Knowing your opponent is one of the key differences between competitive fighting and the good old fashioned sort you may find behind your local bar. Fighters size one another up, establish strategies based on strengths and weaknesses, and approach their fight with a tailor made game plan specifically designed to pick one enemy apart – often using methods that may not be as effective against another opponent.

This form of combative chess isn’t always easy to find on the battlefield, where troops may have an understanding the equipment or strategies employed by the enemy, but countless intangible variables remain. However, there is one battle space this form of opponent specific planning remains paramount: dog fighting in the skies high overhead.

The United States employs a variety of fighter jets, some better suited for dog fighting than others, but all capable air-to-air opponents in a potential future war with a near-peer level national military. America’s enemies could find themselves squaring off with anything from an F-15 to an F-35, and if they hope to make it out of the interaction alive, you’d better believe their strategy throughout the engagement will have be tailored specifically to the kind of aircraft they square off against – and vice versa.

As I headed into my first official “fight” as a mixed martial arts fighter, I had to do a lot of the same quick math a fighter pilot might need to when spotting a potential opponent on radar. Because it was in a tournament, I didn’t know who I’d be facing until twenty minutes or so before the fight, but in that time I made a series of adjustments to my strategy based specifically on what I saw across the cage waiting for me.

He was a stocky guy wearing an under armor shirt that held his gut in check, telling me immediately that he didn’t cut weight for this fight – making him either confident, or stupid. I also knew that he had attained a blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu – a discipline I’d trained in myself. Experience told me that BJJ belting can be notoriously slow and arduous when compared to more marketing oriented disciplines – and although I had successfully beaten blue belts in the past, there’s no denying that most guys that earn any belt in BJJ do so only after putting in some serious time on the mats.

The stocky build and cocky approach of a successful scholastic wrestler and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt meant he’d devoted the majority of his training to submission oriented ground fighting. I didn’t know this man, but I knew this opponent. I’d faced him a hundred times before in gyms and fields across three Marine Corps duty stations and years of being a punk kid with a chip on his shoulder prior. There are only so many kinds of fighters – long limbed jabbers, stocky wrestlers with leverage on their side, sure fisted brawlers and fast footed dancers. Climb into enough cages, and you start to categorize opponents based on what they’re capable of – and how that compliments or opposes your own capabilities.

As two opposing fighter jets approach one another in contested airspace, that same type of strategizing immediately goes into effect. America’s two 5th generation fighters, the F-22 and F-35, for instance, may share a generational designation, but as combatants, they employ very different strategies tailored specifically to what they each do well. The slower, more lumbering F-35 can’t out-maneuver even a capable 4th generation fighter like the Russian Su-35 in an up close and personal dogfight, for instance, so the Joint Strike Fighter fights by staying outside the operational range of its opponent and relying on stealth to prevent them from getting a good sense of where the fight is coming from.

By using advanced detection, remaining elusive, and employing weapons platforms that can engage enemy aircraft from the other side of the horizon, the F-35 relies on what fighters like me have long referred to as a “reach advantage,” allowing it to engage with opponents where their own strengths can’t be brought to bare.

Boxer Bradley Michael Pitt demonstrates how to use a reach advantage. (WikiMedia Commons)

The F-22, on the other hand, is a faster and more maneuverable 5th generation aircraft – meaning that while it too relies heavily on stealth capabilities, the F-22’s strategy when engaging with an opponent would be different than the F-35’s. Recognized the world over as perhaps the most capable dog fighter on the planet, the F-22 would likely attempt to neutralize an encroaching Su-35 from a distance as well, taking advantage of America’s advanced missile technology, but if unsuccessful there, the F-22 was purpose built to get right in the thick of the fight against the best the world has to offer.

“An F-22, if you’ve ever watched the demo of it, you can turn inside out. It’s ridiculous,” Capt. Brock McGehee, a pilot from Kadena’s 44th Fighter Squadron, said. In recent months, Kadena  Air Base has been the site of mock dog fights between the F-35 and other aircraft intended to help sharpen their skills and increase coordination between platforms.

“An F-35, it turns differently. So that’s just [basic fighter maneuver] kind of awareness for us of what to do differently.”

The pilots behind the stick in these jets also have to consider the types of opponents they’re engaging when deciding how best to engage. Because a Su-35 is believed to have similar maneuvering capabilities to that of the F-22, the Raptor pilot would likely choose to adjust his engagement strategy to lean harder on the aircraft’s stealth capabilities, seeing as it’s a strength the 4th generation Su-35 lacks.

Su-35 executing air maneuvers. (WikiMedia Commons)

Engagement strategy isn’t all that needs to be tailored to the type of opponent you’re up against in the cage as well as the skies. In my first fight, my ability to deliver punishment via striking was what won me a decision over my submission oriented opponent, but as I walked into my second fight, against a heavier brawler that trained as a boxer, my striking game took a backseat to submission grappling: avoiding his strengths by leaning on other weapons in my arsenal.

Likewise, different enemy fighters are better engaged with different weapons systems, as demonstrated last June was a U.S. Air Force F/A-18 Super Hornet intercepted and shot down a Syrian Su-22. The Super Hornet pilot was able to put himself in position to easily win the dogfight early on, but chose to fire the aircraft’s highly advanced AIM-9X Sidewinder missile… and promptly missed.

The problem was that the AIM-9X was built specifically not to be tricked by the sort of advanced anti-missile flares employed by the United States and other nations in their top-tier combat aircraft. The Su-22 operated by Syrian forces, however, was not equipped with the same quality of defense mechanism – and its old, outdated and “dirty” flares were so unusual to the sidewinder’s onboard computer that it got confused and missed. The Air Force pilot then fired an older, radar guided AMRAAM missile that successfully found its mark.

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Just like my choice to take a boxer to the ground and focus on submissions rather than striking, understanding when to employ an older AMRAAM that won’t be fooled by outdated tech could mean the difference between life and death in a dogfight of the future, and that incident imparts an important lesson regarding strategy extending all the way to the choice in weapons employed, not just in how to employ them.

A great deal of how a dog fight plays out is based on the capabilities of the air platforms involved, but it would be disingenuous to suggest that technical specifications are really what wins battles. Sometimes, it’s not the more technical fighter that finds his hand raised at the end of a match, nor is it always the more capable platform that wins in a dog fight. The human element remains the most important deciding factor.

“Part of it is the aircraft and part of it is the man in the aircraft,” McGehee said about whether or not an F-35 could lose to an F-15. “We’ve got some really talented pilots here who are able to gain the offensive on a lot of other pilots. A pilot who understands this aircraft very well and is very skilled at it is pretty lethal no matter what he’s flying, so it’s possible.”

Feature image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force