With the exception of one engagement over Syria in 2017, the United States has not found any of its fighters in a good old-fashioned “dogfight” since the early 1990s. Throughout much of the world, the same can be said for most other national militaries. As a result (and bolstered by new fighter technologies), there’s a growing sentiment within the defense media and among some defense officials that the days of dogfights are gone forever.
However, with diplomatic tensions between India and Pakistan recently erupting into violence tens of thousands of feet above Kashmir, air-to-air combat may actually prove to be one of the most important theaters of modern warfare.
In the United States, America’s varied fleets of fighters with disparate specialties have largely been tasked with conducting air strikes on ground targets. This sort of air-to-ground strategy heavily informed the design and construction of America’s most advanced fighter platform, the F-35. Still, reports suggest the stealth fighter manages just fine in most dogfighting scenarios that it’s encountered in training. After nearly two straight decades of using America’s fighters in this manner, it’s easy to see how even many fighter pilots themselves tend to discount the importance of dogfighting in a modern pilot’s skill set. As one F-35 pilot recently told NEWSREP, dogfighting may be “less than 10%” of what a fighter pilot needs to be good at in today’s Air Force.
Details remain hazy regarding the air-to-air engagement between Pakistani and Indian fighters earlier this week, but according to Indian media outlets, the battle may have included as many as 32 fighters. The Pakistani contingent reportedly included eight F-16s, four Mirage III aircraft and four Chinese-made JF-17 “Thunder” fighters. The same report indicated that the Indian Air Force fielded four Sukhoi Su-30MKIs, two upgraded Mirage 2000s, and two MiG-21s. The remaining jets were not identified.
The battle resulted in two fighters going down: one Pakistani F-16 and one Indian Air Force Mig-21.
In the aerial combat that ensued, one F-16 of the Pakistan Air Force was shot down by an Indian Air Force MiG-21 Bison. The F-16 crashed and fell across the Line of Control in Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir (PoJ&K). The Indian Air Force lost one MiG-21 aircraft. “Though the pilot ejected safely, his parachute drifted into PoJ&K, where he was taken into custody by the Pakistan Army,” Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor said at a press conference in New Delhi.
While this conflict, as well as the details regarding this air battle, continue to unfold, one lesson can already be gleaned from this engagement: military aircraft are often the first to engage enemy combatants, and a war with a near-peer will almost undoubtedly involve airborne combat.
America has made a habit of preparing for its previous war, rather than the potential ones ahead. The United States military has been embroiled in counter-insurgency and anti-terror combat operations for longer than some new service members have been alive, and as such, many within the military establishment have developed an understanding of war on those grounds. While combat operations have not been easy for fighter pilots throughout the Global War on Terror, under most circumstances, they were fighting an opponent that lacked their own fleets of aircraft and often even lacked anti-air defenses. It would be foolish, however, to assume that America’s future wars will be against such a welcoming opponent.
America boasts the most capable fighters and pilots on the planet, thanks to continued investments in both aircraft technology and pilot training. That means the United States would likely enter into any air war with advantages in the realms of both equipment and seat time. However, as America’s special operations troops have shown throughout these years of warfare, having the best kit and the best training isn’t always enough to make it home alive. We still lose special operations troops in the fight, and it’s equally likely that America would lose aircraft in a war with a nation like China or even Russia.
Dogfighting may seem like it’s a thing of the past, but that’s really only because America hasn’t found itself in a conflict with a near-peer in decades. Stealth technology and data fusion offered by platforms like the F-35 may change the way some engagements play out. As Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein recently pointed out, the branch intends to continue fielding large numbers of non-stealth fourth-generation fighters throughout the 2030s. That means any large-scale conflict to occur within the next 20 years will undoubtedly involve F-16s, F-15s, and F/A-18s, as well as their stealthy counterparts, the F-22 and F-35.
The initial days of a war with China, for instance, would be fought largely in the skies, as stealth aircraft engage missile batteries that place both fourth-generation fighters and U.S. Navy ships in jeopardy. If such a war were ever to break out, it seems likely that the world would see the largest-scale air-to-air fighting since World War II, though new technology would change quite a bit about how each nation went about its war-fighting business.
Dogfights may be a thing of the past, but as the United States prepares for potential conflicts with adversaries like China or Russia, it may well also be the way of the future.
U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Clay Lancaster