The Constant of Air Combat

Just as in World War I, superior situational awareness remains the critical element to success in aerial combat, and its importance is only going to grow, researcher John Stillion told AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies on Tuesday. From World War I until the mid-1960s, speed and agility were critical because the “airplane was the weapon,” said Stillion, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, during his presentation in Arlington, Va. The skill to maneuver within visual range to engage with guns or cannon made the difference in defeat or victory, he said as he discussed his new study, “Trends in Air to Air Combat.” Even early air-to-air missiles relied on primitive heat-seeking capability, which required pilots to put their aircraft in the right place at the right time, said Stillion. As missiles gained more capability in the 1970s through the 1990s and “offboard support” assets such as AWACS airplanes appeared, engagement ranges expanded greatly, and platform maneuverability became less important, he said. He noted that, of all the air-to-air kills he has unearthed since 1965—some 1,450 engagements worldwide—most have been achieved with long-range weapons and minimal maneuvering.