The Wall Street Journal

The Evolution of the Aerial Dogfight

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Advances in technology are allowing fighter pilots to kill each other from as far away as possible. That means if a pilot is close enough to actually see the enemy, "something's probably gone wrong," says one airman.

Photo: Michael Phillips

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… show captions ↓
(tense music)
- Ideally, we would never see each other.
Reason being was, when you get in close,
you open yourself up to a lot greater threat.
A lot of confusion happens
when you get two airplanes close together.
- The dog fight hasn't gone away,
but is a bit of a contingency at this point.
If you find yourself that close to an enemy,
with today's technology, something's probably gone wrong.
(planes buzzing)
- [Reporter] We've seen aerial dogfights in old newsreels
and Hollywood movies like Top Gun and Dunkirk.
A pilot twists and turns until the enemy plane
is in the cross hairs.
But is that still what fire pilots are doing?
To find out, I spent a day in Alaska
with pilots training for aerial combat.
This is Colonel Shawn Anger.
- Dog fighting, when it was at its finest,
was in the World War II, World War I era.
Those battles were a lot slower,
and they're primarily all conducted with gunnery.
As we've progressed into the missile age,
we started to have air-to-air missiles
that would complete our engagements in these dog fights.
- [Phillips] Air-to-air missiles were put to the test
in combat during the Vietnam War.
U.S. commanders were so optimistic about the weapons
that they even removed the machine guns from some jets.
That confidence proved premature.
As recently as the Gulf War, air-to-air missiles
were relatively primitive in range and accuracy.
Since then, arms makers have greatly improved
the chances that a pilot will get a kill
when he launches a missile at an enemy plane.
It's a military secret just how big
the range is for today's missiles.
In Vietnam, the Air Force noticed
that pilots were most likely to get shot down
during their first 10 missions.
So now, the Air Force runs air combat exercises,
in which half the planes, the aggressor squadron,
pretend to be the enemy.
- We learned back in Vietnam
that we were losing aircraft at an alarming rate,
and we needed to do something about it,
so we created an exercise that simulated
those first days of battle, which gave pilots the confidence
and the experience to go out there and succeed.
- I'd say watch your legs.
- Colonel Anger invited me to fly with him
during a mock dog fight at an air base near Fairbanks.
The plane that I'm in will be
a fake Russian plane or Chinese plane,
and will be pushing American planes to the limits,
trying to shoot down as many as the pilot can.
(plane whooshing)
- [Anger] It's all geometry, it's all pilotage,
it's all assessing an adversary's energy state.
Every maneuver that he does, I observe it,
I orient to what he's doing, I make a decision what to do,
and then I maneuver my airplane to counter it.
- Technology is confusing the aerial battlefield.
Stealth technology makes the newest U.S.
and enemy planes harder to spot.
Signal jammers can hide aircraft
and send missiles off course.
In 2019, what's a dog fight?
- The dog fight in modern air warfare
takes place what we call BVR, beyond visible range.
So, generally you're killing them off
or they're killing you,
and you'll never even know that they're there.
- [Phillips] Pilots say the next wave in technology
might be hypersonic weapons, or perhaps drone wing men
that carry extra missiles for the manned fighter.
- We're really in a race to actually increase
the amount of distance in between us
while achieving an air-to-air kill.
- But there's a catch.
The better that jammers and stealth technology get,
the more likely it is that fighters
will accidentally get close to each other
and have to fight it out the old fashioned way.

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