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Air-to-air combat has become exceedingly rare. Even when it happens, modern fighter pilots are rarely close enough to actually see the person they are shooting at. This image recalls a kill registered by Rodriguez, who goes by Rico, and his wingman, Craig Underhill, known as Mole, during the Gulf War.

It was the final splash of light on his retinas, probably arriving too late for his brain to process before being vaporized with the rest of his corporeal frame. A snapshot from the doorstep of oblivion, the photo is a reminder that the game of single combat played by Rico and Mole, and by fighter pilots ever since the First World War, is the ultimate one. It may have come to resemble a video game, but it is one with no reset button, no next level. It is played for keeps.

When Rodriguez retired two years ago from the Air Force as a colonel, his three air-to-air kills two over Iraq in and one over Kosovo were the most of any American fighter pilot on active duty. Air Force. This says more, of course, about the nature of American air power than it does about the skills of our pilots.

But within the world of military aviation there remains a hierarchy of cool, and fighter jocks still own the highest rung. The word ace denotes singularity, the number one , he who stands alone at the top.

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Its mystique still attracts the most-ambitious young aviators, even if nowadays the greatest danger most of them face is simply flying the aircraft at supersonic speed. It is certainly the most successful fighter jet. In combat, its kill ratio over more than 30 years is to zero. Rival fighters rarely test those odds. The lesson was remembered.

When the U. That complete dominance is eroding.

But we are building fewer than a third of the number needed to replace the older fighters in service. Congress is buying , and has authorized the manufacture of parts for 20 more at the front end of the production line, enough to at least keep it working until President Obama decides whether or not to continue building Fs.

And once the production line for the F begins to shut down, restarting it will not be easy or cheap, even in reaction to a new threat. Each plane consists of about 1, parts, manufactured in 44 states, and because of the elaborate network of highly specialized subcontractors needed to fashion its unique airframe and avionics, assembling one F can take as long as three years. Modern aerial wars are usually over in days, if not hours. Once those to new Raptors are built, they will have to do. If Obama opts to shut down production on the aircraft, it will certainly be a defensible decision.

Viper Pilot: A Memoir of Air Combat

After all, our impressive arsenals did not stop one of the most damaging attacks in our history seven years ago, mounted by men armed with box cutters. Either way, the F is the most expensive fighter ever built. But even reasonable decisions can have harsh consequences. Complaints from the Air Force tend to be dismissed as the laments of spoiled fighter jocks denied the newest, hottest toy.

Air Force if their pilots stand a fighting chance. This could well mean more air battles, more old-style aces—and more downed American pilots. The impact will not be felt only by aviators. Owning the sky is the first prerequisite of the way we fight wars today.

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This aerial juggernaut enables modern ground-fighting tactics that rely on the rapid movement of relatively small units, because lightly armed, fast-moving forces can quickly summon devastating air support if they encounter a heavy threat. Wounded soldiers can count on speedy evacuation and sophisticated emergency medical care.

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Accomplishing all this with anything like the efficiency American forces have enjoyed since the Vietnam War depends on owning the sky, which means having air-to-air hunter-killers that can shoot down enemy planes and destroy surface-to-air missile SAM sites before the rest of the fleet takes to the sky. Superior fighters are the linchpin of our modern war tactics. Having owned the high ground for so long, we tend to forget that it is not a birthright. Unless the 21st century is the first in human history to somehow transcend geopolitical strife, our military will face severe tests in the coming years.

The United States will be expected to take the lead in any showdown against a sophisticated air force. So it is worth examining the nature of air-to-air combat today, and the possible consequences of not building a full fleet of Fs. The skills that make a fighter pilot great have, like aircraft, evolved.

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They worked on reducing their reaction time and perfecting their hand-eye coordination by swiping flies out of the air. Balance, coordination, reaction time, a feel for the airplane, gunnery, the ability to calmly perform complex aerobatic maneuvers while under fire, a talent for thinking and acting quickly even while upside down or tumbling or out of control—these were all vitally important.

But the paramount skill, Sakai recalled, was something the recruits had at the start: exceptional vision. All of the young pilots had been selected for their perfect eyesight, but even more important was how broadly they could see, how wide a horizon they commanded, and how quickly they could focus in on the faintest off-center visual cue. They competed to locate stars in daylight. Sakai wrote:. Aerial combat is no longer a matter of fixing your sights on a dodging enemy.

Most of the maneuvering in air-to-air combat today takes place BVR, or beyond visual range. The modern fighter pilot flies strapped into the center of a moving electronic cocoon. Traveling faster than sound, the fighter pilot is part of a network that can spot an enemy over the horizon, sometimes before he even leaves the ground; that can attack multiple targets simultaneously; and that in an emergency can react to an incoming threat before the pilot is even aware of it.

Combat in this arena has become virtual in every way except in its consequences.

Fighter pilot - Wikipedia

Tactics in a world of dueling electrons can be best understood in the abstract. Distance means time, and you gain the advantage by extending that timeline. Our goal is the same as it ever was: to kill the enemy before he even has a chance to employ his weapon. War is not fair. The skills required today are related to those of the early aces, but different.

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Perhaps the best way to explain is to take a closer look at Rodriguez. A lifelong military man, he is of average height with a bullish torso, a round face, brown eyes, and thinning gray hair. The house in Tucson where the picture hangs has been his home for two years—longer than any other place he has ever lived.

He exudes brisk, straightforward confidence, without pretense or misgiving. It is something harder to grasp. It boils down to a talent for processing multiple information streams simultaneously. The airplane is as easy to fly today as it was back then, maybe actually easier, because now it has aerodynamic features that make it more forgiving from the standpoint of taking off and landing. Rodriguez began pilot training in , after graduating from the Citadel. He knew going in that, of the class of 70 pilot trainees, only about five would qualify to fly fighters.

Most would graduate and play vital roles in the great air-war machine, but only the cream would win coveted fighter seats. The first wave of washouts came during simple maneuvers on the training jets. That was the biggest cut. In the group that reached the next level, the academic workload sorted out the most-intense players from the wannabes.

Rodriguez was used to the cloistered atmosphere and grinding academic pace of a military school, so he excelled in that area, too. You were part of it and you had to be able to think on your back, on your head, at zero G and then at high Gs, depending on the maneuver. As the force of gravity intensifies, blood drains rapidly from the brain unless the pilot fights back. The pressurized suit helps, tightening on the extremities and lower body, but the pilot learns to flex his legs, buttocks, and stomach muscles and to control his breath.

He emerges from such maneuvers wrung out and drenched with sweat. It is a literal gut check. Rodriguez was lucky. He had the constitution for it. Complex exercises required rapid mental calculations: if you entered a loop 10 knots slower than anticipated, that meant your airspeed would be too slow to complete the entire maneuver, so you would have to make an adjustment, quite literally, on the fly. Some pilots seemed to be able to do it intuitively, by the seat of their pants.

Rodriguez was not one of them. Technology is only part of what gives American pilots their advantage. Even if other nations had the know-how, few could afford to build a fleet of advanced modern fighters, and fewer still could afford to sustain an up-tempo environment for the men and women who fly and maintain it.

Being the best means learning to fully inhabit that screaming node, high above the slow curve of the Earth, strapped down in a bubble where the only real things are the sound of your own breathing and the feel of sweat rolling down the center of your back. You are alone but not alone. You cope with constant, multiple streams of data, everything from basic flight information—airspeed, altitude, attitude, fuel levels—to incoming radar images displayed on small, glowing green screens stacked in rows before you and to both sides.

In your helmet are three or four radio links, with the AWACS , with the ground, with your wingman, and with your flight leader. It is a little bit like trying to navigate at high speed with four or five different people talking to you at once, each with a slightly different set of directions. It is not for amateurs. By the time Rodriguez flew into combat for the first time, he had hundreds of hours of training behind him, and being in the jet was second nature.