Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

A Raptor Pilot on the 21st-Century Relevance of Boelcke's Dicta

Today at Langley AFB, Virginia, the 1st Fighter Wing of the U.S. Air Force operates and maintains the F-22A Raptor and F-15 Eagle. The wing is organized into two groups: an Operations Group and a Maintenance Group. Of three fighter squadrons in the Operations Group, the two that fly the state-of-the-art F-22 Raptor both distinguished themselves in the Great War: the 27th Fighter Squadron (FS), now known as the Fightin' Eagles, and the 94th FS, now known as the Hat-in-the-Ring Gang.

The Wing is a direct descendant of the famed 1st Pursuit Group from the war with both Raptor squadrons sharing that lineage. In World War I, when it was originally known as the 1st Pursuit Organization and Training Center, the Wing scored the first aerial victories of the U.S. Air Service in France by Lts. Alan Winslow (over an Albatros D.V) and Douglas Campbell (Pfalz D.III) from the 94th Aero Squadron. By the time the war ended, the unit's name had been changed to the 1st Pursuit Group and it had earned 202 confirmed kills. Its roster of pilots included Medal of Honor recipients Frank Luke and Eddie Rickenbacker.


In 2010 I had the opportunity to interview Major David "Zeke" Skalicky who then flew the Raptor demonstration missions for the Wing.  I was curious if modern fighter pilots, flying 5th generation aircraft consider Oswald Boelcke's rules of aerial combat–Boelcke's Dicta–still relevant. His answer's were surprising and interesting.

MH: The German aviator Oswald Boelcke developed a set of rules for fighter pilots known as Dicta Boelcke. Richthofen, for instance, swore by them. Are they still valid? Are there new rules for 21st-century fighter pilots?

DS: F-22 tactics are written in classified manuals known as TTP (tactics, techniques, and procedures). They provide general and specific guidance for how to effectively employ the aircraft in a wide variety of scenarios. While I can't discuss any Raptor specific details in this forum, I can comment on Boelcke's principles in general. Most of Boelcke's principles are still valid in modern
aerial combat. Let's step through them:

1: Try to secure advantages before attacking. If possible keep the sun behind you.

Absolutely! For the Raptor, stealth helps secure the advantage of surprise before attacking. Putting the sun at your back can make it hard for an enemy to find you with his eyes or infrared sensors.

2: Always carry through an attack when you started it.

At close range, in general, I'd say that's true. Aborting an attack at close range can potentially leave you defenseless to the enemy's weapons. Most attacks nowadays. however, start at very long range with beyond-visual-range (BVR) weapons. You may start an attack on an enemy who appears to be making a run at your territory but abort it if he turns around or doesn't show hostile intent (such as a defector).

3: Fire only at close range and only when your opponent is properly in your sights.

Caveat: The gun was the only aerial weapon when Boelcke was flying. Shot range depends on an infinite number of variables; the type of adversary, his capabilities, your weapons available, number of follow-on enemies, proximity to friendly forces, etc. Only taking valid missiles and/or gun shots, however, is universally a good idea.

4: Always keep your eye on your opponent and never let yourself be deceived by ruses.

There isn't a single fighter pilot alive today that hasn't heard, "…can't fight what you can't see" and "…lose sight, lose the fight". They remain as true today as they were back then. Stealth gives the Raptor a huge advantage in this area.

5: In any form of attack it is essential to assail your opponent from behind.

Agreed, the most stable gun shot is from the opponent's six o'clock. However, modern aerial weapons mean it is not always essential you attack from behind your opponent.

6: If your opponent dives on you, do not try to evade his onslaught but fly to meet him.

In a visual engagement, absolutely! Meet him head on and may the best man win. Turning to run will most likely leave you defensive from a diving opponent with more energy.

7: When over the enemy's line never forget your own line of retreat.

Always leave yourself an out. Getting outflanked or putting yourself into a situation where your only option is to continue attacking in one direction makes you very predictable and an easier target.

8: For the Squadron: Attack on principle in groups of four or six. When the fight breaks up into a series of single combats take care that several do not go for one opponent.

To me, this addresses the concept of proportionality. Proportionality is a key concept for an aerial mission commander to consider. In Richthofen's era, a single attacker was proportional and effective against a single enemy. Today a single attacker may be effective against one, two, or ten enemies, depending on the type of adversary and capabilities of the weapons system. A mission commander must consider that sending four attackers against a single enemy is probably not an efficient use of his resources. He must also consider that dividing his forces into "raging singletons" may reduce their mutual support for one another and decrease survivability and effectiveness. An updated wording may be "commit forces in a proportional manner to the threat posed by your opponent."

MH:  Thank you, Major Skalicky

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