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High-End Fighters Need High-End AEW&C

  • Published
  • By Mr. Andy Cichon

Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor rendered all previous fighters obsolete, but the U.S. and relies on the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II strike fighter and upgrades to fourth-generation fighters, like the McDonnell Douglas F-15 and F-18, to help its remaining F-22s to compete for air superiority. The introduction of stealth fighters also rendered existing air search radars less effective, if not ineffective. While the acquisition of the F-15 EX Eagle II and F/A-18 Block III Advanced Super Hornet has generated debate on how these 4.5 generation fighters compare to U.S., Russian and Chinese 4.5 and fifth-generation fighters, less attention has been paid to the obsolescing fleet of U.S. airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft.

Air superiority in modern air combat is achieved not just by the capabilities and performance of fighters, but by modern fighters supported by effective command and control (C2), particularly by a force operating AEW&C aircraft. However, little has been done to replace the Northrop Grumman E-2 Hawkeye and Boeing E-3 Sentry, after over 40 years of service, with a modern AEW&C aircraft to support newer 4.5 or fifth-generation fighters in combat against other 4.5 and fifth-generation fighters.1 This is problematic with China modernizing its air force new AEW&C aircraft like the Shaanxi KJ-500 to support its 4.5 generation Chengdu J-10 and Shenyang J-16 fighters, and Chengdu J-20 fifth-generation stealth fighter.2

The C2 from the E-2 and E-3, introduced in the 1970s to operate against the late third-generation and early fourth-generation fighters, will be less effective in detecting fifth-generation stealth fighters or 4.5 generation fighters in a C2 denied or degraded environment (C2D2E). Without the aid of effective C2, a fourth-generation fighter, like the F-15, will be defeated by a superior performing 4.5 generation fighter, like the SU-30, that integrates fifth-generation fighter avionics and reduced radar cross-section features into fourth-generation fighter design. However, with the aid of effective C2, particularly from AEW&C aircraft, a pilot in an F-15 can compete against a SU-30.3 High-end fighters need high-end C2.

C2’s Early Contributions in Victories (and Defeats)

The theory of C2 contributing to air combat, and enabling pilots in modern fighters to defeat a larger force with proportionately more advanced fighters, was first observed at the 1940 Battle of Britain.4 Effective C2 from air search radars and fighter direction procedures culminated into a comprehensive ground control intercept (GCI) system, referred to as the Dowding System. This C2 enabled Royal Air Force (RAF) Hawker Hurricane pilots to defeat the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt BF-109, a superior fighter that lacked the same C2 support. Compared to its earlier losses to the BF-109 in the 1940 Battle of France, the addition of C2 aided RAF Hurricanes in shooting down more German aircraft than the RAF’s newer Supermarine Spitfire.5

The added C2 from the Dowding System’s GCI kept the Hurricane relevant, in both survivability and lethality, in spite of the presence of more superior fighters like the Spitfire and BF-109. GCI assigned Hurricanes and Spitfires to intercept the appropriate group of German bombers or fighters from the most advantageous altitude and position. Therefore, with the aid of effective C2, pilots in a modern, but underperforming, fighter like the Hurricane could compete in air combat with a superior performing fighter like the BF-109. As a result, the success of the Hurricane allowed RAF to justify its continued production, which was less expensive and faster to build than the Spitfire.

Although the same rationale can justify acquiring less expensive F-15EXs and F-18 Block IIIs to augment the more expensive F-22s and F-35s, air combat in the Second World War revealed caveats to the effectiveness of C2. First, despite its success with GCI in the Battle of Britain, the Hurricane was defeated by Japan’s faster and more maneuverable Mitsubishi A6M Zero in the 1942 Battle of Singapore when RAF GCI facilities were degraded and destroyed.6 Second, shipboard control intercept (SCI) enabled U.S. Grumman F4F Wildcat pilots to combat the faster and more maneuverable A6M Zero in the 1942 naval battles of the Coral Sea and Midway, but GCI could not help the F4F’s obsolete predecessor, the Brewster F2F Buffalo, being outperformed and annihilated by the Zero at Midway.

C2 in Air Superiority

GCI and SCI, in the Second World War, were limited by the range of air search radars on the ground and on board ships, restricting the C2 for the defense of cities, bases and ships. As a result, the Luftwaffe was incapable of employing a GCI or SCI to support its aircraft in the Battle of Britain to counter the Dowding System. On the other hand, the U.S. successfully employed revised fighter tactics in the form of fighter sweeps beyond the range of Allied GCI, to defeat GCI aided air defenses and gain air superiority against the Luftwaffe’s advanced piston, rocket and jet engine fighters over Germany in the Second World War, and against the latest second generation Chinese, North Korean and Soviet Union fighters in the Korean War.7

The Korean War is noteworthy for the first-ever air battle between jet engine fighters, particularly the air combat fought between the second-generation North American F-86 Sabre and Mikoyan MiG-15 fighters. In dog fights that did not witness a significant contribution from GCI by either force, experienced pilots in F-86s relied on better training and tactics to achieve a favorable kill-to-loss ratio that ranged between 5.6 to 1 and 7 to 1 over all MiG-15 pilots from China, North Korea and the Soviet Union combined, and 1.4 to 1 over MiG-15’s piloted by more experienced Soviet Union pilots.8 Although the kill to loss ratio has shrunk from an initial claim of 14 to 1 over the MiG-15, U.S. F-86 pilots, operating a peak strength of 150 F-86 Sabres against a total peak strength of 900 MiG-15s.9

An airborne control intercept (ACI) solution, that would provide C2 for fighters operating beyond GCI and SCI, would not emerge until the Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star AEW&C aircraft was pressed into the Vietnam War. In the first-ever ACI-assisted air combat, EC-121’s aided U.S. fighters in shooting down 30 out of the total 180 second and third-generation Vietnamese Peoples’ Air Force (VPAF) fighters, like that the MiG 17, MiG 19 and MiG 21 fighters, lost in the war.10 Later in the war, however, VPAF fighters used GCI to exploit the limitations of radars in the EC-121 and fighters, like the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, by approaching U.S. aircraft from low altitude to avoid radar detection and attacking U.S. formations to force fighter bombers to jettison bombs early rather than engage in dog fights that had contributed to the success of F-86 pilots in the Korean War.11

Improved AEW&C aircraft, like the E-2 Hawkeye and E-3 Sentry, aided fourth-generation fighters in defeating third and fourth-generation fighters aided by GCI. Israeli Air Force IAF E-2s aided F-15s and F-16s shooting down 82 of Syria’s Soviet Union made second and third-generation fighters, and GCI aided, in the 1982 Operation Mole Cricket 19, known as the Bekaa Valley Turkey Shoot, while losing no fighters in air combat.12 E-2s and E-3s aided U.S. fighters in shooting down 30 GCI aided third and fourth-generation Iraqi fighters while only losing one U.S. F-18 in the 1991 Operation Desert Storm.13 Modern AEW&C provided IAF and U.S. pilots of advanced fighters with equally advanced ACI that was survivable and effective in denying Syrian and Iraqi pilots from using the GCI and same tactics as the RAF in the Battle of Britain and the VPAF in the Vietnam War.

An Unprecedented Air Battle

While the U.S. has used AEW&C aircraft against adversaries with GCI, an air battle between Chinese and U.S. AEW&C aircraft would be unprecedented. Based on the performance of the E-2 and E-3 in operations Mole Cricket 19 and Desert Storm, U.S. and Chinese AEW&C aircraft will detect one another’s fourth-generation fighters from long range and direct undetected fifth-generation fighters to intercept unsuspecting fourth-generation fighters, just as GCI aided MiG-15s defeated P-80s in the Korean War.14 The fifth-generation fighters’ stealth will possibly avoid AEW&C detection, forcing U.S. and China to depend on fifth-generation fighters to detect and intercept one another’s fifth-generation fighters without the aid of AEW&C aircraft.15

Although AEW&C aircraft have proven to be more survivable and effective than GCI in military operations of the 1980s and 1990s, ACI is potentially rendered ineffective by tactics or technology aimed to avoid radar detection, such as stealth technology and systems aimed at C2D2E. Israel’s communication jamming of Syrian GCI in Operation Mole Cricket 19 was particularly effective in denying C2 to fighters. GPS jamming and cyberwarfare, already commonplace in the South China Sea and against Taiwan, can potentially escalate to soft and hard electronic attacks, including electronic jamming and attacks on satellites, to create a more challenging C2D2E.16 While this level of effort may not result in AEW&C aircraft being shot down, it may result in older AEW&C aircraft no longer rendering effective C2 for fighters.

Without effective C2, fourth-generation fighters, like the F-15C, have been defeated by 4.5 generation fighters, like the SU-30 in the U.S.-India COPE INDIA exercises.17 Moreover, even with the help of C2, the F-15C is likely to be outperformed and defeated by a fifth-generation fighter. The reduced radar cross-sections and advanced avionics of typical 4.5 generation fighters will shorten AEW&C detection ranges and increase engagement ranges against older fighters, making 4.5 generation fighters more difficult for fourth and fifth-generation fighters to defeat. While replacing older fighters with 4.5 generation fighters is cost-effective, modern AEW&C aircraft are essential in providing effective C2 for 4.5 and fifth-generation fighters to compete with other 4.5 and fifth-generation fighters aided by AEW&C.

Mr. Andy Cichon

Andy Cichon is a retired United States Naval Officer, who has served in various ships and staffs, including as Air Warfare Project Manager at the Royal Australian Navy’s Australian Maritime Warfare Centre, and in the Chief of Naval Operations’ staff for the U.S. Navy’s international engagement with China, Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam. He currently works for SAIC as a civilian war gamer and training facilitator at the U.S Navy’s Tactical Training Group Pacific.


1. Valerie Insinna, “Top US Air Force General Isn’t Ready to Buy E-7 Wedgetail Just Yet,” Defense News, 26 February 2012.

2. Zachary Keck, “China’s Air Force Modernization: ‘Unprecedented in History’,” The Diplomat, 6 June 2014,

3. Andy Cichon, “C2 is the Fighter’s Winning Edge,” Proceedings, September 2020,

4. Richard Hough and Denis Richards, The Battle of Britain (Pen & Sword, Barnsley, 2007), 15.

5. Leo McKinstry for Mailonline, “The Unsung Plane that Really Won the Battle of Britain: The Hawker Hurricane Gets Its Rightful Place in History,” The Daily Mail, 9 July 2010,

6. Douglas Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force, 1939–1942, vol. 1, in Australia in the War of 1939–1945, Series 3: Air (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1962), 333, 339–40,

7. Blake Stilwell, “The US General Most Respected by the Nazis May Surprise You,” We Are The Mighty, 29 April 2020,

8. John T. Correl, “Mig Alley,” Air Force Magazine, April 1, 2010, Michael Peck, “Cold War Battle in the Sky: F-86 Saber vs. Mig-15” The National Interest, 18 May 2015,

9. Correl, “Mig Alley.”

10. John T. Correl, The Air Force in the Vietnam War (Arlington, VA: Aerospace Education Foundation, 2004), 41.

11. Wayne Thompson, To Hanoi and Back: The United States Air Force and North Vietnam 1966-1973, Air Force History and Museums Program (Washington, D.C.: United States Air Force, 2000), 17; John T. Correl, “Against the Migs in Vietnam” Air Force Magazine, 1 October 2019

12. Eliezer Cohen. The Sky is not the Limit: The Story of the Israeli Airforce (Tel-Aviv: Sifriyat Maariv, 1990), 615.

13. Benjamin S. Lambeth, The Winning of Air Supremacy in Operation Desert Storm (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1993),

14. Mark Episkopos, “F-35: How This Stealth Fighter Dominates Every Wargame It ‘Fights’ In,” The National Interest, 18 June 2021,

15. Ryan Pickrell, “A US F-22 Raptor Pilot Describes the Challenge of Going Up Against F-35 Red-Air Aggressors, Business Insider, 30 Aug 2021,

16. Richard Morris, “What Happen to British Ships When Satellites Don’t Work,”, 28 July 2021, Liam Gibson, “China Can ‘Paralyze’ Taiwan’s Defenses, Threat Worsening: Ministry of National Defense,” Taiwan News, 2 September 2021,

17. Joseph Trevithick, “F-15s Arrive for Rebooted ‘Cope India’ Air Combat Drills As US-Indian Relations Tighten,” The Warzone, 3 December 2018,

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