Air Group Tactical Formations in Command

Tactical aircraft do not generally operate alone.  Western fighters fly in pairs (“elements” or “sections”) or foursomes (“flights” or “divisions”), in accordance with fighting doctrines that provide for mutual support among formation-mates.  Reflecting this practice, Command‘s mission-planning logic automatically groups aircraft together according to player-selectable rules (couples, quartets, menages a trois, etc.).

But a limitation of Command‘s current approach is that the aircraft formation handling becomes a bit simplistic from here.  Once grouped, fighters will tend to travel in a bunched formation at the same altitude.  While the formation editor does permit the player to designate any aircraft as the leader, it does not allow variations in aircraft distance (either laterally or vertically) or radial position.  There do appear to be some behavioral variations based on mission type (e.g., some fighters on an Air Intercept mission seem to adopt wider spacing), but the player has little control over this.

Default group formation. These two F-14As are roughly a mile apart, with the wingman slightly ahead of the leader.

The result is that leader and wingman will tend to be detected together, and the opponent will tend to maneuver against both of them as a unit.  This reduces the overall fighting potential of the aircraft group (for an account of a similar historical situation, see the discussion of the “finger four” vs. “loose deuce” formations in Michel’s Clashes ).

Given the developers’ tireless devotion to their simulation, I suspect that a higher-fidelity aircraft formation model is already on the Command wishlist.  But what can we do in the meantime?  

One approach is to break down the aircraft group into individual aircraft, and assign the wingman to an AAW Patrol mission based on a rotating reference point that is tied to his leader.

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In the example above, I created reference point RP-4, positioned about 5 miles to the south of Rage 11, the leader of a section of F-14As.  Then I set RP-4 as a rotating reference point based on Rage 11, so that when Rage 11 changed heading, RP-4 would rotate to maintain the same relative position.  I then created an AAW Patrol mission with the following settings:

  • Patrol Area based on RP-4
  • Transit and Station throttle to Cruise
  • Transit and Station altitude to 18,000′
  • Mission profile set to “Use Speed and Altitude overrides”
  • Uncheck 1/3 rule
  • Uncheck “Investigate contacts outside the patrol area”
  • Uncheck “Active emissions only inside patrol/prosecution area”
  • No prosecution area set
  • Flight size set to “single aircraft”

I then added Rage 12, the wingman, to the mission.

The result is that Rage 12 “chases the reference point,” positioning himself at a distance of roughly 5 miles, and at an altitude of 18,000 feet (as compared to his leader’s 36,000 feet).  Orders need only be given to Rage 11.  I did need to give the wingman a bit more throttle to allow him time/space to get into position, which in turn results in higher fuel consumption (interestingly, this is true to life).  The mission parameters specified above will prevent Rage 12 from independently reacting to threats, so the player will need to “release” him to fight at the appropriate time (e.g., by checking the “Investigate contacts outside the patrol area” box).

So, this is cute, but in the end it seems like a lot of micromanaging.  How much does it matter?

To find out, I set up a friendly encounter over the desert, which is illustrated in the God’s eye view below.  Our micromanaged F-14A section is up in the northwest corner.  To their immediate south is a pair of their squadron-mates, arranged in the standard Command grouped formation at 36,000 feet.  Opposing them to the east are two F-5Es from the local fleet adversary unit, both at 36,000 feet.  The F-5Es and the F-14As will approach each other “beak-to-beak.”  At the start, neither side can see the other (the F-14As have radars off, and the F-5Es have a simple, range-limited radar).

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At 10:45:11 the southern F-5E detects both F-14As simultaneously, one at 8.8 miles, and the other at 9.6 miles.  Four seconds later, the northern F-5E detects an F-14A as well at 9.7 miles.  (Apologies, the screenshot below was taken a few seconds after the fact, and at these rates of closure, it made quite a difference.)

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We, of course, know that there is still a fourth F-14A that has not been detected.  If we switch to God’s eye view, we see Rage 12, which has just passed under the radar cone of the northern F-5E — a result of the lateral separation of 5nm, together with the 18,000-foot altitude difference.

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At about 4 miles, the southern F-5E gets a tally on the huge F-14s and makes them out to be “fighters,” and the other adversary follows suit five seconds later.  At 2.5 miles the southern F-5E visually identifies his pair as F-14As, and the northern F-5E does the same at 0.6 miles.  And only after the merge, with Rage 11 past him, does he apparently do a belly check and finally see Rage 12 at a distance of 4.8 miles, sneaking in below.

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A truism of air combat is that it’s the one that you don’t see that gets you in the end.  While no encounter is entirely predictable, you cannot shoot what you did not see.  The southern F-5E could have engaged both F-14As with all-aspect missiles prior to the merge; the northern F-5E could have employed ordnance only against the lead F-14 of his targeted pair.  Worse, Rage 12 was in a position to take an unseen shot.  Though the close distances normally required to make visual identification often complicate the use of medium-range missiles, here, the leader’s close pass might have cleared his wingman to shoot an AIM-7 from his trailing position while still inside the missile’s launch envelope.  Indeed, this basic concept was used extensively by the Blue Force during the AIMVAL/ACEVAL tests in the 1970s, and adopted as tactical doctrine through the 1980s (and really until the development of mature and reliable non-cooperative target recognition methods).

Now, this example may be somewhat exaggerated (the F-5E’s radar scan volume is unusually bad, and Rage’s formation perhaps unusually wide), but it demonstrates some of the tactical possibilities available with the thoughtful arrangement of fighters within a formation.  Misdirecting the opponent, luring him out of position, and forcing him to commit against one perceived threat to the exclusion of another can make the difference between killing and being killed.

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