With the exception of one engagement over Syria in 2017, the United States has not found any of its fighters in a good old-fashioned “dogfight” since the early 1990s. Throughout much of the world, the same can be said for most other national militaries. As a result (and bolstered by new fighter technologies), there’s a growing sentiment within the defense media and among some defense officials that the days of dogfights are gone forever.

However, with diplomatic tensions between India and Pakistan recently erupting into violence tens of thousands of feet above Kashmir, air-to-air combat may actually prove to be one of the most important theaters of modern warfare.

In the United States, America’s varied fleets of fighters with disparate specialties have largely been tasked with conducting air strikes on ground targets. This sort of air-to-ground strategy heavily informed the design and construction of America’s most advanced fighter platform, the F-35. Still, reports suggest the stealth fighter manages just fine in most dogfighting scenarios that it’s encountered in training. After nearly two straight decades of using America’s fighters in this manner, it’s easy to see how even many fighter pilots themselves tend to discount the importance of dogfighting in a modern pilot’s skill set. As one F-35 pilot recently told NEWSREP, dogfighting may be “less than 10%” of what a fighter pilot needs to be good at in today’s Air Force.

Conflict between India and Pakistan shows the dogfighting era is far from over
(U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Jeremy T. Lock)

Details remain hazy regarding the air-to-air engagement between Pakistani and Indian fighters earlier this week, but according to Indian media outlets, the battle may have included as many as 32 fighters. The Pakistani contingent reportedly included eight F-16s, four Mirage III aircraft and four Chinese-made JF-17 “Thunder” fighters. The same report indicated that the Indian Air Force fielded four Sukhoi Su-30MKIs, two upgraded Mirage 2000s, and two MiG-21s. The remaining jets were not identified.

The battle resulted in two fighters going down: one Pakistani F-16 and one Indian Air Force Mig-21.

In the aerial combat that ensued, one F-16 of the Pakistan Air Force was shot down by an Indian Air Force MiG-21 Bison. The F-16 crashed and fell across the Line of Control in Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir (PoJ&K). The Indian Air Force lost one MiG-21 aircraft. “Though the pilot ejected safely, his parachute drifted into PoJ&K, where he was taken into custody by the Pakistan Army,” Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor said at a press conference in New Delhi.

While this conflict, as well as the details regarding this air battle, continue to unfold, one lesson can already be gleaned from this engagement: military aircraft are often the first to engage enemy combatants, and a war with a near-peer will almost undoubtedly involve airborne combat.

America has made a habit of preparing for its previous war, rather than the potential ones ahead. The United States military has been embroiled in counter-insurgency and anti-terror combat operations for longer than some new service members have been alive, and as such, many within the military establishment have developed an understanding of war on those grounds. While combat operations have not been easy for fighter pilots throughout the Global War on Terror, under most circumstances, they were fighting an opponent that lacked their own fleets of aircraft and often even lacked anti-air defenses. It would be foolish, however, to assume that America’s future wars will be against such a welcoming opponent.