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Top Gun Might Be Obsolete: Are Dogfights Really Dead?

Top Gun: Maverick
Top Gun: Maverick Promo Photo.

Yes, Top Gun and the new Top Gun: Maverick are amazing movies that showcase amazing and powerful aircraft. Top Gun clearly is the king of dogfighting movies. But has that era passed? With at least two next-generation fighter programs now drawing funds from Pentagon coffers, there’s one looming question dominating the airspace over internet forums, the world’s military installations and advanced aviation research facilities alike: are dogfights really dead?

The most recent air-to-air kill scored by an American aircraft came in 2017, when a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian-flagged Su-22 as it bombed American-backed Syrian Democratic Forces in the Raqqa province of Syria. The interaction wasn’t much of a dogfight, but it was the first air-to-air engagement carried out by an American fighter since Operation Allied Force over Kosovo in 1999. But the last time American aircraft truly found themselves in some serious mid-air scraps was in 1991, over Iraq. With more than three decades now separating today’s aviators from America’s last dogfights and stealth increasingly becoming the norm, it’s no wonder the Defense Department seems to be leaning away from the idea that air-to-air combat in close quarters should be a priority.

There’s no denying that technological trends back that growing sentiment. But this isn’t the first time the United States has questioned the future of air combat, and as many aviation buffs and historians will tell you, assuming dogfights were dead because of the introduction of new technologies didn’t pan out quite like America would have hoped the last time we found ourselves having this debate. (For a deeper analysis into what really went wrong in the dogfights over Vietnam War, make sure to read our full analysis of it here — because it’s more complicated than something as simple as a lack of guns.)

It’s hard to deny the fact that, after more than two decades of conducting counter-terror operations around the world, the vast majority of America’s aviators and even senior leaders at this point have spent the entirety of their careers operating in uncontested airspace against adversaries with few or no air assets to put up a fight. It seems logical, then, to question whether or not the collective experiences of operations over Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere could potentially be skewing the perspective of today’s prevailing wisdom.

The truth is, “are dogfights dead?” is a simple question with a complicated answer. But as we explore this question, it’s important to note that, while many within America’s defense apparatus seem to believe air combat has become a sniper’s game rather than a boxer’s, my own experiences with pilots have made it clear to me that training for air combat is still a very serious matter within America’s fixed-wing communities.

American fighter pilots train to win fights of all sorts, but it does seem true that within fighter pilot culture, Aviator sunglasses are still in, but dogfights are clearly out.

The prevailing wisdom of today suggests dogfights are a thing of the past

A number of senior defense officials seem to agree with those pilots, with some even hinting at the idea that America’s next air superiority fighter may have more in common with the B-21 Raider than the F-22 Raptor.

Air dominance, as the Congressional Research Service has pointed out, doesn’t have to look like it has in the past in order to be effective. A heavy aircraft that can dominate the skies against aerobatic opponents through things like support drones and directed energy weapons could theoretically prove just as effective as a fleet of highly maneuverable fighters at owning any given airspace. As Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, former commander of America’s Air Combat Command, argued in 2017, substantial weapons capacity, fuel range, and low observability to radar may all be more important than dogfighting performance when it comes to securing air supremacy in the decades to come.

In other words, the Pentagon seems to be leaning away from the idea that close-in dogfights will decide the fate of the skies in the 21st century. Instead, the focus seems to be on ensuring air superiority platforms have “first-shot opportunity,” or the ability to spot and fire upon an enemy aircraft before said aircraft is aware of the threat.

In that regard, the F-22 Raptor’s combination of high performance and stealth capabilities could be seen not as a sign of things to come, but rather as the bridge between modern data-focused air combat and the olden days, when dogfights were decided by things like turn radius, power-to-weight ratios, and a pilot’s ability to maneuver his or her aircraft.

With advanced fighters like the F-35 finding homes in hangars across at least 15 nations and both Russia and China touting their own 5th generation entries’ ability to detect and engage opponents under a cloak of low observability, technological trends are clearly moving toward longer-range engagements. And although things like Basic Fighter Maneuvers (BFM) and Advanced Fighter Maneuvers (both focused on air-to-air combat) are still a common part of the fighter pilot syllabus, you’ll often hear pilots touting these training exercises not as the development of important combat skills, but rather as a good way to learn the capabilities—and limits—of their aircraft.

American fighter pilots train for dogfights but use tactics aimed at avoiding them

The debate about the future of dogfighting was prominently featured in discussions about the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter back in 2015, when David Axe at War is Boring published the details of a report he obtained outlining how the F-35 performed poorly in mock dogfights against the 1970s-era F-16 Fighting Falcon. It wasn’t until later that we learned the F-35 competing in these drills lacked radar absorbing materials, elements of the F-35’s targeting systems, and was flying with software limitations meant to prevent the pilot from placing stress on the airframe.

But even when dismissing the fact that the F-35 was fighting with one hand digitally tied behind its back, many took greater umbrage at the fact that exercise itself didn’t really reflect how a dogfight would really go in the modern era.

“The whole concept of dogfighting is so misunderstood and taken out of context,” explained Lt. Col. David “Chip” Berke in 2017.

“There is some idea that when we talk about dogfighting it’s one airplane’s ability to get another airplane’s 6 and shoot it with a gun … That hasn’t happened with American planes in maybe 40 years.”

Berke knows what he’s talking about. At the time (and perhaps still today), Berke was the only Marine pilot to have hours logged in both the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Air Force’s reigning king of the skies F-22 Raptor, but that’s not all. A graduate of Navy Fighter Weapons School (commonly known as Top Gun), Berke has more than 2,800 hours logged across both American stealth fighters, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, and the F/A-18 Super Hornet. In the arena of air combat, Colonel Berke is a subject matter expert.

In a 2017 interview with Business Insider, Berke explained that the very premise of close-quarters dogfights runs counter to how modern aviators are trained to engage the enemy, and for good reason. The F-35 offers pilots greater situational awareness at long ranges than any tactical aircraft in history, and while the F-22’s sensor suite isn’t quite as impressive, the dynamic aircraft is still touted by the Air Force as capable of providing that coveted “first-kill opportunity against threats.”

In other words, the F-22 may be capable of scrapping in close quarters with the best of them, but the safer and more logical approach to a fight would still be to keep its distance and play to its long-range advantage.

“Just because I knew I could outmaneuver an enemy, my objective wouldn’t be to get in a turning fight and kill him,” Berke explained.

That sentiment can be heard echoed in discussions made by other fighter pilots as well. In the minds of some of America’s combat aviators, aircraft like the F-22, with its thrust-vectoring aerobatics and M61A2 20-millimeter cannon, are little more than technologically advanced relics flying in the modern age; a dinosaur in an Apple watch.

“The Raptor is about as cool as it gets, and it is the greatest air superiority fighter the world has ever seen, but like the F-15C that it was originally designed to replace it is an airplane without a real mission in modern conflict,” Air Force F-16 pilot Rick Scheff famously claimed in an online discussion.

“When was the last time an American fighter killed another fighter in an air-to-air engagement? Go look it up, I’ll wait.”

To be clear, the idea that stealth trumps speed or maneuverability is nothing new. After all, prior to the introduction of the F-117 Nighthawk, America’s approach to making aircraft survivable in contested airspace could effectively be summed up with the simple phrase, “higher and faster.” Aircraft like the U-2 spy plane and SR-71 Blackbird were designed to defeat enemy attacks through little more than oxygen-depriving altitude, brute force speed, or a combination of the two. But once stealth platforms started joining the fight, defeating radar became more in vogue than outrunning the enemy’s increasingly capable surface-to-air missiles.

Learning the right (and wrong) lessons from the Gulf War

The massive and intricate ballet of combat aircraft leveraged in 1991’s Gulf War air campaign seemed to substantiate this shift. Throughout the brief conflict, the United States lost five F-16 Fighting Falcons, two F-15 Eagles, two F/A-18 Hornets, one F-14 Tomcat, and one F-4G Wild Weasel. The Hornets, being the slowest of the bunch, were rated for speeds as high as Mach 1.7.

The F-117 Nighthawk, on the other hand, took on the most dangerous air operations of the conflict, flying unaccompanied into Bagdhad, which was arguably the most heavily defended city on earth at the time, under cover of darkness with no means of engaging air defense systems or enemy fighters… and didn’t lose a single airframe despite waltzing around enemy airspace at a leisurely 600 miles per hour.

It is important to note, however, that the Nighthawk flew far fewer sorties than America’s collective 4th generation fighters—and against Iraq’s thorough air defenses, American fighter pilots were overwhelmingly successful at avoiding being shot down, even when up against seemingly insurmountable odds.

But there’s no denying that the war above Iraq in 1991 proved the efficacy of stealth technology in modern air warfare and substantiated the shift away from prioritizing high-speed and brain-mashing G-loads in combat aircraft. Six years after Desert Storm, the first F-22 took flight, and the United States hasn’t even considered developing a fighter without intrinsic stealth capabilities since.

But there are other lessons to be gleaned from Desert Storm’s air campaign that tend to go under-discussed in our modern era of uncontested air dominance. Particularly, the chaos that ensues when two nations with sizeable air forces go to war.

In a complex combat environment, with hundreds (if not thousands) of air assets operating within a contested region, the favored American tactics of avoiding dogfights and engaging from longer distances will likely become untenable. Technological limitations, human error, mission requirements, and rules of engagement can all force intercepts to occur in closer quarters than a pilot might prefer, as retired F-14 Radar Intercept Officer and successful YouTuber Ward Carrol explained to me in a conversation we had about stealth last year.

“I’m going to submit that dogfighting is not dead, because if you’ve ever been in a major exercise, not to mention, an air-to-air war like Desert Storm, then you know that, in the heat of battle, there’s confusion, there’s all kinds of chaos, and ultimately a bandit is going to sneak through and you’ll find yourself basically engaged one-on-one with the bad guys in an old school kind of way,” Carroll explained.

You can see exactly what Carroll means in this Desert Storm breakdown from The Operations Room, as Coalition aircraft found themselves squaring off against what could honestly be characterized as a fairly limited fighter response from the Iraqi Air Force despite an overwhelming advantage.

In a fight between air powers, dogfights will be unavoidable

Despite the fact that the Iraqi Air Force largely opted not to engage coalition forces, instead hightailing it across the border to Iran where they would be safe from prowling American and allied fighters, there were still numerous instances of Iraqi aircraft bringing the fight into close quarters, by merit of confusion if nothing else.

All told, the U.S.-led coalition brought more than 2,780 fixed-wing aircraft to bear over the Persian Gulf during the month-long air campaign, flying more than 100,000 sorties and delivering more than 88,500 tons of ordnance to targets across the region.

The Iraqi Air Force was seemingly no slouch at the time, with 40 squadrons fielding a total of some 700 combat aircraft, but importantly, only around 55 of them were modern Mig-25 and Mig-29s capable of leveraging the sort of air-to-air missiles they’d need to stand and swing with American fighters. The US, on the other hand, had nearly 150 Eagles and Strike Eagles, 212 Fighting Falcons, 109 Tomcats, and 167 Hornets in the fight alone, not to mention those of its coalition allies. But despite this massive numbers advantage, or perhaps even because of the volume of aircraft in play, Air Combat Maneuvering, or good old fashioned dogfights, still took place in the early days of the fight.

According to an analysis compiled by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments called, “Trends in air-to-air combat: Implications for future air superiority,” out of 33 separate engagements of fixed-wing aircraft during Desert Storm, 13 still occurred within visual range, despite Coalition Airborne Warning And Control aircraft (AWACS) identifying enemy fighters at a range of 70 nautical miles on average. The Iraqi forces, on the other hand, had no command and control aircraft in the sky—meaning that despite the Coalition having a clear advantage in terms of both situational awareness and beyond-visual-range weapons, nearly 40% of air engagements still closed to within-visual-range before they ended.

Of those 13 engagements that took place within visual range, four required the pilots to execute Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM) (or a dogfight) in order to engage their targets.

So, in a situation where friendly fighter aircraft armed with modern air-to-air missiles outnumbered similarly equipped enemy fighters by a ratio of more than 11:1, where friendly AWACS were providing situational awareness of enemy aircraft and the opposition had no such benefit, slightly more than 12% of engagements still resulted in dogfights. In situations when where friendly and enemy aircraft found themselves within visual range, it came down to a dogfight about a third of the time.

“I get F-35 guys who are like, ‘you just don’t get modern battles anymore.’ No, I think I do. I think you’re not remembering the lessons of serious roll your sleeves up, get your nose bloodied warfare,” Carroll explained.

In a near-peer conflict, the US would not have the same numerical or technological advantages that it had in Desert Storm

Of course, today’s F-35s and F-22s would operate very differently than many of the air combat missions carried out during Desert Storm, but it still bears considering: how would these figures have looked if Iraq had fielded a similarly sized and technologically capable air force? It stands to reason that hundreds of more well-equipped Iraqi fighters would have likely resulted in many more within-visual-range engagements, and as such, a much higher volume of dogfights as well.

It’s important to clarify here, however, that these engagements that required Advanced Combat Maneuvers still didn’t play out quite like the tight-turning gun runs of the Vietnam War, nor were they close-quarters slugfests like you’ll see depicted in Top Gun.

Dogfights have changed dramatically over the decades of air warfare and are sure to continue to change. In some regards, Desert Storm’s data can be used to substantiate both sides of the “dogfights are dead” claim, depending on your definition of the term. After all, during Desert Storm, the only aircraft to score air-to-air kills with guns was the A-10 Thunderbolt II (both against helicopters). In fact, American fighters didn’t score a single guns kill in the conflict, and one F-15E actually even managed to down an airborne helicopter by lobbing a 2,000-pound laser-guided bomb at it.

America’s reigning air superiority champ at the time (and arguably to this day) was the single-seat F-15C Eagle, which scored a whopping 34 of the Air Force’s 37 kills during the conflict, many of which came thanks to the AIM-7 Sparrow’s beyond-visual-range reach, however. In fact, according to a Rand Corporation analysis, the AIM-7 was responsible for a whopping two-thirds of all coalition air kills throughout the conflict.

So if there’s any lesson we can objectively glean from analyzing Desert Storm’s combat, it’s that dogfights may not be dead, but they are certainly changing.

Non-stealth fighters aren’t going anywhere for a long time to come

The argument about whether or not dogfights are a thing of the past tends to center around modern 5th generation fighters, thanks to their combination of data-fusing situational awareness and low observability. There’s certainly value in that assertion, but the truth is, the vast majority of fighters in the sky today still come from the non-stealthy 4th generation, and that’s not going to change any time soon. The Air Force’s latest batch of F-15EX fighters, slated to replace aging F-15Cs and Ds, are rated for a whopping 20,000-hour service life—more than three times that of any F-35.

Observations of the air warfare over Ukraine amid Russia’s ongoing and troubled invasion further emphasize the point that 21st-century warfare cannot yet be divested from 20th-century hardware. Today, the United States has fewer than 150 combat-coded F-22 Raptors and has taken delivery on some 300 F-35s. That’s the largest and most potent cadre of stealth fighters on the planet, but even combined, that figure falls well short of the more than 1,300 F-16s currently sitting in Air Force hangars.

Using service tallies of various iterations of the F-15, F-16, and F/A-18, the United States currently has nearly 2,200 4th generation fighters on the books, making America’s stealth fighter fleets only about 20% of America’s overall fighter arsenal.

Compare that with the world’s second-largest national air force, Russia’s, which boasts just 12 hand-built prototype stealth fighters and a meager two production versions of their Su-57 Felon out of an estimated 1,511 combat aircraft. China’s Air Force ranks third in the world in terms of size, but boasts the second-largest stealth fleet at likely better than 150 Chengdu J-20s. However, of China’s other 1,800 fighter aircraft, only about 800 of those are 4th generation jets, with the remainder of its fleet dating back even further.

This suggests that a large-scale conflict between global powers taking place any time within the coming decades would likely involve far more air engagements between 4th generation fighters dating back to the latter half of the 20th century than stealth fighters of any sort. And while stealth jets would have a distinct advantage in beyond-visual-range scraps with that sort of competition, they could sometimes find themselves operating at a disadvantage when the chaos of combat puts them within visual range of older, but faster and more nimble fighters.

Stealth doesn’t work against bullets: Dogfights in a near-peer conflict will be messy

Aircraft like the F-35 may be unmatched when it comes to engaging the bad guy from long distances, but in a large-scale fight with literally thousands of aircraft operating in the same airspace, it could quickly become impossible to keep your distance.

China’s ancient fleet of J-7s, which are little more than a Chinese-licensed MiG-21 design that dates back to the 1960s, may be fossils compared to the F-35. But with room to store just four weapons internally and two out of three variants not equipped with a canon, even an F-35 could find itself hoping to bug out against the older jet, despite having a superior thrust-to-weight ratio.

That’s not to argue that the J-7 is going to beat an F-35 in a one-on-one dual—of course not. Rather, the point is that in an aircraft-saturated combat environment, dated but capable fighters can still cause a great deal of trouble for more advanced jets, even when doing so seems like an affront to practical wisdom.

“Stealth doesn’t work against bullets,” Carroll said. “We have multi-axis missiles now where I can shoot you behind my three-nine line [behind my aircraft]. Okay, but once you Winchester, meaning run out of those weapons, and you’re now in the visual arena, then none of your [stealth] defensives are working. And now you have an airplane that can barely go supersonic. So, welcome to getting shot down.”

The truth is, today, dogfights are a thing of the past, thanks in no small part to the period of relative stability the globe has enjoyed in the decades since the close of World War II. While there have indeed been conflicts that saw aircraft engaging enemy fighters during this time, there hasn’t been a real fight between globe-spanning forces since the fall of the Axis Powers.

But with tensions once again simmering to a boil between national competitors on the world’s stage, dogfights are likely only as dead as the large-scale conflicts that bring them about. With enough fighters in the air, there will inevitably be scraps between small groups of them.

The only real way to keep dogfights in the grave, is to keep wars between global powers in the hole with them.

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran who specializes in foreign policy and defense technology analysis. He holds a master’s degree in Communications from Southern New Hampshire University, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Corporate and Organizational Communications from Framingham State University. This first appeared in Sandboxx News. 

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Sandboxx News is a digital and print military media outlet focused on the lives, experiences, and challenges facing today’s service members and America’s defense apparatus. Built on the simple premise that service members and their supporters need a reliable news outlet free of partisan politics and sensationalism, Sandboxx News delivers stories from around the world and insights into the U.S. Military’s past, present, and future– delivered through the lens of real veterans, service members, military spouses, and professional journalists.