I came across this question on still making fighter jets dogfight capable. Now I realize that if all aircraft become so stealthy, how will they fight each other? Only in dogfights, I pressume. Or am I wrong?
Table of contents
As aircraft become stealthier, we'll rely more on the following:
Detection ranges will shrink (against other LO fighters). IR sensors may become the primary means of detection. Fighters may cruise at low subsonic speeds to delay detection.
Radar will still remain the primary sensor for years to come (at least 2 decades, the minimum time for adversaries to field large numbers of LO a/c).
Stealth remains essential.
DATA FUSION and NETWORKING become hugely important; large forces must fight as seamless units. Remote targeting will become more common. Very, very stealthy sensors (eg, F-22 successor) may pass targeting info to less stealthy shooters (eg, F-22, F-35, F-15, missile truck with VLRAAMs)
Future AAMs will feature datalinks and multimode seekers (eg, IR, RF, and laser), improving counter-measure resistance. Many AAMs already have datalinks---shooter guides the missile until the missile's own seeker acquires the target. Advanced propulsion systems debut (multi-pulse motors, ducted-rocket/ramrockets, scramjets), yielding longer range, higher speed, imrpoved kinematics.
Defenses will improve, requiring deeper magazines (smaller weapons and/or larger internal payload bays).
Space, weight, power, and cooling requirements go up. Aircraft grow larger.
Dogfighting will remain rare. Short-range, maneuvering combat will remain unsurvivable with the advent of reliable, high-performance, high Pk, HOBS missiles and helmet-mounted cueing systems. Also, lasers don't miss. (See
5th gen fighters (F-22, F-35) will thoroughly dominate over 4th gen fighters (F-15, Su-35, Typhoon).
Regarding counter-detection and counter-measures
Fighters will better hide their RF and IR signature. See: engine exhaust troughs on F-117, B-2, YF-23, and 6th gen fighter concepts. See: AETD, ADVENT, and F135 upgrades. Tails may disappear.
EW (eg, jamming) will remain important (See:
DIRCM (directed IR countermeasures, an IR laser to jam/kill missile IR seekers) will protect fighters and bombers. Already slated for the F-35.
Hard-kill missile defenses will debut (likely small anti-missile missiles in near-term; anti-missile lasers 20+ years hence). Today, we rely primarily on soft-kill defenses, like jamming and decoys.
Answering the question: how will stealth fighters fight each other?
With better sensors and better stealth.
With mid- to long-range missile shots, but mid-range detection (eg, networked, off-board targeting).
With more lethal weapons (faster/short fight time, improved terminal kinematics, less spoofable sensors).
And with better defenses.
In other words, not unimaginably different from how the F-22 sometimes fights today -- a variation on 5th gen combat. Why? [See note.]
Because stealth hasn't changed the most critical component of aerial combat since WWI: SA -- situational awareness -- obtain SA and deny it to your enemy. Shorten your OODA loop, lengthen your enemies'.
THIS IS BY FAR THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON IN THIS ENTIRE POST. If you learn nothing else, learn this: SA and OODA.
Then do exactly this:
To give you a snippet of The Radar Game:
[Note: it goes w/o saying my prognostications are opinions. Although I'm confident in my predictions -- which are vague but reflect longstanding trends and realistic S&T developments -- I don't pretend certainty.]
[Note: timeframe is near- to mid-future.]
Myth: Stealth aircraft can't use radars / turning on radars instantly reveals your location
Low-probability of intercept functionality allow you to use your radar without being detected you. Principals of operation include using wider-frequency bandwidth (wideband), frequency hopping, using a frequency-modulated continuous-wave signal, using only the minimum power required for the task, and pulse compression. Wiki has a good summary. AESA radars are particularly suitable because of their thin, pencil-like beams and minimal side-lobes.
Here's a Naval Postgraduate School thesis on the detection and jamming of LPI radars.
This is similar to how LO a/c communicate without being detected. The F-35 is equipped with MADL - multifunction advanced datalink - a stealthy, secure, minimum power, high data rate, line of sight comms system.
Myth: IR sensors render stealth obsolete
Bodies heat up when moving through air.
Vid: F-15E in IR.
IR sensors do not see as far as radar (contrary to other answers here).
Against 4th gen fighters (non-stealthy platforms):
For reference, the F-14's optical (not IR) system could ID and track bombers out to 50 nmi. Perhaps 15-25 nmi for fighters. (Some IR bands are less readily absorbed by the air than visible light.)
The PIRATE IRST may detect a VLO fighter (with RF and some IR reduction) from these ranges (CSBA):
(150 nmi figure assumes no afterburner, ie supercruise.)
While IR is harder than radar to jam at long range, it can't estimate target range as easily.
Myth: US lags behind Russia/Europe in IR tech
Again, IR sensors don't see as far as radar, but they are harder to jam from long range. Historically, NATO fielded better radars and jammers than the Soviets, who therefore couldn't rely as heavily on their radars. So the Russians added IRST capabilities to augment their radars.
Remember also that the US flies dozens of AWACS that usually detect enemy a/c long before even an F-15's radar. So IRST wasn't as critical for US fighters.
The F-22 has a space reservation for IR sensors, but that upgrade was cut to reduce costs.
The F-14 received an EOST relatively early because its main targets were large, Soviet bombers, which are easier to detect.
The US eventually added IRST to late-block F-16's, Super Hornets, and of course the F-35, which fields the most complete IR sensor suite of any fighter. The F-35 has a stealthy, built-in IRST that doubles as a targeting pod. (Demo.) Its DAS also allows pilots to see in a complete sphere (4 pi steradian) around the a/c, even through the floor and headrest (no blindspots); its primary function is missile approach and warning.
The F-35 is an important example here because it'll soon comprise the backbone of NATO aviation for decades. Some 3,400 F-35s are slated for production, more than all F-15s, Super Hornets, Rafales, Gripens, Eurofighters, and Su-27s produced to date combined.
(Btw, if you're skeptical about the F-35 -- kinematics (speed, dogfighting v. F-16), range, stealth, weapons (gun), software, cost -- I'll direct you to these two..comments on kinematics, this compendium, and this community. (To start, a fully loaded F-35 with 5k lbs weapons accelerates like a clean F-16 and points its nose like a Hornet.) If you're still skeptical, I can start another 30,000 character post.)
Myth: Stealth makes you invisible to radar
Stealth vastly reduces your RCS, but does not completely erase it.
VLO a/c are much, much harder to detect and track. Active radar detection range goes with RCS1/4. So a 10x reduction in RCS roughly halves detection range. [See radar equation.]
For example, an F-22 or F-35 has an RCS of 0.0001 m2. A clean [unarmed] F-16 has an X-band RCS of about 2 m2. The F-22/35 will be detected at 12-22x shorter ranges than the F-15/16---effectively under 5-10 miles when using a fighter-class radar. That's almost close enough to see [see note] and certainly within IRST range.
(RCS values are ballpark figures for clean aircraft. External stores greatly increase RCS. A typical F-16 loadout for permissive environments (eg, ISIS, COIN) includes 2x 370 gal fuel tanks, 2x 2000 lb JDAMs (or equivalent), 2x AMRAAMs, 1x Sniper targeting pod. 2x AMRAAMs, 2x AIM-9s, a nav pod (eg LANTIRN), and an ECM pod may be added in more challenging environments. Like this. Not like this. Exception: F-22 and F-35, which carry their stores internally in high threat environments.)
[Note that visual range is theoretically up to 20 miles. But in 99.9% of real life cases it's <5 miles. Often just 2-4 miles.]
Note that once loaded with fuel and weapons, the F-16 and F-15 have much larger RCS values, so will be detected from even further out.
Also, while we no longer use large faceted designs (see: F-117) thanks to modern computing, we still shape our a/c to direct radar energy in certain directions away from the transmitter -- mostly to the sides and above -- in narrow lobes or "spikes."
Illustration (video). Skunkworks engineer discusses designing stealth. Listen closely. Screencap:
Placeholder: once detect radar transmitter, stay out of detection range. Because detection range is so short, you have a lot more elbow room than non-stealthy fighters.
No, you're not invisible to radar, but operationally, it's much easier to remain undetected.
Placeholder: B-2 spike management. mission planning.
Myth: Stealth is obsolete / stealth is a hoax / stealth is marketing
LO remains relevant (and very useful) for the same reason armor didn't become obsolete when antitank guided missiles were fielded.
LO also makes jamming far more efficient. Jamming basically hides your aircraft's 25 m2 RCS. If your RCS is only 0.0001 m2, it takes far less power to hide yourself, and your jamming will work at far greater range. Primer: how jamming works.
LO technologies drastically reduce detection ranges and warning times. Sensors that work well against stealthy aircraft would work far better against non-stealthy aircraft.
What's the alternative to stealth? No stealth? Make our aircraft easier to detect and track?
All future combat a/c designs must consider signature reduction going forward---at the very least some signature reduction, if not outright VLO designs---camouflaged tanks are always more desirable than this (or this):
Myth: WWII radars / low-frequency radars make stealth obsolete / an F-117 was shot down by an 1960s radar with simple modifications
First, the F-117 story is untrue. The Serbs claimed they made simple modifications to their old Soviet radars, allowing them to easily spot the F-117s. But Zoltán Dani, the Serbian commander who shot down the F-117 in Kosovo, later admitted on national TV that he never modified the radars, merely used the lowest frequency setting. He explained that he fabricated his story for propaganda. Others alleged he did it to take [more] credit for shooting down the F-117.
Also, NATO jamming support was unavailable the night the F-117 was shot down. Dani was aware, so he turned his radars on a third time without relocating, which allowed him to obtain the fateful radar lock.
But more importantly (and accurately) the F-117 was shot down because of lazy mission planning by the US. The F-117 flew the same route night after night at roughly the same hours. So the Serbs moved their radars directly beneath the anticipated flight path. After a number of attempts were made over several nights, they finally got a lock at just 8 mi (13 km) when the bomb bay doors opened. The F-117 doesn't have a radar warning receiver---the pilot never knew he was directly overflying a SAM radar site (doable, but still ill-advised for any stealth fighter). He only ejected because he visually spotted the missile heading for him.
People forget the F-117 is an old design. It entered service in 1983, just five years after the F-16 and nine years after the F-14. Back then, we didn't know how to integrate radars and other apertures into the skin without compromising its low signature.
To be clear, a kill is a kill, and Dani deserves credit. People also forget that the Serbian forces were motivated, competent, and well-trained---measurably more so than Saddam's air defenses. The Serbs performed much better than the Iraqis and learned much from the lessons of Desert Storm.
The F-117 was only shot down once in its entire career, despite regularly flying into some of the most heavily defended airspace in the world, a feat no other platform could perform without massive support (expensive!)...
...or massive losses (save the B-2, F-22, F-35). Stealth alone allowed the F-117 to survive. Even F-15s and Su-35s would have been shot down in droves if we sent them on the same missions alone. (Image source)
Second, low-frequency radars have several drawbacks:
High frequency radars are suitable for targeting, are more jam resistant, and are smaller/lighter. That's why fighters are optimised for stealth at higher frequencies.
Analogy: you can hear a fly buzzing around your room somewhere (detection), but you must see it to swat it (higher resolution sensor for weapons quality track). You can use your ears to cue your eyes, but you'll never hit it with your eyes closed.
(Lo-freq on left, hi-freq on right. SMSgt Mac, elementsofpower.blogspot.com)
Myth: WVR combat / dogfighting is the primary arena of aerial combat
First, WVR combat =/= dogfighting =/= guns.
Myth: Guns are the primary weapons of aerial combat. F-4's were massacred by obsolete MiG-21s in Vietnam because they didn't have guns.
Common F-4 myth
When Vietnam started, USAF and Navy F-4's claimed just a 2:1 kill/loss ratio. Here commentators often blamed malfunctioning missiles and lack of a gun.
So the USAF added a gun to the F-4, but their K/L remained at 2:1.
In contrast, the Navy began a new program to better train pilots how to use their missiles. They also trained the maintenance crews how to properly handle and maintain their missiles. They did not add a gun.
By war's end, the "sluggish" Navy F-4's claimed a 12:1 K/L ratio against its more maneuverable adversaries like the "agile" MiG-21.
That training program? It became TOPGUN. (Source.)
Welcome to the BVR missile era
The last fighter v. fighter guns kill was in 1989, an Iranian F-4E shooting down an Iraqi Su-22 (CSBA). The F-35's gun is largely for air to ground.
The vast majority of kills over the last 40 years were achieved with missiles:
In the 1960s, guns still dominated. Most gun kills were achieved by Israelis; they used guns exclusively because no one would sell them missiles.
However, by the 1970s, missiles accounted for more kills than guns.
Even in Vietnam, the AIM-7 Sparrow missile accounted for more kills than any other weapon.
By Desert Storm, most shots were fired from BVR. Few air to air engagements required any significant maneuvering at all. Only two air to air guns kills were claimed: A-10s vs helos. In another engagement, a helo was destroyed by a laser-guided bomb. In other words, "A2A" bombs killed nearly as many a/c as guns in the Gulf War. Iraq also lost 3 a/c to CFIT.
And yes, we make supremely better missiles today.
Early AAMs were more akin to guided cannon shells: narrow field of view, short range, and low maneuverability; often only chased a target in front of them (tail chase).
Modern AAMs (HOBS, LOAL) have comparatively stupendous ranges: a modern SRAAM (188 lb AIM-9X Sidewinder) has roughly the range of the original AIM-7 Sparrow (a much larger 500 lb MRAAM); and the new AIM-120D AMRAAM (335 lb MRAAM) has nearly the range of the legendary AIM-54 Phoenix (1000 lb LRAAM).
You will not easily outrun a Mach 3 missile pulling 50 g's with a 200° field of view. Why turn 720° when you can shoot almost directly behind you? (video of AIM-9X testing, 2000). (Realistically, some level of maneuverability is required for good shots, but far less than for a guns solution.) More videos, gifs, gfys, and MICA.
Reliability. In ODS: shot 28 AIM-7s at BVR, 22 hit the target or fireball; 10x more reliable than AIM-7s in Vietnam.
Essentially, missiles are now far better dogfighters than fighters.
But the best dogfighting weapon by far is neither gun nor missile: it's a wingman. Fighters don't fly alone. When you dogfight, A) you rapidly bleed speed and altitude, and B) your SA evaporates because you can't afford to focus on anything else except the guy you're turning with. You're effectively a sitting duck and blind, an easy target for anyone outside the fight.
Dogfighting is extremely dangerous. Two modern fighters are liable to both die in a dogfight, ie a kill/loss ratio of 1:1.
I know of no pilot who prefers dogfighting over taking BVR shots.
Dogfighting may not be dead. But it sure is on life support.
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Placeholder: kinematics still matter
Placeholder: Alleged flaw:
Using infrared sensors, a fast-moving airplane can be spotted at several 100 km distance if it flies high enough. The friction heating of the fuselage nose and leading edges will stick out against a cold background.
Next, by networking radars and combining the radar data in a sophisticated computer program, stealth aircraft can be tracked reliably even in darkness or clouds. A faceted design will send out a strong return signal over narrowly defined angles, and if you have enough radar receivers, those blips will come fast enough to stitch together the path of the stealth aircraft causing them.
A good part of stealth is propaganda.
FIrst, stealth does not make an aircraft invisible- it just makes them harder to detect. Stealth (or correctly, Very Low Observable (VLO)) aircraft can and are detected by radars and other surveillance mechanisms.
I exceeded the 30,000 character limit in my above answer. Here are some additional figures and quotes.
On dogfighting and WVR: