Air-to-Air Missile-Armed Fighters

A price has to be paid for extreme rolling performance in terms of demands on hydraulic system size and flow rate and on structural weight required for strength and stiffness. This led to a new controversy. As in the days of P-40s versus Zeros, high roll rates were important in dogfight gun-versus-gun battles.

But what about fighters that merely fired air-to-air missiles? Sparrow I and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles both went into service in 1956. Clearly, the missiles themselves can do the end-game maneuvering, to veer left and right, climb and dive, following any feints by the airplane being attacked. Penalizing missile-armed fighters so that they could carry out dogfight tactics might be as foolish as it would have been to require Army tank crews to wear cavalry spurs.

The drive to reduce fighter airplane rolling requirements because of the advent of missile­armed fighters was led on the technical side by a former NACA stability and control engineer who had risen to a high administrative level. The then USAF Director of Requirements weighed in with a letter stating flatly that the F-103 would be the last USAF manned fighter airplane.

The need for high levels of fighter airplane rolling performance was argued back and forth at Wright Field and the Naval Air Systems Command until the issue was settled by the Vietnam War of 1964-1973. U. S. fighters went into that conflict armed with both Sparrow and Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. Nevertheless, they found themselves dogfighting with Russian-built fighters. The reason that aerial combat was carried out at dogfighting ranges was that visual target identification and missile lock-before-launch doctrines were found to be needed, to avoid missile firings at friendly targets. Ranges for positive visual identification were so small that engagements quickly became dogfights. High roll rates were once more in favor. Of course, dogfighting capability meant that guns could still be used effectively on missile-carrying fighters.

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