Undoubtedly the two most formidable fighter aircraft of the Cold War were the US’ F-15C Eagle and the Soviet Su-27, code-named ‘Flanker’. Which would have had the upper hand in air combat? We ask former USAF F-15 pilot Paul Woodford.
“The Su-27 Flanker, as a threat the USAF F-15 community needed to take seriously, emerged in the late 1980s as significant numbers of the aircraft began to be fielded. During my first two F-15 tours (Soesterberg AB NL from 1978-1982, Elmendorf AFB AK from 1982-1985), the air-to-air threats we trained against were the MiG-21 and -23. By the time I finished a joint staff tour and returned to flying Eagles in 1989, MiG-29s and Su-27s were the primary threats, and we trained seriously against them.
If you look at publicly released figures on the F-15, the Su-27, and their weapons, you see right away the Flanker and the Eagle were evenly matched in terms of aircraft performance and weapons capability. Nevertheless, we—Eagle drivers—felt confident we would prevail in combat. This was based on our knowledge of the training hours Flanker pilots got in comparison with ours. When I started flying F-15s again, at Kadena AB on Okinawa, Japan, we trained almost exclusively against forward-firing beyond visual range threats; i.e., Su-27 Flankers and MiG-29 Fulcrums, even though their numbers, at least in our area of operations, were small. If we could defeat aircraft similar in capability to our own, we figured, we could beat anybody.
We didn’t know how good the Su-27’s radar was. Ours was damn good, and we had to assume theirs was too. Our air-to-air weapons, the AIM-7M Sparrow and AIM-9M Sidewinder, were on paper evenly matched against the Su-27’s AA-10 Alamo and AA-11 Archer. An advantage the Su-27 had over us was its long-range infrared search and track (IRST) system.
Now no one would have bet the bank on any of what I’m about to share with you. We had to assume the aircraft and its missiles were at least as good as ours, and that’s how we trained. But there were a few things most of us felt, though we rarely shared those thoughts.
Published performance specs and numbers are always best-case, radar target acquisition and missile engagement ranges in particular. The probability of kill for our Sparrows was somewhere around 50%. Pk for the Alamo was probably similar. Short-range heat-seekers were different: the AIM-9M’s Pk was nearly 100%, and we had no reason to think the Archer was any worse. We knew the actual performance capabilities of our own aircraft and missiles were somewhat less than advertised and so, likely, were theirs. But whatever the numbers, we were probably still evenly matched.
The big difference was training. We flew, on average, three times a week, training hard against a threat as good as we were. At the time, based on intel, we knew Russian pilots were flying and training far less. Tacticians at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis AFB in Nevada were working hard on how to beat BVR threats as capable as our own, specifically ways the F-15 and its missiles could defeat the Su-27 and its missiles. They developed what at the time was a classified technique called the f-pole manoeuvre. Basically, we’d enter the fight high, fast, and as head-on to the threat as possible (giving our AIM-7s the longest possible ranges), launch at max optimum range, and immediately crank into hard turns away, right to radar gimbal limits. Our Sparrows were in the air, flying straight at their targets along the shortest possible distance. Their missiles, had they launched at the same range, had to fly farther to get to us. The f-pole manoeuvre, properly executed, might even give their IRST systems a harder problem finding and tracking us, but I can’t attest to that. We had a lot of confidence in this technique and practiced it religiously, and believed it would make the crucial difference in combat.
In other words, we thought we were ready for them. We were better trained.
We were just starting to field the AIM-120 AMRAAM when I left Kadena for another staff job, and I never flew with it. I’m guessing it gave us a tremendous advantage for a year or so, until the bad guys caught up. Ditto the AIM-9X and today’s enemy equivalent. And of course today everyone knows about the f-pole manoeuvre and we can assume foreign air forces train their fighter pilots in the technique.
I don’t get to talk to current USAF fighter pilots much these days, but I bet their level of confidence in being able to defeat enemy threats is no different than ours was.”
— Paul ‘Skid’ Woodford
Read – Cold War Eagle Driver: F-15 pilot reveals all here
Follow Paul’s aviation adventures on his blog here
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