Academic journal article McNair Papers

9. "Situation Awareness" in Air-to-Air Combat and Friction

Academic journal article McNair Papers

9. "Situation Awareness" in Air-to-Air Combat and Friction

Article excerpt

The last three chapters sought to build indirect arguments supporting the proposition that the potential for, if not the actuality of, general friction is likely to persist more or less undiminished in future wars despite technological advances. This conclusion should not, however, be construed as implying that friction is impervious to technological manipulation. The weapons of war influence how friction will manifest itself, and superior weapons can broaden the potential for manipulating the relative balance of friction between opposing sides in one's favor.

To demonstrate technology's ability to manipulate Clausewitzian friction, it will be necessary to focus on tactical interactions. Tactical interactions and effects, unlike those at the operational and strategic levels of war, are amenable to quantification and statistical analysis, at least up to a point. The reason for separating the aspects of war that are quantifiable from those that are not along the imprecise boundary dividing tactical interactions from the operational level of war lies in the degree of penetration by political-strategic objectives. In the author's experience, the concrete, specific political-strategic objectives that pervade the conduct of actual conflicts so influence strategy and operational art as to render both inputs and outputs at those levels irredeemably qualitative in character. Only at the level of tactical interactions do political-strategic aims become sufficiently remote to allow a fair degree of quantification of overall results. (1)

The choice of what type of tactical interactions to examine is not, presumably, of critical importance beyond the fact that the small numbers of participants typically involved allow certain patterns to be seen more readily than would be possible in ground engagements involving hundreds or thousands of combatants. (2) That said, air-to-air combat has been selected for a couple of reasons. Not only has an extensive body of air-to-air combat experience been accumulated since 1914, but a number of test evaluations have been flown on instrumented ranges and in simulators for the express purpose of providing statistically relevant data. In addition, air-to-air combat is as dependent on and pervaded by advanced technology as any area of late 20th-century warfare. Land and naval warfare reach back to the beginnings of recorded history. Powered flight, by comparison, was only achieved in 1903 as a result of aeronautical and engineering advances achieved by Orville and Wilbur Wright, and the heavier-than-air fighter is a phenomenon that dates only from World War I. Without the airplane, there would have been neither airmen nor air forces, and so strong has been the psychological attachment of American airmen to the planes they happened to fly that, to this day, many pilots identify themselves first and foremost as the "drivers" of specific aircraft types, often down to the model. (3)

What factors have tended to drive engagement outcomes in air-to-air combat? As suggested in chapter 6, surprise has been linked to general friction. Air combat experience going at least back to the Second World War suggests that surprise in the form of the unseen attacker has been pivotal in three-quarters or more of the kills. In writing about his experiences flying long-range escort missions over northern Europe with the U.S. Eighth Air Force during World War II, P-38 pilot Lieutenant Colonel Mark Hubbard stressed that "90% of all fighters shot down never saw the guy who hit them. (4) Hubbard was by no means alone in observing that friction in the form of the unseen attacker from six o'clock played a dominant role in engagement outcomes. The American P-47 pilot Hubert Zemke (17.75 air-to-air kills in World War II) stressed that "few pilots are shot down by enemies they see." (5) Similarly, the German Me-109 pilot Erich Hartmann, whose 352 kills during World War II made him the top scorer of all time, later stated that he was "sure that eighty percent" of kills never knew he was there before he opened fire. …

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