Justin Bronk is a Research Analyst of Military Sciences at Royal United Services Institute. He recently released a fascinating report on the Typhoon fighter sponsored by Eurofighter. Hush-Kit grilled him on Typhoon and the biggest questions in the sphere of military aviation.
In your recent study of Typhoon, you note that the aircraft is second only to the F-22 in the air superiority role. Considering the virtually identical airframe performance of Rafale, its superior maturity, sensor fusion and electronic warfare abilities, how do you justify this?
The Typhoon has a significantly better thrust-to-weight ratio than Rafale as well as a larger radar which for a given M-Scan or AESA gives superior performance in the air superiority role. It also can operate higher and faster than Rafale (above 60,000ft) which lends itself uniquely well to cooperating with the US F-22. Rafale is, of course, a more mature mutli-role platform and also has the edge in terms of instantaneous roll-rate changes, especially at higher all-up weights. Essentially, Rafale has the aerodynamic airframe edge, Typhoon has the edge in engine tech and radar potential. Typhoon also incorporates a two-way datalink capability for Meteor which Rafale does not.
The recent joint RAF/IAF exercise reignited old debates about the relative merits of the Typhoon and Su-30, what are the most important differences between the types – and factoring equally good tactics and pilot skill- does either have a large advantage?
The Su-30 has a big advantage over Typhoon in the horizontal manoeuvres department, as well as quick ‘nose pointing’ at high angles of attack. However, in a representative combat situation the Typhoons would be cruising much higher and faster than the Su-30 with better RCS-reduction features, radar and energy conservation options.
The Typhoon was built to counter a notionally upgraded Su-27, the Su-35 is just such an aircraft, and yet many would say the types have parity; with the Su-35 having a significant advantage in the within-visual range combat scenario- has Typhoon failed its original objectives?
Su-35 overcomes many of the thrust-weight issues of the Su-30MKI so is significantly superior in terms of vertical energy management. However, Typhoon still has a significant edge in terms of BVR combat and WVR, LOAL and high off-boresight helmet cued IR missiles with impressive countermeasures resistance makes both aircraft unlikely to survive a traditional ‘merge’.
“The US is defenceless” Full story here
You have talked to several Typhoon operators, are they well supported by Eurofighter? Are parts supplied quickly and at a reasonable cost?
Yes, but only insofar as Eurofighter GmbH can operate within the confines of a consortium which is answerable to four countries with different funding, operational and political circumstances. However, the recent worsening of the international security environment has meant that the partner nations are now much better aligned than in the past and the current upgrade schedule and maintenance contracts (the latter are conducted by national industry, BAE Systems in the UK for example) outlook is good.
We then left Typhoon aside to move to more general issues
What are the biggest myths or misconceptions about modern air warfare?
I think one of the biggest myths about modern air combat are that agility and speed dictate the outcome of air-air encounters. Whilst the dogfight is not gone, it is now a serious rarity and helmet-cued missiles with extreme manoeuvrability and resistance to countermeasures have rendered such encounters brief. Red Flag exercises and the like suggest that modern air combat is decided by three key factors: situational awareness of each force and pilot, persistence in terms of fuel and missiles, and pilot training.
The ten most combat effective fighters in the within-visual range scenario
Looking at fighters of the early 1960s it could be said that air forces were being sold advanced technology that was not reliable or capable of delivering on its promised abilities. Can you see examples of this today, if so what are they?
I think that there is a real danger of falling into to the trap of believing that just because a fighter can do multiple missions sets, that it can do them all well in a single sortie. Being able to lift off with 1.5 times its own empty weight in mixed air-air and air-ground stores is a very impressive aerodynamic feat for Rafale, for example, but I don’t believe it can then supercruise at high altitude for superior BVR or manoeuvre effectively for WVR counter-air tasks without jettisoning most of it. It should be remembered that having fighters that are flexible enough to do all sorts of tasks, does not mean they can do them all at once – combat mass is still vital!
What is the biggest ethical problem for modern air forces?
Ethical issues will likely centre around the degrees of autonomy built into future strike and combat platforms. There are inherent limitations in remotely piloted solutions in terms of relay control input delays and datalink detectability and vulnerability. However, greater autonomy in terms of target selection and weapons release will be hugely controversial. However, the precedents set by the successful lawsuits against MoD for inadequate equipment provision to British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have set legal precedents which could make MoD liable for NOT using autonomous systems and putting servicemen and women in harm’s way.
Meteor is an excellent idea in situations where the rules of engagement allows long range beyond-visual range shots without visual confirmation of target ID (rare). However, at short to medium ranges, it is slower than solid-fuelled missiles such as AMRAAM. As with many such things, the right solution is a balance of the two capabilities – so mixed load-outs!
The ten most combat effective fighters in the beyond-visual range scenario
Does Britain need aircraft carriers?
Britain does not need aircraft carriers. If we are serious about spending the sorts of money the governments have committed to the QEC/F-35B combination then it must be done seriously. Without sufficient mass of aircraft on the carrier, regular rotations at sea to maintain crew/aircrew readiness and currency, and battlegroup-level protection, the whole thing is a waste of money that could be spent elsewhere. There is a reason that only the US Navy currently does carrier power-projection well; because they do it at scale and with the required C2, force protection and training/maintenance enablers. If the QEC/F-35B force is simply to be used to sail around for a few months a year doing port visits and ‘shows of resolve’ then it will be a waste of finite defence resources at a time when all three services, but especially the Royal Navy are under-resourced for their core commitments.
The F-35 will change the future in ways that we don’t want, full story here
To cease F-22 production in the US. Time has shown that the F-35A cannot fulfil the pure air superiority role and the F-22 incremental cost had come down significantly by the time the programme was cancelled. The USAF does not have enough of its premier air superiority fighter for current and projected global commitments in Europe, Asia and the Arctic.
Does the RAF have all the equipment it needs?
No. However, given the budgetary constraints of 2010-2015, it has done great work with what it has. Fast jet squadron mass is too low for global commitments and this will worsen when Tornado retires. Furthermore, assets like the E-3 AWACS fleet are grossly in need of modernisation – this work having been repeatedly shelved over a decade in the name of ‘cost and efficiency savings’.
What are the most under- and over-rated military aircraft?
Most underrated: Saab Gripen. Most overrated: T-50/PAK FA
Should the Peshmerga have an air force? Do you see any chance of this happening?
No, and no: they have neither the funding, centralised organisational capability or territorial integrity required for an air force.
What are the current air- and air defence assets of IS?
Aside from a few captured MiG-21s and barely serviceable helicopters which would be blasted out of the sky within about three minutes of leaving the ground, none. Air defence consists of MANPADS which, whilst very dangerous at low level, are incapable of threatening coalition airpower operations over Iraq or Syria.
What are your thoughts on the RuAF Su-27s and ’34s currently in Syria?
A wonderful diplomatic two fingers at the West. Not militarily significant against ISIL or other anti-Assad forces in Syria in a strategic sense but they mean that any future operations by the US-led coalition over Syria will have to deconflict with and, therefore, consult the Russians. It also puts paid to any coalition ideas about imposing a no-fly zone on Assad.
Can a modern revolution happen without air power?
A modern revolution can certainly happen without airpower. The Arab Spring is clear evidence of that. The Maidan in Kiev likewise had no airpower involvement.
What should I be asking you?
Wait and see until after my current project –a report on the F-35 for the UK military – is published in late October!
Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_Br0nk
Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit
You should also enjoy our other Top Tens! There’s a whole feast of fantastic British, French, Swedish, Australian, Japanese , Belgian, German and Latin American aeroplanes. Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read as is the Top Ten cancelled fighters.
Read an interview with a Super Hornet pilot here.
100 years ago this year the first true fighters flew into action, heralding a new world of ‘dogfights’, ‘air aces’, endless heated discussions about which fighter was ‘best’ at any given time, and pointless lists, such as this one.
The aeroplane at the start of 1915 was a true multi-role machine, the same aircraft being expected to carry a bomb on one mission, a camera on the next, and take occasional pot-shots at enemy aircraft if the situation arose. By the end of the year, reflecting its somewhat tardy appreciation as a useful tool of war, the armed forces of several nations began to realise that aircraft epitomised for specific roles might prove more effective than the general purpose machines then in service. One of those aircraft was that most fearsome of flying machines, the fighter. Some of the following aircraft can barely be called fighter aircraft in the modern sense, most are little more than lash-ups, none of them was capable of exceeding 100mph and none seems particularly threatening, yet this is the pick of the bunch from the dawn of air to air combat and one of them appeared to be so effective it caused near panic in its enemies.
10. Voisin III
It might look like a pram bolted to some bamboo and a kite but this aeroplane made history.
First on the list and it isn’t even a fighter. This bomber scored the first air to air kill in history on the 4th October 1914 when Joseph Frantz and Louis Quénault downed an Aviatik B.II. Or rather the first by gunfire, Pyotr Nesterov destroyed a German reconnaissance aircraft earlier but he achieved this by ramming, an action that neither he nor his aircraft survived and this tactic remained, understandably, unpopular. The Voisin III was a highly successful aircraft and hundreds served with French and British forces but it possessed virtually none of the attributes necessary for a fighter. However, its inclusion here can be justified by its epoch-making achievement.
9. Pfalz Eindecker
This is an experimental Pfalz monoplane fitted with an inline engine, the service versions were all fitted with rotaries and weren’t as good-looking.
Pity the poor Pfalz, a licence built Morane monoplane fitted with a machine gun and interrupter gear, its performance even by the standards of 1915 was marginal and it had the misfortune to follow the (relatively) superlative Fokker into service. To add a further frisson of unwelcome excitement for the lucky German pioneer aviator, it had a reputation for shoddy build quality and was liable to fall apart. Nonetheless it was well armed and available, and against the virtually defenceless reconnaissance aircraft of 1915 it did fairly well.
The top ten fighters of 1985 here
8. Sopwith Tabloid
These naval aviators have failed to realise that having their aircraft hoisted up on a crane doesn’t count as ‘flying’.
The dainty Tabloid floatplane won the 1913 Schneider Trophy, setting a world speed record in the process. Nearly a hundred served the RFC as landplanes and the Royal Navy, who called it the Schneider, operated a similar number of floatplanes. Many were fitted with a Lewis gun on the top wing but there is no record of any air to air combat involving the little Sopwith except once, when Norman Spratt of the RFC successfully forced down an Albatros C.I in Allied territory by firing at it with his revolver(!) This was a shame for the British as the Tabloid had the performance and manoeuvrability necessary to defeat the ‘Fokker Scourge’. It is most famous today for performing the first bombing raid on Germany, and successfully destroying Zeppelin Z.IX in its shed at Düsseldorf.
Check out the ten worst carrier aircraft here.
7. Vickers F.B.5 ‘Gunbus’
A flying replica of the F.B.5 Gunbus was completed in 1966 and flew until late 1968. It is now an exhibit at the Royal Air Force museum.
In the absence of any means to fire through the propeller arc, the arms giant Vickers took the logical step of fitting a machine gun in the nose of an aircraft with the engine and propeller behind the crew. Thus they created the first ever purpose-designed fighter aircraft to enter service, this being reflected in its designation: F.B. stands for ‘Fighting Biplane’ Sadly, despite its comparatively formidable armament installation, the Gunbus was underpowered and lacked the performance to intercept most of its adversaries. Nonetheless in early to mid 1915 it performed adequately and caused something of a stir amongst its foes. By the end of the year it was totally outclassed.
Top Ten fighter aircraft at the outbreak of World War II here
6. Morane Saulnier Type L
This is one of the Pfalz built L Types that remained unarmed whilst Germany happily bolted machine guns onto a bunch of French L Types they’d captured. It is unclear why.
The pilot Roland Garros had been working on a gun synchroniser with Raymond Saulnier but the firing rate of the Hotchkiss machine gun was too erratic to allow this to work. As a crude alternative they fitted two steel wedges to the propeller, any bullets that struck the propeller blades would be deflected by these wedges and the pilot could fire directly through the propeller arc. A Morane Type L was fitted with gun and wedges and Garros shot down three German aircraft during April, an unheard of success rate at the time. The Type L itself was fairly fast but had a reputation as being difficult to handle (as can be read about in the excellent memoir ‘Sagittarius Rising’ by Cecil Lewis). Confusingly, although Pfalz built the Type L under licence for the Germans, they never fitted a machine gun to it, though inexplicably they did fit one to several captured French built examples which they then proceeded to use operationally.
5. Bristol Scout
This Scout has an unsynchronised Lewis gun arranged to fire directly forward, if fired it would be liable to blow the propeller off.
The fastest aircraft on this list (probably – contemporary specifications are often vague and there was less standardisation between airframes of the same type) the Scout was an excellent aeroplane hampered by inadequate armament. Despite this it was surprisingly successful, particularly in the hands of Lanoe Hawker, the first British air ace. Hawker devised a mounting for a fixed Lewis gun arranged to fire forward and to the left, outside the propeller disc. Despite the apparent difficulty in aiming a weapon so fitted, by the end of July Hawker had destroyed three enemy aircraft and won the Victoria Cross. By the time attempts to develop a synchroniser had succeeded, the Scout had been surpassed in performance. Its operational use ended in early 1916 but its flying qualities were such that many were retained as squadron hacks and runabouts until the end of the conflict.
4. Morane Saulnier Type N
The look of concern on this pilot’s face belies the unpleasant flying qualities of the Morane N. Note the ‘casserole’ spinner and the deflector wedges on the propeller blades.
Fitted with the same deflectors as on the Type L, the Type N should have been spectacularly effective due to its performance, which was excellent, and its armament, which could (sort-of) be fired through the propeller disc. However the Type N was unpopular and only 49 were built. Derived, like the Tabloid, from a racing aircraft, the Type N was aerodynamically advanced and fitted with an amazing and enormous spinner known as ‘la casserole’. Unfortunately the casserole made the engine overheat so it was discarded (with no apparent loss of performance, except in the aesthetic realm). The Type N’s future looked rosy but the aircraft was simply too difficult to fly, the controls were sensitive, it was unstable in all axes, it had a high landing speed and it could not be flown hands off. In the right hands it was formidable, several aces scored their first victories on the type but it was just too hard for the average pilot to fly at all, let alone attempt to engage the enemy.
3. Nieuport 10 C.1
Most of World War 1 was fought in black and white, the Nieuport was ahead of its time.
Once again, like the Type N and Tabloid, the Nieuport 10 was intended as a racing aircraft and had a better performance than most of its contemporaries. Most Nieuport 10s were two-seaters but the C.1 was a single seat fighter variant with a Lewis gun fixed to the top wing. The immensely popular French pilot Georges Guynemer, who would eventually record 54 confirmed victories, acheived ‘ace’ status by shooting down his fifth aircraft in a Nieuport 10, his first victory was scored whilst flying the aforementioned Morane Type L. The Nieuport 10 was a very good aircraft but its greatest significance was as the basis for the considerably superior Nieuport 11 and the insanely successful Nieuport 17, probably the best fighter in the world in early 1916.
Top Ten French aircraft here
2. Fokker Eindecker
These casual Germans are pretty sure their Fokker is the best fighter in the World. They are almost definitely wrong.
If psychological effect were the sole criterion for a fighter’s effectiveness then this spindly little monoplane would be the most successful combat aircraft ever built. Whilst the Pfalz monoplane was identical to the Morane monoplane, the Fokker, though it was externally similar, was a complete redesign with a lengthened fuselage of sturdy steel tube construction. If easier to fly than the Morane Type N, the Fokker was not an aircraft for the novice with overly sensitive unbalanced tail surfaces and lateral control by wing warping rather than the eminently superior ailerons which would become universal. Its performance was not going to set the world on fire but it was definitively good enough, which was all that was then required as it was equipped with the first reliable system allowing the gun to fire through the arc of the propeller. Henceforth the fighter pilot aimed the whole aircraft at the target and fired, a practice that remains standard for gun armament on fighter aircraft to the present day. From the moment of its introduction it was a fantastic success, such that it became collectively known as the ‘Fokker Scourge’ to the British and the first German aces were beginning to accumulate victory tallies that could only be dreamed of by the Allies. Chief amongst these early fighter pilots was Max Immelmann, who downed a remarkable 15 Allied aircraft solely with various models of Eindecker. Ultimately the Fokker’s greatest legacy was to spur frenzied activity amongst Allied designers to produce aircraft to defeat it, thus starting a see-sawing arms race of fighter aircraft that continues to the present day.
Top Ten fighter aircraft at the outbreak of World War II here
Decent photographs of the F.E.2a are virtually unknown. Here is the Vintage Aviator’s accurate flying replica of an F.E.2b. This variant had a more powerful engine, an extra gun and deleted a pointless airbrake.
No one would call it pretty nor is it particularly famous but the F.E.2 was one of the great survivors of the First World War. Designed around the same time and in the same configuration as the ponderous Gunbus, the F.E. was in a different league – tough, well armed, docile and with a performance consistently good enough to allow it to operate as a fighter by day until mid-1917. It was in combat with F.E.2s in July 1917 that Richthofen, the ‘Red Baron’ was shot in the head, a wound which nearly killed him and from which some maintain he never recovered. By this time, in contrast, the Eindecker was literally a museum piece (Immelmann’s first Eindecker was on display in Berlin’s Zeughaus museum by April 1916 where it was destroyed in a British bombing raid in 1940). Even then the F.E.2 was useful enough to operate as a tactical night bomber until the end of the war. To put this into context, the Nieuport 11, a highly successful fighter, entered service in January 1916 yet was already being replaced in March. First operational variant was the F.E.2a which arrived at the front in 1915, by 1916 the slightly more powerful F.E.2b, which introduced an additional rearward firing gun, was being produced in large numbers and this was the variant that, in concert with later aircraft such as the Nieuport 11 and DH.2, would contain and ultimately quash the Fokker Scourge. The figures are telling, less than 300 Eindeckers were built as opposed to over 2000 F.Es. At least 32 aircrew became aces in the F.E.2, including, if you believe everything you read, ‘Biggles’ the children’s book character. The Eindecker was the first of what would become the archetypal fighter aircraft but it was the F.E.2 that would prove specifically more effective and infinitely more useful for far longer. It was the exceptional fighter aircraft of its generation.
What is USAF’s role — and is it used correctly?
I would like air power (meaning, the Air Force) to be recognised as the primary instrument in war. The role is to use long-range, land-based air power to deter or defeat strategic threats. This means that the Air Force must be much more than just “a partner in the joint fight,” to quote former chief of staff General Norton Schwartz. The Air Force is not an adjunct to other services. It is, and should be, the primary service branch. These views are similar to those expressed by Alexander Seversky (pictured below) in his book ‘Victory Through Air Power‘ in 1942.
Is USAF really underfunded — surely it is the wealthiest air force by a significant margin, and the USA has not been attacked by a nation state since 1945?
We need funding for a new bomber, tanker and rescue helicopter. That doesn’t mean we need more money. It means we must address people costs and base costs. We can get plenty of income without increasing taxes by rationalising our personnel system—it no longer makes sense to be able to retire at age 37 with a pension—and by closing bases. We’re spending money on electricity, running water, roads, and all sorts of administrative costs at bases that we don’t need at all.
What is the current vision for the future bomber and is it the right one?
The Air Force is working hard to “get it right” with the Long Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B), which may eventually be designated B-3. In my view, the service is devoting too much attention to the LRS-B as a sensor fusion platform and as an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft. I would like the priority to be on delivering ordnance to target, anywhere on the globe. Very little is public about LRS-B but it’s possible the Air Force will give me what I want.
Many have criticised the F-35, how do you rate the Euro-canards and do you think they are a valid alternative for air forces not wishing to buy into F-35?
I’m not an expert on European fighter designs. My view is that stealth (the principal advantage offered by the F-35) is overrated. Alarmist comments by Air Force officials notwithstanding, so-called fourth generation fighters can survive in a modern, high-tech battlespace. Since I want to protect our industrial base—especially the St. Louis, Missouri fighter production line—I would prefer to see overseas buyers purchase advanced versions of the F-15K Slam Eagle, F-16E Desert Falcon, or F/A-18F Super Hornet.
What is the biggest mistake regarding USAF in recent years?
It was a terrible mistake for Defense Secretary Robert Gates to fire Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne and chief of staff General T. Michael ‘Buzz’ Moseley in 2008. That’s the subject of my new book,
What is the point of the European F-22 deployment and what are your views on this?
The current F-22 deployment to Europe is the sort of thing we do routinely. It’s no doubt intended in part to send a message to Russia’s Vladimir Putin about tensions in Ukraine and the Middle East, but I’m not too sure just what that message is. We should employ the F-22 routinely where possible and that’s what we’re doing. In the book ‘Air Power Abandoned’ I cite four occasions when US military leaders wanted to deploy F-22s abroad and Gates refused to allow it.
How many USAF aircraft types did you think remain in the ‘black’ world and what roles do think they serve?
There are no manned aircraft in the ‘black’ world and never were any that we don’t know about. There’s an entire industry devoted to covering imaginary “black” aircraft and its practitioners include some respected writers and publications who ought to be ashamed of themselves — but the ‘black’ aircraft are no more real than the little green men. There is at least one totally black drone program.
The F-35A performed badly in BFM tests against the F-16D, what are your thoughts on this?
I haven’t studied this specific event but the F-35A doesn’t seem to be a very good air-to-air fighter despite being packaged and sold as such. The F-16 remains a very formidable fighting machine. The extent to which basic fighter manoeuvring matters in today’s world is a topic of considerable debate.
Who do you think will and who do you think should win the T-X trainer programme, does the F-35s performance merit a supersonic aircraft?
The roster of possible candidates for T-X has been a moveable feast, with many changes in recent months. In previous trainer competitions, I not only studied the candidates, I flew in most of them. There has been some discussion of returning to a universal scheme under which all pilot trainees would fly the T-38 or its replacement — enabling the Air Force to retire all T-1A Jayhawks except those used for combat systems officer training. I think that’s a good idea. I haven’t formed a conclusion about which aircraft would make the best T-X and I don’t believe supersonic speed is a necessity.
A-10s future: any chance of refurbished aircraft going to the governments of Afghanistan or Iraq?
I hope not. Our efforts to provide aircraft to those countries have been catastrophic failures. I want to keep as many A-10 Thunderbolt IIs in US service as long as possible. All were brought up to A-10C standard recently and have no structural issues and have engines that continue to perform well. So I don’t see a need for refurbishing but I do think we should keep our A-10s.
Finally- is there a big military aviation issue that the media should be paying more attention to?
Yeah. We’re defenceless. Here’s a quote from my new book:
“In 2015, I asked Moseley a question that went something like this:
If we were talking in 2005, the year you became chief of staff and I asked you to picture the Air Force of ten years from now, what would you see?
Moseley’s reply, again paraphrased:
We would have a robust force of F-22 Raptor fighters, operational F-35s, the beginnings of a new bomber force, a new tanker operational in squadrons, and a new combat rescue helicopter, also operational in squadrons. Today, we have none of those things.”
Air Power Abandoned: Robert Gates, the F-22 Raptor, and the Betrayal of America’s Air Force. Signed copies of this book are available on line or directly from Bob on 703 264-8950 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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