Raytheon AIM-9X Sidewinder
On June 18th, 2017, a United States Navy Super Hornet was forced to engage a Syrian Su-22 that had attacked ground troops.  This was to be the first manned aerial combat victory in nine years.  The F/A-18E (the most advanced fighter currently in use by the USN) fired an AIM-9X (the most advanced missile currently in use by the US military)...  And missed.

The Su-22 was eventually brought down using a radar-guided AIM-120 AMRAAM (a missile which has its own issues).  The outcome of this aerial combat was never really in doubt, but how did the AIM-9X possibly miss in the first place?

Su-22 "Fitter"
In this case, the AIM-9X's intended target was an export version of the Sukhoi Su-17 "Fitter" designated the Su-22.  First flying over 50 years ago, this aircraft is comparable to western attack aircraft like the SEPECAT Jaguar and A-7 Corsair II (both mostly retired).  It is not particularly fast or maneuverable.  Built more for the ground attack role, it has no BVR aerial combat capability.  Its only real noteworthy feature is its use of variable-sweep wings.  It has no pretenses towards being a stealth fighter and only carries rudimentary chaff and flares for self defense.  The Su-17/22 stands out as a shining example of Soviet Cold War design philosophy:  Build 'em cheap, build 'em tough, and build LOTS of them.

Most Su-17s and Su-22s around the world have been retired.  Syria is one of its last active users.  The type is mostly obsolete.

On the other hand, the Boeing F/A-18E is currently the US Navy's newest and most advanced operational aircraft (until the F-35C reaches IOC).  While the aircraft has its detractors, it is a capable fighter in both the air-to-air and air-to-ground roles.  It did replace the USN's "Top Gun" F-14, after all...

Details have been scant on the actual configuration of the F/A-18E that recorded its first air-to-air victory for the type.  It seems unlikely, but possible that the belly-tank mounted IRST was outfitted.  That particular equipment is scheduled for deployment this year.  It was almost certainly outfitted with an AESA radar, however.

While some would argue that the Super Hornet may not be as dynamic as its contemporaries, it is well beyond the capabilities of Su-22.  Any engagement between the two could not be considered a fair fight.  The Super Hornet is faster, more agile, and has sensors and weapons decades more advanced than the Su-22.

And yet it missed its first shot.

It is thought that the Su-22 eluded the AIM-9X using simple flares.  This is not new.  A MiG-21 with a flare dispenser from a Su-25 "Frogfoot" was able to confound the AIM-9P missile when tested in the 80s.  It would seem that American-built Sidewinders are programmed to reject American-build flares.  Russian-sourced flares are built with far less consistency regarding temperature and burn time.

Apparently, this lesson has yet to sink in.

For years, the predominating strategy in aerial combat has been the emphasis on "First sight.  First shot.  First kill.  This latest incident raises a serious question regarding this strategy:  "What happens if the first shot misses?"

In this case, the Super Hornet had little to fear, being able to both outfly and outrun the Su-22.  It was still in danger of falling victim to a lucky shot from the Su-22...  On a bad day.

Imagine, if you will, that Super Hornet encountering a different adversary.

Su-35...  Not as easy pickings as an Su-22.
Consider a hypothetical situation where that same USN Super Hornet encountered a Su-35 Flanker-E instead of an archaic Su-22.  That same Super Hornet would find itself in dire straits upon engaging said Su-35 and missing.

Unlike the Su-22, the Su-35 is more than a match for the Super Hornet.  It is faster, more maneuverable, and carries a substantially more lethal armament.  Upon missing with its AIM-9X, the F/A-18E would not be able to lazily reposition itself for a follow-up shot.  It would instead find itself fighting for its life.  Ideally, the preferable tactic would be to wait for back-up, but that would allow the Su-35 time to strike additional targets or to simply bug-out.

One could argue that the Super Hornet could prevail in combat with Flanker (better radar, etc) but that is not the point.  As the saying goes "If you find yourself in a fair fight, your tactics suck."

F6D Missileer
There is a definite sense of deja vu in all this.  Back in the 50s and 60s, military planners were so infatuated with the missile that they believed the era of the dogfight was over.  Aerial battles would be won thanks to powerful radars guiding long range missiles to their target.  This led to concepts like the F6D Missileer, a concept that was thankfully discarded in favor of the F-14 Tomcat.

It was thanks to this hubris that early variants of the F-4 Phantom II flew without a cannon.  Why bother with all that dogfighting nonsense when you could simply let the missile do all the work?  This design decision that proved disastrous over the skies of Vietnam.

It would seem that after all these years, the lesson has yet to be learned.

Simply put, missiles are fallible.  While they may have become increasingly advanced over the years, so have countermeasures.  While the idea of "first sight, first shot, first kill" is certainly a sound strategy, it is not a guarantee of victory.


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