Warbirds 4th Fighter Group Virtual Squadron

December 20, 2010

Combat Maneuvers Multi-Aircraft

Filed under: — jfrisby @ 6:31 pm

1.1   Introduction
A section is used to describe a team of two fighters acting in concert against an adversary.
Section Tactical Doctrines will describe several “modes” of maneuver that can be employed by a section of aircraft in combat. The intent is to provide a baseline of different tactical doctrines that can be used so that pilots in a section will know the roles they have and what mode of flight they should adopt so that a section of 2 aircraft can act in concert from the same sheet of music.
Section Formations will describe various flight formations that a section may use and some commentary on the pros & cons of each and when different formations might be employed.
Section Maneuvers will cover various maneuvers or “plays” in a playbook that a section of two planes may employ to execute maneuvers in concert against an adversary.
1.2 Notes
The majority of the material presented here is a restatement of the material found in Fighter Combat by Robert Shaw. Supplemental material used to develop this content comes also from SimHQ.Com and Andy Bush’s online material on air combat.
The content presented here is a simulator pilot’s re-hashing of Shaw’s and Bush’s material. The intent for this content is by no means to be the gospel of section tactics for air combat.  Also as experience teaches us we will modify the material from our lessons learned from actual combat time.
2.1 Tactical Doctrines Overview
Section tactical doctrines (sometimes known as Air Combat Tactics-ACT) essentially describe the different modes that a section of aircraft fly to provide “mutual support” for each other and act in a coordinated fashion against an opponent. Each doctrine fundamentally outlines the expected roles each plane in a section should fulfill. It is this mutual understanding of the roles that leads to coordination of a section.
There are a multitude of doctrines that exist. We will cover three of the most common doctrines employed: Fighting Wing, Double-Attack, and Loose Deuce.
In coordinated combat, it is therefore important for each pilot in a section to know (1) which tactical doctrine is being used and (2) what their specific role is in the section based on the doctrine.


· Pilots in a section should always pre-determine the tactical doctrine/tactics they will use in an engagement (Fighting Wing, Double-Attack, or Loose Deuce).
· Pilots in a section should always designate who has which roles in an engagement.
2.3 Note On Formations
Section tactical doctrines in general do not necessarily dictate specific formations be used. As will be apparent in the following discussions there may be certain formations that are more conducive to highlighting strengths of a particular doctrine but this does not preclude the use of other formations for a specific section doctrine. Relative usefulness of a particular formation for a specific doctrine will be explored in the Formations sub-module of training.
2.4 Fighting Wing
2.4.1 Overview
Fighting wing doctrine, sometimes called “welded wing” consists of a 2-ship section of a leader and wingman. Essentially in a fighting wing the two planes in the section fly as one unit with the lead fighting the adversary one-versus-one while the wingman “hangs on for dear life” following the lead through his maneuvers.
2.4.2 Roles & Responsibilities
Role: Lead
Primary responsibilities of the lead are:
· Navigation
· Forward hemisphere search for the enemy
· Engaged maneuvering (fighting the enemy 1 v 1)
Secondary responsibilities of the lead are:
· Rear-hemisphere visual coverage
Role: Wing
Primary responsibilities of the wingman are:
· Follow and stay with lead through engaged maneuvering
· Defensive cover for lead’s 6
· Rear-hemisphere defensive lookout
· Situational awareness commentary for lead
2.4.3 Relative Aircraft Positioning
In general fighting wing gives the wingman a certain amount of maneuvering area roughly in a cone 60 degrees on either side off of the lead’s tail.
The maximum separation between lead and wing should be no more than what is necessary for wing to remain with the lead in maximum performance turns. This generally equates to maximum separation distances of less than one turn radius. In the case of P-51’s this equates to a roughly a maximum separation of approximately D4-D7 (750-1200ft) depending on airspeed.
Without getting into much discussion on the pros and cons of the various formations, in general the formations suited for fighting wing tactics are trail (line astern), or echelon (wedge).
2.4.4 Engaged Maneuvering
As described already, in a fighting wing the lead essentially fights an enemy one-on-one with the primary focus of destruction of the enemy.
The wingman maneuvers to follow lead in the engagement closely enough to enable the ability to stay behind the lead during maximum performance turns thus protecting lead’s 6 and keep defensive lookout. This gives lead the advantage of focusing primarily on attacking a specific enemy while the wingman provides a second pair of eyes to watch lead’s 6.
2.4.5 Commentary (Pros / Cons)
· The fighting wing improves defensive coverage compared to that of a single aircraft in a combat situation. A second pair of eyes greatly enhances situational awareness as well as enables the section leader to focus on offensive maneuvering against an adversary.
· Another plus of the fighting wing is that it takes much less training and communication for a pilot to fly well enough to stay with the leader than other section tactics or surviving on their own.
· Fighting wing is also a mode of maneuver that may be a good method of tutelage for a less experienced pilot to follow and learn from a more experienced pilot. This is a good way of reducing the risk to and increasing the learning of a less experienced pilot in combat situations.
· In somewhat limited view systems of flight simulations fighting wing simplifies keeping visual contact between leader and wingman because of the close proximity of the aircraft and the expectation for wing to follow lead.
· With the two planes of a fighting wing flying in unison in this manner, sometimes this affords the ability for the concentration of fire. In certain situations there may be opportunity for both lead and wing to have gun solutions on the adversary. In these cases lead may call on wing to open fire increasing the number of guns that can be brought to bear on an enemy.
· In practice the wingman may be too pre-occupied with following the leader through hard maneuvering to provide adequate situational awareness and defensive coverage for both the leader and wingman himself.
· Along the same lines lead is likely to be (1) too busy in engagement and (2) out of position because of the close proximity and relative positioning of the planes to provide adequate defensive support for the wingman. As Shaw says “In this case he (wing) is literally hung out to dry”.
· Developing on the above point it should be noted that a deficiency of relative positioning of one plane slightly behind another and at close proximities is that it takes more than a 90o turn for the lead in this case to come to the aid of the wing. Also close proximities reduces separation room needed for supportive maneuvering. Though it may make for a pretty formation view for friend and foe alike, such positioning has some defensive risk associated with it. More of this will be discussed in the formations sub-module.
· Fighting wing also lacks offensive efficiency. As Shaw states “The bogey pilot is essentially fighting only one opponent. Having one of his adversaries in sight virtually assures having the other in sight. From an offensive point of view the fighting wing leader must engage the opponent one-versus-one. If his aircraft is superior to the bogey, this may be practical, but he clearly cannot hope to defeat a better fighter that is well flown unless the bogey can be taken by surprise.”
· According to Shaw, fighting wing is not compatible with most energy tactics. “Most methods require the energy fighter to trade position advantage for an energy margin, then convert that energy to a position advantage with a zoom climb. Although the leader of a fighting wing section may be capable of pulling this off safely, the zoom often leaves the wingman behind, below, and very vulnerable. Angles tactics are much more appropriate for fighting wing, but they are not likely to bring success unless the section of fighters have a turn-performance advantage over their adversary.”  Under some circumstances, when a section has a large energy advantage over an enemy, extension/pitch-back (“up and over”) tactics may be workable.
2.5 Double Attack
2.5.1 Overview
Double attack is a section tactic that allows two fighters to mutually support each other in much less rigid system than that of the fighting wing. Double attack prescribes for a section to “split” and make sequential attacks on an enemy while remaining in mutual support of one another. In essence if a section engages a single opponent, double attack doctrine translates this fight as a 2 versus 1 engagement.
A leader and wingman are still designated, but are also identified more accurately as the engaged fighter and free/supporting fighter. This relationship of who the engaged or free fighter is can also change back and forth during an engagement. In general these roles can be summed up as the engaged fighter having the primary responsibility of attacking a bogey while the free fighter provides defensive cover for the engaged fighter while maintaining an offensive position and conserving energy to enter the fight when needed or called.
Like the fighting wing the 1st key element of mutual support is understanding who has which roles. Unlike fighting wing there is a 2nd key element that enables more effective mutual support through addition of coordinated section maneuvering. Specifics on section maneuvers will be covered in the section maneuvers sub-module. Suffice it to say that in a 2-vs-1 fight, having a ready set of plays from a playbook that a section is operating from greatly helps the section fight as a team.
2.5.2 Roles & Responsibilities
At this point the subtle distinction between leader/wingman and engaged/free fighter should addressed. In double attack the leader/wingman designation does not necessarily translate into leader=engaged fighter and so on. In double attack who the engaged or free fighter is based essentially on who upon spotting the enemy has the more favorable position and can make the attack. If this happens to be the wingman then the wingman assumes the role of the engaged fighter while lead assumes the role of the free fighter.
A simple rule of thumb to help with any confusion is that lead/wing designations are used primarily for navigation purposes while engaged/free fighter designations are used in engaged maneuvering against an enemy.
Since the primary focus of double attack tactics revolve around engaged and free fighters, we will focus on the responsibilities of these two roles. Only one plane in the section can be the engaged fighter at any given time.
Role: Engaged Fighter
· Kill the bandit
· Clear the free fighter for engagement if the free fighter is in a better position
· Communicate to free fighter on his intentions
Role: Free Fighter
· Keep a tally on the bandit and visual on the engaged fighter
· Watch for other bandits and provide situational awareness commentary to engaged fighter
· Maintain energy and position to quickly enter the fight as needed or when called
· Advise engaged fighter of additional bandits and engage these when they become a threat
2.5.3 Relative Positioning
Optimum relative positioning in double attack depends on whether the section is in engaged maneuvering or not.
Without getting into much discussion on the pros and cons of the various formations, in general the formations suited for double attack tactics are line abreast (combat spread), or echelon (wedge). Of the two, line abreast appears to be the preferred formation to use which will be discussed in more depth in the formations sub-module.
When not in engaged maneuvering the goal of relative positioning of the aircraft in the section is to provide maximum visual coverage and defensive support for each other.
Pre-engagement separation between the aircraft is recommended between one to two turn-radiuses. This means for P-51’s the separation of aircraft should to be maintained between a minimum of D 5 and maximum of D10 (approx. 1000ft – 3200 ft). For practical purposes D1.0K is probably a good separation distance to maintain.
This separation enables a couple of things: (1) greater visual coverage of the teammate’s rear hemisphere, (2) gives a teammate enough maneuvering room to bring offensive pressure to bear on an attacker in minimum time. If attacked, too little separation “jams” a teammate from maneuvering effectively and being of any help while too much separation renders a teammate useless as immediate help.
Several defensive section maneuvers are based off of a line abreast formation with this type of spacing and separation.
Positioning in engaged maneuvering becomes a little more fluid and is really a judgment call on the part of the free fighter. Essentially the free fighter’s relative position to the engaged fighter should be at a distance to be in a offensive but energy conserving position to enter the fight quickly as needed while maintaining a defensive lookout. Perhaps in practice a rule of thumb could be between D2.0K – D3.5K of separation.
A second point regarding relative positioning during engaged maneuvering for the free fighter is maintaining a tally on the engaged fighter and the bandit he is fighting. The free fighter should position itself in a manner that allows it view both the engaged fighter and the bandit in the same direction of view.
2.5.4 Engaged Maneuvering
In double attack once an enemy is targeted for attack the section splits into engaged fighter and free fighter. The decision on who should be the engaged fighter normally should go to the aircraft in the section that has the most advantageous position to make the attack. Barring that this can be determined arbitrarily.
The free fighter takes a position to cover the engaged fighter usually above where he can devote his attention of providing visual coverage. “His maneuvering requirements are also reduced, so the [free fighter] can use this opportunity to increase his energy level, making him more effective in case he later becomes engaged.”
The engaged fighter begins a 1-versus-1 fight and concentrates on maneuvering to destroy the opponent. This will result in two outcomes, a kill of the enemy or the loss of the offensive by the engaged fighter. “At the first sign that the offensive is being lost (i.e., impending overshoot, energy depletion, etc.), the engaged fighter pilot should disengage immediately and call in the wingman to assume the offensive.” The roles are now reversed so that the once engaged fighter takes becomes the free fighter and vice versa. The new free fighter should not only provide defensive coverage but also replenish his energy at this point. These roles may switch back and forth during the duration of the engagement.
“To be most effective, the pilot of the double attack free fighter needs to keep the engaged fighter in sight and stay close enough to offer adequate visual support and quick response to an attack on his teammate without getting in the way. In order for the pilot of the free fighter to provide the quickest defensive reaction potential, he must (1) maintain high energy (preferably higher than that of the engaged fighter), (2) minimize separation from the fight, and (3) avoid letting the fight get too far behind his wing-line.” A general rule of thumb is for the free fighter to stay above the fight and try to keep the fight no more than a 90o turn away.
There are offensive situations where the roles of who the engaged or free fighters are blurred. In these cases both fighters are assumed to be the engaged fighter until it is apparent who has the more advantageous offensive position. This also exists in defensive situations and again both fighters are assumed to be engaged fighters until one is clear of the threat and can become the free fighter role while the other acts as the engaged fighter.
Double attack tactics can also be used in a rapid succession of setups and attacks on an enemy.
More details and practical application of double attack can be found in Shaw’s book and also Andy Bush’s article from SimHQ at the following URL:
2.5.5 Commentary (Pros/Cons)
· Offensive efficiency and effectiveness because of the splitting of the section. The enemy has to deal with two planes with the likelihood of not being able to concentrate and watch the 2nd fighter.
· Allows energy fighters a successful method of engaging angles fighter. For example, in double attack the engaged P-51 can deplete the energy of the bandit and make it easy meat for the free P-51 to come finish off.
· Improved defensive coverage compared to that of the fighting wing. Relaxed maneuvering responsibilities and separation distances allow for better visual coverage and also adequate maneuvering room to bring quick offensive pressure to help help a teammate.
· Requires more training, experience, and judgment on the part of the wingman that does fighting wing.
· Communications is more critical especially if the section has not fought together.
· Higher risk of aircraft in the section being separated because of the greater distances between teammates and more difficulty in keeping a tally on each other.
2.6 Loose Deuce
2.6.1 Overview
Loose Deuce is very similar to the double attack doctrine. As in double attack a engaged fighter and free fighter are designated. Loose deuce in some ways can be seen as a derivative of double attack.
The main point of difference is that in loose deuce the free fighter no longer has the specific role of providing cover for engaged fighter unless called on or to defend against other threats. Instead in loose deuce the free fighter also maneuvers to destroy the enemy aircraft at the same time the engaged fighter does.
This subtle distinction does translate into some definite changes when it comes to engaged maneuvering and some changes in the responsibilities for engaged and free fighters. Besides the free fighter also attacking the opponent, the engaged fighter also herds the enemy to try and make it an easier target for the free fighter.
2.6.2 Roles & Responsibities
Role: Engaged Fighter
· Maneuver to kill the bandit
· Act as a shepherd to herd the enemy to make it easier for the free fighter to kill the adversary
· Communicate to free fighter on his intentions
· Keep a defensive lookout for new threats
· Defend the free fighter if it is threatened
Role: Free Fighter
· Maneuver to kill the bandit
· Communicate to engaged fighter of his intentions
· Keep a defensive lookout for new threats
· Defend the engaged fighter if it is threatened
2.6.3 Relative Positioning
Aircraft positioning in a section of loose deuce fighters is essentially the same as it is for double attack in pre-engaged maneuvering.
Engaged maneuvering position changes only slightly from double attack in that the free fighter is also engaged with the adversary so that there are less restrictions on maintaining separation distances due to hard maneuvering. It should be noted however that trying to stay between 1-to-2 turn radiuses from your teammate is always a good idea (D300 – D1.5K for P-51’s).
Without getting into much discussion on the pros and cons of the various formations, in general the formations suited for loose deuce tactics are line abreast (combat spread), or echelon (wedge). Of the two, line abreast appears to be the preferred formation to use which will be discussed in more depth in the formations sub-module.
2.6.4 Engaged Maneuvering
Upon identifying an enemy to attack, the loose deuce section splits into engaged fighter and free fighter just as in double attack.
Different from double attack, the loose deuce free fighter instead of conserving energy and maintaining a defensive covering position also initiates his own independent maneuvering to kill the enemy.
In double attack the expectation is for the engaged fighter to get the kill. In loose deuce, the expectation is for either fighter to get the kill. There is also an expectation that the engaged fighter can help herd the adversary to make the kill easier for the free fighter.
Some quick thoughts should be addressed regarding ways the engaged fighter can herd the enemy plane. The idea is to try and make the flight path of the enemy predictable so that the free fighter will have an easier time reaching a firing solution. One way to do this is to for the engaged fighter to use lag pursuit with the enemy aircraft. This will have a high probability of inducing the enemy aircraft to maintain a direction of turn away from the engaged fighter. Shaw has an example of this in his book of which we won’t go into detail but can be referenced on your own.
In general the engaged fighter can help herd the enemy by being a little less aggressive with maneuvering but staying a threat in the enemy’s deep 6 and giving the enemy room to maneuver in the direction of setup for the free fighter. Being in this type of position will typically put the enemy in a really bad situation if he tries to turn away from the position of the “herd” and giving the engaged fighter a really good chance for a firing solution. If this happens the engaged fighter should not hesitate to aggressively dispatch the opponent.
A method on how the free fighter could maneuver should also be addressed. One way to be less detectable and shorten the time it takes to reach a firing solution on an enemy aircraft being chased by the engaged fighter is to use counter-flow turning. The idea is to maneuver in the direction counter to the direction of turn the bandit and engaged fighter are taking. The purpose of this is to attempt to approach the enemy from his blind cold-side belly. Andy Bush’s article aforementioned in double attack describes practical ways of making this approach which can be referenced. The two concepts at work in doing this are (1) theoretically it takes less the circumference of the turning circle to reach a firing solution and (2) approaching from the cold-side increases the chance of the enemy not detecting the attack and being surprised by it.
It should be noted that in loose deuce both engaged and free fighters must split their duties 50% fighting the enemy while 50% keeping defensive lookout.
Also because of both fighters maneuvering, having good situational awareness is vital since attention of both fighters will be divided on the enemy under attack.
6.5 Commentary (Pros/Cons)
· Higher probability of killing the enemy aircraft in the shortest amount of time with both aircraft maneuvering for firing solutions
· Most offensive efficiency in relation to fighting wing and double attack doctrines since both planes are simultaneously attacking
· Suited for sections of energy fighters vs. angles opponent
· Less defensive capability compared with double attack since both planes have part of their attention on attacking the bandit
· High risk of the section being separated due to both planes maneuvering offensively
· Training and flight time as section teammates needed
2.7 General Section Tactics Principles
The following are some general closing thoughts on section tactics overall. For a lack of a better word “principles will be used”.
Principle #1: Make it a 2-v-1 fight
All the discussion has pertained to pretty much an assumption of a 2-versus-1 fight. In general this is probably a good rule of thumb to stick by- that is try and reduce a fight down to 2-v-1 an engagement. At worst you should make it no more than a 2-v-2 fight. As will be discussed later in section maneuvers, even in 2-v-2 fights a general principle is to reduce that into two 2-v-1 fights.
Principle #2: Use the strike-rejoin-strike approach
A section being separated is a blow to the offensive and defensive capability of the section. Many a 2 plane section have gone down in flames by becoming separated in a fight and losing any mutual support or energy advantage they might have had to start with. This usually occurs when planes in a section disintegrate into a pure fur-ball in an engagement.
Good SA should be practiced and pilots should recognize the need to stay a mutual supporting section especially in high threat environments. One way to combat this is to remember and use the “strike-rejoin-strike” approach. The idea is to limit the number of offensive passes made on an enemy, then quickly rejoin into a solid formation providing good defensive coverage and get clear to take a breather to plan, and then re-attack.
Perhaps some practical ways to recognize when to rejoin is when teammates become separated by more than a 2-turn radius distance (D1.5K) if both are in engaged maneuvering, getting separated by more than D4K, lose temporary sight of each other due to maneuvering, or having to make more than a 90o turn to come to the aid of the other.
Another practical way of using this principle is to agree to make a certain number of attack passes then rejoin.
Principle #3: Determine the section doctrine/tactics that will be used BEFORE engagements
This has already been mentioned at the very beginning but it bears repeating.
Principle #4: Communicate, communicate, communicate
As already illustrated with the various section tactical doctrines, understanding who has which role is vital, especially as roles may change in a fight very quickly.
3. Application
Regardless of which section technique is used each will lead to a basic application of lead/wing combat tactics called the Thach/Weave.
The Thach Weave or Beam Defense Position is an aerial combat tactic developed by naval aviator John S. Thach of the United States Navy soon after the United States’ entry into World War II.
The maneuver was so effective that it was used by American pilots during the Vietnam war, and is still an applicable tactic today.
 ACM 2
 The Thach Weave maneuver is also basic to the concept of the Magoo Retreat, which adds a vertical dimension and will be discussed in another page.
For an excellent video of the Thach Weave in action see:
There are also several other videos available at:
The Key to successful ACM is PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!!!








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