Thursday, September 13, 2012

BVR - Is It Useful?

Phoenix missiles, AMRAAM, Harpoon, Standard SM-x.  As examples, what do these various weapons have in common?  They’re all long range missiles capable of Beyond Visual Range (BVR) engagements.  What else do they have in common?  Few have ever been used in BVR engagements except in rigorously controlled situations.  Why?  Because the US military is so reluctant to risk friendly, neutral, or civilian casualties that Rules of Engagement and actual practice generally dictate visual identification (VID) of targets or a level of BVR target certainty that is almost impossible to achieve and which, therefore, defaults back to VID.  Ironic, isn’t it, that for all our long range radar, IFF, passive sensing, ESM, and so on, we ultimately depend on VID for weapons release?

Before we go any further, let’s set aside the question of the wisdom or value of the ROEs and VID requirements.  There are good arguments for and against these requirements and they go beyond mere military aspects to include public relations, ethics, politics, etc.  The requirements are what they are so we’ll simply accept them for the sake of this discussion.

AIM-54 Phoenix - Unusable?

The VID requirement is why Phoenix has never achieved a kill and, to the best of my knowledge, only been launched in anger on one occasion.  It’s why Iraqi planes were largely able to make a successful mass exodus during Desert Storm.  And so on … 

Failure to follow VID has led to a few infamous incidents, notably the Vincennes and the recent firing on an apparent fishing boat by a Navy replenishment ship.

Given that VID is a near-requirement, one can’t help but wonder about the value of BVR weapons.  If you can’t use them as intended, what’s the point of having them?  Now, I’m not suggesting that we stop development of BVR weapons.  Of course, we need them for the all out war situations where BVR will(?) be allowed.  The VID requirements do, however, greatly diminish the value of BVR and, in practice during peacetime or limited conflicts, almost totally negate the use of BVR.

For example, if we had our own version of an intermediate range anti-ship ballistic missile (the Chinese “carrier-killer”) would we even use it knowing that there would be a risk, however small, of inadvertently targeting civilian or neutral shipping?

What is my point?  Well, to an extent, I don’t have one.  I simply note the difficulty in applying BVR combat and the resulting diminishment of overall combat capability when VID is required.  Beyond that, I’d suggest that future enhancement of combat capability would benefit more from BVR target identification capabilities than continued development of ever longer range weapons that we won’t allow ourselves to use.  Just something to think about as we read and assess future weapon systems.


  1. As IRST/FLIR equipment gets better the range at which a VID can be made gets well into the BVR arena.

    For example, a SniperXR pod (the precursor to the F-35's EOTS) can do a VID at 40nm+ (weather permitting). There is also the issue that issue of better and better EW systems and how they contribute to a positive ID. 4th gen systems use ~a dozen different variables to ID a target, the F-22 uses ~2-3 dozen, and the F-35 uses over 300.

  2. BVRs have been planned for use in modern warfare

    Didnt quite work out, but nearly did.

    Its just a matter of how serious the war is.

    The UK declared a significant chunk of the south atlantic a warzone during the falklands war, we lacked the ability to police it properly, but my understanding is everyone diverted out of it to avoid being blown up anyway.

    Our (hot) cold war air defences were based almost entirely on BVR missiles, fired at extreme range, so much so that the Tornado couldnt dog fight against a passenger jet

  3. I would suggest that it's a bit more than just a matter of how serious the war is. Viet Nam and Desert Storm were fairly serious and yet BVR was rarely used despite IFF and radar control. It was a case of never being 100% sure we weren't about to fire on friendly forces. Interestingly, the situation gets worse if you have air superiority because then a target is more likely to be friendly.

    The seriousness of the war may allow exclusion zones and, theoretically, eliminate the danger of hitting civilians or neutrals but it can't eliminate the possibility of friendly fire and, for the US at least, that means near total dependence on VID.

    Consider a war in the Mid East. There's still going to be lots of civilian fishing boats out and about and that will preclude the US from using BVR anti-ship weapons. We've already seen in the various Iraq wars that air-to-air BVR use was extremely restricted.

    Certain scenarios lend themselves to BVR. A carrier group under attack in mid-ocean, for instance, would likely allow for BVR as part of the layered defense of the group. Of course, that's never happened, yet.

    During WWII, in the naval battles around Guadalcanal, the US often had the benefit of early radar detection and yet rarely took advantage of it by firing at BVR due to that last little bit of uncertaintly and fear of friendly fire. Engagements almost always started with VID.

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  5. Phoenix and SM-x are fleet air-defense weapons. By definition they would only be used if srike force / strike group is being attacked.

    I'm not so sure VID is a requirement. It's a nice to have, but I would imagine if the proverbial stuff hit the fan, we wouldn't have any compulsions in waiving it.

  6. There were some BVR shots from F-15s during Desert Storm. The APG-63 had the then new technology of Non-Cooperative Target Recognition (NCTR). NCTR allowed the F-15s to determine the type of aircraft (MiG-29, Mirage) based on how the radar bounced off the target. One way was rumored to be the blade count of the jet engines when seen from directly ahead. The F-15's radar could count the blades on the turbofan of an Iraqi fighter when they were closing in on each other.

    I believe a sizable percentage of the air-to-air shots since 1991 in Kosovo and over Iraq were made with AMRAAMs. That is in part due to AMRAAM's better performance compared to Sparrow, but also to things like NCTR. It's not perfect, as that friendly fire incident in 1994 with Blackhawks proves. But if C3 is solid, BVR can be a real advantage to the U.S.


    1. You are correct that there have been BVR shots. Be careful not to misinterpret that as being the norm. If you read the various accounts from Viet Nam to the present, you'll be struck by the number of shots that were passed up because of uncertainty about the ID. Further, the uncertainty has not typically been a 50:50 thing but, rather, a 90% or better level of certainty but still not enough to risk a shot. That's the problem with BVR. It's not the shots that were taken, it's the shots that were passed up.

      Again, I'm not criticizing the process, just making the observation that our ROE's degrade our technological advantage to an extent. Consider the new long range anti-ship missiles that are coming. What's the likelihood that we're going to regularly use them as the BVR system they're intended to be? Not likely! And, even then, probably only if we have "eyes" in the target area (UAV, sub) which again defaults to VID.

      We can improve all our weapon system's effectiveness simply by improving our ID capabilities. Of course, easier said than done!

  7. The Phoenix missile was successfully used on numerous occasions during the Iran-Iraq War by the Iranian Air Force, and even employed several times to interdict anti-ship missiles. So, they do actually have a fairly good combat record.

    Concerning strict visual-identification requirements and BVR missiles, well, that might constrict long-range aerial combat in small, regional conflicts against weak enemies, but what if a proper case of nation-state conflict with a strong opponent broke out. If war broke out between the US and China tomorrow, over, say, Taiwan, those VID rules would probably get tossed out the window.

    The Iraqi Air Force was so weak in Desert Storm that friendly fire was deemed a bigger threat to the safety of Coalition aircraft then anything the Iraqis could throw up, hence the strict ID-reqs. The same wouldn't be true of a potential conflict with a near-peer opponent who could achieve local superiority of numbers.

    1. Just to be clear, this post was strictly limited to US BVR practices so use of Phoenix in foreign service was not the issue. I'm not, for a moment, suggesting that Phoenix was a bad system, only that it was not allowed to be used effectively in US service due to VID requirements.

      While it is quite possible that VID requirements might get tossed in the event of a war with China, remember that most (or all since WWII, depending on your definition of major) of our military conflicts have been regional and VID has been in full force. Thus, BVR has occurred only rarely and then only under strictly controlled conditions. That has clearly rendered our superior technology less effective. Again, as I posted, I'm not advocating that we don't need BVR capable weapons. I'm just observing that BVR is not being used effectively and that improvements in identification technology would greatly enhance our BVR effectiveness by allowing us to use it more often and with greater confidence.

      The point of this post was jog people's thinking. Everyone looks at a weapon and thinks, wow, what a great long range weapon. Few people go the next step and think, too bad VID requirements won't allow us to use it very much. Weapons are sexy to think about; identification is not and yet ID is the weak link in so many weapon systems.

    2. Remember that the Phoenix was developed to shoot down Soviet bombers and their anti-ship missiles bearing down on US carriers. I think VID requirements would be rather lax for an enemy with that flight profile flying down the Norwegian/Icelandic gap.

      In Vietnam maybe 30 out of 1 aircraft were US and in the Gulf- maybe 100-1 coalition to Iraqi. VID is important in those situations- I believe the Brits are still upset that a Patriot battery shot down an RAF Tornado (like the Iraqis were attacking!)

  8. VID can be waived without much risk if a modern AEW&C system with a fixed antenna (active or passive electronical scanning) keeps an eye on the region and tracks all contacts flawlessly (unlike the Sentry with its rotating radar). This would allow to keep track of what's friendly and what's not.
    The Swedish Erieye system is such an example.

    The other, classic, way is to define free fire zones known and avoided by all friendlies.

    1. You're correct... in theory. You almost countered your own point by saying "without MUCH risk" and "flawlessly". Unfortunately, mistakes still happen, no system works perfectly, and the US military has opted for VID, as a result. Consider the Vincennes incident with a commercial aircraft in a known air traffic corridor (the opposite of the free fire zone, of course, but still an absolute known no-fire zone) or the peacekeeping helos we shot down despite IFF and filed flight plans (should have been a flawless safety system).

      We can debate what level of risk we ought to accept but the fact of the matter is that the military's official position is usually VID. It's that fact that leads to my main point that BVR effectiveness is limited by our own self-imposed restrictions. I'm not arguing that that situation is good or bad, merely that it exists and needs to be recognized as we pursue ever longer BVR capabilities.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  9. Phoenix AAMs have been used extensively by the Iranians during the Iran-Iraq war. I believe the USN is going to need a Phoenix like AAM when other air forces will be fielding ramjet like Meteor. China is likely working overtime to get those blueprints. Those block D we have is not going to go far enough.


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