Category: Aviation

Clint Eastwood’s Firefox Fighter: Would it have been any good in real life?

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All the aircraft your nation has ever built were crap

maxresdefault-2.jpgI’ve written about this before, and nothing has changed— so why have I returned to this subject? Vain hope maybe, definitely a need to vent before I strafe YouTube headquarters in a stolen Westland Wyvern. 

There are many aviation enthusiasts who cannot take a word of criticism against an aeroplane made in his (yes, his) home country. The tiniest whiff of negativity about the Short Bannotoe, MiG Kartoshka, Martin Bullfinch, Dassault Mangouste — or whatever his national darling is — and he shits out swear words and conspiracy theories on his oversized gamer’s keyboard in a fevered sweat of rank Red Bull and celibate regret. He’ll drown the comments section in condescending bile, shaking his desk with the force of his paranoid indignagasm (an orgasm of indignation, a word coined by my friend). He’ll accuse you of being a Russian bot, a Communist or even… an American. I’ve read too much of this nonsense. Your country (whatever it is, even Switzerland) has made some crap stuff, bought some crap stuff and done some bad things. You know this in your heart. I know that most of you are too intelligent to commit this kind of offence so I say this in sympathy for what you have had to endure.

Blind faith in our national products is dangerous, the US got burnt this way when their inferior aeroplanes first faced Japanese aircraft that should have been, based on contemporary national stereotypes, worse.

We’re all raised with childish history books telling us our nation (whichever that is) is the greatest in the world but most of us, by the time we’re adults, take it no more seriously than believing our beloved mother  ‘World’s greatest mum‘ mug makes her the supreme matriarch.

Having said that, there are certain prejudices in the aviation press — an anti-French bias in some quarters, a seriously pro-Swedish (or rather pro-Saab) in others. In the non-specialist media Sputnik, Fox and the Daily Mail are as accurate on aviation subjects as they are on any and should be taken with a large pinch of ‘I need to wash my hands and talk to my priest after clicking on this’.

Every observer has a bias, but they are probably not trying to destroy your national self-esteem (unless it is Sputnik and you’re American). Rant over, as you were.

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Top Combat Aircraft of 2030

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Jim Smith had significant technical roles in the development of the UK’s leading military aviation programmes. From ASRAAM and Nimrod, to the JSF and Eurofighter Typhoon. We asked him to predict the top combat aircraft of 2030. This paper speculates about the future in the air combat domain. It draws on available open-source information about current aircraft and projects, and adds a healthy dose of pure speculation about the nature and objectives of possible future systems.

Looking ahead 10 years from today, what are the key trends for future combat aircraft?

In considering this, I assume continued proliferation of highly-capable long-range ground-based missile systems, coupled with continuing advances in radars, electro-optic sensor systems, long-range air-to-air missiles, and the emergence of operational hypersonic weapons.

How does this affect the design and/or development of future air combat systems?

To me, one emergent feature is a tendency to convergence in future technical solutions. The hostile air and ground counter-air environment is likely to ensure all future combat aircraft will seek to be stealthy, certainly in radar signature, but also as far as possible in the IR. There is already a detectable trend towards larger, longer-range platforms, capable either of wide area response to counter air threats, or the long-range delivery of strike and area-denial weapons at significant stand-off ranges, at least for those operators with large geography to protect or control.

Additionally, the range, and hence size of air-launched weapons is increasing, again promoting a trend towards larger platforms. When this is coupled with a need to carry powerful sensors, and to be, as far as possible, stealthy, it is likely that platform agility will become less of a driver. Propulsion technologies continue to advance, and may, in some instances pace airframe development.

So what form does this convergence in platform design take? At present there appear to be three favoured configurations:

  1. Large, twin-engine, closely-coupled, tailed near-delta configuration. Exemplified by the F-22 and the Su-57, this configuration appears to be aimed at the manoeuvrable, air-superiority role, with an additional emphasis on all-aspect stealth. It is expected to be used to control and deny contested airspace, and to create local air superiority to enable other missions.
  2. Smaller, single or twin-engine, close-coupled, tailed near-delta configuration. Exemplified by the F-35 (single engine) and J-31 (twin-engine), this configuration appears to be primarily aimed at multi-role missions delivering strike, with an organic air combat capability. Penetration of contested airspace will be required to deliver the strike role, but supersonic performance and energy manoeuvrability will not be as great as the F-22/Su-57 class.
  3. Large, twin-engine, long-coupled canard, near-delta. Exemplified by the J-20, this class of aircraft appears to maximise payload-range and weapons flexibility, with some potential compromise to signature and manoeuvre capability. One key, and new, role could be as Area Access Denial systems, using long range weapons to engage (or deter) not only threat combat aircraft, but enablers such as tankers and AEW platforms.

Notwithstanding this convergence in high-end air combat capabilities, small Nations seeking to deter and defend against aggression, rather than to dominate outside their borders, are likely to continue to need an agile, rapid response, interception capability, probably supplemented by the best available ground-based systems. Some older platforms, with suitable long-range weapons and system upgrades, will still have capability in this role, and some emerging projects exist that appear to be adopting J-31-like (twin-engine F-35) configurations.

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It is important to realise that the delivery of air capability will be dependent not only on platform capabilities, but much more critically, on the total air combat system. In the end, any of the future combat aircraft discussed below will also rely on the performance of on-board and off-board sensors; command and control, communications, networking and datalinks; weapons capabilities; organic and off-board electronic warfare and protection systems, and so on. Material on US projects suggests the use of cooperative autonomous systems to enable strike operations,  including targeting, deception, communications relay and electronic attack.

Consequently, the trend for further integration and networking of air and ground-based sensors, and on-board and off-board electronic warfare systems will continue, in an effort to gain a situational awareness advantage, and to deny situational awareness to threats. This itself, is likely to increase pressure to further develop cyber and deception capabilities, to degrade and dis-integrate opposition air defences. It is also possible that future efforts by the three big players (US, Russia and China) may seek to exploit some space-based capabilities, beyond the current pervasive use of GPS.

This piece is speculative. It does not draw on any special knowledge. Instead, I consider what might be likely responses to the developing environment. As guesses about the future are notoriously unreliable, I expect many will disagree with my assessments. That’s OK – I don’t pretend to know the future, but I’m happy to provoke a bit of debate.

Air combat systems – 2030

At the end of the next decade, the mature and emergent systems are likely to be:

US mature US emergent

F-22 F/A-XX

F-35 F-X

Russia mature Russia emergent

Su-57 Mig 41

Su-35 derivatives

China mature

J-20

J-31

Europe mature Europe emergent

Typhoon Tempest

Rafale Airbus-Dassault FCAS

Gripen E

Other emergent

TFX Korea

F3 Japan

India ?

Brief comments on these systems follow, indicating my view of the current state of play, and expressing some views on capability in the 2030 timeframe, program aspects etc. starting with the those that are likely to be mature in 2030.

2030 Mature Systems

Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor 

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Role: Air Superiority (Penetrating Air Combat)

Configuration: A

2018 Status: Mature

2030 Status: At life-of-type

The aircraft is successful in service, but has poor availability, and is (by US standards) small in numbers. As a result, F-22 presence is often in the form of small deployed detachments rather than significant numbers.

The enigma about the F-22 is that there has been continued resistance to proposed upgrade programs. This suggests that US plans for a replacement are already in hand and perhaps proceeding in the Black world. While the F/A-XX program is examining replacements for the F-18 E/F, there is little visibility of the USAF F-X program intended to replace the F-22.

If a future program fails to mature in time, an upgrade may be required. This would be likely to address electronic obsolescence, and bring radar, EW and other systems up to the state-of-the-art. A desirable, but unlikely, upgrade would be a fuselage stretch to increase fuel capacity and increase weapons-bay length, increasing mission flexibility.

Breaking news, as this article was being prepared, is a pitch from Lockheed-Martin to the DoD (and possibly Japan), to upgrade F-22 with elements of the F-35 mission system, as well as some changes to structure and coatings.

Lockheed F-35 Lightning II 

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Role: Multi-Role (Strike, plus Air Defence, plus Situational awareness node)

Configuration: B (single engine)

2018 Status: In development, and in service

2030 Status: Mature

The F-35 is set to be the mainstay of many Nations’ air capability for the next two decades. At present, although the aircraft is in service, the development program continues.

The initial challenges in the program were seen to lie in developing a common configuration meeting Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps needs, with stealth, good supersonic and manoeuvre performance, and, where required ASTOVL and carrier capability. In practice, the real challenge has turned out to be software integration and qualification, for the many diverse systems incorporated in the aircraft.

By 2030, the aircraft and its systems should be fully mature, and at the peak of its capability. In USAF service, the aircraft is seen as a strike adjunct to the F-22, but is perhaps increasing in importance as the availability of the F-22 has been relatively poor. The enabling aspects of JSF in providing and distributing situational awareness within and across the force is a key, and perhaps under-appreciated capability.

Sukhoi Su-35 derivatives

Su-35-MAKS-2017.jpg

Image Credit: Jacek Siminski

Role: Air Combat (with numerous other variants)

Configuration: Conventional

2018 Status: Mature

2030 Status: Obsolescent

I would not consider the Su-35 to be a major capability in 2030, except, perhaps in the Air Defence role, where its long range, high speed, large radar, and ability to carry large numbers of long-range AAMs, should continue to provide significant deterrence against all but the highest-end threats.

Sukhoi Su-57

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Role: Air Superiority (Penetrating Air Combat)

Configuration: A

2018 Status: In development, just entering service

2030 Status: Mature

The Su-57 could turn out to be an enduring and significant air combat capability. In 2018, the type has just been operationally deployed for the first time, and, assuming development continues, the aircraft should eventually provide a significant air superiority capability, with low signature, good performance and range.

How successful the program will be in delivering a well-integrated, well-armed, highly capable low signature fighter remains to be seen. With good program outcomes, this could be the Su-27 for the 2020s and beyond. At the time of writing, limited production is in progress, and there is some suggestion that the pace of the program has been slowed, either to await the readiness of the production standard engine, or in response to economic conditions.

There is a potential for large numbers of aircraft to be produced to replace both the MiG-29 and Su-35 in Russian service, and a somewhat variable prospect that the Su-57 might be co-produced in India to meet their future heavy fighter requirements. While the aircraft is still in development, final program outcomes are unknown, but I would expect Su-57 to emerge as a highly capable, well-equipped and mature capability by 2030.

Chengdu J-20

j-20_at_airshow_china_2016.jpg

Role: Multi-Role (Air Defence, Area Denial, Precision Strike)

Configuration: C

2018 Status: In development, just entering service

2030 Status: Mature

The J-20 represents the first of what is, in my view, a new class of combat aircraft. While the aircraft could easily deliver a MiG-31-like large area air defence capability, I believe it has a broader remit, dependent on the availability of large, long-range, and possibly hypersonic weapons.

The long-coupled canard near-delta configuration should deliver a broad centre of gravity range. When this is coupled with the large size of the aircraft, its high fuel capacity and large weapons bays, I suggest that the J-10 would be well suited to what we used to call in the UK the Control and Denial of Theatre Airspace, over very large geographic areas.

The aircraft has just entered service, and has attracted recent attention as it has been seen carrying an external targeting pod. Future roles are going to be dependent on weapons integration, but long-range air defence, including access denial to not just combat aircraft, but AWACS, tankers and ships is not beyond the realms of possibility. Currently, China seems to have the ability to develop and field complex systems with remarkable speed. The J-20 is likely to be a significant player within a decade.

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Shenyang J-31

Role: Multi-Role (Strike, plus Air Defence, plus Carrier Air Defence)

Configuration: B (twin engine)

2018 Status: In development

2030 Status: Mature

The J-31 is a twin-engine F-35 look-alike, and appear to have been designed to deliver similar roles, although it is not entirely clear whether the primary Chinese role will be as a carrier-borne aircraft or not.

The configuration is very similar to the F-35, but it is suggested that the aircraft may carry the PL-15 missile, which is similar to the MBDA Meteor.

By 2030, the J-31 should be mature and in service, presumably with the Chinese Navy carriers, but possibly also with other Nations, as the system appears to be being offered for export. However, the likely customers are perhaps limited (Pakistan, Egypt?). Much will depend on how well integrated and networked the J-31 turns out to be.

That said, as a carrier-based strike aircraft, with the additional capability of carrying effective and long-range AAMs, the J-31 could still fill a useful niche in tactical control, for example, of South China Sea airspace.

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Notes: if thrust vectoring is fitted to the J-31- as has been tested-  it will be virtually unbeatable in the close-in combat regime. 

Eurofighter Typhoon/Dassault Rafale

rafale-typhoon.jpg

Role: Multi-Role (Air Superiority, Air Defence, Strike)

Configuration: Close-coupled canard-delta

2018 Status: Mature, but in spiral development

2030 Status: Mature

Typhoon and Rafale represent high-end 4th generation capability. Equipped with a wide range of weapons systems, their capabilities continue to be enhanced. The introduction of Meteor on both aircraft, and active e-scan radar on Typhoon, should ensure that these capable aircraft remain effective for some time to come.

Both aircraft have some signature reduction measures in place, but are not considered stealthy. As a result, over time, their ability to deliver Air Superiority may diminish somewhat. That said, the long-range of the Meteor AAM should mean their effectiveness is retained against all but the most challenging threats. In permissive environments, their flexibility in the strike role should ensure their continued effectiveness out to 2030.

Saab Gripen E/F

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Role: Multi-Role (Air Defence, Strike, Situational Awareness)

Configuration: Close-coupled canard-delta

2018 Status: Completing development

2030 Status: Mature

The Gripen E is a highly integrated agile air defence aircraft, with a robust and flexible strike capability. The E/F-model, particularly when operating in a networked environment, will remain a capable air defence aircraft out to 2030 and beyond. Although not a stealth aircraft, its ability to use and share networked information allows third-party targeting and high situational awareness. Armed with Meteor and IRIS-T, and with an active e-scan radar, Gripen E/F will remain a capable air defence aircraft in the 2030s environment.

However, it is likely that by the 2030s, the proliferation of highly capable surface-to-air systems and stealthy air defence platforms will increasingly challenge Gripen in the air superiority and strike roles. Gripen has been quite widely exported, and should retain significant capability as a regional air defence and strike system against all but the most capable threat systems.

Speculation – Developmental Systems

The systems discussed below are those about which little is known at present, and, in some cases, are just conjecture. For convenience, I’ll consider the known or likely needs of the key players – the US, Russia, China, Europe and other nations.

US – future systems

As we have seen from the earlier discussion, there is an emerging capability gap around USAF air superiority systems, given the lack of a program for a capability upgrade to the F-22. A replacement program, F-X, is in existence, but little hard information is available. There is also a lack of clarity about future US Navy plans to replace the F/A-18 E/F/G under the F/A-XX program.

USAF 6th Generation Fighter F-X

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Role: Air Superiority (Penetrating Air Combat)

Configuration: Unknown

2018 Status: In development (?)

2030 Status: Entry to service

The limited information available suggests that the USAF is seeking a system-of-systems approach, where a range of sensor, communications, electronic, cyber, platform(s) and weapons would deliver its future capability. There is an indication that the platform element of this would gave significantly greater range and payload than the current F-22, while retaining the ability to be both stealthy and supersonic.

One enabler for this is seen as the use of variable cycle propulsion systems, offering modes at higher bypass ratio for the cruise, and lower bypass ration for take-off, acceleration and dash. Adjunct systems are likely, and might include long-range ground-based air defence systems; stand-off, and possibly space-based, sensor systems; and, speculatively, some autonomous systems which might deliver targeting, communications relay or EW capabilities.

Given US conviction of its superiority in LO technologies, this aspect is likely to be emphasised. Consequently, I would not anticipate a J-10 style solution as the US believe canards too much of a compromise in this area. There has been substantial research in unconventional control devices for LO systems, and there is a US desire to avoid vertical tail surfaces if possible.

Based on all this – a large highly swept delta, with minimal tail surfaces, and active use of innovative control systems appears likely. To be effective, such a platform would need to carry highly effective and long-range AAMs, and would be supported by networked detection, tracking and targeting systems, as well as stand-off electronic warfare and cyber capabilities.

Prototyping, technology development and risk reduction activities are likely to be taking place, possibly as Black programs.

F/A-XX

sixth_generation_f_a_xx_fighter_by_rodrigoavella-dbxsdk5.jpg

Role: Multi-role (Air Defence, Strike, EW)

Configuration: Unknown

2018 Status: In development (?)

2030 Status: Entry to service

The F/A-XX program reflects a US Navy need to replace the F/A-18 E, F, and G in the mid-2020s as these platforms reach their service lives. Compared to the USAF requirement for a 6th gen fighter, the future F/A-XX is likely to constrained by carrier deck size and possible weight constraints, and also by the necessity to operate within the deployed environment of the carrier battle group.

The available material discussing the project expresses similar aspirations to F-X in terms of the system being networked and integrated with other components in order to achieve the required capability effects. That said, there are suggestions that the US Navy may seek a somewhat more agile system that that proposed for the USAF.

There are some interesting programmatic issues, not least the question as to why the Navy doesn’t simply acquire more F-35C to replace the Super Hornets. My guess is that the Navy will seek to have a program which draws on the technologies being developed for F-X and F/A-XX, but will seek to acquire a Navy-specific solution rather than a common system.

On configuration, I think a Navy F/A-XX would be smaller and more agile than the Air Force F-X. It will also need compromises to be made to achieve the deck landing and take-off requirements, and these may result in a somewhat less stealthy solution than the F-X.

Prototyping, technology development and risk reduction activities are likely to be taking place, possibly as Black programs.

Russia – future systems

RAC MiG MiG-41

Mig41_1.png

Role: Air Defence (Area Denial?)

Configuration: Unknown (A?)

2018 Status: In Development

2030 Status: Entry to service

The MiG 41 is a replacement for the MiG 31 interceptor, currently in service with the Russian Air Force. Very little information is available, and what is available appears contradictory and unlikely.

There is discussion of an aircraft capable of Mach 4+; reference is made to the MiG 41 being a totally new design; but other sources suggest it will draw heavily on the in-service MiG 31.

What can be said is that the MiG-41 will be large, fast and heavy. All these attributes are driven by the geography of Russia and the consequential vast area of airspace that the interceptor force would seek to control. We can also say that the aircraft will carry high powered electronically scanned radars, will have good electronic attack and protection systems, and will deploy large, long-range, and probably hypersonic air-to-air missiles.

Although I would expect some efforts to be made to reduce the signature of the aircraft compared to the MiG 31, I doubt this will dominate, because the interception mission is likely to involve high-speed and high-power operations, resulting in a significant IR signature. Also, I would expect the Russians to seek to out-gun their threats by using very long-range high-speed weapons, enabling the carrier aircraft to stay out of harm’s way.

A possible configuration would be a twin-engine, close-coupled tailed near-delta, significantly larger than the F-22. I’d expect a more shaped and slender appearance than the current MiG 31, and large internal weapons bays to support long-range hypersonic AAMs and area denial weapons.

European – future systems

Team Tempest Tempest

Team Tempest infographic CREDIT BAE SYSTEMS

Role: Multi-role (Air Superiority, Strike, EW)

Configuration: Unknown (A?)

2018 Status: Concept Development

2030 Status: Nearing entry to service

At this stage, not too much should be read into the configuration shown at the recent Farnborough Show. The general shape and size, however, and the associated presentation material, are well-aligned with the hypothesis that the future direction for air combat systems is towards large, stealthy, very flexible platforms, operating in a highly cooperative networked system-of-systems.

The final form of Tempest will depend on which Nations come on board to participate in the project. In essence, the choice here is a bit limited, as France and Germany have announced their own project and are thus ruled out, at least for the moment. In addition, Tempest would be competitive with future US systems, and there are strong disincentives for BAE to collaborate on this project with the US, as this would result in significant constraints due to US International Traffic in Arms Regulation legislation, and might also impact on its desire for design leadership.

Who else might become involved? Possibilities would appear to include Italy, Sweden and Turkey, all of which are not strongly aligned with the US, and are likely to have future air combat needs. Japan can be ruled out, due to its close ties with the US, and India is also unlikely, due to its recent technical alignment being with Russia rather than the West.

Whatever partners are involved, alignment of requirements will be the key. This might just be a problem for Sweden, which despite strong past industrial cooperation between SAAB and BAE Systems, might just prefer a smaller, more agile local air defence solution rather than the ambitious air superiority and penetrating strike capabilities at which Tempest appears to be directed.

Airbus-Dassault FCAS

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Role: Multi-role (Air Superiority, Strike)

Configuration: Unknown

2018 Status: Concept development

2030 Status: Nearing entry to service

Airbus Defence and Space of Germany, and Dassault of France, have agreed to cooperate on the FCAS project to develop a future European combat aircraft. The information available on this project is very slight, but follows the familiar themes of being stealthy and operating as part of a networked system-of-systems.

Material from Airbus includes a twin-engine, tailed, near-delta configuration with twin vertical fins. Dassault material includes a significantly more challenging twin-engine tailless delta, with no vertical surfaces. Both concepts appear somewhat smaller than the BAE Systems Tempest configuration shown at Farnborough, and may thus be aimed at the fighter mission with a secondary strike capability, rather than a true multi-role platform.

Key issue for this program will be alignment with potential customer requirements, workshare, and whether Europe can sustain two ambitious combat aircraft development programs.

Other future systems

KFX/TFX

KFX_model

Role: Multi-Role (Air Defence, plus Strike)

Configuration: B (twin engine)

2018 Status: Proposed development

2030 Status: Uncertain

The KFX and TFX are similar twin-engine F-35 look-alikes. Both Nations expect to operate the F-35, although this currently looks a bit uncertain for Turkey. Consequently, the rationale for developing a similar configuration and size of aircraft appears questionable. My interpretation is that both Nations are seeking to enhance their Industrial capability in the aerospace sector, and the FX projects provide a way of achieving this.

I would expect both aircraft to focus on the Air Defence role,  because this would provide an opportunity to supplement rather than simply duplicate F-35 capability. It is not clear whether a secondary strike role for the aircraft is envisaged.

The KFX is slightly smaller than the otherwise similar TFX, and is likely to be powered by two (probably license-built) GE F414 engines. The TFX is the subject of a technical agreement with BAE, and interestingly two EJ200 engines are proposed.

Both programs are to some extent at political risk. It is far from clear how the relationship between South Korea and North Korea will develop, and this, together with the relationship between South Korea and the USA, is likely to have a strong influence on the KFX. Equally, Turkey’s aspiration to operate the F-35 is at substantial risk because of the poor current relationship with the USA. If that situation is not resolved, Turkey may follow a different path, resulting also in a change in direction for the TFX program.

Minor update for the TFX: It has recently been reported that GE F110 (probably the -129 version) was selected for the prototype(s)

Indian AMCA

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Role: Air Superiority (Penetrating Air Combat)

Configuration: A

2018 Status: Immature concept development

2030 Status: Unlikely

The AMCA is an attempt to leap from the much-delayed Tejas to a high-end Indian F-22. On the face of it the design appears to be immature. There would need to be significant advances in Indian capabilities to field the engine, develop and refine a true stealth configuration, and integrate the aircraft and weapons system.

The only way I could see this aircraft being realised in the supposed time-scale would be with very significant assistance from a third party. India has had talks with Russia about the Su-57 for this role, and the very existence of the AMCA project suggests that these have not been successful.

I’m calling this one improbable at this stage. The project is possibly a fall-back option should the Su-57 approach fail, but in that event, it is unclear who might be approach to assist in development.

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Conclusions

All the major air combat players appear to be taking the view that Air Superiority and Strike in the 2030s will be delivered by a networked system-of-systems. The air platforms will be generally large, stealthy, and capable of delivering Air Superiority and Strike capabilities. It is likely that long-range AAMs and strike weapons will be used, and the platform capabilities will be supplemented by adjunct systems, which might include targeting, electronic attack, decoy, communications and cyber capabilities. China and Russia are likely to deploy long-range hypersonic weapons with the intent of creating an Area Denial capability.

It would be surprising if the US were not to follow suit, and given the time required to develop complex air combat systems, it would be surprising if substantial F-X and F/A-XX related activities were not underway in the Black Project world. The recent floating by Lockheed-Martin of a proposal to upgrade the F-22, using the systems developed for the F-35, may indicate an emerging need for a capability sustainment program to keep the F-22 in service longer, while awaiting the outcome of a replacement program.

The most significant air combat systems in 2030 would appear likely to be:

Air Superiority

US: F-X, F/A-XX

Russia: Su-57

Access Denial

Russia: MiG-41

China: J-20

Air Defence

France/Germany: FCAS

Sweden: Gripen E/F

China: J-31

Multi-role

UK & partners: Tempest

Or a joint program with Airbus-Dassault and BAE Systems

US: F-35

What else could be out there?

This paper does not consider purely Strike systems. It is, however likely that all the major parties will continue the development of stealthy autonomous strike systems. In the US this might be the Lockheed SR-91, or its Boeing competitor.

All the major parties are also focussed on hypersonic weapons systems. Not only are such systems hard to defeat, they almost inevitably have long-range. Applications are likely in area denial, and in countering high-value assets. Boost-glide vehicles are a possibility, offering the prospect of rapid (non-nuclear) strategic strike capability.

Autonomous vehicle applications are already extending beyond strike and reconnaissance, into tankers, communications relay, and electronic warfare, and this trend will continue.

 

The Ultimate World War I Fighters

“Biplanes are soooo 1918”

A hundred years ago the armistice of November 11th 1918 ended the fighting on the Western Front and largely brought to a close four years of continuous frenetic aviation development. Had the fighting continued into 1919 these are the types that would have been in the front line; Snarks and Rumplers would have been as well known today as Camels and Fokkers. 

Mehr davon bitte! The SPAD 13 was amongst the best fighters of 1918, what would take the top spot in 1919?

This group represents the ultimate development in Great War fighter aircraft yet despite their potential, none of these aircraft saw operational service before the end of hostilities and chances are you’ve never heard of any of them (unless you’re over 100 years old and happened to be employed in the aviation sector in the early interwar period).

In 1918 aircraft designs were churned out at an astounding rate, for example the Fokker V20 of early 1918 was allegedly designed and built in six and a half days. As a result the aircraft below are limited to single seat, single engine aircraft only to limit the potential entries and help maintain the sanity of the compiler.

Honourable Mention: Orenco-Curtiss Model D

“I am quite attractive and historically significant, why did not they save me from the scrapman?”

Be an American Eagle! (fly a French plane)

Despite being the first nation to actually fly an aeroplane, US aviation lagged behind the European powers when they entered the conflict in 1917. All the combat aircraft operated by the American Expeditionary Force over the Western front were either French or British. In 1919 however the first indigenous American fighter design to enter production (though still equipped with a French engine) took to the air in the form of the Orenco Model D.

The aircraft was apparently excellent, test pilot Clarence Coombs (who gained second place in the inaugural Pulitzer Trophy the following year in the Curtiss Kitten) reporting “This aircraft performs better than the Sopwith Camel and Snipe, the Thomas-Morse, the Nieuport and Morane Parasol, the Spad and S.V.A.” which was praise indeed, and thus the Army ordered a batch of fifty production aircraft. So why is Orenco virtually unknown today? Well it turned out that the US Army had bought the rights to the design from Orenco and then offered a tender to companies to actually build the production aircraft. In a cruel twist, the winning (i.e. cheapest) bid came not from Orenco themselves but from the aviation giant Curtiss. Curtiss tinkered with the design a little and duly manufactured the fifty fighters.

Orenco meanwhile folded shortly afterwards and became largely forgotten by history. 

10. Sopwith Snark

“Do you like Lewis Carroll?” “Not really, no”

Likely possessing the coolest name ever applied to an aircraft, the Sopwith Snark was a crazy blend of the somewhat old-fashioned and incredibly futuristic. The Snark’s triplane format was generally considered passé by the end of the war but its revival by Sopwith (whose Triplane of 1916 was one of the greatest successes of the conflict) was not simply an exercise in nostalgia. One of two fighters proposed by Sopwith (the other being a run-of-the-mill biplane named the Snapper) in 1918 to replace its own Snipe, which was then entering service, the Snark was intended to operate at high altitude and the low wing loading offered by the triplane layout was seen as ideal to maintain manoeuvrability at height. It also conferred upon the Snark a prodigious weight-lifting capacity which was employed to carry the Snark’s unprecedented armament of six machine guns. This installed armament made it the most heavily armed fighter of the Great war period and would not be equalled until the prototype Gloster Gauntlet took to the skies in 1932 with the same arrangement of four wing-mounted Lewis and two fuselage Vickers gun installation. Even then the Gauntlet reverted to just the twin Vickers armament in its production guise. 

The four square patches visible on the lower wing provided access to the ammunition drums of the Lewis guns. The firepower of the Snark would not be surpassed by a British fighter until the prototype Hawker Hurricane was fitted with eight Brownings in August 1936.

 

Similarly forward-looking was its construction, the Snark featured a wooden monocoque fuselage that conferred high strength for low weight. It would be the last RAF fighter, experimental or otherwise, to fly with such a fuselage until the prototype Mosquito fighter W4052 of 1941. The Snark appeared in public on just one occasion and it was noted that it ‘chucked stunts’ and seemed ‘uncommonly fast’. Upon landing out popped test pilot Harry Hawker, who was flying without a coat, though ‘everybody else was cold enough though well wrapped up.” 

Massive cuts to the armed forces at the end of the war meant that there would be no production order for the forward-looking, stunt-chucking and demonstrably warm Snark, thus depriving aviation writers the opportunity to use the phrase ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ in articles and features for evermore. A cruel blow.

Despite a nearly-successful entry into the motorcycle manufacturing business (Under the name ABC motors), Sopwith was saddled with insurmountable tax debts from its massive wartime production and was wound up in 1920. Though Tom Sopwith, Harry Hawker and three others immediately bought the assets of Sopwith as the H.G. Hawker Engineering company which would ultimately become a giant of the British aviation industry. 

9. Zeppelin D.I

In 1918, Germany’s strict Irony laws (die Ironiegesetze) decreed that all metal aircraft had to be photographed in front of trees.

Designed by Claude Dornier, the Zeppelin D.I was one of very few truly revolutionary aircraft in aviation history. The first aircraft to be built and flown with a stressed-skin metal construction throughout, the Zeppelin was the progenitor of virtually all modern fixed wing aircraft but never entered service and today is obscure in the extreme. 

Zeppelin sold two D.Is to the US in 1921. One was evaluated by the Navy and this one by the Army Air Service. Despite being earmarked for preservation it was scrapped in 1926.

Zeppelin’s name is inextricably linked with airships but the company were (and indeed still are) specialists in more general aluminium engineering so it was hardly surprising that they would seek to apply this material to aircraft construction. In the case of the D.I, construction was of duralumin (an alloy of aluminium and copper) throughout. This alloy would later be used to build the ill-fated Hindenburg passenger airship. 

Zeppelin’s D.I was present, though not an official entry, at the second fighter competition at Adlershof but was struck by incredible ill-fortune. Despite being grounded at the factory’s behest pending fitment of the correct wing attachment, the Zeppelin was flown anyway and fatally crashed when the upper wing departed from the aircraft, killing ace Wilhelm Reinhard. Curiously The D.I had been flown minutes earlier by Herman Goering and one wonders how history would have changed had he been the victim rather than the luckless Reinhard. This accident, though seemingly the result of ill-luck rather than any flaw in the aircraft inevitably coloured opinions. Whether or not this had an effect when the Zeppelin appeared at the next fighter contest is open to question but despite its promise the metal aircraft did not put up a particularly good showing, even when fitted with Germany’s best inline engine, the 185 hp BMW. “Does not possess characteristics of a modern fighter. Ailerons too heavy.” noted  Heinrich Bongartz, commander of the Aircraft Test Centre at Aldershof in a remarkably succinct but damning report. Had fighting continued it is likely that a developed version would have addressed the shortcomings this aircraft possessed.

Too advanced for you: Dornier Do H Falke

Unlike so many other hopeful German types, work on this fighter did not cease with the treaty of Versailles so we are granted a tangible glimpse of how this machine would have evolved if the conflict had continued. Dornier developed the design into the monoplane Dornier Do H ‘Falke’ (Falcon) of 1922, five examples of which were built in Switzerland and Italy. The Falke demonstrated a terrific turn of speed but never entered production, being apparently just too ahead of its time. The US Navy for example declared it was ‘too advanced’ for their needs after evaluating the aircraft in 1923.

8. Pfalz D.XV

“Am I not a looker?”

Recipient of a major production order exactly one week before the end of hostilities, the Pfalz D.XV bid fair to reverse the prevailing attitude that Pfalz fighters were invariably inferior to their Fokker rivals. An unusual design, the fuselage of the Pfalz was placed halfway between upper and lower wing and attached to both by complex struts, resulting in a distinctly ungainly look. The D.XV was notable also for its complete absence of bracing wires as both wings were cantilever units. Despite its clumsy appearance, the new Pfalz was an impressive performer. When both were fitted with the same BMW engine, it was slightly faster than the Fokker D.VII and the new Pfalz matched its rival for rate of climb.

Entered into the third fighter trial at Adlershof, the performance of the D.XV was sufficient to warrant an order despite issues of tail-heaviness (which should have been relatively easy to cure) and being difficult to land – neither seen as particularly serious when weighed against the aircraft’s excellent performance. It was also noted that Pfalz’s production capacity was superior to Fokker and for this reason alone, the new fighter, at least as good as the D.VII but available quickly in great numbers made the Pfalz an extremely attractive machine to the Inspektion der Fliegertruppen (Idflieg).

“No, I am not”

The D.XV immediately entered production but time was not on Pfalz’s side and not a single example of the D.XV was to reach the front. It is not definitely known how many complete aircraft were built, probably no more than four, but in 1919, when Allied officials inspected Pfalz’s Speyer factory, they found 74 complete fuselages on the production line. Curiously, two D.XVs were exported to Italy for evaluation as late as 1920, presumably licence production there was being considered. The ultimate fate of both these aircraft sadly remains unknown.

Despite never again building a complete aircraft, Pfalz Flugzeugwerke still exists today, as a component subcontractor to both Airbus and Boeing amongst others.

7. Nieuport Nighthawk / Gloster Mars

“Tonight I’m going to party like I’m Negative no.1999”

Had the war continued into 1919 the British would have had a serious problem as virtually all their future aircraft types were designed around the ABC Dragonfly, a radial engine that promised much but delivered little. One such was the outstanding Nieuport Nighthawk, the design of which would set the standard for British fighters for the next twenty years. Despite its name, the Nieuport and General Company, often referred to as ‘British Nieuport’, was a completely separate entity to Nieuport in France. It had been set up to construct Nieuport aircraft under licence, hence the name, but by 1918 was building Sopwith Camels and eventually set up its own design office under Henry Folland, who had earlier designed the superlative SE5a. 

A Nighthawk demonstrating that it really can fly. This one has sensibly been re-engined with an Armstrong Siddeley Jaguar.

When the Dragonfly engine was running properly, the Nighthawk demonstrated superior characteristics to the Sopwith Snipe, and was the first of an array of radial-engined biplane fighters that formed the backbone of the RAF and Fleet Air Arm’s fighter force until the arrival of the Hurricane and Spitfire in the late 1930s. Despite being the ancestor of virtually all British inter-war fighters, the Nighthawk itself was plagued by the hopelessness of its engine. The Dragonfly never developed its advertised power, was prone to colossal overheating – Nighthawks under test were recorded landing with charred propellor hubs – and most seriously of all the engine had been inadvertently designed to run at its own resonance frequency, meaning that simply switching the engine on caused it to shake itself apart. 

Marketing a fighter aircraft to the public as a ‘sporting plane’ on the basis of compartments for ‘compact load’ suggests an air of desperation on the part of Nieuport and General.

The Nieuport and General Company closed down in 1920 but all was not lost for their seemingly unlucky aircraft. The Nighthawk was known to be an excellent design let down solely by its unreliable engine and production was continued by the Gloucestershire Aircraft company (later to be known as Gloster) who snapped up both development rights and designer Folland. At Gloster the Nighthawk was renamed the Mars, re-engined with a selection of motors that actually worked, and then developed into a confusing swathe of broadly similar types that served with distinction in many air arms across the globe. Examples included the Gloster Nightjar, essentially a Nighthawk with a Bentley rotary, which served operationally as a carrier fighter, and the similar Gloster Sparrowhawk, the first fighter operated by the Japanese Navy. Meanwhile on land a Nighthawk had been fitted with a Napier Lion and shorter wings, inexplicably named the Bamel, and became for a brief period the fastest aircraft in the world. Folland’s designs at Gloster progressed by a process of evolution by way of the Grebe, Gamecock and Gauntlet, to the famous Gladiator, the last fighter biplane of the RAF and a direct descendant of the Nighthawk.

6. Fokker V29

“Where the hell is my lower wing?! …Oh yeah, my mistake”

Similar but not the same: the Fokker D.X of 1921.

Fokker built the best fighting monoplane and biplane to serve the Central powers in significant numbers during the war, the V.29 prototype sought to combine the best of both worlds by marrying the fuselage of the biplane D.VII to the cantilever parasol wing of the D.VIII. This simple scheme resulted in an excellent aircraft that shared top place at the third Adlershof fighter competition in 1918 with the Rumpler D.I (of which more later). Pilots universally adjudged the V29 to have the best handling of all aircraft at the competition. If the war had continued the new fighter would have entered service as the Fokker D.IX and would likely have proved formidable. As it was, the amazing and continuing success of Fokker’s D.VII meant that there was no great rush to put the new monoplane into production and only the prototype was ever built. Some years later Fokker, by now operating once more in his native country of the Netherlands, built eleven of the D.X, a Hispano-Suiza powered development of the D.VIII which saw service in Spain and Finland and bore more than a passing resemblance to the earlier V29.

Unlike nearly every other manufacturer on this list, Fokker enjoyed great success producing both civil and military aircraft for many years until finally ceasing aircraft manufacture in 1996.

5. Rumpler D.I

Air ace Ernst Udet (left) chats with Edmund Rumpler in front of a D.I. Both survived the First World War only to die during the Second.

The height at which aircraft were compelled to operate had inexorably risen throughout the war and the tubby Rumpler D.I possessed unmatched high altitude performance. Described as ‘perhaps the best fighter Germany never had in 1918’, the D.I appeared in ever more developed form at three of the Adlershof fighter competitions and was declared joint winner of the third in concert with the lash-up Fokker V29.

Spot the difference: this earlier iteration of the D.I sports a more rounded rudder and different ailerons. Rumpler fiddled with the same basic design for over a year.

The Rumplertropfen was aerodynamic, refined and a massive flop. Several can be seen in Fritz Lang’s epic ‘Metropolis’.

Both were fitted with the exceptional BMW 185hp engine, specifically designed for high altitude performance and the results were impressive. During the competition the Rumpler was the only aircraft able to gain an altitude of 8200 metres, which was spectacular stuff indeed for 1918.

Despite immediately placing an order for 50 however, not a single machine made it to the front, though a total of 22, including prototypes, appears to have been built before fighting ceased. The cause for the delay seems to have been teething problems that Rumpler engineers could never quite overcome before the armistice; the D.I was a complicated aircraft fitted with such luxuries as cockpit heating, oxygen and radio equipment, and a monocoque fuselage and as such pointed the way forward not only to future fighters of greater sophistication but also ever-greater design and development timescales. Engineers at Rumpler had been tinkering with the design of what would become the D.I since mid 1917, a stark contrast to the rapid turnaround of designs at Fokker. 

Rumpler Flugzeugwerke was liquidated in 1920, though Edmund Rumpler went on to design the remarkable Rumplertropfen car which was a technical triumph but a commercial failure. Only 100 were built of which two survive today. Rumpler himself, being Jewish, had his career ruined after the Nazis gained power and was briefly imprisoned. He died in 1940.

4. Gordou-Leseurre Type B (later GL-2)

Flash Gordou: the world’s sole surviving Gordou-Leseurre is this Finnish GL.22 at the Finnish Air Force Museum.

Probably the best aircraft designed and built by brothers-in-law, the Gordou-Leseurre Type B was just beginning deliveries when the conflict ceased. The French were less monoplane-averse than their British allies and the Type B was the best of the numerous ‘parasol’ types built by the French during the war. As you may have guessed, the Type B was preceded by the Type A which was very fast indeed (in tests it was nudging 250 km/h which made it unofficially the fastest aircraft in the world) but doubts over the structural integrity of the wing mounting led to a modest redesign with a generally lightened structure and heavily reinforced wing. This process delayed service entry of the new aircraft, now named Type B, and as a result this extremely promising high speed monoplane missed the war, a mere 20 examples being manufactured of the initial 1918 version. 

The first French ‘arresting gear’ consisted of cables weighed down with sandbags. It didn’t work very well.

This was not the end of the story as developed versions saw limited production for the Aeronavale first as a fighter and then as an advanced trainer. This latter version conducted carrier trials aboard France’s first aircraft carrier Bearn and was adapted for use as a carrier reconnaissance aircraft.

Handfuls were produced for the air arms of Yugoslavia, Latvia, Estonia, Czechoslovakia and Finland and ultimately around 130 aircraft were built. The final three off the production line were civilian versions constructed in the early 1930s for use in competition aerobatics.

As is invariably the case with in-laws, relations between Gordou and Leseurre became strained and after producing a few modestly successful designs the company closed down in 1934.

3. Siemens-Schuckert D.VI

The D.VI demonstrates its ability to levitate its tail using only the power of ‘the Force’.

As everyone knows, the First World War ended in 1918. Except, of course, that it didn’t. It is true that the fighting ceased (mostly) in November 1918 but that was only an armistice. The war was actually brought to a close on the 28th June 1919 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. In the intervening seven months, the German military had somewhat cheekily, but undeniably prudently, maintained aviation development work and even held a competition for new fighter aircraft at Adlershof between February and March 1919. Likewise Siemens-Schuckert flew the D.VI, their final aircraft design, in 1919.

The stubby D.VI was fast and agile but no one would call it pretty. This in-flight photograph is a fake.

Essentially a monoplane version of the earlier Siemens-Schuckert D.IV, the D.VI retained the exceptional rate of climb that had made its progenitor probably the best interceptor of the war and conferred upon it a useful increase in speed. The D.VI is also notable for being the only aircraft on this list powered by a rotary engine. Rotaries had been dominant as fighter powerplants in the mid-war period but had reached the limits of their development potential by 1919. The eleven cylinder Siemens-Halske Sh.III fitted to the D.VI represented the zenith of this engine type and its choice was no doubt influenced by its being built by the same parent company that made the airframe. By dint of an ingenious crank and gearing system, the torque that proved so deadly on other rotary powered aircraft such as the Sopwith Camel had been virtually eliminated and the high compression ratio meant that the Sh.III maintained an impressively high power output at altitude. As a straightforward development of a proven and formidable aircraft there is every chance the D.VI would have made for a potent fighter. As it turned out one of the prototypes was lost during testing and the other was unceremoniously burned to avoid it falling into Allied hands.

Germany had been notably more interested in the safety of their pilots than any of the other fighting powers – German fighter pilots were unique by the end of the war in that they were provided with parachutes. The D.VI continued this trend, its fuel tank was mounted externally and could be jettisoned if set on fire, giving the pilot a fighting chance to bring the aircraft safely down. Meanwhile pilots of all other nationalities could expect to burn to death in the event of their aircraft catching fire.  

2. Martinsyde F.4 Buzzard

Any British equipment associated with the First World War was contractually obliged to be photographed surrounded by mud.

The best British fighter aircraft of the war was doomed by bad timing to remain little more than a footnote in aviation history. Its success seemed assured with an order for 1450 from the RAF and several thousand more planned to be obtained or licence built by the US and France. A development of the earlier F.3, which despite excellent performance had been cursed by the non-availability of its preferred Rolls-Royce Falcon engine (which was required for the highly successful two-seat Bristol F.2b), the F.4 featured a modest redesign and mounted a more powerful Hispano-Suiza 8 delivering 300 hp. Thoroughly conventional, the Buzzard was well designed and sturdily built and its principle advantages lay in its colossal speed and exceptional rate of climb, both superior to any other British fighter.    

Spanish F.4 showing off. Airshows were more fun in 1928.

Delays in engine availability resulted in a mere 48 (or 57, depending on which source you believe) being delivered by the armistice, none of which made it to an operational squadron, though a handful were used by the Central Flying School. With the incredibly savage cutbacks to the RAF in the immediate postwar period, the Sopwith Snipe, an inferior aircraft in nearly every measurable performance parameter was selected as the RAF’s standard fighter, mainly because it was cheaper but also because it wasn’t powered by a foreign engine. Although, given the horrific debacle of the ABC Dragonfly, the fact that it was powered by a Hispano-Suiza rather than the benighted British radial would have counted massively in the Martinsyde’s favour if operational flying had continued into 1919. However all was not totally lost for Martinsyde, as the Buzzard enjoyed modest export success, ultimately flying in small numbers with the air forces of thirteen nations. Major users included Finland, Spain and the Soviet Union and eventually the creditable total of about 370 aircraft was built. 

This Buzzard is flying in the King’s Cup air race of 1922. It didn’t win.

Despite never serving its home nation operationally, it did see action with pro-treaty Free State forces during the Irish Civil war and despite being completely outdated performed limited operations during 1936 with the Republic Air force in the early stages of the Spanish Civil war. Amazingly Buzzards were used for training by Finland as late as 1940. Belgium was another potential export customer, the Belgian Air Force extensively tested an F.4 Buzzard as part of a competition to select a fighter to supplement their Fokker D.VIIs. The Buzzard lost out to the aircraft detailed below.

Like Sopwith, Martinsyde attempted to stave off postwar bankruptcy by manufacturing motorcycles. The motorcycles were excellent and quite successful but a factory fire in 1922 forced the company into liquidation. 

1. Nieuport 29 (later Nieuport-Delage Nid.29)

The best fighter in service anywhere in the world 1922.

Winner of an exhaustive competition to select a replacement for the outstanding SPAD XIII, the Nieuport-Delage NiD-29 would have been built in enormous numbers had war continued. Even with the outbreak of peace over 1500 of these excellent machines were built, roughly half by Nieuport, 600 of them under licence by Nakajima in Japan with SABCA in Belgium and Macchi and Caproni in Italy building a few hundred more.

Nieuport’s chief designer Gustave Delage was the fighter king in 1916 and 17, with thousands of his diminutive sesquiplane fighters swarming through the skies. Nieuports were operated by all the Allied nations and built under licence in most of them. Captured examples even served the Central powers in significant numbers. By 1918 however SPAD had stolen the top spot; in November 1918 literally every operational single-seat fighter in the French air force was a SPAD. The competing Nieuport 28 had to suffer the ignominy of being rejected for service by its home nation and palmed off on the Americans. Delage and Nieuport had to come up with something special to regain their ascendency and the magnificent Nieuport 29, an aircraft that would prove to be the fastest and highest flying in the world, was the result. 

To emphasise its inherent Frenchness Gustave Delage made sure the new Nieuport 29 was always photographed near a major French landmark.

By the spring of 1918 Monsieur Delage had been tinkering with a succession of prototype fighters to replace the Nieuport 28 on the production line. When specifications were announced for a new fighter by the Section Technique de l’aéronautique (STAé) Delage took what the best of these prototypes and modified it further. First flown in mid-1918 (sources differ on the date) the Nieuport 29 competed with the SPAD XXI, the Martinsyde Buzzard, and the Sopwith Dolphin (in its Mk II form developed and built by SACA in France) to fulfil the new fighter requirement. All four aircraft were equipped with the same Hispano-Suiza 8fb 300 hp engine and all were impressive performers. At this stage the 29 proved the fastest of the competitors but the Buzzard demonstrated the best rate of climb. The Nieuport also failed to attain the altitude required in the original specification. Delage quickly increased the span of the new fighter and lightened the structure resulting in a significant increase in both ceiling and climb rate and in this form the Nieuport 29 was considered the best of the competing types.

Major users of the NiD.29 included France, Japan, Italy, Siam (later Thailand) and, as seen here, Belgium.

Prudently the French ordered large production of all the entries except the poorest performer, the SPAD XXI. However the continuing success of the earlier SPAD XIII in service lent no great urgency to the development of the new aircraft types. Concurrent delays in production of the all-important Hispano-Suiza 8fb engine meant that by the armistice not a single Martinsyde nor Nieuport 29 had been delivered to the Armee de l’air Français, and only 20 or so Dolphins had been completed by SACA. The coming of peace led to an immediate wind-down of French aircraft requirements, orders for the British designed Buzzard and Dolphin were cancelled and development of the new Nieuport proceeded at a more leisurely pace.

Sadi-Lecointe on his way to winning the Coupe Deutsch de la Meurthe for fastest moustache.

And so the best French fighter to fly during the Great war finally entered service in 1922 as the Nieuport-Delage NiD-29, the change of name being considered necessary to distinguish the French company from its British offshoot Nieuport and General. It was the fastest fighter aircraft in service anywhere in the world.

In the intervening three years Nieuport-Delage had been far from idle, developing versions of the NiD.29 for both speed and altitude. The NiD.29V was the high-speed variant and was distinguishable from the standard NiD29 by its shortened wings. It set the first post-war official speed record with pilot  Joseph Sadi-Lecointe on February 7 1920 and later became the first aircraft to exceed 300 km/h in level flight. NiD.29Vs also won both the Coupe Deutsch de la Meurthe and Gordon Bennett cup air races in 1920. Meanwhile the NiD.40R, an extended span version with a Rateau turbocharger was piloted by Sadi-Lecointe to ever-greater heights culminating in a record of 11,145 m (36,565 ft) on October 30 1923. 

The high-altitude NiD.40R shows off its natty extended span wings. All aircraft are best observed whilst reclining in the long grass.

The military NiD.29s gave excellent, reliable service in France throughout the 1920s, equipping some 25 squadrons of the French air force, and three examples were used in combat during the Rif war in Morocco in 1925. The only other nation to use the NiD.29 operationally was Japan. Despite beginning withdrawal of their licence built version (the Nakajima Ko.4) in 1933, many were still in service when the Sino-Japanese conflict erupted in 1937 and saw brief service over Shanghai and Manchuria. A remarkable longevity of front-line service for a 1918 design.

Nakajima Ko.4: The Japanese were keen to make the NiD.29 look like it was from the 19th century for some reason.

Nieuport dropped the Delage name in 1932 after Gustave Delage’s retirement when it merged with the Loire aircraft company. Loire-Nieuport became a component part of the nationalised SNCAO concern in 1936.

Afterword:

If you want to see any of these aircraft in real life your best bet at present is to go to the Finnish Air Force Museum (Suomen Ilmavoimamuseo). There the sole remaining examples of the Martinsyde Buzzard and Gordou-Leseurre Type B are exhibited not just in the same location but the same room. The last surviving Nieuport-Delage NiD-29 is in the collection of the Musée de l’air in Paris but is not apparently on display at the moment. Sadly, not a single example of any of the other aircraft in this fascinating list has survived to the present day.

 

Saab Draken: Swedish Stealth fighter?

Draken_05.jpgOK, I’m asking for trouble with such a hyperbolic title, but hear me out. Yes, I know it wasn’t really a stealth fighter but I suspect its radar cross section (how large it appears to a radar) was remarkably small — and almost definitely the smallest of its generation. It was possibly even the stealthiest fighter until the F-16 come on the scene twenty years later.

Let’s start with a little bit of background detail. The Saab Draken was a Swedish fighter developed in the 1950s to counter Soviet bombers and their fighter escorts. Sweden’s neutrality meant it was better for them to develop their own military aircraft, and this they did with aplomb, creating a series of fighters specialising in low-maintenance (as there was a large conscripted force) and high deployability as in a war the air force would operate from hidden underground bases and sections of motorways acting as a guerilla force. 

The Draken was an immensely clever design, and remained in frontline service until 2005 (and in a training capacity in the US until 2009). It was powered by a licence-built Avon engine. Whereas the British Lightning had two Avons, the smaller Draken had only one, despite this, the Draken could reach Mach 2, had triple the range of the British fighter and had a similar (and later significantly better) armament (four Sidewinders versus two archaic British weapons).

Today fighters are designed to have the minimal radar cross section as stealth is a good safety measure against radar, the furthest seeing method of aircraft detection. In the 1950s speed was king, and immense compromises were made to reach high mach speeds. Some design features suitable for high speed flight are compatible with stealth, and occasionally a low radar cross section is arrived at by accident as a happy byproduct of aerodynamics and other considerations. Looking at the Draken its hard not to wonder what the radar cross section of this sleek design would have been.

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Highly swept leading edges

In some ways radar energy bounces off at a flat surface in the same way as a billiard ball would, so predicting what it will do is possible and can be tested.  Stealth aircraft hide from radar in several ways,  one being the the use of aircraft’s shape to divert returning radar ‘spikes’ away from the hostile radar. The leading edge of the Draken’s inner wing had an 80° sweep angle for high-speed performance, an extreme angle that would deflect radar energy away from the transmitting aircraft. The outer wing, swept at 60° for better performance at low speeds, was of an even greater angle than the Raptor (42 degrees) and not far off the F-117’s 67.5 degrees. The vertical tail is also highly swept, though a single straight up tail is doubly-bad offering a large signature from the side and creating the avoided at all cost 90 degree angles (with the wing) that provide a painfully loud radar return. The wings’ smoothness are not interrupted by many angle changes, ‘dog teeth’ or wingfences.


The compressor face of the engine, essentially a massive block of metal perpendicular to the flightpath (radars looking directly from the front at an aircraft will have the greatest notice of the aircraft’s arrival, hence stealth’s preoccupation with the aircraft’s frontal cross section) is a key contributor to an aircraft’s radar signature — that of the Draken is completely hidden away within the fuselage.

Materials

As far as we know the Draken did not incorporate any radar absorbent materials (RAM) or radar absorbent structures (RAS), it also of conventional materials (largely aluminium). The radar plate in the nose and the cockpit would be highly reflective, though the general canopy shape may less reflective than others of the time. 

Jim Smith had significant technical roles in the development of the UK’s leading military aviation programmes. I asked his opinion on the Draken’s signature and  how it would compare with its contemporary, the F-5 and the later F-16 (an aircraft known to have a small signature).

“I’m not an expert in the radar signature world, and to those that are, a single-figure rcs is not appropriate, But I did write (ages ago) a little algorithm that I used to provide an estimate to drive an optimising program. The estimation tool was explicitly not for LO aircraft. As one of your other commentators pointed out, the type and frequency of the illuminating radar is important, as are the details of the geometry. Testing and analysis is the only way to go – but for the three aircraft you mention, Draken, F-5E and F-16, one can make the following comments:

Draken, head-on, has relatively small intakes, relatively highly swept wing, relatively tidy boundary layer diverter, somewhat blended wing and fuselage, and should have a lower rcs than most of its contemporaries. From the quartering front, the fuselage and wing are relatively blended, which would help. Directly side on, the fin is going to give you a spike, as are the external pylons. And all of the aircraft will have significantly higher returns when carrying missiles. Interestingly, later aircraft have a IRST.

F-5E is a trim little aircraft. Compared to the Draken, although it too has smallish intakes, the boundary layer diverter arrangement is notably messy. From the quartering front, one can observe the flat fuselage side making a right-angle to the plane of the wing, and the fin and tailplane, and tailplane and rear fuselage, doing the same. So from the side, not only will there be a spike from the fin, but the wing-fuselage and fin-tail-fuselage geometries form corner reflectors, increasing radar returns.

F-16 has much higher power-to-weight than F-5 or Draken, and as a result has a large intake. Head-on this is likely to increase signature, but the inlet may (will in later/US models) be treated so as to counter this. The boundary layer diverter is large, and will contribute to the rcs. From quartering front, the leading edge strake and the blending of the wing and body will help, as will the gold flashing of the canopy, which prevents radar energy from entering the cockpit and reduces returns from that area. Side-on, the large fin and the under-fuselage strakes will contribute. Of the three aircraft, only the F-16 is likely to have benefited from RCS reduction treatments, almost certainly in the intake duct, around the radar and possibly some applique coatings.”

Without knowledge of the radar in question and the materials used in the Draken it is hard to make a precise estimation but it seems likely that it was stealthier than the Lightning, F-4 and even the F-104 (suffering as it did a circular fuselage, a T-tail and tiptanks). For its generation it may have indeed had a marginal advantage in radar conspicuity.

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Project Tempest: Musings on Britain’s new superfighter project

 

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“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”
― William Shakespeare, The Tempest

Project Tempest is a team of British and Italian companies looking for leadership of a new-generation ‘do everything’ stealth fighter. Ambitious and bold it may be, but is it a good idea — and will it actually happen? 

A life-size plastic model of a stealthy fighter was unveiled at the Farnborough airshow. The model and accompanying press briefing was from a team that comprised the British Ministry of Defence, BAE Systems, European defence giant MBDA, Rolls-Royce, and the Italian company Leonardo. This was the public birth of Project Tempest, intended to develop new aircraft technologies and find partners for a future fighter project. The mock-up’s exact shape may be a placeholder, but having a physical manifestation at an airshow was a symbolically strong move, as was the name. Normally new fighter project names are a series of letters (FEFA, JSF, ACA, TFX etc.) and the use of an emotive word is a public relations coup. Following the use of other former wartime Hawker fighter names — Tornado and Typhoon — Tempest is a predictable choice. The name may also hint at the desire for this to grow into a wider pan-European collaboration. If the British defence sector wishes to stay in the fighter market (outside of its US and Turkish involvement) post-Brexit it will need to show willing, confidence and initiative — and Team Tempest is just such a move. It has been stated that BAE Systems wants leadership if such a new collaboration starts, but should it? Is Team Tempest a good idea, and will it work? Though Team Tempest is already international it is intended to be British-led. Arguments for a new British-led tactical fighter will revolve around five perceived needs: let’s have a quick look at them.

Operational requirements 

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In the medium term Britain’s fast jet force will consist of F-35s and Typhoons.

The make-up of Britain’s current fighter force reveals what the RAF will need in the future. Tornado is on the way out, Typhoon is the current mainstay, and a mixed Typhoon/F-35 force represents the medium term. I have avoided mentioning FCAS and the plethora (sorry Paul Beatty) of British paper studies over the last 25 years in any detail as they’re too numerous to mention. They generally centre on a mixed force of manned and unmanned stealthy aircraft. It is likely that any fast jet would be used in conjunction with a subsonic flying wing UCAV if these don’t fall out of favour before entering service outside of the US.

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The RAF’s Tornado has spent more years in combat than other type the service has operated. Next year the type is expected to be replaced by the Typhoon.

There are rumours going around that many in the RAF and MoD do not want the full 138 F-35s on order. Insiders suggest a ‘silver bullet’ force akin to USAF’s 1990s F-117 fleet is being mooted in high places. Stealth is not required for all missions, and comes at a great cost (though the F-35’s situational awareness advantage is useful for many missions). It is likely that fewer aircraft will be delivered and to protect the RAF’s independence some of these will be F-35As.

Procurement moves by the US (both F-22s and 6th Gen’ plans), Japan (with the F-3) and Turkey with the TF-X show that those who can afford an alternative don’t consider the F-35 a viable air superiority platform. This flies in the face of public announcements by Lockheed Martin, USAF and F-35 pilots regarding the aircraft’s effectiveness in the role, but it is hard to read the facts in any other way. With the Meteor long-range air-to-air missile a likely weapon for Tempest, Air Superiority, or at least a strong Swing Role capability, is likely. The RAF will need a replacement for Typhoon.

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The Tempest is named after a World War II Hawker fighter-bomber. The practice of naming new European fighters after wartime Hawker fighters started with the Tornado. The Hawker Tornado is pictured.

The British military doctrine and inventory currently has little provision for the idea of fighting a powerful well-equipped enemy without assistance from the US and /or NATO.

Analysis of the design can be found here. 

Sovereign technology 

Having a high technology base is probably good for a nation’s economy, and many are returning to the idea of nation states above internationalism. Could high technology levels be maintained without a new fighter? British-made defensive aids and sub-systems are widely respected – featuring on the F-22, F-35 and advanced F-15s among others – so even without Tempest it is likely Britain could continue to create high-end military aerospace technology.

Though a 30-year old design, the EJ200 turbofan engine that powers the Typhoon is widely respected, with many technical observers putting Britain in the number-two slot of advanced jet producers (behind the US). In Europe, only France has the ability to create fighter engines. This technology is very hard to develop if lost, or never achieved – as evident in the experiences in China and India.

British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced, “We have been a world leader in the combat air sector for a century, with an enviable array of skills and technology, and this Strategy makes clear that we are determined to make sure it stays that way…British defence industry is a huge contributor to UK prosperity, creating thousands of jobs in a thriving advanced manufacturing sector, and generating a UK sovereign capability that is the best in the world.. Today’s news leaves industry, our military, the country and our allies in no doubt that the UK will be flying high in the combat air sector as we move into the next generation.”

Britain’s global position 

Historian David Edgerton noted in conversation with Hush-Kit, “It is not historical destiny which makes the British warlike, but particular political and military programmes of the recent past.  So I would say that in the early twentieth century the United Kingdom was more warlike than myth suggested, much more so, but it is only in recent years that we have had a gleeful indulgence in military adventurism overseas. The United Kingdom did once have a major world role, now it just pretends to. It is now really a big Canada, but political leaders want to see themselves at the head of a small United States.” This bloated self-perception sometimes leads to Britain going it alone on military procurement programmes its smallish domestic market cannot justify. This can lead to a higher unit price, which leads to a lack of export success, which in turn keeps the unit price high. With this in mind partners are needed.

Public confidence 

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Life-sized models or mock-ups of aircraft are often used to drum up support for potential aircraft. This British Aerospace / Aeritalia / MBB Agile Combat Aircraft model was displayed at the 1983 Paris Air Show in support of the nascent Typhoon.

Divided by politics, losing support from its European friends, and tied to an increasingly erratic US, Britain needs a shot in the arm. Ambitious military equipment projects are popular with large sections of the public and demonstrate confidence in the future. To others the idea will seem wasteful, irrelevant and unlikely to come to fruition. Some may point out that huge national problems, like the record homelessness epidemic, are more pressing than billion-pound plastic planes (though the £2billion figure has been earmarked for several years).

Does BAE Systems deserve the gig?

BAE Systems sells more to the US Department of Defense (DOD) than the UK MoD, and needs to keep a cordial relationship with the US. It currently has a 13-15% workshare of each F-35  Lightning made* — so aggressively pursuing export sales at the expense of British or European needs is not at the top of its agenda. It also has pretty lamentable track record — other than the Hawk trainer, the last new military aircraft project it led was the disastrous Nimrod MRA.4. Before that the British Harrier GR.5 lagged behind its US brother the AV-8B; the AV-8B served with distinction in Desert Storm, whereas the British GR.5 was considered too immature to deploy. BAE Systems is good at high technology, has an exceptionally large portfolio and is world-class. That the F-22 and the highest spec F-15s carry BAE Systems tech is testament to this. In short, BAE Systems could do it, but it would probably be slow and expensive.

(*While BAE Systems claims a 13-15% workshare on the F-35 on their website, the F-35 site says the total British workshare (from all British companies) is 15%. We spoke to BAE Systems who commented “To clear it up, 15% is the correct number for all British industry, whereas 13-15% is BAE Systems globally, including our businesses in the US and Australia. Numbers differ depending if you include propulsion.”)

Analysis of the design can be found here. 

Employment

Military aircraft design and production workforces are very vulnerable. BAE has frequently cut or threatened to cut staff when aircraft do not sell well — the Typhoon being a case in point.  As an employment-creation scheme, the military aviation sector is very expensive, and demonstrably unstable.

Development

A 2035 in-service date seems unlikely, with fighters outside of China and Sweden taking about 25 years from initial ideas to frontline service. If all went well and Tempest followed this pattern, we would be looking at 2043 as the earliest in-service date.

Concept 

Technologically, the watchword is ‘Everything’! A feast of exotic technologies discussed include disruptive energy weapons, stealth, virtual cockpits,variable cycle engines, hypersonic missiles, thrust-vectoring control, massive onboard electrical power generation, sensors operating in weird bandwidths, and optionally manned. This is a vision of ambition. So far, the only air forces to have indigenous stealth fighters in service are the US and China. The ‘optionally manned’ feature of Project Tempest has raised a few eyebrows, with many experts seeing it as path to getting the worst of both worlds.

Claims that Team Tempest will use new ideas to move quickly and affordably are reminiscent of early JSF talk, when the F-35 was predicted to cost $28 million a unit thanks to an innovative contract type, and design and manufacturing techniques (in 2018 the F-35 project is now celebrating some models’ price tags going under 100 million, which even allowing for time and inflation puts it into a different category from the low-cost aircraft it was originally supposed to be).

Conclusion

Britain, the black sheep of Europe, will struggle to find a willing team with its neighbours. France, has always prioritised autonomy and design leadership, and Germany is the least militaristic of the major European players. Franco-German concepts for a Future Combat Air System for Europe (below) have been notable by their exclusion of UK involvement, something that has alarmed BAE Systems no end. When things were easier for military projects Europe (and NATO) still struggled to unite on common procurement programmes. The 1980s offered a perfect storm for the development of a new fighter: a relatively strife-free EU, a tangible advanced threat, and much larger orders (Britain originally wanted 250 Typhoons). Even in these fertile conditions, the effort that led to Typhoon was a struggle, so looking further afield for partners is likely.

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The Swedish firm Saab is the most successful manufacturer of fighter aircraft in terms of achieving – or coming closest to – predicted schedules and budgets, and its model could be one to follow. 

Typhoon and Tornado suffered from an overly democratic concept-definition process, whereby compromise was put ahead of overall effectiveness.  Attempts at fairness in design-sharing and production allocation led to some odd decisions (such as Germany leading the flight control system for Typhoon and a cumbersome and expensive production line). The arrangement of Eurofighter made upgrades slow and tortuous, and left the consortium little room for initiative. 

The bright news for a new fighter programme is the multitude of nations, including Turkey, Japan and South Korea, desiring fighters of their own and open to collaboration. A prime contributing factor in this worldwide trend for indigenous fighters is the absence of an exportable F-15 replacement. While updated F-15s, F/A-18s, Eurocanards and late F-16s are impressive, in the long term there are no high-end Air Superiority fighters available for Western friendly nations.

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With no exportable or ongoing F-15 replacement in sight, Boeing has offered a series of upgraded F-15 models, including this – the F-15X.

Is project Tempest a serious thing, or an attempt by a nation on the back foot to appear confident? Time will tell.

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Book review: The Vickers Viscount by Nick Stroud

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Air Traffic Controller, comedian and son of Viscount pilot, Dorian Crook, reviews a new book on the Vickers Viscount by Nick Stroud. 

SPOILER ALERT! Production of the Viscount finished in 1962!

Not too much of a Spoiler Alert, as it happens, because this is no geek’s telephone-directory-style production list (not that there’s anything wrong with that….).

No. Mr. Stroud’s biography of the Viscount is beautifully illustrated thoughtfully presented and, whilst it includes the usual facts and figures, is happy to stray into the social, political, and other worlds beyond rivets and registration letters. This will come as no surprise to readers of Mr.Stroud’s independent magazine The Aviation Historian; it’s where he comes into his own, and I would say we need more of this…

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Back to the basics- we have 120 pages with well-reproduced photos on each- good value at £16.99. Starting with Mr. Stroud’s personal connection, we have chapters on Genesis, Development and Production, a chapter on Military variants and interesting diversions into second-hand uses and corporate or private operators. Again, deviating from the tired listings of other publications, Mr. Stroud has not felt the need to tabulate accidents to Viscounts. Instead, he has chosen to look in detail at one accident, near Sydney, Australia, in 1961. This gives us much more feel of the operation in general, than a mass of statistics. No, it’s not the complete story of every accident, but it’s much more readable for that.

Talking of Viscount incidents, my late father, who was a Captain on the 700 series, told the tale of a colleague of his, whose passengers had a lucky escape when an inboard propellor detached and embedded itself in the toilet section of the fuselage. After the hearty meal and wine of an early-Sixties holiday charter, it seems the only reason the toilet was unoccupied was that the crew had forgotten to cancel the Seat Belts sign after a period of turbulence….

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When I read novels, I’m disappointed if I don’t find at least one word which I have to look up. I don’t normally set such high standards for aircraft production histories, but again Mr. Stroud has delivered: Legerdemain was a new one on me. This is a book you could show your non-Aviation friends- the photos are not just side-on spottershots- they contain the human element wherever possible, engineers tinkering with flaps, with comments on the weather (and surroundings). Airline brochures, luggage labels and similar all help to evoke the era of which this aircraft was a part. 

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These good intentions are well shown in the photo of an elegant Aer Lingus stewardess sashaying down the steps of an Aer Lingus V.707. It’s more reminiscent of a Vogue fashion spread than an aircraft history. As well as observing her immaculate attire, we are invited to divert our attention to the air-conditioning air scoop under the fuselage! So- no accusations of objectification of Air Stewardesses and something for all readers.

I look forward to seeing more from the Stroud writing desk, and I do hope he’s sent a copy to the ‘Viscount Bar’, a hostelry complete with a Viscount profile image, on the road to Dublin Airport.

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Top 10 beyond visual range fighter aircraft 2018: selection process and the science of BVR combat

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‘The Infinity of Lists’ by Umberto Eco is book that covers the topic of lists. Examples cited in the book range from Hesiod‘s list of the progeny of gods to Rabelais’ list of bottom-wipes. Listing, the compulsive mind’s attempt to impose order on a chaotic universe is everywhere, and is especially popular on the odious and wonderful thing you’re now using, the internet.

The top ten format of ‘listicle’ has long haunted the internet, leading me to take the rather lazy step of adopting it for this blog. Since this site started five years ago I’ve created a bunch of top 10s, ranging from the predictable (like the ‘Best fighters of World Two‘) to the deliberately silly (Top ten pusher aircraft, allegedly- but not actually – written by Werner Herzog). The furious responses the selections generated is both puzzling and to be expected. It’s odd in that you wouldn’t expect anyone to believe that reality actually conforms to a ‘top ten’ approach, and predictable in that the articles are intended to provoke debate; in some cases we have made deliberately contentious choices in our top 10s to catalyse such responses. Curiously, the fact that these articles could be said to trivialise or possibly celebrate war machines by using a format conceived for promoting pop music has not provoked any response.

Which, almost, neatly brings us to the Top 10 BVR fighters. BVR may be a daunting term, but simply stands for ‘beyond visual range’. Our top 10 is an attempt to choose the ten fighters that are best at shooting down other aircraft at ranges where the pilot cannot see the opponent with his or her eyes. That I decided to separate the aircraft into within-visual range (WVR) and BVR categories is a completely artificial device, but I hope, an interesting way to consider their relative merits. Each time I have assembled this annual list I have quizzed experts in the field (though many, including Jim Smith, may not self identify as such) to help me reach my conclusions. Jim Smith had significant technical roles in the development of the UK’s leading military aviation programmes. From ASRAAM and Nimrod, to the JSF and Eurofighter Typhoon. When I asked him to order operational fighter aircraft in a top 10, he asked me to consider the nature of BVR combat and sub-categories within it. As his answers were fascinating in themselves, I have presented them here as a teaser preceding the sharing of our top 10 BVR fighters of 2018. Over to Jim….

BVR Fighter Assessment

Birds of a feather ...

OVER VIRGINIA — An F-15 Eagle is joined in formation by F-16 Fighting Falcons during a training sortie here April 19. The F-15 is assigned to the 71st Fighter Squadron at Langley Air Force Base, Va., and the F-16 is assigned to the Virginia Air National Guard’s 192nd Fighter Wing in Richmond. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Ben Bloker)

I am going to start by considering what is different about BVR combat, and what system characteristics are needed to succeed? From there, I’ll go on to examine whether the scenario or setting for the air combat makes a difference to the system requirements, and then have a go at ranking aircraft in different scenarios.

I’ll leave it to you, to draw on your sources on the current state of development of the various systems. Were I to attempt this, I’d need to be aware of material I certainly could not bring to this forum.

What is required to deliver a BVR air combat capability?

Here’s how I look at BVR as a capability:

The 4 things you need to achieve, all in the context of survival, are:

Locate the target

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at a sufficient distance to be able to decide what to do

– preferably without being detected yourself

These two elements of locate then push you towards platforms that

– have powerful on-board detection systems, such as Electronically-scanned radars, big radars, Low Probability of Exploitation (LPE) radars, and Infra-Red Seeker Trackers (IRST)

– and/or operate in a well-integrated system of systems, with datalink support, off-board and third-party sensors

– and may be supported by other systems countering opposition sensors, including surface and airborne radars

– and/or can operate with stealth including secure LPE communications and datalinks

As a consequence of the above, interoperability becomes important, as third parties may be providing target information, datalinks, tankers and logistics. This drives towards

compatible secure communications, IFF, tanker/refuelling systems, in turn requiring

trusted information sharing protocols and procedures between coalition allies

or the alternative approach of a self-sufficient integrated air defence system (e.g. Russia, China, Sweden)

Engage and defeat the target

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Outside the opposition’s ability to engage effectively, and ideally inside your missile no escape zone

This drives you towards

 – long range missiles such as Meteor

– Third-party support, including targeting and datalink support

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Disengage at will

This is to allow you to either re-position for another engagement, or to withdraw

This favours

– Platforms with high energy manoeuvrability

– or all aspect stealth (generally not both high energy manoeuvrability and stealth, at least without compromise e.g in number of weapons carried)

– AESA radar to allow high-off boresight datalinks

– or third-party datalinks

Repeat as necessary

This requires the ability to

– carry enough weapons

– have good combat persistence

– and, often ignored, have sufficient availability and numbers to deliver a campaign rather than just an engagement

What does this imply for the top ten candidates ?

Situational awareness, weapons capability and combat persistence are probably more important than manoeuvre capability (g), although transonic and supersonic acceleration is helpful in creating opportunities to survive/win multiple engagements.

Situational awareness (SA) is vital because Beyond Visual Range (BVR) combat, by definition, precludes visual identification of opposing systems. Electronic systems must be used instead, and so on-board and off-board radars and electronic surveillance and protection measures become very important.

There is also the interaction between SA and stealth. If you have a stealthy airframe (F-22, F-35 for example) there are likely to be big benefits in the engaging fighters running in passive and using third-party sensors to set up the engagement. If you don’t do this your stealth advantage evaporates, as the opposition knows where you are.

If you are not very stealthy, and if your primary concern is to knock down enemy strike aircraft and bombers. what you want is a very long-range missile with a large no escape zone, like Meteor. This allows you to stand off outside the kill zone of the opposition.

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Another big issue is the effectiveness of any detection technologies against stealthy aircraft. Ground-based multi-static radars; lower frequency radars; AESA radars and IR Seeker Trackers will all have some capability. And who knows whether means exist of exploiting the LPE radars and comms. systems of stealthy aircraft. Once missiles are deployed, other detection opportunities may exist, including increases in signature as weapons are deployed; launch detection; detection of the missile plume etc.

Then you have the problem of numbers, closely connected to the number of BVR weapons carried, and the effectiveness of those weapons in a modern counter-measures environment. Not to mention tactics … and whether multiple engagements will be required.

Good things to have:

1) Situational Awareness

    Active Electronically-Scanned Array (AESA) radars are better than Passively Scanned Arrays; either of these is better than mechanically scanned radar

    Off-board sensors able to provide big picture good; better still if 3rd party targeting available.

2) Low observability

    But caution if this means less weapons; less platform performance; less persistence and need for 3rd party EW to avoid compromising LO by transmitting

3) High-capability weapons

    Long-range, high-speed, large No Escape Zone

    High resistance to countermeasures

    More than 2 BVR shots (ideally)

4) Sufficient combat fuel available

    To take advantage of the weapons load out

5) Good energy manoeuvrability

    To engage and dis-engage at will

    To rapidly accelerate to maximise weapon effectiveness

6) Good EW and countermeasures available

    To decrease opposition situational awareness and increase survivability.

Scenarios and broader requirements

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One of the key problems to be addressed is ‘what is the scenario?’ And are other attributes also required?

What about considering 2 different views of BVR combat – Air Superiority, where the battle is taken to the opposition, and Air Defence, where the focus is on deterring and preventing incursion.

Starting with Air Defence, let’s suppose you have a small-ish nation, where the Government does not have global dominance in its agenda. For such a nation, the key aim is deterrence, ensuring that any country wishing to invade or dominate you cannot easily do so. For such a nation, Gripen/Meteor might be the ultimate air defender, especially if you have a well-integrated air defence system and dispersed bases. Never being far from the border or a base, fuel volume and even weapons load don’t matter so much, because you’ll scoot back to your cave and re-arm/refuel. Having a big stick, however, is great, because you can defeat threats while keeping out of their missile range.

On the other hand, Air Defence of Russia drives you towards the MiG-31. You have to have a big, fast, aircraft because you can’t avoid the possibility of having to cover a fair distance at high speed to meet the threat. Being big means a big sensor and long-range weapons are available, and both are likely to be needed. You may be less concerned about signature and platform manoeuvrability because your ideal approach will be to stand back and hit bombers rather than engage fighters.

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Air Superiority, or perhaps Air Superiority and Offensive Counter Air is a bit of a different proposition. A key difference is that you are seeking to dominate outside your borders (or your host Nation’s borders when deployed elsewhere). It helps to be big, because you can carry a lot of fuel to allow you to be a penetrating escort to strike packages. But it also helps to be stealthy to reduce your vulnerability to ground-based systems and air defence aircraft. And it may help to be really agile – if you are going to need to disengage and re-engage, for example, or against the contingency you get forced into WVR combat.

So F-22 should be excellent at most of this, but might lack a bit in the way of combat persistence. As an OCA adjunct, able to use surface weapons to hit radars, and anti-air weapons to counter opposition Air Defence aircraft, F-35 would be excellent, but perhaps best with its pal in the F-22 nearby to ensure the F-35s could stay out of WVR.

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The Su-35 and Chinese derivatives would also be strong players here. These Su-27 developments have plenty of fuel, plenty of weapons and plenty of agility. In Air Superiority some of the older variants may be looking a bit dated, but their fuel capacity, general availability in significant numbers and weapons and EW capability mean that they could be quite challenging as escorts. I think the size is driven by the geographic challenge (like the MiG-31); once you’ve got the size, fuel weapons and agility the escort role is a natural. But signature differences would give an initial advantage to stealthier systems.

The strength of Rafale and Eurofighter is their ability to take different weapons loads so they can swing between the Air Superiority role at the start of a conflict (particularly once Meteor and AESA come along) and the OCA/strike role with an Air Defence capability once Air Superiority is established.

I’d expect China to be doing dome different things with the J-20. With a hypothetical really long-range anti-air weapon, this relatively stealthy platform could force essential support assets such as tankers and AEW platforms to stand back, reducing situational awareness and combat persistence for opposition aircraft. It might also be a deterrent to maritime operations if an air-surface strike weapon were to be available. Perhaps the J-20 should be thought of as a stealthy MiG-31, aimed at large area airspace denial rather than air superiority per se.

Broader requirements may also arise, particularly given the interplay between National aspirations, geography and budget. It is only the largest economic powerhouses with global aspirations that can afford optimised specialist solutions for Strategic Strike, Tactical Strike, Air Superiority and Air Defence.

As an example, due to its perceived role in regional security, the UK is looking to mush of its future air capability being delivered by a mix of Typhoon and JSF. Strategic strike would be delivered by other systems such as cruise missiles, and it appears Typhoon will swing between Air Superiority and Strike roles as required, while JSF provides a stealthy strike capability.

Making an Assessment

So, how to go about defining a Top Ten? A decision needs to be made about whether the Top Ten focuses solely on Air Superiority, or whether the flexibility of role, which may suit many Nations economically, is an additional measure. Further, where do the specialist Air Defence aircraft like MiG-31 and Gripen fit in? If the somewhat platform focussed approach of the 2017 list is followed these should do well, as with a long-range weapon either could be a very effective deterrent against a threat strike package.

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A Governmental approach to ranking these systems would be reliant on extensive system modelling, intelligence data, consideration of whole life costs and so on. Even them, great care would be required to ensure the modelling represented like with like – for example matching projected future capabilities against realistic projected threat capability rather than current capability.

None of these techniques are available to me, and if they were, I could not report the outcome! Instead the assessments below are judgement-based against various roles for which the candidate aircraft might be used.

Air superiority:

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1: F-22

2: Typhoon and Rafale (once Meteor and AESA are integrated)

3: F-15 and Su-35 [I’d need to know more about these systems to separate them] 

4. J-11, Su-30

Air Defence:

Rafale-Typhoon

1: F-22 (but should be doing Air Superiority)

2: Gripen and MiG-31 – noting a limitation to Defence of the homeland 

3: Typhoon and Rafale (with or without Meteor, but would be better with Meteor and would then place above Gripen)

4: F-15, Su-35, J-11, F-35 (unsure about where to place F-35; its lack of energy manoeuvrability and low number of long-range weapons is offset by stealth)

5: J-20 (likely to improve as system matures)

6: Su-30/ F-18E/F

Escort

1: F-22 (but should be doing Air Superiority)

2: Su-35/J-11/Su-30 (Primarily because of fuel capacity)

3: F-35 (self-escort role)

4: Typhoon/Rafale (with or without Meteor, but with Meteor would be better)

 Offensive Counter Air/Strike

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1: JSF (stealth, fuel)

2: Swing-role Typhoon and Rafale

3: J-20 as specialist AEW and tanker killer, and threat to maritime systems 

4: F-18E/F

5: F-16

This excludes specific strike systems such as F-15E, Su-34

Taken overall, it depends what you are looking for. The best out-and-out BVR fighter is the F-22, and it would be good for Air Defence as well.

A champion all-round capability for a non-US, Western nation, would be Typhoon or Rafale plus JSF. For Russia or China, Su-35 plus MiG-31 or J-20 plus J-11, plus specialist strike aircraft

If your focus is only on defence, then F-22, Gripen, MiG-31 and perhaps J-20 are all strong.

If your budget is limited to one combat aircraft type and your geography is limited, Gripen would be excellent. If you have a large geographic area to manage Su-35, or F-35 with tanker support.

Jim’s opinions and observations will be used in the compilation of the top 10 BVR fighters of 2018 coming very soon to hushkit.net

 

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10 amazing things you didn’t know about Air Force One

 

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Air Force One is the most important aircraft in the world, as this heavily modified airliner is used to carry the US President and his friends. The ultra high-tech jet can transport the Commander-In-Chief to any airport in the world in luxury and safety, and has some startling and unique features. Here are 10 astonishing facts you didn’t know about Air Force One. 

 

10. The aircraft is able to communicate with nuclear submarines. The communication pipe is over 120 miles long and is trailed from the aircraft’s main door. One end goes to the President’s chair, the other through the snorkel and onto the command deck of every Ohio Class Submarine.

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9. Like all airliners, sickbags are provided. In AF1 they are made from the flags of vanquished enemies.

Google reveals F-35 is overexposed here.

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It is customary for the President and First Lady to honour the ‘Lift-a-loft’ step on exiting the aircraft. The first couple will stay an average of one hour on this step to celebrate the achievements of the American company that makes it possible to exit large aircraft. Before Lift-a-a-loft was established (in 1962) many passengers starved to death, unable to leave their aircraft.

8. The aircraft is equipped with over 500 miles of Scalextric track.

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Dick Cheney’s favourite car to play on the onboard Scalextric track was a custom-made gold AMC Gremlin. Trump has a red Pontiac Firebird.

10 worst US aircraft here

7. On a hostile radar the aircraft appears as a mighty eagle holding lightning in its claws.

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6. Legally the interior of the Air Force One is considered the interior of the President’s mind, therefore US law and dreams are in force there, wherever the aeroplane is. The President’s nightmares are filtered out by a series of state-of-the-art ‘dreamcatchers’ developed by engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney.

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5. Over two litres of the President’s sperm is stored in a refrigerated unit in the rear fuselage. In the case of nuclear war, this will aid repopulation efforts.

4. The skull of President Nixon is given its own seat on all flights. This tradition was started by George W Bush, and has been continued by subsequent Presidents. It is said by the famously superstitious pilots that Washington will fall if Nixon’s skull is not carried aboard.

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3. In 2006 AF1 (then occupied by George W Bush) met Putin’s equivalent aircraft (the Ilyushin IL-96-300-PU) in the sky above Tokyo. Both leaders being competitive men, insisted that their own aircraft should reach Narita International Airport first. The details of the ad hoc drag-race that ensued were until recently a state secret. During the 20 minute race, AF1 reached an astonishing speed of twice the speed of sound (aided by two escorting F-22 Raptors pushing it). Though AF1 reached the airport perimeter first, Bush was despondent to seeing the Russian leader landing ahead of him…by parachute!

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2. There is a strict ‘no political chat’ rule on AF1; the President has designated it an official chill-out zone.

1. The President’s overhead luggage bin, is a whopping 10% bigger than a regular one. He is also allowed to bring on a generous two items of hand luggage.

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Find out 10 amazing things you didn’t know about the Spitfire here.

Want to see more stories like this: Follow my vapour trail on Twitter: @Hush_kit

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Have a look at How to kill a RaptorAn Idiot’s Guide to Chinese Flankers, the 10 worst British military aircraftThe 10 worst French aircraft,  Su-35 versus Typhoon10 Best fighters of World War II top WVR and BVR fighters of today, an interview with a Super Hornet pilot and a Pacifist’s Guide to Warplanes.Want something more bizarre? The Top Ten fictional aircraft is a fascinating read, as is The Strange Story and The Planet Satellite. The Fashion Versus Aircraft Camo is also a real cracker. Those interested in the Cold Way should read A pilot’s guide to flying and fighting in the Lightning. Those feeling less belligerent may enjoy A pilot’s farewell to the Airbus A340. Looking for something more humorous? Have a look at this F-35 satire and ‘Werner Herzog’s Guide to pusher bi-planes or the Ten most boring aircraft. In the mood for something more offensive? Try the NSFW 10 best looking American airplanes, or the same but for Canadians. 

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