# Why do fighter aircraft manufacturers still focus on making their planes more dogfight-worthy?

In today's age, when dogfights are simply a relic from the past, why do manufacturers keep on increasing their aircraft maneuverability, in order to make them better dogfighters. It is more understandable if they were to make stealthier or more efficient fighters, but when the dogfight is extinct, why make planes even more agile and maneuverable?

• The last time fighter designers thought dogfights were a relic of the past, Vietnam happened. It's understandable that they would wish to avoid repeating the unpleasant experience of redesigning hastily to try to patch up dogfighting ability on a plane supposedly too modern to need it. – Nathan Tuggy May 21 '15 at 17:26
• On a side note, increased manueverability may well help aircraft dodge SAM's – Jon Onstott May 21 '15 at 19:32
• "...dogfights are simply a relic from the past...", "...dogfight is extinct..." - please justify these remarks. – Bob Jarvis May 22 '15 at 11:41
• And what about the potential for remote-piloted dogfighters? No need to haul around all that mass of pilot, accommodation, support/survival equipment/supplies, on-board instrumentation etc., no human factors-imposed g-force limitations, no risk of pilot loss/capture. Or would a simulated cockpit just not give a pilot adequate situational awareness to remote dogfight his way to a successful kill as effectively as an on-board pilot? – Anthony X May 24 '15 at 2:03
• Because it's what their customers want. – Pete Becker May 24 '15 at 2:14

That same thinking, "dogfighting is dead", got the USAF and USN in serious trouble in Vietnam. The U.S. Armed Forces were convinced that the next major war would be against the Soviet Union directly, in theaters including Europe, Alaska and Canada, and as a result, fighter designs succeeding the very successful Sabre and Super Sabre day fighters used in Korea began emphasizing standoff capabilities, believing the aerial threat would come from various classes of nuclear bomber, calling for fast, long-range missile-armed interceptors as a counter.

That war, thankfully, never materialized. Instead, the U.S. was pulled into more or less another Korea, a proxy war fought between Soviet-supplied and trained Communist forces against a U.S.-backed fledgling democracy. The big, heavy U.S. F-4 Phantom interceptor and F-105 Thunderchief light bomber, neither of which had internal guns, found themselves facing the older like-minded successor to the MiG-15s they faced in Korea, the MiG-17, coupled with the MiG-21 close-range interceptor. Instead of the long-range standoff air war the USAF was built for, US pilots were ambushed at close range by guns and infrared missiles, resulting in a piss-poor 2:1 kill/death ratio in aerial engagements, compared to the 14:1 ratio they enjoyed in Korea.

The result was increased attention paid to "air combat maneuvering", and an emphasis on this style of combat in the next generation of fighters adopted by the U.S. military. The F-14 and F-15, though intended to bring back dogfighting (and they did), turned out to be big, fast interceptor-style fighters like their predecessors, that still only had a clear advantage in BVR engagements. So a group of USAF generals, seeing what its allies had been doing with the F-5 Tiger that the Joint Chiefs had more or less passed on (a few trainers, a few aggressor planes, but no combat adoption), commissioned the LWF competition, which would produce the F-16 and F-18 lightweight multirole fighters with an emphasis on the close-quarters maneuverability that the Communist powers never really forgot.

The F-22 splits the difference between the F-15 and F-16's air combat strategies, producing a heavier but highly maneuverable fighter that excels at air combat at any range (but is so expensive that so far the USAF have only deployed them in situations where they would never face any real threat). The F-35, however, is rapidly becoming a disappointment; compared even to the F-16 or F-15E it will replace, it "can't climb, can't turn, and can't run", and the A variant is the only one with an internal cannon (which carries only 182 rounds of ammunition compared to the F-22s 480, the F-15's 650 and the F-16's 510); the STOVL B variant and the Navy's C variant won't have guns at all.

In today's military theater, the U.S. enjoys "air supremacy"; we're fighting largely paramilitary forces with practically zero air to air capability. Tomorrow's theater, however, may be quite different. Diplomatic relationships with a number of Russian-supplied nations including Russia itself are souring day by day, and the U.S. could easily find itself drawn into conflicts over Taiwan, the Korean peninsula, India/Pakistan, the Ukraine, etc, where they'd face militaries fielding Russian jets purpose-built to mix it up at visual range.

In short, while the U.S. hasn't directly fought a conflict against a serious air threat since Vietnam, there are a lot of potential near-future conflicts in which they would get their chance, facing the Sukhoi PAK-FA or Chengdu J-20 with skilled Chinese or Russian pilots at the stick. Even if these fighters aren't fielded in mass numbers, the U.S. would still face the Russians' direct answers to U.S 4th and 4.5-generation fighters, including the MiG-29 and Su-27/30/33. Many variants of these were specifically designed to out-maneuver the U.S. F-15, F-16 and F-18 (which would likely be the first jets in-theater), and which would still be a match for the F-22 in a visual-range "furball".

• I don't know that your last statement is true - I've talked to some US Fighter pilots who have been in dogfights with the F-22, and even in their 4th-generation fighters they have little chance against the 22, with guns or missiles. They're good 4th-gen fighters, just not near the level of the 22 – SSumner May 21 '15 at 22:45
• Those are U.S. pilots flying U.S. planes; the 22 was the first U.S. production fighter with vectored thrust. Try an F-22 against a Su-30MKI; the 30's radar cross-section is higher, but it has multi-aspect vectored thrust allowing high-yaw in addition to high-pitch maneuvers giving it a few extra tricks in a furball. I wouldn't count out the Su-30 in a one-on-one visual-range engagement. – KeithS May 21 '15 at 22:52
• Here's an article about the latest "Dissimilar Air Combat Training" exercises, Cope Taufan 2014, in which U.S. Raptor, Eagle and Hornet pilots went up against Malaysia's Russian-supplied air force of MiG-29Ns and Su-30s. The Su-30MKM, very similar but with different avionics than the Indian MKI variant, is a serious dogfighter that is not to be underestimated. Other exercises have pitted it against German Eurofighters. foxtrotalpha.jalopnik.com/… – KeithS May 21 '15 at 23:23
• The consensus so far, which is limited because so much about the Raptor is heavily classified, is that the plane's best weapon is its stealth; it enjoys a significantly higher kill-death ratio in BVR engagements. Close the distance, and it can still mix it up, but a highly maneuverable 4th or 4.5-gen fighter has a chance, especially once the Raptor goes post-stall (using its vectored thrust to get the nose to come around). Once that happens the Raptor loses a lot of maneuvering energy, allowing a more energetic opponent to take the fight vertical and get some chances at an off-boresight lock. – KeithS May 21 '15 at 23:28
• Something else worth considering is the political aspects of war - in some cases the ROE might not allow for BVR attacks. There's a good reason the AIM54 Pheonix was almost never fired in anger. There's no point in being able to detect an enemy at range, and hit them, if your ROE insists on visual confirmation. – Journeyman Geek May 25 '15 at 0:46

Dogfighting isn't dead. Even though generation 4.5/5 airframes have great missile capability and stealth, there are times when there is no substitute for bullets. Close quarter gun fire is pretty much immune to chaff and flares. Being able to maneuver into position to engage another aircraft with guns is essential in many circumstances and training for that will likely be a fundamental part of flight training for a long time, so, I doubt that manufacturers will stop developing more maneuverable jets even though electronic/computer systems are playing a larger part in air to air combat.

• Being able to maneuver into position to engage another aircraft with guns is essential in many circumstances -- As is being able to maneuver into position to launch that expensive missile at your target. All the fancy missiles in the world do no good if you can't maneuver your aircraft into a position where you can successfully fire them at the hostile aircraft. That needs a very similar set of characteristics to those that make a good dogfighting aircraft. – voretaq7 May 21 '15 at 17:20
• Just an aside, dogfights aren't limited to guns. Missiles play an important part in the modern dogfight as well. – Rhino Driver May 21 '15 at 19:32
• @RhinoDriver - That's true, however modern short-range missiles can be fired "off-boresight", with the pilot simply looking at his target to cue the missile's seeker head instead of having to point the entire plane in the right direction. The AA-11 and the cutting-edge short-range IR missiles of virtually all NATO countries and allies are capable of at least 90* off-boresight targeting (the opponent being directly to the side or above), and the MICA IR, a French missile marketed to operators of the Dassault Rafale, recorded the first ever missile kill of an aircraft behind the launcher. – KeithS May 22 '15 at 15:31
• @KeithS My only point is that close range engagements are not limited to guns. I'm not sure what your comment is suggesting other than dogfighting engagements are more complex now than they used to be 20-30 years ago. – Rhino Driver May 23 '15 at 19:08
• ALL weapons have an acceptable launch envelope, and an unacceptable one, The only difference between guns and missiles is that missiles launch envelopes are generally larger than that of the gun. But the pilot still has to maneuver the launch platform (the aircraft he is flying) into the envelope for the weapon he/she is employing. – Charles Bretana Apr 24 '18 at 15:08

While dogfighting may be extinct in Afghanistan, its certainly not extinct in Russia, China, Europe, India, etc. Nations do not arm to fight the current threat, they arm to discourage possible future threats and project power abroad.

• And deciding that you don't need to be able to dogfight any more puts you at an instant disadvantage against anyone who can still do it. – David Richerby May 21 '15 at 23:00
• @DavidRicherby exactly my point, you train to discourage future threats whilst simultaneously projecting power of your own. – Rhino Driver May 21 '15 at 23:11
• @DavidRicherby OTOH, you don't bring a knife to a gunfight. Replace digfight with swordfight to see how that logic doesn't really work. Deciding that you don't need to be able to swordfight anymore puts you at an instant disadvantage against anyone who can still do it; not if the enemy is using machines guns and powered battle-armor. There is a reason we don't train with blades anymore. IOW, The reason people say we don't need dogfighting anymore is that we have capabilities to prevent the enemy from using their dogfighting ability. So the "anyone who can still do it" is no one. – Shane Sep 21 '15 at 18:16
• @Shane Did you read the accepted answer? "We can prevent the enemy using any dogfighting ability they may have" was exactly what the US thought going into Vietnam and it was dead wrong. As soon as you lose the ability to dogfight because you think you can avoid getting into dogfights, any enemy who can get into a dogfight with you has a big advantage. Just as somebody with a knife has a big advantage against somebody with a rifle, if they can get within grappling range. – David Richerby Sep 21 '15 at 18:35

Some good answers here, in complement to which I would like to submit a very interesting paper (alternate link - pdf!) I came across on the promise vs. reality of BVR combat, which has been predicted to replace dogfighting since the 50s, if not 40s.

In short, history has shown that despite all advances, battlefield realities have consistently forced aircraft into close-range situations where traditional ACM capability still matters, so manufacturers have to take that into account if they hope to sell their aircraft. The only reason dogfighting is extinct in Afghanistan is because insurgents there have no aircraft of their own to operate. Operations elsewhere have demonstrated the continued relevance of having a platform that can maneuver when it has to.

There is, however, a reverse side to the coin in that, while maneuverability and thrust-to-weight ratios remain important, we may be hitting a plateau in terms of how much more that capability is being improved. So-called "supermaneuverability" is becoming a fairly ubiquitous feature in most modern dedicated air superiority fighters (e.g. F-22, T-50, Super Flanker series, the Eurofighter Typhoon in its air superiority configuration, etc.) but the levels of agility currently on display have often been first showcased more than 20 years ago.

In the meantime, other features such as stealth, supercruise, passive and low-probability-of-intercept sensor suites, data links, helmet-mounted sights and off-boresight launch capability for missiles, along with a massive push towards improving pilots' situational awareness have seen tremendous advances in the past 20 years and, to my mind, say a good deal about what the air forces of the world (i.e. the customers) perceive to be the elements that will give them an edge.

In short, dogfighting capability is still regarded as an essential capability, but only time will tell if its importance will diminish relative to other elements.

• The levels of agility might still be improved by getting rid of the pilot; an unmanned aircraft isn't restricted to G forces that a human can survive. But of course that opens up a lot of other very difficult issues, like how to effectively control - in all senses of that word - an aircraft that can move and react faster than a human can. Self-driving cars are already bringing up some tricky ethical questions and autonomous armed vehicles will bring even more. – Pondlife May 21 '15 at 18:40
• @Pondlife - agreed; I'm a huge fan of the idea of massed swarms of very cheap robotic UAVs whose sole job is to go out and drown the other side in targets, but I figured that might have been a little outside of the immediate scope of the discussion. – habu May 21 '15 at 20:08
• It's not close range per se. It's that your enemy is a human being. And being human they tend to be creative. When the Japanese had better maneuverability American pilots developed tactics that took advantage of their higher top speed. When Americans developed good missiles the Vietnamese took advantage of the minimum arming distance and closed in for dogfights. You simply can't afford to neglect any area of performance in case your enemies can exploit your shortsightedness. – slebetman May 22 '15 at 17:20

The manufacturers aren't trying to increase their aircrafts maneuverability. The F-35 is far less maneuverable than the fighters it is replacing. Modern selling points include stealth, multi-role, reconfigurability, avionics, price, and data. It is all about Situational Awareness.

General Hostage of USAF says:

People focus on stealth as the determining factor or delineator of the fifth generation. It isn’t; it’s fusion. Fusion is what makes that platform so fundamentally different than anything else.

Lieutenant Colonel Berke says:

But the difference between a Hornet or a Viper and the Raptor isn’t just the way you turn or which way you move the jet or what is the best 43 way to attack a particular problem.

The difference is in how you think. You work in a totally different way to garner situational awareness and make decisions; it’s all different in the F-22. With the F-22, as will be the case with the F-35, you’re operating at a level where you perform several functions of classic air battle management. That’s a whole different experience that requires a different kind of training.

And from another pilot:

The whole point to fifth generation is the synergy of stealth, fusion and complete situational awareness," says a veteran Air Force fighter pilot. The point about fifth generation aircraft is that they can do their mission anywhere - even in sophisticated integrated air defense [IADS] environments. If you fly into heavy IADS with a great radar and sensor fusion, but no stealth, you will have complete situational awareness of the guy that kills you.

Maneuverability and dogfighting isn't a selling point. In fact lt.col Berke specifically dismisses it.

Moreover, the answer from KeithS seems quite off. The F-105 Thunderchief was a ground attack fighter-bomber.

As a follow-on to the Mach 1 capable North American F-100 Super Sabre, the F-105 was also armed with missiles and a cannon; however, its design was tailored to high-speed low-altitude penetration carrying a single nuclear weapon internally. [...] During the war, the single-seat F-105D was the primary aircraft delivering the heavy bomb loads against the various military targets. Meanwhile, the two-seat F-105F and F-105G Wild Weasel variants became the first dedicated Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) platforms, fighting against the Soviet-built S-75 Dvina (NATO reporting name: SA-2 Guideline) surface-to-air missiles.

Of course it isn't going to be a great dogfighter. Still, it rackered up nearly 30 MiG kills. The F-4 however was an Interceptor with standoff weaponry,

[its] biggest weakness, as it was initially designed, was its lack of an internal cannon. For a brief period, doctrine held that turning combat would be impossible at supersonic speeds and little effort was made to teach pilots air combat maneuvering. In reality, engagements quickly became subsonic, as pilots would slow down in an effort to get behind their adversaries. Furthermore, the relatively new heat-seeking and radar-guided missiles at the time were frequently reported as unreliable and pilots had to use multiple shots (also known as ripple-firing), just to hit one enemy fighter. To compound the problem, rules of engagement in Vietnam precluded long-range missile attacks in most instances, as visual identification was normally required. Many pilots found themselves on the tail of an enemy aircraft but too close to fire short-range Falcons or Sidewinders.

So while it wasn't designed as a dogfighter, that isn't the cause of its low kill:death ratio. Politics and 60s-70s era technology was.

• This is much more on the money. But I'd disagree with the second sentence. Virtually every pilot testimony attests that the F-35 is quite maneuverable, with the acceleration of the F-16 and the high-alpha/low-speed performance of the F-18---basically a thrustier Hornet. – Hephaestus Aetnaean Jul 27 '17 at 2:28

Haven't you seen Independence Day?

It's always better to be prepared for a category of threat than to write it off. Why teach a soldier hand-to-hand fighting when he has an assault rifle? Because you don't want to lose a perfectly good soldier when he gets surprise-jumped and doesn't have the time or space to bring his rifle to bear.

Additionally, the recent Defense spending trend in the U.S. is very large, very expensive orders of a particular vehicle. Those numbers are much easier to sell when that vehicle can (on paper) fulfill multiple roles. Just like in business, you're going to have some marketing wizard who's only job is to secure the biggest budget possible for your pet project, and his goal is to have an endless bullet-list of features to attract those dollars.

• Your point is valid... but Independence Day? Which part are you referring to? – fooot May 22 '15 at 0:32
• @fooot Presumably the part where Will Smith outmaneuvers an advanced alien fighter in a dogfight. After all, as a more recent movie tells us, no matter how advanced the alien civilizations, their aircraft can't bank worth a damn. – Lilienthal May 22 '15 at 9:33
• To be fair, alien ships are probably designed to work in the vacuums of space. The extra air resistance is killer. :-) – Chris K May 22 '15 at 16:03
• @ChrisKaminski. they must be primitives not to consider other planet's atmospheres! – azerafati May 23 '15 at 7:19

From what I have read, and from the answers I have seen above, it looks like most of air combat will consist of BVR missile attacks, however, since nothing is 100% perfect, some of fighters will get through the initial missile salvo and end up in close - range air combat.

Why do manufacturers focus on "making their planes more dogfight-worthy?"