“What Ifs” are not “war gaming”

This post is going to meander a bit. I’ll start with a pro F-35 scenario, then dig into some of the assumptions behind that, then dig into some of the theory that supports those assumptions, and then close it up with the guy who wrote the theory talking about the other half of the story.

This scenario was given to me as a reason why the F-35 really is “die in a ditch” important to the USMC.

If that airfield is buried under 250 cruise missiles, and that carrier got torpedoed on D+4, and Kedema is a memory, and remaining assets are protecting okinawa, Taiwan and overwatch for mainland japan, your 40 F-35s flying off an LHA and an LHD 250 miles east of Manila may be what you got to support multiple on going ops, and all you’ve for for air cover, recce, command and control, EW, CAP Strike and escort. I imagine in that scenario all sorts of things taken for granted about the plane shine, where even if they don’t replicate the results of otherwise normally attached assets, they do enough to bet the job done.

And it would be a total riot if they manage to sink a chink carrier, which is more than feasible, with top notch crews and command. and LRASM

This is a scenario where a US Navy carrier is torpedoed and yet the USMC can sail in to range on LHA and LHD ships to launch their F-35Bs.

Think about that. Now think about the mental gymnastics needed to assume that an entire carrier wing and carrier are lost to combat yet somehow the Marines have not only managed to sneak their ships close enough to get their troops ashore, but magically make them missile and torpedo proof in order to continue conducting operations.

Not to pick on the guy who wrote this, but I can devise a scenario that shows the F-111 is the absolute best aircraft for a particular mission. Or an F-15, or an F-16, or a Typhoon, or a Su-35. There will always be some particular scenario where the strengths of one are better than the strengths of the others. Creating a special scenario to support a particular weapon system is giving in to a logical straw man fallacy. In our heads we create this perfect opponent to slay with our perfect weapon system designed to do just that. Reality doesn’t work this way, and rigorous war gaming and testing doesn’t work this way.

When we are trying to twist reality to fit our preferences, we are going about it wrong. We need to twist our thinking to accommodate reality, not abandon reality for ideology or inflexible dogma.

In reality there is never any one system that wins a war. Even the nuclear weapons dropped on Japan towards the end of WWII were not decisive as this well constructed analysis will show: http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/05/30/the-bomb-didnt-beat-japan-stalin-did/ but it was easier for us to believe in the fallacy of super weapons than in the reality of realpolitik. Easy isn’t very rigorous in the logic department.

The lessons from historical analysis of warfare it becomes clear that how weapon systems and tactics are used as an entire system is much more important than having the best planes or the best tanks: https://theartsmechanical.wordpress.com/2015/07/24/was-the-us-army-really-stupid-during-ww2/ and this is something that smart military leaders focus on, making the entire system work better than the other sides entire system. Yes the M3 Stuart and M4 Sherman tanks were inferior to the German tanks on a tank for tank basis. However the mission of American tanks was to support American Infantry fighting as a combined arms team. The Germans expected their Infantry to handle their own problems.

Going from WWII to Korea, one of the most glaring examples of “better plane, worse outcome” was observed by COL John Boyd, father of the OODA loop. In fact, it was his experience in the F-86 Sabre against Mig aircraft over Korea that caused him to come up with his famous theory that the US Army and US Marine Corps adopted wholesale for ground maneuver warfare. One of the things that mattered of course was pilot skill, being able to use the maneuverability advantage of the Sabre to set up a series of decisions from which the Mig pilot had to respond to, and eventually make the Mig pilots decisions irrelevant to the outcome of the dogfight.

Russian, Chinese and North Korean MiG pilots discovered the Sabre was razor-sharp. It couldn’t fly as high, climb as fast or maneuver as agilely as its Soviet-made opponent. But it could dive faster, was more aerodynamically stable, and had a radar gunsight that came in handy during high-speed jet dogfights.


Dildy and Thompson calculate 224 Sabres lost, of which about a hundred were the result of aerial combat. They estimate that 566 MiG-15s were destroyed by Sabres, which would put the U.S. kill ratio at about 5.6 to 1. However, against those top Soviet WWII pilots, the ratio plunged to 1.4 to 1.

Interestingly enough the Sabre would go on to acquit itself well against Mig-17s
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Taiwan_Strait_Crisis and even a Mig-21  http://defence.pk/threads/f-86-kills-mig-21.224842/

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for an aircraft that “can’t fly as high, climb as fast, or maneuver as agilely” as a replacement for existing aircraft. One must remember that the F-86 Sabre was a replacement for the F-80 and F-84 in terms of flying high, climbing fast, and maneuvering. What I would advocate for is an aircraft that can be procured in numbers high enough to qualify a large pool of pilots, operated cheaply enough to get lots of pilots lots of experience, and one that is upgraded through the operational life. Getting a perfect plane off the assembly line once it is introduced is an impossibility.

Many people focus on the OODA loop and believe that “sensor fusion” will allow you to “observe and orient quicker than the enemy which will allow you to decide and act faster, thus dominating the engagement.” This is an assumption, not a fact. After all the OODA loop is not a single loop. Every time you do something to affect the enemies OODA loop at best you knock them back two steps, say from the Decision step to an Observe step, or from an Action to an Observation. It is possible to make them totally restart the loop, but in my experience never count on a full restart. So what does COL Boyd have to say about that? He says you need to be able to ACT faster than the enemy as well.

After all, that was truly the OTHER lesson of Colonel John Boyd. There is no real replacement for being able to execute decisions faster than the enemy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Energy%E2%80%93maneuverability_theory and this gave us the F-16, F-15, and F/A-18 that we enjoy today. The lessons from the former Yugoslavia against an F-117 Nighthawk have confirmed that stealth is not a game changing technology. Just like the Saber kill to loss ratio goes down when the Mig pilot is more experienced, so does the effectiveness of stealth when faced against a competent enemy RADAR and EW operator. So speed, maneuverability, and cost to get pilots experienced, all count.

I apologize if this is a bit meandering, but if you followed along to this point thanks for reading.

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1 Response to “What Ifs” are not “war gaming”

  1. B says:

    I like OODA loops for breakfast. My second favorite is cocoa pebble 😀


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