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?   (more…)

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Cope Taufan 2014-1

Version 1.0, tested on Command v1.10.  Download scenario file (68K).

Scenario Description

As Asian air forces continue to modernize their equipment, the “COPE” series of international military exercises conducted by the U.S. Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) has captured the attention of analysts worldwide as a showcase and testing ground for fifth (and “near-fifth”) generation airpower.  One of these was COPE TAUFAN 2014, a biennial game hosted by the Royal Malaysian Air Force, beginning on June 6 and running for a full two weeks.  This was the first time that the F-22 Raptor appeared in Southeast Asia, and at this event it would fight alongside (and against) the RMAF’s exotic Su-30MKM Flanker-Gs and MiG-29N Fulcrums.  The notional “war” involved a threat to the Malaysian peninsula from the sea, with Americans and Malaysians taking turns as invaders and defenders.

This scenario depicts a diverse and chaotic large-force-employment mission event during the exercise, later described to the press as involving “eight USAF F-15s intercepting two RMAF C-130s and a USAF C-17 which were escorted by four RMAF Su-30MKMs, six USAF F-22s, two RMAF MiG-29s, and two RMAF F-18s.”  It is designed to be played as BLUFOR (the F-15 defenders).

(U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jason Robertson/Released)

(U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jason Robertson/Released)

For their first overseas joint exercise, the Massachusetts Air National Guard has brought along eight of the most modern and deadly F-15C Eagles in the force, recently upgraded with the new APG-63(V)3 AESA radar.  They will stage out of RMAF Butterworth, and will be fully supported by the RMAF ground-based air surveillance and tracking radar network.  BLUFOR’s primary objective is to prevent the transport aircraft (which are carrying special operations forces) from landing at RMAF Kuantan in the southeast peninsula.

As is typical for wargames of this sort, the F-22s opposing them will be operating under severely restricted rules of engagement:  for this event, AIM-120 shots at ranges exceeding 10 miles are prohibited.  In addition, to test the expensive new Ground Master radar in the Malaysian air defense network, some of the F-22s will be carrying their weapons externally and will suffer the resulting increase in radar cross-section.  However, the Malaysian Su-30s, MiG-29s, and F/A-18s will not be operating under any special restrictions, and will shoot at maximum range at any confirmed hostile.  The OPFOR transit package is generally expected to move in a large escort box with F-22s working with Su-30s in an “eyeball-shooter” arrangement, but OPFOR has enough jets available to generate some surprises.


This scenario comes with three (3) pre-planned BLUFOR air defense plans that deploy the F-15 elements to different patrol stations throughout the exercise area.  These pre-planned options are executed by the player through the “Special Actions” menu.  Alternatively, the player may reject all of the provided options and instead construct a custom strategy or assume manual control.

BLUFOR receives 3 points for each F-22 kill, 1 point for each non-F-22 fighter kill, and 15 points for each transport.  It loses 2 points for each F-15 lost.  If OPFOR incurs too many escort losses, the transports will abort their mission and bug out to the east.  BLUFOR receives 25 points for forcing such a mission abort.  OPFOR is airborne at exercise start, and the event runs for a maximum of four hours before terminating at 13:00 local (06:00Z).






LETHAL 1x, 2x, 3x, 4x

8 x F-15C (APG-63(V)3)

131 FS, 104 FW, MA Air National Guard


HOKU 1x, 2x, 3x

6 x F-22A

199 FS, 154 Wing, HI Air National Guard


COBRA 1x, 2x

4 x Su-30MKM

No. 11 Sqn, Royal Malaysian Air Force


BAT 1x

2 x MiG-29N

No. 17 Sqn, Royal Malaysian Air Force



2 x F/A-18D

No. 18 Sqn, Royal Malaysian Air Force



2 x C-130H

No. 20 Sqn, Royal Malaysian Air Force



1 x C-17A

517 AS, 3d Wing, USAF


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Comparative Fighter Performance, Board Game Style

FF3 - instinct 2A

I’ve been fascinated by the tactics of modern air-to-air combat since I was a kid. Unfortunately, while I have a pretty good grasp of the technology and can visualize the tactical building blocks passably well, I’ve always had trouble fitting everything together. Countless times over the past twenty years I’ve taken my well-worn copy of Robert Shaw’s Fighter Combat: Tactics and Maneuvering off the shelf, hoping to better educate myself. But while I have no trouble with the early chapters or the aerodynamics, once he starts into the dynamic three-dimensional geometry in the middle part of the book I quickly get lost. Many hours in “serious” computer simulations have not really helped my tactical intuitions. How fighter crews are able to manage all of this in real time while under severe physical stress is really beyond me.

A Board Game?  Like, Monopoly?

After pretty much giving up on ever understanding contemporary tactics, I was surprised to discover that an “old-fashioned” board wargame could do what textbooks and advanced computer simulations could not. Birds of Prey, designed by Phil Markgraf and Tony Valle, breaks down the close-in maneuvering fight into six-second slices of time, where the physics, aerodynamics, and relative geometry of air-to-air combat is laid bare for your perusal. Unlike computer flight simulations, the “why” becomes transparent. Unlike a textbook, the scenario is completely interactive. At its heart is an ingenious system of two-dimensional slide rules (“nomographs“) and a method of handling airplanes moving relative to one another in full three-dimensional space. There are aspects of the game that are rough, and parts that are just barely “playable” in their present form, but taken as a whole it is a genuine work of genius.


Anyway, this is not a review of Birds of Prey. Instead, I’d like to use the Birds of Prey system as an educational tool to explore the real-world tactical concepts that appear in the various texts and publications I’ve accumulated over the years (e.g., as a laboratory for working through some of the examples in Shaw). Mostly, I’m doing this for myself — I’m hoping that by putting it into writing, I’ll better absorb the concepts. Of course, on the off-chance that others read this and correct any mistakes I make, so much the better.


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The Mystery of “WICHITA 103”

There is an odd bit of trivia about the U.S. air campaign over Iraq in 1991 that has been a source of curiosity for me for more than fifteen years, and I think I happened upon the answer last night.  Or, at least, an answer.

Over forty Iraqi aircraft were downed by the U.S.-led coalition in the course of air-to-air engagements during Operation Desert Storm (ODS); I have a “kill table” here.  The table draws upon various official and unofficial historical records that have emerged in the two decades since ODS, and in most cases includes the parent unit and radio callsign of the coalition aircraft that scored the victory.  You will see that the overwhelming number of victories were scored by F-15Cs of the USAF (and indeed, a disproportionate number of kills went to one particular squadron, the 58th Tactical Fighter Squadron of the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing).  The reasons for this are complicated, involving joint command-and-control arrangements and inter-service politics, and remain controversial even two decades later.

In any event, two air-to-air engagements resulted in kills for the Navy.  The first encounter occurred on the first night of the war (Jan. 17), when two F/A-18C Hornets from VFA-81 “Sunliners” shot down a pair of Chinese knock-off MiG-21s while on the inbound leg to their ground target.  The second encounter occurred on Feb. 6, when an F-14A Tomcat from VF-1 “Wolfpack” shot down an Mi-8 helicopter while on a combat air patrol.

My puzzle related to the question of callsigns.  If you look at the litany of callsigns in the kill table, you will notice that almost all of the callsigns take the form of a call name followed by two digits.  The call name usually follows a theme, such as oil brands (QUAKER, CHEVRON, CITGO) or firearms (PISTOL, SPRINGFIELD), and the two digits indicate the position of an aircraft in an element or flight.  So, for example, the pair of F-15s from the 36th TFW that got four kills on Jan. 27 took the callsigns OPEC 01 (the leader) and OPEC 02 (his wingman).  This uniform system was dictated by the Air Tasking Order (ATO), the theater-wide air plan used to organize and control the very large numbers of armed aircraft crossing the skies over Iraq and Kuwait, the majority of which were ostensibly on the same side and should not be colliding into or employing weapons against one another.

So, let’s look at our Navy flights on Jan. 17 and Feb. 6.  We see that our MiG-killing F/A-18s took the callsigns QUICKSAND 64 and QUICKSAND 62, which appears to be consistent with the ATO system.  But our helo-busting F-14 was using a strange callsign that is not like the others:  WICHITA 103.  This is not an ATO-compliant callsign.  Rather, this is a “tactical callsign” used by Navy carrier air wings, comprised of a squadron-specific call name combined with the three-digit modex number painted on the side of the airplane.  “WICHITA” was the unique call name used by VF-1 “Wolfpack”, and the jet in question was #103.  (The Navy tactical callsigns for our Hornets from Jan. 17 would have been SUNLINER 401 and SUNLINER 410.)

Why did the Tomcat on Feb. 6 not use an ATO callsign?  It couldn’t have been an Air Force/Navy thing, since the Navy F/A-18s on Jan. 6 were using ATO callsigns.  It couldn’t have been a Tomcat/Hornet thing, since we know that when an F-14B from VF-103 was shot down on Jan. 21, it had the ATO callsign SLATE 46.

For years I assumed that this was simply a question of incomplete recordkeeping, and that there had to have been an ATO callsign somewhere that simply hadn’t made it into the public sources.  But when I inquired with the pilot of that F-14 last year, he told me that to the best of his recollection, his callsign on that day was in fact WICHITA 103.  So it seems there was a discrepancy, but still no indication as to why.


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I converted over the long table of Russian ship names last weekend, a task that, remarkably, turned out to be even more tedious than I had imagined.  Somewhere in the course of doing endless find-and-replace searches to strip out useless tags inserted by Microsoft FrontPage, I realized that managing these things would be a lot easier if only I would step out of 1998 and actually put some of this stuff into a database.  (This would also simplify updates to the air campaign tables, which currently exist as five separate hard-coded web pages.)

So, the lunacy continues: I am now learning MySQL/PHP.  Hope to have a test database up this weekend.

In more substantive news, the Chinese appear to have flown the J-20.  More interesting is the manner of the reveal:

Ma Xing and Zhang Jun may believe their obsession with all things military is just a hobby. That may be true but earlier this week, they saw something that made headlines across the world, and turned them into celebrities.

They got some of the earliest glimpses of China’s first stealth fighter plane.

In December, after word about a possible radar-evading plane circulated on the Internet, both men began monitoring a local airport widely considered the home base of such planes.

This is the PRC, mind you, where traditional attitudes toward “state secrets” are not ordinarily conducive to amateurs watching “local airports” where unannounced fifth-generation stealth fighters happen to be based.  Especially amateurs with websites:

Each time he saw something worthy of sharing, he told his friend, who passed it on to Zhang, 32, another military fan in Jiangsu Province. Zhang posted the information on, a military forum he established in 2004.

On Tuesday, after Ma saw the J-20, he immediately called his friend, and Zhang did not wasted a moment before he posted the news on his website.

Domestic newspapers, such as Shanghai-based Oriental Morning Post, referred to Zhang’s website. Zhang was surprised that even the Wall Street Journal quoted his website.

“I thought the website was just a platform for interaction between military enthusiasts. I did not think that both the domestic and foreign media will be concerned about it,” Zhang said. “The military strength of China is enhancing, which enables the country to have an impact on the international stage.”

Official, unofficial, or “unofficial,” the proliferation of open sources on Chinese military modernization makes for an interesting picture.  The times, they do change.

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Coincidence and Callsigns

Echo-chamber issues aside, the flip side of research in the Internet age is that from time to time, you make the unexpected connection that suddenly provides an information windfall.  Something like that just happened today, when a random “people you may know” suggestion on Facebook put me in touch with a fighter pilot who scored a kill in 1991.  Within a few hours he provided confirmation of a data point that I’ve been trying to verify for years (specifically, the callsign for his sortie, which had been conspicuously absent from the official USAF sources).  Thanks, “Meat.”

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Gorillas Over Mesopotamia

With most of the technical and setup issues for the new site resolved, I spent a few hours updating some research that I did fifteen years ago on the roughly three dozen air-to-air engagements that occurred during the 1991 Gulf War.  This is historian’s grunt work:  combing through conflicting accounts, guessing as to the most likely ways in which memories dim or reports fail, filtering out errors that have been handed down from source to source.  One remarkable thing was discovering how far my own work had propagated without citation, leaving me in the mildly entertaining position of seeking to verify my original work using sources that seem to derive from that same work, errors and all.  Circular verification (or, if you like, “fact-checking by echo”) has to be one of the principal challenges of historical research in the Internet age.

In any event, with the new information on the Desert Storm air war available, I’ve applied several different “filters” to the original kill matrix, which reveal some interesting facts about those engagements.  For example, a surprising number of engagements using the AIM-7 Sparrow (a medium-range missile most associated with beyond-visual-range (BVR) fights) were actually made within visual range.  There were also quite a few kills made by wingmen (in some cases where their flight/element leads did not also score), underscoring a tactical fluidity that was very different from the rigid fighter doctrine prevalent in Vietnam, at least in the USAF.

Ultimately I would like to collect and chart more data on these engagements, including geographic locations, precise range of shots, day/night, etc.  But unfortunately I think this may have to wait—while some of the necessary information can be gleaned from pilot accounts, I imagine that the complete dataset is probably still classified, even after twenty years.  Might be worth considering a FOIA request, as both the AIM-7M and AIM-9M have been superseded by newer weapons in the U.S. inventory.  We’ll see.

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