<<< back to Ben

air combat maneuvering


When the small biplanes of World War I were introduced, an entirely new type of warfare developed, air combat. The pilots of these fragile WWI aircraft discovered the basic principles of what is known today as air combat maneuvering (ACM). ACM is the art of using the principles of flight to maneuver an aircraft into a position to successfully fire at and thus defeat an enemy aircraft (Clancy 303). Given rapid advancement in technology since the Korean War, the debate emerged between proponents for pure technology versus the skill requirement of the human pilot. Today, some air war analysts argue that ACM is out of date. They argue that training pilots in ACM is a waste of time and money because missile and aircraft technology enables pilots to shoot down an enemy aircraft at long distances. Other analysts argue that, in spite of technological advances, fighter pilots still need the best ACM training that they can obtain ("Rude Awakening in Southeast Asia" 32 - 35). To win the extended air war, combat pilots need the basic skills that come from extensive ACM training.

Some of the most persuasive arguments for ACM is the impressive history of the triumph of ACM and superior tactics amidst the changing technological field of air combat. When the United States F-4 Phantom pilots flew their first combat missions over Vietnam, they learned many hard lessons. They learned that what technology can do is not necessarily what technology will do. The F-4 Phantom is a two-seat, supersonic fighter equipped with the AIM-4 Sparrow and the AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air combat missiles. These were the best air-to-air missiles on the most modern, state-of-the-art combat aircraft in the United States inventory. Yet, in the sky of Vietnam, when the Sparrow was fired during aerial battles, it hit the enemy MiG aircraft only ten per cent of the time. The Sidewinder was much better but still hit MiG's only fifty per cent of the time ("Rude Awakening in Southeast Asia" 32 - 35). The problem with the F-4 was not as much the missiles' fault as it was the designers and builders of the F-4. They built one of the best fighters in history but without a gun. They did this because they believed that technology eliminated the need for human skill. "I love the F-4 and thought it was probably the answer to a fighter pilot's prayers - with the exception of the lack of an internal gun. We missed that terribly," said Major William Kirk, an F-4 combat pilot who flew over Vietnam ("Rude Awakening in Southeast Asia" 36). The lack of a gun was of great concern to combat pilots especially when the North Vietnamese air forces learned how to defeat the new technology. For example, they learned an effective tactic to defeat some U.S. fighter-bomber attacks. Maneuvering toward a group of American fighter-bombers heavily laden with bombs, they would make a quick, one-pass and close-in attack. For defensive reasons, the American pilots had to jettison their bombs short of the intended targets (Anderton 178). This tactic worked well because the MiG pilots knew that the American technology-based response was designed to kill targets at long range instead of short range. The missiles became useless at a short enough range. In this example, primitive tactics beat the America's best technology. Without extensive ACM training, the U.S. pilots were at an even greater disadvantage to this type of tactic. The air combat engagements of Vietnam showed the fallacy of the belief in technology; ACM was a necessity.

In contrast to the United States air war over Vietnam, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) started with an entirely different philosophy in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The IAF was equipped with similar aircraft as the United States, except the Israeli F-4 had one significant difference: it had a gun. The Arab air forces were equipped with the similar MiG's used by the North Vietnamese air forces. Plus, the IAF fighter pilots were the best ACM- trained pilots in the world. So well trained that, at the beginning of the Yom Kippur War, while their air base was being attacked, two combat-inexperienced IAF pilots climbed into their F-4's, took off and proceeded to shoot down seven Egyptian MiG's. The IAF history books are filled with stories like these ("Cauldron in the Middle East" 69-79). What was their secret to success? A top Israeli officer said, "Training is of greater importance and significance than the means of warfare, the weapons systems, and the technology." ("Cauldron in the Middle East" 78). This conflict in the Middle East caused the United States to rethink their air combat philosophies regarding ACM. Eventually, the United States Navy created "Top Gun", a school that trained Navy pilots how to use ACM. By the end of the Vietnam War, the Navy's problem with the MiG disappeared ("Rude Awakening in Southeast Asia" 32 - 35).

With these two major conflicts, one can come to the conclusion that ACM training is needed for combat pilots. However, technology is changing for the better. Everything is getting faster, cheaper, and more effective. The new technology presents new aspects to air combat. For example, the United States developed a new missile that is considered by many experts to be this most reliable missile in the world. The new missile is named the AIM 120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (Clancy 125 -133). Then, after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, American war planners were surprised to learn that the former Soviet Union had developed an innovative missile that was superior in several ways to the AIM 120 ("Missile Anxiety" 47). Now, new advances in stealth technology may make future aircraft less vulnerable across the electromagnetic spectrum (visual, infra-red and radar) and thus immune to any technology-based weapon ("Hiding in Plane Sight" 54-59). With this continuous tit-for-tat game between adversaries, combat pilots need something to fall back on in case of technology failure. History clearly has taught that extensive training in air combat maneuvering is an important part of the basic solution to this challenge.

The drawback to ACM training is the advancement of technology. Technology is clearly improved over what it was in the Vietnam era. The new long range missiles are ten times better than the old Sparrow in range and reliability (Clancy 125-133). The development of stealth technology will not occur any time soon for the non-Western countries. With this in mind, one can see that the AIM 120 will remain an effective weapon for some time. However, the greatest jump is not in missile technology, rather it is in aircraft design. The United States Air Force's newest air superiority fighter is the F-22 Raptor. The Raptor is thought to be the most technologically advanced and most maneuverable aircraft in the world. "The F-22A/B will have the first fully integrated avionics [electronic systems] suite ever flown on a combat aircraft... Total processing power for the F-22A/B with two CIP bays will be in the area of 700 Mips (700 million operations per second - equivalent to four Cray supercomputers)" (Clancy 33). With this kind of technology, it would be easier for a pilot to press a few buttons and destroy an enemy aircraft with ease than to fly complicated and risky ACM manuevers at close range. The United States and its allies are the only nations capable of such a technological accomplishment. No other country has a fighter like the F-22. With this evidence for rapid aerospace developments, advocates say that the technological advances will eliminate and/or reduce the requirement for training in ACM.

However, historical accounts of the Vietnam and Yom Kippur conflicts, plus the uncertainty of future developments, forces one to a different conclusion. This era of increasingly rapid development of technological marvels, as well as the actual results from history, both prove that ACM is and will be crucial to future victory ("The New Age of the Dogfight" 23).

In summary, air combat manuevering is how fighter pilots position their aircraft at close range to take the advantage against another aircraft. Some air combat analysts have speculated that the use of ACM in a modern technological world is not necessary. Other analysts have argued that the history of air combat shows the need for ACM training. To win the extended air-land battles of the future, combat pilots will need the basic skills that come from extensive ACM training.

Works Cited

Anderton, David A. The History of the U.S. Air Force. New York: Crescent Books, 1981.

"Cauldron in the Middle East." Air Combat. The New Face of War. New York Time-Life Books Inc, 1990. 69-97.

Clancy, Tom. Fighter Wing. New York: Berkley Books, 1995.

"Hiding in Plane Sight." Popular Science. May 1997: 54-59.

"Missile Anxiety." Popular Science. Aug. 1995: 47.

"Rude Awakening in South East Asia." Air Combat. The New Face of War. New York: Time- Life Books Inc, 1990. 25-54.

"The New Age of the Dogfight" Air Combat. The New Face of War. New York: Time-Life Books Inc, 1990. 17-24.