurofighters, and (thanks to recent export orders) even Rafales can be plopped into similarly capable countries.

Those were the obvious choices. Now for the fun part. Pure hypotheticals. I talked about the F-20 on Baloogan Campaign, and there’s also the MiG 1.42-the original Soviet/Russian fifth-gen fighter that sputtered out. Although no match for an F-22 in terms of avionics or RCS, it is still a fearsome opponent. Even the Super Tomcat series I’ve imagined in the hands of Australia, to replace the F-111s with another long-ranged powerhouse.

Basically, unless it’s really implausible, export fighters can beef up any arsenal.

Now for actually using them.

-If the opponent is the USAF (in most cases, the player is the US and their opponent is said arsenal), the experience of 1991 shows in detail what happens when an airforce made of a solidly built system meets one made of scrounged-up shiny hardware. Even acknowledging the mismanagement, a more competent IQAF would still not make the outcome in doubt.

-This kind of ties in with another point-post Gulf War, the chance of deliberately picking a fight with the victorious USAF/USN is increasingly dubious. This isn’t to say it can’t happen, but that it’s vulnerable to the “ideal smackdown foe” problem.

-More interesting is to explore how the weapons would affect the balance of power in a region without external intervention. I like regional conflicts in Command, and many historical arms deals have been controversial for this very reason.

Cats Balancing Radars on Fulcrums-Iran’s Advanced Aircraft

Earlier, I theorized about an air battle over Iran and posted the results of several informal Command demonstrations that supported the seemingly obvious conclusion. The third generation fighters in the Iranian Air Force are not match for those of their likely opponents. But those were not the strongest or most recent planes.

First are the MiG-29s. Fulcrums get a kind of undeserved reputation as hopelessly inferior to F-16s simply because of the way they were designed-as the next type of short-range point defense fighter with very limited ground attack ability that was designed to work inside a Soviet integrated system rather than the F-16’s offensive multirole design. If I was to put MiG-29s on that Bushehr tethered intercept in their element, they’d do better.

F-14s are the most dangerous components of the Iranian air force, though not because of their threat to enemy fighters. They’re more dangerous than F-4s, to be sure, and I’ve frequently upped the proficiency to symbolize the prestigious nature of their assignments. But against an enemy F-15, they just go from “loses, but has a small chance of taking one down with it” to “loses, but has a somewhat better chance of taking one with it”.

They’re still a 1970s fighter that, Top Gun reputation aside, was more of a clunky missileer than a aerobatic champion in actual service. No, the biggest threat the F-14 poses is to support aircraft. The ability (assuming availability, of course) to fire long-range AIM-54 missiles is one that threatens the multitude of necessary but vulnerable platforms on the other side-AWACS, tankers, intelligence planes. The F-14 can also function as a sort of semi-AWACS by itself thanks to its huge radar.

The capabilities of these two types of planes are not to be exaggerated-their weaknesses are still known, there aren’t that many of them in service compared to the Phantoms and Tigers, and they have known serviceability issues. That being said, they are more capable.

The Second Best is What Gets You

There’s been a longstanding maxim that it’s not the best weapon that inflicts the most damage, it’s the second-best. The reason is that so much effort is used to mitigate the best weapon that it drives the target into the arms of the second-best.

Hence the SA-2’s small number of direct kills in Vietnam may make it seem poor-until one sees both the huge losses to AAA caused by planes flying low to avoid it, and the huge and complicated countermeasures (ARMs, coordinating Weasels) that it necessitated.

I learned the second-best issue the hard way in a Command playthrough. The scenario was called “Meteors Over Korea”, and it featured the titular planes in the Australian Air Force hitting North Korean targets. The Communist forces had at their disposal:

-MiG-15s operating out of China.

-AAA in significant quantities.

-Propeller fighters on a nearby local airfield.

The AAA I couldn’t do anything about. The fighters I could. To avoid the MiG-15s, I would check the mission editor to “Only go once”, and use escorts rather than separate patrols-as speed was of the essence. Go in, hit, go out.

So they went in, hit, faced a wall of flak and furballs with the propeller planes, took some losses, and got out. Four Meteors had fallen, and the damage was limited compared to what it could have been, but the MiG-15s never got close enough to engage. So I checked the log. Despite its intensity, the AAA didn’t hit anything-but the little propeller planes did.

Why? Because I didn’t use a sweep patrol. Even with bad dice rolls, that would have limited casualties among the more important strike planes (the romance of the fighter pilot obscures the fact that if the enemy shoots down them instead of the bomber, they’ve “won” by losing). Why didn’t I use a sweep patrol? Because it would have given the MiGs time to get there.
Despite not scoring any victories or even firing a shot themselves, the MiG-15s accomplished their purpose of limiting the damage, by forcing me to do the desperate-quick maneuver at all. That they gave the propeller fighters one last chance to shine was just a bonus.