On 6 September 2006, the Israelis flew their Raam F15I – the newest-generation long-range bomber with a combat range of over 2,000km, into Syria to carry out an audacious raid. The target was a site reported to have housed a nuclear production facility.

They also flew another eight aircraft, including
F-15s and F-16s equipped with Maverick missiles and 500lb bombs, as well as an assortment of support aircraft including ELINT – an electronic intelligence-gathering aircraft. This is modern air combat in practice; it is an integrated, highly technical operation.


21st-century air combat operations are complex, integrated activities. The closest analogy is probably that of a carrier group and the full accompaniment of support units required to place it close enough to its target while maintaining maximum protection and intelligence cover.

Air combat is about SA (situation awareness), not high-agility manoeuvring or aircraft performance (although these help). Stealth and counter-stealth is important, as this directly deprives SA to the enemy and allows friendly forces to gain advantage.

Combat aircraft are now more agile, presenting a more difficult target in a ‘dog fight’ – aircraft turning, rolling, looping and stalling to shake off an attacker, and the attacking aircraft following these manoeuvres to gain a good shooting position. But this is not the fundamental basis of 21st-century air warfare.

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Air power is now an equal military partner used in strategic depth and campaign depth. It encompasses more special fields – reconnaissance, warning, electronic warfare, aerial mining, artillery, ATK, road blockades and direct target bombing with stand-off over-the-horizon missiles.

Before Vietnam, visual coordination was the main type of strike, but this qualitatively changed during the war. In order to cope with integrated anti-air defence systems, units such as airborne early warning and command, escort and protective formations and air refuelling were developed. The fundamental air combat task is the harassing of the enemy’s air defence rhythm with stealth before they can detect the incoming aircraft. This makes it impossible for them to organise effective resistance and was the strategy adopted in both the Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq.

“Air power is now an equal military partner used in strategic depth and campaign depth.”

Advanced technology now makes bad-visibility operations possible and highly successful; enemy air-defence systems must be attacked and neutralised by stealth planes before the main force is within radar range. At basic operational mode, joint aircraft strikes totally transform air combat scenarios; any target on any part of the world is now within range of air striking forces. This is global reach. In the Gulf War, the Allies destroyed more aircraft beyond the horizon than within visual air combat.

Airborne fire control radars can survey more than 100km, thus ensuring great success from stand-off weaponry. This is normal and deep strike missions, such as those carried out by the Israelis, are now normal. In the Gulf War and later, US stealth fighters flew behind Iraqi air defences, an example of a nonlinear operation; against this strategy, the enemy cannot organise effective air defences.

Air combat is largely the art and science of ‘situation awareness’. This can be defined as knowing what the enemy is doing and denying the enemy similar information. 75% of air combat is decided because the target did not see what shot them down. Targets must be detected, the information passed to fighters, the intercept made and weapons fired. This is now the realm of cyberspace and is used increasingly by all major air forces. During most recent missions, upwards of 30 GPS satellites are integrated into the operational plan.


Technological development has been exponential in recent years. Ground control radar, the laser, electro-optical and infrared (IR) seekers on precision guided munitions, night-vision goggles, and terrain-following radar (TFR) are all technological steps upon which US night air combat capability depends.

Radar advances have been impressive. The arrival of airborne early warning (AEW) long-range air search radars was the main improvement to the air combat tool box. The US Navy and Air Force efforts started to pay off in the Vietnam War and lead to the E-3 Sentry (AWACS).

The APY-1 ‘flying saucer’ radar was fitted to the back of a Boeing 707. It was no longer an airborne radar; it was a battle management command and control post in its own right. AWACS can control entire missions by vectoring aircraft to air-to-air tankers, providing warning of enemy aircraft and coordinate SAR.

“Combat aircraft are now more agile, presenting a more difficult target in a ‘dog fight’, and shaking off attackers.”

Users include the USAF (33 E-3A/B/C), RAF (seven E-3D), France (four E-3F), NATO (18 E-3A) and Saudi Arabia (four E-3A). Patrol height is 30,000ft (9,144m). This is the type of capability used by the Israelis for their attack.

In contrast, the Swedish $50m S100B Argus is also in use. Turkey also has its own AWACS aircraft to support its air strikes. It has four Boeing 737 AEW&C aircraft undergoing system tests. This is an iteration of the Russian A-50 Mainstay AWACS aircraft without the technology.

India also has such a capability, with the recent delivery of three Beriev A-50El aircraft; these are based on the Ilyushin Il-76 airframe and integration is being undertaken by Israeli Aircraft Industries Elta division. Ground-based radar now has a range against a low-level aircraft of 60km-90km.


Communications have now been significantly upgraded. The problem is all about getting information to the pilot. Voice radio can be jammed easier than datalink. Datalinks only require short durations to transmit information.

Russian MiG-25 and US F-106 were fitted with datalinks and literally controlled from ground as far back as the 1960s. Little information was available to the pilot, but the ground controllers had the full picture. Soviet fighters were actually fitted with datalinks on a more widespread basis than NATO. They, in most cases, lacked the training and user friendly technology to take advantage of the increased SA.

NATO thought Warsaw Pact depended too much on GCI; the Warsaw Pact thought NATO depended too much on AWACS. Both were right, fighter pilots require some form of outside guidance.

Most fighter aircraft are fitted with two voice radios. One is set to GCI / AEW frequency, the other to the fighter flight frequency. This is subject to ‘own flight jamming’ as up to 40 aircraft try and talk to an AEW aircraft at the same time.

“Stealth and counter-stealth is important, as this directly deprives SA to the enemy.”

During the early days of 1991 Gulf War, AWACS was overwhelmed and requests for target vectors went unanswered. The one US air-to-air loss of the war was a direct result of poor SA, as an Iraq MiG-25P used its superior speed to get in behind an USN F-18 and shoot it down. A similar situation occurred during the 1999 Allied Force action over Kosovo. During an AWACS changeover, USAF
F-15 radio calls went unanswered.

However, there are always limitations. The USN F-14 Tomcat could track 24 targets, but the TID (tactical information display), with a maximum range of 740km only allows six targets to remain readable. Other F-14, E-2 Hawkeye AEW or aircraft carriers could datalink other targets.

In 1987 the Swedish Air Force added a datalink from GCI to its JA 37 Jaktviggen. With this the ground-based air-defence system is able to provide target detection. The JA 37 can share information with other JA 37 such as which target each aircraft is attacking, fuel and weapons state and so on. In 1995 the ability to transmit simple text messages was added.

The JAS 39 Gripen has increased capability with information shared between fighters, S100B Argus AEW, GCI radars, naval warships and SAM positions. Four to six fighters would be spread over a distance of 120km-150km and share the same view. Soviet fighters such as the MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker require datalinks as they lack advanced radar features.

The US / NATO now has the JTIDS (joint tactical information display system) datalink and fighter displays. This is fitted to AWACS, some USAF F-15C, USN F-14D and RAF Tornado F3 AWACS use their radar and ESM to detect targets, pass the information over JTIDS. The Tornado F3 stays passive (radars off) and gets into AMRAAM launch parameters without activating radars. This then leaves certain enemy aircraft with little warning of the situation, i.e. a loss of situational awareness.

USAF and NATO F-16s are fitted with IDM (improved data modem) to share information between four aircraft. MIDS (multiple information distribution system) now allows eight aircraft to share information. A typical MIDS installation will be eight French Mirage 2000-5F linked to an E-3F AWACS.

“A typical MIDS installation will be eight French Mirage 2000-5F linked to an E-3F AWACS.”


When planning operations against time-critical targets (TCTs), commanders typically think about how much capability they need to kill enemy forces. TCT operations include suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD), interdiction of moving forces, and attacks against theatre ballistic missiles (TBMs).

Convincing an enemy not to fire surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), not to move his forces, or not to launch TBMs is an equally good outcome as actually defeating his capabilities. This approach is what military analysts today refer to as ‘effects-based operations’.

In current types of military campaigns, an intelligent enemy is not expected to pursue a fixed, highly aggressive strategy. Rather, he is expected to adjust his behaviour in response to US capabilities and actions. For example, an opponent faced with air strikes will consider the value of his SAMs, the value of the target under attack, and the level of resources US forces are devoting to SEAD before he decides how much air resistance to mount.

This behaviour has been seen in recent conflicts such as Operation Allied Force (Kosovo) and Operation Desert Storm (Iraq). Under certain conditions, an intelligent enemy might conclude that his best option is not to fire SAMs at all.

Even the planning tools are now in the forefront of high-technology. For years, pilots used wooden cabinets in briefing rooms to display mission planning and flight debriefing information. Quick updates were impossible, and pilots often did not have access to the latest information while planning training missions or debriefing after a flight.

“The fundamental air combat task is the harassing of the enemy’s air defence rhythm with stealth.”

Today, pilots stand at the front of the briefing room to give presentations packed with real-time information using interactive whiteboards and overlays. Systems such as the SMART board for flat-panel displays with interactive overlays have now been installed at several United States Air Force Air Combat Command (ACC) bases to assist warfighters in preparing for flight missions. This means that real-time weather information including wind speed, cloud cover and stages of the moon for night missions is instantly available.

The 14-15 April 1986 air strike against Libya showed many lessons foreshadowing the success in Desert Storm as well as problems encountered again by the night air combat forces in 1991.

Strategists used the cover of night, joint operations including integration of Air Force and Navy assets, and extensive coordination took place between USAF electronic-jamming units, flying EF-111s, Navy anti-SAM units, flying EA-6s, A-7s, and F/A-18s, E-2 flight following coverage, and F-14 and F/A-18 air cover and the F-111 fighter-bomber crews. Interoperability, communications, timing, and command and control were all crucial elements.

Nevertheless, the application of these night air combat forces fostered a mindset in the USAF that it is possible to conduct successful air operations at night. Desert Shield, Desert Storm and Desert Resolve followed this blueprint.

The around-the-clock pressure of the air war in the Gulf contributed to the relative ease by which the coalition ground forces succeeded in retaking Kuwait. The US night air combat equipment, operators, and support structure succeeded in pressuring Iraq throughout their country and the entire time of the two-month war.

Today operational and test units continued to engage in refinement and development of night air combat technology, doctrine, training, and planning. The 422nd Test Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nevada, conducted operational tests using A-10, F-15C, F-16, and F-15E weapons systems incorporating night-vision goggles (NVGs) in fixed wing USAF fighter combat mission execution.


Within the foreseeable future, the large radar aircraft AWACS of today will be gone. The concept being talked of is called ‘reach-back’. This would leave the command and control assets in the rear areas, collecting space based or UAV sensor data, and passing this to fighters operating over the battlefield. AWACS will be more widespread, the technology cheaper.

“An intelligent enemy is not expected to pursue a fixed, highly aggressive strategy.”

As information warfare matures, off-board sensor information will become more important. Of equal importance is providing the aerial weapons platform, a manned fighter or UCAV (uninhabited combat aerial vehicle), with this information. The US is also conducting the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) demonstration programme, which includes the Boeing X-45C and the Northrop Grumman X-47B.

J-UCAS is a ‘joint DARPA / air force / navy effort to demonstrate the technical feasibility, military utility and operational value for a networked system of high performance, weaponised unmanned air vehicles to effectively and affordably prosecute 21st-century combat missions, including suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD), surveillance, and precision strike within the emerging global command and control architecture’.

Although the principles of air combat are unchanging, technology will determine newer and better methods of applying these principles.