Why Gulf Wars cannot be used as a basis for estimating effectiveness of beyond visual range combat


Gulf wars are used as a proof that BVR combat has finally become effective. But they have been unique in many aspects, and unrepresentative of combat conditions that will be in effect against competent opponent. Thus they are not assurance than radar-guided BVR missiles will really perform as well as Western – particularly US – doctrine requires them to if there is ever a war where they will be needed to perform well.

Gulf War I

State of Iraqi military

Operation Desert Storm, which may have as many as 16 possible BVR victories, is seen as BVR turning point. But there are some issues.

Firstly, Iraqi’s armed forces, like armed forces of most – if not all – Arab states were not meant to fight a war. Arab monarchs and dictators treat armed forces as a status symbol. As a result, Arab militaries are often in possession of large quantities of modern hardware – Saudi Arabia for example recently bought 72 Eurofighter Typhoons – but do not have leadership, personnel, and logistical capabilities to keep these weapons combat-effective. As Michael Knight has noted about Saudi armed forces, they suffer from a “massive overemphasis on procurement of high technology and serious underemphasis on manpower issues, personnel selection, training, and maintenance.” Gulf militaries are regularly short on noncommissioned officers, who are actually more important for making modern militaries run than general-rank officers they have in abundance (this top-heavy nature is also characteristic of US armed forces, but unlike Arab countries US military does have enough NCOs and low-level CO-s to make military run, and these are competent and independent enough to compensate for mistakes of mostly-incompetent high-level officers during the war). They are heavily dependant on foreign support to make militaries run, with 30% of UAEs military personnell being expatriates. Like all Arab forces, Iraqi armed forces – and especially air force – suffered from poor tactical leadership, poor information management, poor weapons handling, and poor maintenance. Arab forces also have a heavily centralized system, making them inept in responding to rapidly changing battlefield conditions, and leaders are promoted not on basis of competence but on basis of family, tribal and political affiliations. Even Iran has problems in maintaining an effective military – especially an effective air force – due to lack of spares and trained technicians.

This has shown in all wars Arab conventional militaries have fought. In October 1973, Syrian army launched a massive offensive against Israeli forces occupying Golan heights; Syrians had advantage of surprise, ten times as many troops, eight times as many tanks and ten times as many artillery pieces. Israel meanwhile was not expecting Syrian offensive. Syrians achieved very minor gains, and on thrid day of the offensive Israeli smashed Syrian forces, and continued towards Damascus until unexpected arrival of Jordani and Iraqi forces forced an end to offensive actions.

Imbalances in firepower, quality of weapons used and numbers were never decisive in wars fought by Arab militaries. Lybian forces defending Tripoli’s conquests in northern Chad had far more advanced weaponry than Chadian forces (T-55 and T-62 tanks, BTR-60 and BTR-70 APCs, MiG-21, MiG-23 and Su-22 fighter-bombers opposed to Chadian use of Toyota pick up trucks as improvised APCs, which were also literally entirety of Chadian fighting vehicle force; heaviest weapons Chadians had were Milan AT missile and Redeye shoulder-fired SAM). Lybians also had 20.000 regulars against 10.000 Chadian regulars and 20.000 irregularls. Lybians were demolished in eight months.

In 1956 attack on Egypt, Egyptians suffered 1.000 killed, 4.000 wounded and 6.000 captured, along with 215 aircraft, 200 artillery pieces and 100+ tanks. Israeli lost 189 dead, 900 wounded and 4 captured, plus 15 aircraft in accidents and to Egyptian AAA; British and French lost 26 killed and 129 wounded, plus 10 aircraft to accidents and AAA. Egyptian air force was mostly destroyed on the ground, and what fighters did fly mostly did their best to avoid air-to-air combat; they only engaged when they had 2:1 numerical superiority at least, preferably 4:1. No Israeli jet was shot down by Egyptians, while Israeli shot down 4 MiG-15s and 4 Vampires. Egyptian junior officers on ground as well as pilots showed little ability to improvise, and troops in the field often did not report failures or misreported size of enemy force; successes were exaggarated. Out of six Egyptian Ilyushin pilots sent to attack Israeli air bases, five failed to find Israel itself.

In First Kurdish War, Iraqis employed air force both in tactically in CAS role and strategically in strategic bombing role; but in CAS role, Iraqi pilots’ aim was so bad that it was a toss-up as to which side will take the casualties: Iraqi ground forces suffered as much from Iraqi air power as Kurdish forces did, if not more so; they were probably lucky that Iraqi Air Force only conducted Close Air Support rarely, opting instead to bomb only targets they could hit semi-reliably: Kurdish settlements. In 1965 offensive, only 30 of 170 Iraqi MiG-17s were flyable.

In Iraq-Iran war in 1980, Iraq had 2.750 tanks, 1.040 artillery pieces, 2.500 APCs and 330 fighter bombers; Iran had less than 500 tanks, no more than 300 artillery pieces and at most 100 operable aircraft. Most of the Iraqi tanks were T-62s and T-72s, while Iranians used “miserable” Chinese Type-59. Iraqi aircraft included Mirage-F1s and MiG-29s, whereas Iranians used F-14s, F-4s and F-5s; but embargo meant that most of these were not fully functional, especially rather complex F-14s and F-4s. Iraq managed to squeeze out a Phyrric victory only by achieving local numerical superiority on order of 20-1 or greater (up to 30-1) and resorting to rather liberal doses of chemical agents. In latter part of the war, Iraqi military depolicitized and consequently achieved better performance; but its performance was still not good, with what was basically a modern army barely stalemating not much larger predominantly infantry force. While generals became relatively proficient, troops in the field and NCOs remained incompetent, resorting all too often to frontal human wave attacks. This in turn forced higher-ups to micromanage their forces. Iraqi Air Force has not improved at all. By 1983, Iranian Air Force was crippled by lack of spare parts, handing air superiority to Iraqis by default, being only able to generate 10-15 sorties per day. Iraqi pilots however frequently avoided combat whenever they ran into Iranian aircraft, and when they did attack they only did so with heavy numerical superiority. Even then, success was far from assured.

One of reasons was Arab lack of unit cohesion, which meant that Arab units would dissolve when faced by any pressure from the enemy. Generals’ incompetence – which itself was a regular occurence – was felt strongly due to centralized organization of Arab militaries. Junior leaders and troops, meanwhile, were afraid to show any initiative at all for fear of political purges, rendering tactical leadership inept; this is strongly in contrast to Western militaries, particularly US military, where senior officers are often incompetent but this incompetence usually does not have much of an impact due to strong culture of initiative among junior officers and soldiers.

The war

Iraqi training standards were very low, and cooperation was lacking. Pilots were not trained for night and bad weather combat, and training in other aspects of air combat was inadequate. Constant acquisitions of new aircraft wreaked havoc with both pilot training and aircraft maintenance, which were inadequate even without these problems. Before the war, despite having capability to fly 200-300 sorties per day, Iraqi air force flew less than 100 sorties per day.

Iraqis allowed Coalition forces full five months to prepare for the air battle, with no attempt at harassment or countering Coalition’s preparations. Iraq was not prepared for a serious air war by its war with Iran; while Iran did use air force in 1979 and 1980, which caused great trouble to Iraqis who were unable to counter it, even leading to some reversals, Iran quickly lost ability to deploy air force due to inability to import parts and supplies, loss of foreign advisors and technical support, as well as political upheavals and purges; in effect, Iraq achieved air superiority in 1983-1984 without having to fight for it.

But even in Iraq-Iran war, Iraq never organized air force effectively, either for close air support, battlefield interdiction or air superiority – or indeed any other mission normally carried out by air force. Air force was used as deterrent, never developing capability to suppress enemy air force in its bases with either missiles or its own aircraft, and never realizing vulnerability of air force, air defenses and units in the field to air attacks.

Coalition did not have to fear any form of attack on its own air bases, and was able to repeatedly attack Iraqi air bases. It could also adjust tactics without any hurry. Coalition forces flew 68.149 combat sorties by tactical aircraft, of which 23.475 were counter-air.

Iraqi Air Force had less than 750 fixed-wing aircraft of which 405 could be used in air superiority role, plus 160 combat helicopters. While Coalition flew around 3.000 sorties per day, Iraq usually flew less than 100 sorties (with less than 60 of these being combat sorties) and by January 24-th its combat activity mostly ceased. During Desert Storm, Iraq flew 430 sorties by tactical aircraft, 0,63% of what Coalition flew, and 180 support sorties compared to Coalition’s 23.414.

During war, and in contrast to Coalition’s aggressive use of air power, Iraq’s battle plan depended on ability of air defenses to inflict serious losses on Coalition air forces. Coalition aircraft – primarly F-16s but also F-117s – destroyed Iraqi air defenses and aircraft shelters, penetrating even most well-defended sites. While Iraqi Air Force was ineffective during Iran-Iraq war, it was even more so during Gulf War. IAF was insufficiently cohesive and slowly-reacting, and was prepared to fight a mirror image of itself, not a modern and well-organized air force capable of quickly establishing numerical superiority in any theater.

At outset of the war, US Special Forces MH-53 and AH-64 helicopters destroyed two Iraqi early warning radars. US missiles hit Iraqi air bases, C&C systems, air defense systems and electric power plants.

Iraq lost 33 fixed wing aircraft to Coalition air force during the war, shooting down no more than one Coalition aircraft according to Coalition sources (Iraqi sources claim at least 5 Coalition aircraft shot down, including two F-15s by MiG-25s; but even by their data, kill ratio was heavily in Coalition’s favor. Due to Iraqi displayed “competence”, such claims are questionable). In air combat, Iraqi pilots exhibited “startling” lack of situational awareness, failling to react to radar lock-ons and missile launches by Coalition aircraft. They also attempted very little maneuvering between the time when the intercept radar locked on to them and the time when they were hit by air-to-air missiles or ran into the ground. Iraqi aircraft also never posed a threat to US AWACS, which were consistently avaliable to Coalition units, and Iraqi pilot training was vastly inferior to Coalition’s.

F-15C was used as primary air superiority aircraft on Coalition part and way responsibility was given for air defense sectors ensured that it will dominate Coalition air victories. Number of 16 BVR air victories is also suspect; only 5 victories are certain to have occured at BVR, whereas remaining 11 could have involved BVR shots that missed. One of these happened at 16 nm at night, one at 8,5 nm at night, and three at 13 nm. (1 nm = 1,852 km) There were only two gun kills, both by A-10s against low-flying helicopters.

This is not to say that implementation was without problems however. Despite much more restrictive BVR RoE than USAF wanted (such as IFF identification from two independant sources at least and heavy AWACS usage for helping IFF), USN A-6 was shot down, possibly by a F-14.

Gulf War II

Aftre Gulf War I, readiness of Iraqi Air Force was further reduced due to an embargo. Iraq was unable to modernize air force, and lack of spare parts and supplies as well as no-fly zones rendered it unable to train pilots. What training they did receive was insufficient, unrealistic and badly carried out, and no aircraft underwent any modernization of equipment. Only improvement in any area was employment of short-range Matra Magic 2 missile, with maximum range of 3 nm (and effective range far lower).

At edge of the war, Iraqi Air Force had 316 combat aircraft, but no more than 60% were in flyable condition. Iraqi pilots flew as few as 20 hours per year, and even most senior pilots did not fly more than 120 hours per year.









Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991 ( http://books.google.hr/books?id=sSHYdGR_xvoC ) – suggested reading as it covers Arab (in)competence in both air power and ground combat



It was suggested that main reason for Pk increase was improved missile performance. But in tests before Vietnam, against non-maneuvering targets, AIM-9 achieved Pk of 0,65; combat Pk fell to 0,15. AIM-7 was estimated to have Pk of 0,7; combat Pk fell to 0,08. In particular, AIM-7D achieved Pk of 0,08, AIM-7E 0,1 and AIM-7E2 0,08. Around one half of misses were failures to launch and guide, compared to 30% for AIM-9B and 37% for AIM-9D. Considering that AIM-7 achieved Pk of 0,34, AIM-120 of 0,46, and F-15C-launched AIM-9 of 0,67 (most launches from F-16s were accidental due to poor control stick ergonomy), against targets that did not attempt to evade the missile, had no ECM, and were fired on mostly from visual range, there is no reason to assume that reliability has improved. AIM-4 was estimated to have Pk of 0,9; combat Pk was below 0,07.  1 2


Some further reading.



This is how “realistic” US testing tends to be:


“The human factor will decide the fate of war, of all wars. Not the Mirage, nor any other plane, and not the screwdriver, or the wrench or radar or missiles or all the newest technology and electronic innovations. Men—and not just men of action, but men of thought. Men for whom the expression ‘By ruses shall ye make war’ is a philosophy of life, not just the object of lip service.” IDF-AF commander Ezer Weizman:On Eagles’ Wings



To quote USAF analysis of Iraq’s performance:

“…the overall performance of the Iraqi air force in Desert Storm in air-to-air combat was abysmal…Although Iraqi pilots sometimes started encounters with decent set ups, the consistent and overriding pattern evident in debriefs of kills by US F-15 pilots indicates a startling lack of situational awareness by their Iraqi adversaries. In general, the Iraqi pilots shot down did not react to radar lock-ons by Coalition fighters. They attempted very little maneuvering, either offensive or defensive, between the time when the intercept radar locked on to them and the time when they were hit by air-to-air missiles (or, …before running into the ground).”

26 thoughts on “Why Gulf Wars cannot be used as a basis for estimating effectiveness of beyond visual range combat

  1. Technologie as evolved a lot since 1991…Just see your computer or your cell phone.~
    Modern radars can even tell you the model of the aircraft in BVR …and all modern fighters are made to dogfight.BVR combat does not deny WVR combat.You should be able to shoot your foe as soon you are aware he exists.
    Nobody expects that any missile will have more than a 30/40% pk against a peer oponent…this includes IR and radar guided missiles…
    And all modern fighters are very agile and easy to fly…they are exellent dogfighters


    1. Technology has improved a lot, yes, but that also includes countermeasures and aircraft themselves. Missiles aren’t only thing that gets more advanced. And if you read my edit, then you’d see that advancement between 1960 and 1990 was far less than what you’d want it to be between 1990 and 2010.

      And no, radars can’t tell you aircraft’s model since aircraft won’t remain in same position relative to radar for long enough. Besides, you’re overestimating IR missile Pk by a factor of two, and don’t use Super Hornet as example of agility – thing can only pull 9 g when in g override.


      1. Rafale C can pull 11 g regularly, but I suspect that was just because French wanted to have M version be 9-g capable. And define “slow speed”, dogfights are usually fought at corner speed, around Mach 0,4 – 0,6.


      1. Well…most dogfights end at slow speed because of manovering….enjoy the article in the Boresight blog…
        The SuperHornet is a poor transonic and supersonic performer(main reason is the damn canted pylons) but even british Eurofighter pilots complain that its a pain in the ass an low speed…they say that it can point its nose at anything at any moment…Future engines and Weapons bays will allow for the SHornet to perform better at high speed…not that it will be a world beatter because of design tradeoffs ,but at slow speen it is a superfighter…


      2. This is what I found about F-18E vs Rafale (Rafale has way better slow speed characteristic than Typhoon due to close coupled canards, Typhoon is primarly a supersonic interceptor):

        >A USN pilot’s (Lt Mike Tremel, pilot of VFA-31 “Tomcatters”) comments for Rafale M:

        “A highly maneuverable fighter with an incredible capacity to point its nose in every direction in the sky.”

        “The French pilots seem to be happy to its flight performance and its modern cockpit design”.

        When asked if he would like to swap his Super hornet to a Rafale –> “No, I love my Super Bug way too much….”

        A French pilot’s (pilot of 12F) comments for F/A-18E:

        “A great bombing aircraft, but not a fighter for dogfighting.”

        “Its acceleration capability in the high angle of incidence is not good.”

        “Rafale is definitely the more nimble one.”

        “However, F/A-18E has already equipped the JHMCS + AIM-9X, a combination of decisive edge in close-range encounters ~ Although the tactics to counter it have existed now.”<<


    1. I have read the article and there is no mention of Rafale. As for comments, he talks about air shows. But if you take air shows, Rafale has been pulling over 11 g in air shows for some time, when did F-16 ever do it?


      1. I dont know if the flight control of the F-16 allows for that…
        And most of the F-16As where grounded because the airframe couldnt deal with the abuse…most people dont know but the F-16A was limited by flight rules to 7,5g…thats one of the reason why later versions where heavier…the reinforced structure..
        Later versions whit the latest engines are beasts,but to be honest i dont know if the FBW allows the Viper to pass the 9 g mark…
        I have read that the Mirage 2000 was cleared for +9g to -3g with the possibilitie of overrride to 13,5g…never read that about the F-16…
        Have you any info on that?


      2. I know that F-15 was designed for 7,5 g and increased stress led to cracks; YF-16 was also originally designed for 7,5 g but I thought that F-16A and on structure was reinforced for 9 g operationally.


  2. Howdy would you mind sharing which blog platform you’re using?
    I’m looking to start my own blog soon but I’m having a tough time selecting
    between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and Drupal.

    The reason I ask is because your design and style seems different then
    most blogs and I’m looking for something unique. P.S Apologies
    for being off-topic but I had to ask!


  3. After decades of attacking defenseless countries that have nowhere near the military capability of the US military, I think that the United States is going to be in for a rude awakening if they end up starting a war with a country that has a legitimate military force (Russia, China, etc.) …


    1. True, but neither is very likely as China very much finances US’ disastrous neoliberal policies and bloated defense budget, while Russia… well, noone sane ever attacked Russia, especially in winter. That being said, there is always a possibility for politicians to get overcome by events and their own schemes.


      1. The Mongolians did conquer much of what was modern day Russia and a considerable part of it was during the winter.


      2. True, but IIRC world was much warmer during that time (in fact it was global warming which caused Renaissance), and there was no “Russia” at the time either, just a collection of duchys.


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