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#1 2022-01-11 08:52:23

Registered: 2015-01-02
Posts: 6,228

Fighter Jets and Meaningless Numerical Factoids

There seems to be considerable conviction amongst those who have never flown any kind of aircraft, that a faster jet or one that can turn tighter or sustain a tighter turn, will somehow produce a superior combat platform to all other competitors.  In that very narrow context, there is a minor statement of truth regarding that singular aspect of performance determined the outcome of an aerial engagement, but it does not have any practical effect on whether or not a jet is suitable for dogfighting, interception, bombing, or any other military role.

I can sustain tighter turns in my Cessna 172 than any fighter jet ever made.  That is a statement of absolute truth, it can be easily refuted if it's not true, yet it is true- any fighter pilot who has also flown a 172 can tell you the exact same thing, and despite being true, it does not make a Cessna 172 suitable in any way, shape, or form for dogfighting against combat jets that can fly many times faster than a 172 basic trainer aircraft.  The reason is quite simple.  While I can easily turn inside their minimum turning radius every single time, no competent fighter pilot will ever try to enter into a below-or-near-stall-speed (for them) turning engagement with me, and since 100% of their jets are many times faster than my 172, they don't have to, and will never fight that way.

Similarly, F-16 pilots have been warned repeatedly to never try to enter into a turning engagement with the A-10.  Those who have not heeded that warning have found that the A-10 pilot can easily keep his / her nose pointed at that F-16 at all times.  Once again, the A-10 is still not a suitable dogfighting airframe and no competent pilot facing down the A-10 would fight it that way.  The F-16 is widely regarded as a good yardstick by which to measure the dogfighting capabilities of other aircraft, because it is so maneuverable and capable of winning dogfights against jets with lesser kinematic performance qualities.

This is why, when discussing both instantaneous and maximum sustained turn rates, any competent fighter pilot will immediately ask, "At what aircraft weight / altitude / power setting is Aircraft A supposedly superior to Aircraft B?"

So then, why is my 172 not a suitable dogfighting platform?

1. For starters, I have no other sensors to detect / track / lock / shoot down enemy aircraft, apart from my Mark I Model 0 human eyeballs.  I'm functionally limited to Day VFR engagements, despite the fact that I technically have the instruments for IFR flights.  I'm also limited in IFR flights, in that I should never fly into known icing conditions.

2. My airframe of choice for "dogfighting" lacks all-weather navigation capabilities, an IRST set (for IR imaging and tracking of targets), a modern AESA radar set (electronically steered and scanned, vs mechanically), any type of counter-measures to interfere with the tracking devices aboard incoming enemy weapons (chaff or flares or decoy devices or electronic systems used to decoy inbound missiles), pylons to mount a pair of missiles (air intercept missiles like the IR-guided AIM-9 or radar-guided AIM-120), and despite the fact that it's equipped with 4 seats inside the cabin (2 more observers than most fighter jets can carry), it's so load-limited that it cannot carry full fuel and 4 passengers at the same time (so perhaps no additional pairs of eyes will be carried).

3. The general airframe design is a superlative radar and IR target (admittedly not the best of all time, but pretty darned good), with the propeller and large right-angle metal surfaces producing strong radar reflections.  The engine exhaust is still very hot, though not nearly as hot as the exhaust from a modern turbofan or turbojet or turboprop engine.  That makes little difference to any modern IR-guided missile with a seeker so sensitive and sophisticated that it can readily use aerodynamic heating or heat absorbed into the airframe via the Sun to track the movement of my aircraft.  It was never designed to be difficult to detect, because the airframe in question was intended for general personal transport utility and basic flight training, a job which the 172 does exceptionally well.

4. While I can, as previously stated, turn inside virtually any fighter jet ever made, outside of a dive my max speed also tops out around 130 knots or so in the 172RG model (RG = Retractable Gear), while jets flying at the speeds they'd use to engage me in a dogfight are closer to 350 to 450 knots.  Some will note that all modern combat jets can fly much faster than that using afterburners, and while that's certainly true and useful for interception, if they're going to engage in a dogfight, then they will typically visually identify the target first, which means positively confirming that the target is hostile and therefore desirable to shoot down.  Potentially shooting down one of your own fellow aviators learning to fly would be seriously frowned upon by your chain of command, and likely to cause your Commanding Officer to ground you after you land.  Basically, some kind of actual threat has to be present to warrant a belligerent response.  The only exception would be an active war zone, where combat pilots are still frequently required to visually identify what they're shooting at before they take a shot.  More importantly, my lack of speed means I can never give chase and fly fast enough to either run down the target aircraft or at least fly fast enough that I can get off a shot before my intended target zips past me.

5. Lacking all the features and equipment desirable for a modern fighter jet to have, it's fairly easy to determine why a Cessna 172 is not a suitable dogfighting aircraft.  However, what if we chose something that could feasibly carry all of that gear, such as a Cessna 208B, which is in fact a military aircraft used by less well-funded air forces?  Does that make it suitable for fighting jets?  Well, no, not really.  For all the considerable payload carrying capability that the Cessna 208 has, it loses quite a bit of the 172's maneuverability, while it's cruise speed is only around 55 knots faster than my top speed in the 172RG.  It's nothing to sneeze at when armed, but a decent dogfighter it will never be.

6. So, how about an advanced turboprop trainer like the Pilatus PC-21?  Well, that's a considerably better choice, seeing as how it's equipped with a powerful turbine engine capable of pushing it to 370knots at altitude (within the maneuvering speeds typical of modern jet fighters, except that this is the PC-21's top speed in level flight, so it will start losing speed during maneuvers), it has all-weather navigation, it can be equipped with various sensors suites to assist the pilot in acquiring targets, it comes with electronic counter-measures for CAS work to draw-off enemy ground fire, has pylons capable of carrying air-to-air missiles, and is also equipped with ejection seats.

7.  Well, if even the PC-21 is pushing the envelope when it comes to an aircraft that would be roughly comparable to a modern fighter jet when all design aspects are taken into account, then what would qualify as a minimally useful amalgamation of capabilities to compete with other fighter jets?  Basically, legacy jet trainers like the T-38 / F-5 or modern jet trainers like the Aero Vodocody L-159 is about where modern fighter jet performance, for purposes of dogfighting, starts at.  We're no longer talking about any kind of "dirt cheap" (comparatively speaking) propeller-driven aircraft, but then again, we also achieve practical fighter jet speed / turn rates / fuel and weapons payloads / sensors / range using these types of airframes or something substantially similar to it.

Within the context of interception of non-maneuvering / non-maneuverable targets, pure speed is a very useful design quality, but missiles always win the "pure speed" contests, which is why all modern stealthy tactical fighters don't have as-impressive straight-line speeds as the prior generation of aircraft, which could only achieve those speeds in clean configurations (no external fuel tanks and minimal to no weapons carried), and then they were out of gas very shortly after achieving those speeds.  If you run out of gas you will probably crash and then that impressively fast fighter jet is no longer of any use to your military.  When you load up those prior generation of jets with external fuel tanks and weapons, they can never achieve paper design speeds, so it really doesn't matter how fast they are without equivalent gas and weapons.  The new generation of stealthy jets can both cruise at the same high speeds as the prior generation, still have surplus gas for brief supersonic dashes, and carry enough weapons to complete practical missions, while retaining all of the maneuverability of the prior generation of jets when both are equivalently loaded for real combat missions.

So, beware of meaningless numerical factoids when discussing jets, because without context it's a data point that likely has little to no applicability in a real fight.

If you don't see or don't know how to read a diagram that looks like this when engaging in such discussions, then speed and turn rate are not meaningful (this kind of data is also a closely guarded secret for most new fighter jet designs):



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