Aerial Supremacy

The pressing need for long range BVR missiles

Rohan Ramesh

The advent of Air-to-Air Missiles (AAM) in the post-World War years changed air combat between fighter planes forever. Although air combat between fighter planes began during World War I, World War II, and Korean War, the feverish R&D in the Cold War years, brought in greater sophistication in fighter plane engagement.


Air-to-Air combat was first seen on a large-scale during World War I and II. World War II saw the evolution of aerial combat as both Allied and Axis powers tussled for air supremacy. Although the Mexican revolution saw the first ‘Dogfight’, World War I was when pilots actually started ‘fighting’ each other. Shooting pistols, lobbing bricks and grenades at enemy aircraft and even hurling rope to entangle the enemy aircraft propeller, World War I pilots became experts at it.

It was during World War II that belt-fed guns began to be mounted on twin-seater fighters, with a pilot and a gunner seated aft. The basic principle was to get above and abeam so that the gunner could get a clear line of sight to shoot down the other aircraft. Throughout the war, the role of the fighters was essentially to escort bombers on missions, and to intercept the fighters escorting the enemy bombers and target the bombers themselves.

By the end of the war, the Germans developed the first air-to-air missile named Kramer X-4 or RK 344, a wire-guided missile, with a 3.5-km long wire trailing the missile. Sometime later came the Hs-298, which used wire guidance and also radio commands. But these developments came too late in the day to make any significant change in the fortunes of the Luftwaffe.

It would not be until the Korean War that AAM missiles would start becoming gamechangers. The Korean War would see missiles come to the fore. In the early Fifties, the US Navy and the air force started deploying the AIM-9 Sidewinder and the AIM-4 Falcon air-to-air missiles.

Kaliningrad K-5 (NATO reporting name AA-1 Alkali) was one of the earliest Soviet air-to-air missiles which became operational in 1957 and was deployed on MiG-17PFU and MiG-19PM versions followed by later aircraft.

The Vietnam War saw extensive use of AAM missiles. The North Vietnamese used K-13 missile to great effect in their battle for air supremacy against the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies. Despite having a limited number of MiG-21 aircraft at their disposal, the North Vietnamese air force pilots achieved considerable success.

The same Vympel K-13 (NATO reporting name: AA-2 ‘Atoll’) short-range, infrared homing AAM would be used, extensively and successfully by the Indian Air Force (IAF) in the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971.

More recently, in the Indian context, the IAF claimed shooting down a Pakistan Air Force (PAF) F-16 on February 27 this year in a dogfight that was part of the PAF’s retaliation against the IAF’s airstrike at Balakot, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan.

The IAF claims its pilot flying a MiG-21 Bison used a Vympel R-73 (NATO reporting name AA-11 Archer) missile to shoot down a PAF F-16.

Yet, it is evident that the IAF has lost the edge to PAF which acquired the AIM-120 AMRAAM in 2011. The acquisition of PL-12 missiles for use on their JF-17 fighters by the PAF has not helped matters either.

Let us take a look at the short, medium range and BVR AAMs in service with the IAF.

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