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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Soviet Postwar Submarine Designs: A Developmental Timeline

The Soviet submarine force during the Cold War was enormous.  From 1945 to 1990, there were over forty classes of submarines fielded under the Soviet naval ensign, numbering well over six hundred hulls.  (By comparison, the United States constructed just under two hundred submarines over the same period.)

The sheer diversity of Soviet submarine platforms has always given me a headache.  Take the 1950s-era “Project 613” conventional fleet submarine, known to NATO as the Whiskey-class, for example.  The Whiskey quickly spawned many variants.  In 1955, a Whiskey was adapted to carry the P-5/NATO SS-N-3c cruise missile, with the testbed being called “Project P-613” and the six operational missile-carrying units called “Project 644” (NATO Whiskey Twin-Cylinder).  In 1961, a series of new-build Whiskeys were commissioned with quad-tube P-5 missile mounts (Project 665/NATO Whiskey Long Bin).  Project 640 (NATO Whiskey Canvas Bag) was a radar picket variant launched in 1957, and Project 613S and Project 666 were dedicated rescue submarines.  As late as 1974, the Whiskey design was being used as a propulsion testbed (Project 613Eh).  And, of course, it wasn’t until 1981 that a Baltic Fleet Whiskey (S-363) ran aground off the Swedish coast in the infamous “Whiskey on the Rocks” incident.  All told, there were over two hundred Whiskeys built for the Soviet Navy.

And there was even more diversity among classes.  In the jargon of the western navies, we have Echo I/II/IIIs, Foxtrots, Hotels, Romeos, Victor I/II/IIIs, Charlie I/IIs, Yankees of many stripes, Alfas, Sierra I/IIs, Oscars, Kilos, Typhoons, an unfortunate Mike, and an endless procession of Golfs and Deltas–not to mention many ships of lesser celebrity, to which NATO never assigned code names.  With all of these ship designs floating around, it is often difficult to discern the relationships between classes.  Indeed, the common NATO code names are sometimes misleading, as the Soviet admiralty usually saw no reason to be transparent on these subjects to the intelligence services of their class enemies.

Over the New Year’s weekend a few years ago, I was reading Norman Polmar’s and K.J. Moore’s excellent submarine design history, and, feeling lost as usual, thought that I’d chart out the basic Soviet class lineages for myself.  The result is this very large timeline map of Soviet submarine classes since 1945.  In addition to class and sub-class lineages by timeline (flowing left to right), I’ve added (a) indicators for the total number of hulls in the class (green circles); (b) boundary markers for the “four generations” into which Soviet nuclear submarine designs are commonly divided (shaded boxes toward the bottom); and (c) concurrent timeline tracks for major known Soviet submarine incidents for each class (white dotted lines and triangles).

This chart is a first draft, and may be incomplete or erroneous in a number of ways. After that weekend, I had intended to go back and refine its contents, but haven’t yet found the time to do it.  With that caveat, I thought I’d share it with others who might find it interesting and/or useful.

[Download high-resolution JPG image, 6394×3648, 1.2MB]

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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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