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Fishbreath Flies: DCS AV-8B NA Harrier Review

Let’s talk weird, floaty planes.

Floatiness (more technically, and henceforth, V/STOL, vertical/short takeoff and landing) has long been a desired trait in warplanes. As far back as the Convair XFY Pogo, a helicopter in airplane’s clothing, designers have seen the advantages in a plane that can land nearly anywhere. The Pogo, however, served to demonstrate some flaws with the plan: namely, that a hovering plane is hard to fly1.

The idea languished for a bit. Like all useful ideas, it didn’t stay down for long. The Harrier was born from this second wave of V/STOL aircraft; it was made possible by a stonking great engine.

The stonking great engine, the Bristol-Siddeley (and later Rolls-Royce) Pegasus, is a fascinating piece of equipment but probably a topic for another day. For now, suffice it to say that the thrust vectoring is built in, the compressor stages rotate in opposite directions to reduce gyroscopic effects, and the limiting factor for power—turbine blade temperature—can be temporarily exceeded by means of a water injection system2. Some sources will tell you the Harrier’s engine is mounted in the fuselage. This is misleading. In a very real sense, the engine is the fuselage, with a little bit of plating to cover it up. Look at a Harrier from the front. You’ll see half of the fan on either side.

Over the years, variants accumulated, as they do for successful airframes. The Americans bought in, and the AV-8 and Harrier GR. number lines separated slightly, in terms of avionics and equipment. As an American and, less importantly but more pertinently, a DCS-based flight simmer, I’m most concerned with the AV-8B, and most specifically, the DCS AV-8B Night Attack variant by Razbam.

The AV-8B entered service with the US Marine Corps in 1985, and was followed quickly by the Night Attack model in 1989. Both versions feature modern glass cockpits, but the Night Attack (N/A going forward) has a few intriguing extra features. Color MFDs, for one3; a color moving map page, too. The HUD is wider, and there’s a FLIR system in the nose. That about covers the built-in night attack capability. Later, it was properly wired for the LITENING pod; the IR-capable LITENING can cue the attack systems for more range than the Mk. I Eyeball (NVGs and FLIR out the HUD) permits.

Weapons-wise, the N/A Harrier4 carries nearly every ground-attack munition in the modern American inventory; dumb bombs, rockets, Mavericks, and guided bombs of every shape, size, and guidance technique make an appearance. So also does the AGM-122 Sidearm, a sadly-out-of-production weapon which mates an anti-radar seeker to a Sidewinder body. It’s a useful self-defense system for aircraft which can’t carry the HARM (like the Harrier), or aircraft whose primary mission is not SEAD.

How is it to fly? Well, it ranges from extremely peppy (loaded light) to rather piggish (with lots of stores hanging off of the wings). One of the obvious-in-hindsight traits of a VTOL aircraft is that it must, in at least some configurations, have an engine thrust greater than their weight5. I never thought of the Harrier as a particularly good performer, but my familiarization flights have certainly changed my mind. It reaches its top speed with surprising and gratifying alacrity with the throttles forward, and maneuvers like you’d expect from what is, when you get right down to it, a very small plane. Carrying a full load—31,000 pounds—the Harrier is much less exciting. Rolls become sluggish, as do all maneuvers; then again, it isn’t hard to understand why. The Harrier’s maximum rolling takeoff weight is about two and a half times its empty weight. No small, fun aircraft can survive that kind of load.

And now for the moment of truth: is it worth buying? Razbam have done an excellent job with the flight modeling, as far as I can tell. The Harrier performs believably, and landing vertically is as much a challenge as you might expect, especially if you’re trying to hit a point on the ground. Helicopter sim experience, like I have, is helpful but not a panacea. To some extent, the Harrier takes unique skills.

As seems to be the case for DCS planes in 2017 and 2018, the Harrier is currently unfinished. The basic flight modeling is there, as are dumb weapons, Mavericks, the built-in targeting systems, and a limited targeting pod implementation, but much remains to be done. Early access aircraft are here, I’m sad to say. If that doesn’t bother you terribly much (knowing that this is DCS, legendarily buggy, whose best-working releases tend to be the most recent releases), I’d say you can’t go wrong buying it. The Harrier is one of the best planes to date.

If, on the other hand, you want a full manual and a fully implemented plane, you should wait. The price goes up at release, but not by very much. If you want a dynamic campaign, well, you’re probably just going to have to wait. Bafflingly, a campaign engine is still not on the DCS radar, despite being an obvious killer app for the platform. The DCS world is growing faster and faster nowadays; the third parties can keep up the aircraft release pace, but eventually the number of planes available is going to exceed the capacity of mission designers to make interesting things to do with them. A campaign is, going forward, a must.

But I digress. The Harrier is a good module, and well worth the purchase if you’re interested in the plane even a little. Thumbs up from me.

  1. Especially one which lands on its tail. Flying into a vertical climb, then looking over your shoulder to locate your landing spot, is not a great design. 
  2. As all engine nerds will tell you, any engine is instantly made much cooler6 when water injection is added. 
  3. For night-vision compatibility, the color is primarily green. 
  4. And its sibling, the AV-8B Plus. The Plus ditches the late-70s Dual-Mode Tracker (read: 6x TV camera and laser spot tracker) in the nose, and replaces it with an old-time F/A-18C-era radar. It can sling AMRAAMs. 
  5. The F-35B is a curious counterexample. For a direct comparison, let’s look at aircraft sans payload plus 4,000 pounds of internal fuel. We’ll use maximum rated dry thrust, with some caveats7. Late-model AV-8B Harrier IIs have an empty weight of just under 14,000 pounds, for about 18,000 pounds with our fuel requirements. (4,000 pounds is somewhat over half of the Harrier’s fuel capacity.) The empty F-35B weighs in at more than twice as much, nearly 32,500lb empty and 36,500lb with fuel. The Harrier’s engine generates 23,500 pounds of thrust, but can only do so for a very short time. Knocking ten percent off for sustained power still leaves it north of 21,000 pounds; the remaining three thousand pounds between thrust and weight easily fits a pair each of Sidewinders and AMRAAMs, or a full fuel load. The F-35B engine, on the other hand, makes only 25,000 pounds dry. The lift fan makes up the difference in vertical flight modes. 
  6. I swear I didn’t notice this pun until after I wrote it. 
  7. The Harrier can’t sustain its maximum thrust rating for very long. There are lift thrust ratings at up to 120% nominal RPM, which the engine control unit won’t allow outside of VTOL configuration. Combat power is 111% nominal RPM. 

Some Thoughts On DCS: Part I

Eagle Dynamics’ flight sim DCS World is, on its surface, an impressive achievement. It’s the most beautiful game in its genre of the modern era, and one of the most exhaustive. Only the big players in civilian flight sims surpass it in terms of aircraft and theater variety, and nothing beats the complexity of its flight dynamics and systems modeling.

And yet, it remains a niche title. Why? I have three reasons: the engine, the ecosystem, and the community. Today, let’s look at the first.

Wait, wasn’t the engine a big pro? You’ll note I said it was pretty, and nothing more. I will grant it’s also fairly easy on performance for what it is, provided you haven’t added too many planes.

It falls down on the job in four crucial areas, though. First, it has no ‘bubble’ system a la Falcon 4, and can’t handle especially large numbers of units. There’s no good way to build and populate an entire front with opposing forces, and the lack of a true front line makes large-scale war scenarios very hard to do. It also means that the enormous bomber boxes from Battle of Britain 2 are still contained solely to Battle of Britain 2. Lacking the capability for large numbers of units makes even excellent innovations like MBot’s lua-script dynamic campaign engine less enjoyable than the pushing-20-year-old competition.

Second, there are currently two versions of DCS. DCS 2.1 is the new branch, which supports the payware Nevada and Normandy maps. DCS 1.5 is the legacy branch, which only has the Caucasus/Georgia map, but is also more reliably stable. This is a terrible state of affairs. Third-party developers have to keep their code up to date against two highly distinct versions of DCS, and these third-party developers are to a man small indie-style shops. They don’t have the developer resources to support two branches and build new products, and it shows. (More on this later.)

Third, developers can’t release standalone module updates. Module updates, as far as I can tell, require a full DCS recompilation. If a show-stopping bug makes it out of testing, players are pretty much out of luck until Eagle Dynamics can scrape together a hotfix. I have no idea why this should be the case, in this age of dynamic loading and so on. I suspect one of two things: either limitations in the engine, which does date back in some places to the Lock-On Modern Air Combat days, or a misguided attempt to prevent unauthorized third parties from accessing the high-end flight modeling features. The first issue could be fixed by a little work, and the second is a bad solution in search of a solved problem. Code signing is a thing. No need to reinvent the wheel.

Fourth, the simulation engine is extremely creaky. We’ll start with the scripting system. Not only is it difficult to use (fortunately, there are some scripting frameworks which wrap the inscrutable API), the API occasionally changes with no notice, breaking old missions. The mission editor, which is a key piece of any game that doesn’t have a dynamic campaign, is clunky and poorly integrated with the simulation engine. Its support for scripting is basically nil, to the point that it’s dramatically better to edit mission scripts in Notepad than in the mission editor itself. It may be a bit much to ask for a proper lua development environment in a flight simulator, but a full-screen text editing window would be nice, at the very least.

The simulation engine also lacks some crucial features for the sort of game Eagle Dynamics is trying to make. Most of the major omissions center on radar and electronic warfare. A third party, Heatblur Simulations, fields the current state of the art in DCS radar technology with the Viggen’s ground-mapping setup. Eagle Dynamics is scheduled to come back to the forefront with the DCS Hornet, but that still leaves all their other planes using a lightweight system which dates back to the Lock-On days. Aspect is unimportant but for notching, jammers are simple noise which only protect your aircraft, chaff (and countermeasures generally) only affects missiles locked on you (so Vietnam- or Viggen-style chaff corridors are impossible). The list goes on. Certainly, radar modeling is hard, but that’s no reason not to do it.

So much of Eagle Dynamics’ attention has been focused on paying work—modules, engine upgrades, new theaters—that they’ve let their underlying technology fall by the wayside. In the long run, that’s unsustainable, and I only hope that they can find the time to fix what needs to be fixed before the ongoing, accumulated debt catches up with them.

Fishbreath Flies: DCS AJS 37 Viggen Review

Leatherneck Simulations is at it again: a 1970s aircraft modeled in loving detail. Once more, we get a plane which has virtues beyond accuracy. Leatherneck’s DCS Viggen has heart.

I’ve written about the Viggen’s history already, so if your first thought is, “Why should I care?”, there’s your answer. With that out of the way, we can move onto the plane itself.

Digital Combat Simulator made huge strides on this front with the release of its new rendering engine in 2015; Leatherneck has proven itself well above average at the graphical side of DCS module development. The MiG-21 was a work of art, and the Viggen is perhaps even more so. The external model is well done, and seems perfectly realistic to me1. The real artistry comes inside the cockpit, though. Flip on the battery and the low pressure fuel pump, and the master warning lights (labeled HUVUDSVARNING, because Swedish) come on, bathing the cockpit in a luminous flashing red. Turn them off and get through the rest of the startup checklist, then turn the radar on. The CRT casts its eerie green CRT glow over everything, and seems to glow with the inner light all displays of its type do.

Beyond the superb lighting effects, the cockpit also has the weathered feel you would expect from twenty-year-old airframes. (Remember, the AJ 37 Viggen is a 1970 plane; the AJS 37 Viggen is the 1990s update). It isn’t dingy, but it does look and feel as though it’s been used, and that adds tremendously to the plane’s character.

We come now to perhaps the best part of the Viggen: its sound design. Although the DCS engine may not do very well at exterior sounds for any plane, Leatherneck has still managed to make the flyby sound meaty, especially in afterburner. In-cockpit, the state of things is much better. Turn on the AC power, and the computer’s fans spin up with a sound that reminds me of my childhood machines. The master warning alarm has the same warmth to it as the light does. Later, the insistent chirp of the radar warning receiver gives way to the thunder of the afterburner, growing deeper by stages as the throttle clicks past its detents through the three afterburner power bands.

Sound is an important and underrated component to immersion in sims. The Viggen gets it spot-on. It’s good as any sim I’ve played to date.

Systems and weapons
The Viggen flies a mission profile rather out of favor in today’s world: interdiction. That is, it’s designed to fly at ludicrously high speeds and ludicrously low altitudes, carrying a wingload of bombs, rockets, or rudimentary guided weapons. It gets to its target, pops up at the last minute to aim its weapons, makes one pass, and heads home.

This is reflected in its design: the canarded double delta makes quite a bit of low-speed lift, but it does so inefficiently. The Viggen is happiest in its native habitat: Mach numbers greater than 0.6, altitudes lower than 500 meters above the ground. It does not fit into the low-intensity COIN world of DCS nearly so well as (say) the A-10C, the Ka-50, or even the Su-25. The weapons fit requires you to know where your target is, and even the air pressure at the target’s location. All of this (except for the air pressure) must be programmed into the computer ahead of time, or using the wee six-digit input display while flying.

So, don’t expect to do much loitering, waiting for JTAC, and dropping bombs precisely. Even if it was more straightforward, the Viggen has very little facility for dropping quantities of its weapons smaller than ‘all’. Only guided missiles fire one at a time.

Having introduced this section with an extended ramble, let me get back on point for a paragraph. The systems modeling feels right to me. I’m not an expert on Swedish systems of the 1970s and 1990s, but everything feels plausible enough, modulo some early-access issues Leatherneck is working through in weekly patches. Notable fun items include the overwhelmingly programmable RB-15 anti-ship missile, the BK-90 totally-not-a-low-altitude-cluster-JDAM, and the RB-05A manually-guided missile (easier to use than it sounds). The air-to-ground mapping radar works as expected; that is to say, it’s very cool, albeit with the confusing wrinkle that green means no radar return and black means return.

There are some ongoing issues with rearming, as well as some others involving weapons and multiplayer, but I’m confident Leatherneck will be able to get those squared away.

On to the most subjective point! Is it fun?

Yes. Yes it is.

The design of the HUD, with few numbers and lots of indicator lines, makes you feel like you’re flying a Swedish X-Wing, and the rest of the cockpit supports that impression. As the treetops zip by at four hundred knots, and the waypoint distance line on the HUD shrinks to indicate you’re closing in on your target, you can just picture yourself hurtling down the Death Star trench.

Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but the Viggen’s mission profile makes for a certain sense of rising anticipation as you speed toward your target. Do you know that stereotypical scene from adventure movies, the one where the sun inches toward a bejeweled staff placed just so, or the one where some narrator is speaking while an orrery clicks toward planetary alignment? Everything is building toward a single moment, and then, bam—the payoff. The sun sparkles off the jewel and lights up the model of the city below, the orrery’s planets align. That’s the feel of a Viggen mission done correctly. Your range-to-target dial—and it is a dial; the Viggen may be computerized, but it isn’t that computerized—ticks down toward zero. You pull up, catching a glimpse of your target as you do. You roll onto it, lining up the sighting mark in the HUD, and then, bam. You pull the trigger and your weapons strike home. There’s the payoff.

It’s tremendously exciting.

I recommend the Viggen wholeheartedly, based on its production values and on the sheer thrill I get out of flying it. I offer the following two caveats, though. First, it’s an early access product; more importantly, it’s an early access DCS product. There are still plenty of gremlins. Second, if you’re a multiplayer-primary player, be warned that there are several bugs and several usability issues to contend with. Even with those caveats, though, it’s an excellent aircraft, and I very much doubt you’ll be disappointed with your purchase.

  1. I don’t count rivets, though. 

It takes two to tango: why I like single-seat attack helos

Picture your favorite helicopter gunship. I can’t tell you much about it without knowing what it is, but I can tell you one thing: unless you’re a weirdo like me, it has two seats. I do not think this must be so. To explain why is going to take a little detour into the tactical thinking of helicopter pilots, and how that affects the way they’re employed on the battlefield.

Picture yourself as a fixed-wing pilot. You can easily fly above all but the most specialized of ground-based weapons systems. Compared to anything in the dirt, you are extremely fast, so fast that they may as well be standing still. Your bog-standard general purpose bomb is several times more explosive than the largest explosive projectiles commonly hurled by things on the ground. Your precision-guided weapons are more precise, your sensors are better, you can see further. You are as unto a god, or at least a hero of Greek or Norse myth, striking down your foes with the weight of inevitability behind you.

Got that image in your mind? Savor it for a minute. Now forget all about it, because that isn’t how flying a helicopter works at all.

Picture yourself as a helicopter pilot. If you fly high, a plane will shoot you down, or a long-range air defense system. If you fly low, things on the ground a plane would laugh at will shoot at you, and might shoot you down. You are fast, but you aren’t so fast that you can really use it to enhance your survivability. You do not generally carry especially heavy weapons, and your sensors are pretty good, but you aren’t high enough to see a long way. You are certainly not as unto a god. You’re scary, but it’s the kind of scary your adversaries can actually kill.

What does that mean for you, noble helo pilot? How does it shape your doctrine? If you’re looking for a metaphor, the right analogue for a helicopter is not an IFV or a tank. If you’re a helicopter pilot, your mindset is ‘sky infantry’. You keep out of sight, use natural cover, engage quickly before getting out of sight, and generally skulk around in the mud. Just like the infantryman has a pretty bum deal on the ground, the helo pilot has a pretty bum deal in the sky. The only difference is that the helo pilot has someone to look down on.

Why do attack helicopters generally feature two crew? Because there are three jobs in a helicopter, and one person can’t do all three at once. You need to fly the helicopter, which is a difficult task on its own; you need to use the weapons, which often requires going heads-down; you need to keep your eyes up to see threats visually, since a lot of the things that can shoot down a helicopter can only be detected by the Mark I Eyeball1. The pilot can fly and watch, if the gunner is working with the sensors or weapons systems, and the gunner can keep an eye out, if the flying gets especially hard on the pilot. Simply put, each crewman can do about one and a half things simultaneously, and each helicopter has three things you need to do. Perfect coverage.

Mathematically, it looks bad for the single-seat concept. One crewman can do one and a half things. The helicopter has three things that need to be done. Let’s work on bringing those numbers closer together.

First off: we can install an advanced autopilot. We’ll go the Ka-50, the only single-seat attack helicopter ever to see combat service, as our example2. Taking its age into consideration, the Ka-50 has one of the most advanced autopilot systems ever installed in a helicopter. It’s fully capable of flying the helicopter through a noncombat mission from just after takeoff to just before landing, and can take control in nearly every combat situation that doesn’t involve immediate evasive action, or nap of the earth flying. This reduces our list of things to do to two, but we still only have one and a half tasks doable with our single crewman.

How can we fix that? Add a second crewman, but put him in a different airframe. Your helicopters fly in pairs. How many things will we need to do at once? Fly, but the autopilot takes care of that for us. Use weapons, yes, but that’s a shared task: only one helicopter needs to be engaging at a time. That’s one thing between us. Keep an eye out, yes: ideally, both of us should be keeping an eye out, but in a pinch, one pilot can keep an eye out for the whole team. That leaves us two crewman, who together can do three things, and two or three things to do between them (that is, weapons, eyes, eyes, or weapons, eyes).

That’s really all there is to the argument. Additional automation can help reduce the workload further. A fancy threat warning system helps reduce the need for constant lookout, and helps direct pilot attention during the few, emergency situations where the autopilot is insufficient. Better weapons and datalinks allow for off-board targeting, which can be used to move the weapons employment burden around between helicopters. Autopilots with more options yield further reductions in flying workload—a terrain-following radar or lidar, for instance, would give the Ka-50 the ability to fly nap of the earth at high speeds. Better sensors help reduce the time spent heads-down for weapons employment.

I’m nearing my target word count here, so I’ll wrap up with some quick pros and cons. I’ve made a decent argument that a single-seat attack helicopter is a reasonable choice, so why might you prefer one? To start, you have reduced aircrew requirements, and reduced aircrew losses—half of two airframes is one, and half of one airframe is zero. You have a great deal of large-scale tactical flexibility. Since the two-ship element is the basic unit of maneuver, you can choose to advance in bounding overwatch, for instance, or widely separate your eyes from your weapons. Your eyes helo might be just behind solid cover on a ridge outside of enemy engagement range, able to peek and feed coordinates to your weapons helicopter, which might be advancing in concealment much nearer the enemy. In separating eyes and weapons, terrain may sometimes allow a quick attack from two angles in rapid succession, or at entirely the same time. If you have a small number of helicopter pilots, single-seat airframes let you put more into the sky at once. It’s a setup optimized for tankbusting: large targets, relatively easily spotted and shared.

Why might you choose the standard two-seater? It’s better in moderately threat-heavy COIN situations, where the front lines are poorly defined and any territory may become enemy territory. Two-seat helicopters have better small-scale tactical flexibility, and a single two-seat helicopter swing between navigation, evasion, and counterattack much more quickly than a pair of single-seat airframes. For another, two-seaters are tried and tested. Nobody operates a single-seat attack helicopter in any real number today, not because it’s not a workable theory, but because the only modern example entered service well after its technology started down the hill toward obsolescence. Today, you’d have to build your own single-seater, or buy a bunch of Kamovs and refit them, while you can buy Havocs or Cobras or, for that matter, the Ka-52, basically off-the-shelf. Two-seat helicopters have better engagement speed: for a given number of helicopters and a given number of weapons, the two-seaters will distribute their arms faster, because each airframe is a self-contained targeting and shooting unit, not depending on another helicopter for overwatch or targeting data.

That’s about all I have. One of these days, I’ll take a look at the concept, and come up with some justifications for why Luchtburg might choose a single-seat helo.

1. Or the Mark II Eyeball, also known as the missile launch warning system.
2. The Ka-50 is outmoded in today’s market, but if you look at its competitors in late 80s, when it first appeared on the scene, it’s a much closer case, and depends mainly upon some tactical considerations I’ll get into later.

As you make your Fishbed, so you must fly in it

Last Wednesday, Leatherneck Simulations released the MiG-21bis Fishbed-N module for DCS, and I’ve been getting to grips with it since then. Here are my impressions so far on the aircraft and simulation. It’ll take a while before I’m comfortable enough with the plane to talk about the campaign or the included single missions.

The MiG-21 was designed as a high-speed, high-altitude interceptor, and its shape reflects that: teensy delta wings highly swept. Overall, it’s quite a slight machine: its maximum takeoff weight is a mere 10,400 kilograms, next to the 17,500 kilograms or so of the Su-25T (also described on this blog.

Takeoff calls for full afterburner: with a rotation speed of 350 kilometers per hour, the MiG needs the extra kick in the pants to get off the ground in good order, especially with a reasonable load. Handling in flight is benign at high speed, and a little wallowy if you get below 450 kilometers per hour or so. That said, the MiG retains good controls authority down to the lowest speeds at which it can fly, and up to angles of attack where most planes would be complaining, or bumping you into angle of attack limiters. It’s even possible to do something like the famed Cobra maneuver a la the Flanker, although not quite as crazy off-axis.

It shines brightest in the linear and vertical axes. Drag is low, and acceleration at afterburner is exceptional. Below 4,000 meters altitude, you have access to a second afterburner mode, which increases the kick in the pants factor still further. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that 0-300 kilometers per hour on the runway takes more time than 1000-1300 kilometers per hour at 2,000 meters. Climb is similarly rocket-like, especially while the second afterburner is available. Even with a full combat load, it’s only a hair away from a 1:1 thrust-weight ratio.

The front office is very 1960s, as is the design (it entered service in 1971). Steam gauges and switches are the order of the day. It comes from the era before pilot workload was a major concern, so switches you’ll need are positioned helter-skelter around the cockpit, although some of the most important functions do show some grouping. For instance, the weapons control panel, at the top left of the front panel, has all of what you’ll need to select and ready weapons.

Speaking of which, the MiG-21 is DCS’s first full-fidelity multirole fast mover, and I only feel a little bad about how much I’m stretching the definition of multirole. Your weapons include a variety of obsolete air to air missiles, from the RS-2US beam-rider to the R-55 let-us-take-RS-2US-and-add-semi-active-seeker-da upgrade to the R-3/R-13/K-13/AA-2 family of IR and SARH missiles. Also available are the R-60 and R-60M, the latter being more nearly obsolescent than straight-up obsolete. The air-to-ground loadout options include a mix of similarly obsolescent things, like 57mm rocket pods (abandoned in general use in Afghanistan, because they were insufficiently effective) and the Kh-11 Grom radar-beam-riding missile (highly effective), and the timeless FAB series of general-purpose free-fall bombs. There are also some esoteric options like the rocket-assisted runway-penetrating BetAB-500Sh. All told, it’s a curious kit, capable at short range in air to air combat, and limited in its maneuverability in that realm, and more than sufficient for oppress-the-rebels-style strike sorties, examples of which in the real Middle East have recently featured the MiG.

Aiding you in finding targets, aiming those weapons, and firing them, is the avionics suite, which really isn’t significantly more complicated than, say, the Huey’s setup. Certainly, it’s less to get to grips with than the Ka-50, and a whole lot less to get to grips with than the Warthog. The kit comprises four systems: the radar, the optical sight, the radio navigation system, and the autopilot.

The radar is simple to use, but no more capable than you’d expect: it’s useful only in the near BVR arena, and to cue radar homing missiles. It has no dogfight modes, and a detection range of maybe 30 kilometers on a good day, if you can tease contacts out of the clutter. (Clutter is modeled for the first time, and is pretty nifty. And annoying.)

The optical sight includes the actual sight unit and the weapons control panel next to it. The former is simple to set up, providing gyro-based aiming for the gun and air-to-ground rockets, and indicating what an IR-homing missile is tracking. (For radar seekers, you’re on your own.) The weapons control panel is effectively an analog stores management system: you pick the pylon with a big honking knob, the master mode (either air to air or air to ground) with a switch, and the weapons paramenters with a variety of other switcher.

The radio navigation system is surprisingly useful1. The ARK is a standard radio compass, capable of tuning the NDBs scattered around the Georgia map and providing bearings to them. RSBN stations, the other kind of beacon the MiG can tune, function like VOR/DME, providing cues to fly to or from a station along a certain radial course, and distance to the station, with a range of about 200 kilometers. The MiG can provide steering cues to intercept and fly along a radial, or, while flying along a radial, descent cues to reach pattern altitude within 20 kilometers of the station2. The third position on the RSBN mode switch is landing, which utilizes the PRMG instrument landing system3. It’s a pretty standard ILS. The NPP (read: horizontal situation indicator, read: radio compass thingy) has some tick marks on its inner dial which provide steering points to construct a standard landing pattern, which I thought a very handy feature. Stay tuned: after I mention the autopilot real quick, I’m coming back to landing.

The autopilot (really, the flight control system; the Russian acronym is SAU) has a few handy features: a straight-and-level mode, a ‘stabilized’ mode that tries to maintain your current bank and pitch4, and a pair of landing modes. One flies you in automatically, one provides you flight director cues, like you’d get on a more modern aircraft automatically, and neither seem to be working right now.

Which brings me to perhaps the most exciting phase of flight: the landing. It’s been a while since I’ve flown a simulated fixed-wing aircraft as complicated to land as the MiG. With those tiny delta wings, it requires an insane turn of speed: 350 kilometers per hour, or almost 200 knots, over the runway threshold. To compound that, it features blown flaps: engine bleed air is vented along the wings to provide more lift at low speeds and high angles of attack, as you find on landing. Most planes don’t mind an idle-throttle touchdown; with the MiG, I find myself flying into the flare and very slowly reducing the throttle to avoid dropping it on the runway like a streamlined brick. Fortunately, the brakes are good and a drag parachute is mounted in the tail, so stopping after touching down halfway down the runway doesn’t often present much of an issue. (Unless you shoot a second approach and forget to have the parachute repacked in between, in which case you’re going off the far end of the runway.)

That’s about all I have right now. I’d like to write about, or potentially stream, some of the campaign at a later date, but there are a few things stopping me—general just-past-release issues. Game performance is pretty horrid right now. The MiG’s developers are working hard on optimizations. A few avionics bugs slipped through the pre-release net, and are also being worked on. That said, the MiG was a definite buy for me, an icon from an exciting era past, and given Leatherneck Simulations’ progress on cleaning it up so far, I think it’s more than worth the cost of entry.

1. Quoth me, to skypirates collaborator parvusimperator: “I guess when you have such a short range, ‘divert to alternate’ is not an okay response to bad weather.”
2. In DCS, all of the RSBN stations are at airfields.
3. I’d been so disciplined with footnotes until just now. Anyway, the PRMG system is a lot like the western ILS, except it provides guidance both ways on a runway and fits in a single truck, which is a rare case where the Russians seem to do something better than we do.
4. Or something. I haven’t quite figured it out.

Insert clever Fishbreath/Warthog pun here

As the most dedicated Russophile among my flight-simming friends, I strapped myself into the cockpit of my early-birthday-present A-10C intending to make like good Soviet propagandist and put it down for every trivial flaw I could find in otherwise-perfect product of decadent capitalism. My final opinion turned out to be a little more measured. The Charlie Warthog is, in a lot of ways, a fine aircraft, and perhaps even the Su-25T’s superior (I would say the jury is still out), but it’s not quite the world-beater I thought it might be.

I’ll start with how it flies. The one-word description is ‘docile’; the two-word description is ‘very docile’. Those big, straight wings yield excellent handling at low speeds, a great roll rate, and all-around pleasant performance. The two podded turbofans strapped to the fuselage in back are high-bypass, which is to say they’re the same sort as the engines on most airliners: the jet exhaust contributes less than the volume of air moved by the fan at the front. It doesn’t make for a fast airplane, and indeed a loaded Warthog struggles to reach the sorts of speeds I consider ‘slow’ in the Su-25, but in any aircraft without an air-to-ground radar, sloth is a virtue (which explains my thing for helicopters). I count this one as even. The Su-25 has better thrust-to-weight and better ability to escape danger, but the A-10 can loiter just about forever and is an easier weapons platform.

Since all fixed-wing planes are basically the same, I got on top of the flying thing in just about no time flat. The two remaining pillars of the Warthog (the systems and the weapons) I learned at about the same time, but I’m going to hit weapons first. The biggest drawback compared to other the other DCS platforms of my acquaintance is the inexcusable lack of dedicated anti-tank missiles. The Su-25T can carry sixteen, plus another six laser-guided missiles, and that’s a lot of semi-standoff capability. On the other hand, the A-10’s gun is worthy of all the praise it garners. It’s effective against every target up to and including the vaunted M1 Abrams, provided you attack from the right aspect, and it makes a lovely, lovely sound.

The guided bomb options (fitted with the GPS-guided JDAM kits and the laser-guided Paveway kits) are good, and can be mounted on most of the hardpoints, but the Maverick only works on two of them, and the Su-25T’s Kh-25 (the Maverickski) is roughly equivalent. The Warthog’s rocket options are typically American, which is to say horrid; the Russians, with their long experience in Afghanistan, have a much better selection (from tiny little 57mm peashooters to 340mm monsters). The Su-25 has better light and medium weapons, and the A-10 has better heavy stuff; in my book, that goes to the Su-25.

Finally, we come to avionics, that traditional locus of American superiority, and the A-10C doesn’t disappoint. The dash holds two color multifunction displays, which control the armaments and targeting, and can display a moving map, and it’s all brilliant. The A-10’s targeting pod (the LITENING, a hardpoint-mounted jobber), through gyroscopes, gimbals, and voodoo magic (I repeat myself), plus a healthy dose of positional awareness, can track a point on the ground even if the wing or the airplane is blocking it, through a complete turn. It features an absurd amount of zoom, plus an IR camera and a standard CCD, and really, it’s hard to say anything bad about it.

It also feeds into the Sensor Point of Interest concept: with any sensor, from the targeting pod to the navigation display to a Maverick seeker to the little visual designation cursor on the HUD, you can declare a Sensor Point of Interest. It sticks around, and you can slew all of your sensors to it at any time. It’s a very, very handy bit of systems integration, and makes re-locating targets on subsequent attack passes a lot easier than they are in the Su-25.

Still, as good as it is, the designers missed two tricks. For one: by Russian standards, the A-10C’s autopilot is archaic. The Su-25T and the Ka-50 both have modes galore, up to and including ones which will follow the mission route or line up on a target, and the A-10 has… one mode which orbits, and one mode which flies straight and level. An orbit mode being the bare minimum for a single-seat attack aircraft, the A-10’s omission of anything fancier is a significant strike against it, given how much head-down work it expects you to be doing. The second one, I wouldn’t have thought of had it not been for the Su-25T: an infrared jammer in the tail. It makes a great deal of sense. Attack planes hang around at low level, where any mujahid with an SA-7 can take a pop at them, and having a bit of kit which makes rear-aspect attacks difficult is a gigantic win.

In the end, the Warthog is what I expected it to be: a solid ground-attack platform with a gun that’s unmatched in its effectiveness. At the same time, it isn’t quite what I expected. It’s only just entering service now, and being such a modern piece of kit, I have to wonder: why did the Air Force settle for very good, when perfect was so nearly within their grasp?

Breath of Fish, Foot of Frog: A Su-25T Mission Log

I, with a metrical title, recount my thoughts on recent Su-25T shenanigans, including the two failed attempts before the one that made parvusimperator’s final report. -Fish

I’ve already written my initial impressions of the Su-25T, so I can skip that part and go straight to the SEAD mission.

As we were getting our armaments in order, kicking the tires, and lighting the fires, I suggested, “Why don’t we try a synchronized takeoff?”

Parvusimperator raised several legitimate objections: “Because I only started flying this aircraft an hour or two ago? Because it wanders all over the runway? Because we’ll crash into each other and die?”

“Pessimist,” I said. We lined up on the runway in rough formation, him as the leader ahead and to my left. We held the brakes in, ran up the engines, and released the brakes as we started rolling… and somehow, most of the way down the runway, I passed him. As little sense as that made, it wasn’t hard to get back in formation—I just slowed down and let him pass me. We turned toward the target, three SAM batteries 100 kilometers southeast of our airfield. Two of them were medium-range area defense systems: one 9K37 Buk and one Improved Hawk. One 9K33 Osa provided short-range support. Soon after we left the field, we were already getting painted by the I-Hawk’s search radar. The radar warning receiver made a little ‘boop’ every now and then as the beam hit us. Range to target, according to our instruments, was about 90 kilometers when we started getting the radar signal, and parvusimperator’s anti-radiation missiles had a range of about 50 kilometers. We drove in to that range at about 500 meters above ground level, whereupon parvusimperator lofted the first missile at the I-Hawk’s search radar. By that time, the Buk had found us, and we turned in that direction. After parvusimperator launched his missile, the annoying solid tone my radar warning receiver was blaring into my ears turned into an annoying fast beeping.

“I’ve been launched on. Going defensive,” I said, feeling very professional as I rolled out of formation, left a cloud of chaff in my wake, and dove for the deck. Looking out the right side of my cockpit, I could actually see the missile’s smoke trail off in the distance, headed in my direction. Fortunately, my dive to the deck and my turn to put the missile on my three-o’clock ran it out of energy before it could hit me. Parvusimperator, who had been watching his missile in, was less lucky: although he had fired on the Buk battery before the missiles launched, the battery’s search radar had cued the launcher’s fire control radar onto us, letting it launch its missiles and guide them to us even after parvusimperator’s missile knocked out the search radar. He took a hit and punched out, and we restarted. Our second try didn’t go much better—owing to a DCS bug, the anti-radiation missiles blew up moments after leaving their hardpoints.

On the third try, we finally found a little more success: parvusimperator launched from nearly maximum range on both of the long-range SAMs, and tagged the short-range one with one of his other SEAD missiles. Lacking his fancy ELINT pod (which gives him HUD cues toward radars, and therefore targets), I had to resort to more desperate measures: first, my FLIR targeting pod, which proved unhelpful, and finally my good old Mark I eyeball. I found the smoking husk of the Osa, dropping a cluster bomb on it for good measure, and headed north from there, following the threat heading indicator on my radar warning receiver and eventually finding the Hawk battery just as parvusimperator did. I made one pass with rockets and destroyed the launcher, and was looping around for another when parvusimperator tagged the last vehicle with a laser-guided missile. That done, we climbed to our rendezvous point, formed up again, and went home.

Protivtankovy Parvusimperator

The DCS Su-25T Frogfoot is the only attack aircraft in my simulated stable right now. In the interests of cooperation, parvusimperator learned to fly it a few nights ago, and has recounted his experience with it here for your edification. -Fish

As resident NATO-trained attack pilot, I took to the Su-25T without too much trouble. It certainly helped that this sim uses somewhat simplified modeling, so startup was a breeze. I can’t help but feel that the A-10C and the Su-25T are designed for very different missions. The A-10C has JDAMS and LGBs, some of which are quite large (2,000 lb. class). It also has Mavericks, which are a nice blend of fire-and-forget-ness and range. On the other hand, the Su-25T carries Vikhr ATGMs, and why the A-10C can’t equip Hellfires is beyond me. It would really improve tankbusting capability. Alas, the Su-25T only carries 16 Vikhrs, which some Soviet pencil-pusher probably figured was enough. However, the A-10C at least has some weapons that can do the same job as the Vikhrs. As for Vikhr employment, they’re very fast, but you have to maintain the target lock until impact, just like a Sparrow. The speed makes up for any inconvenience.

The bigger oversight in the A-10 is the inability to carry ARMs. The Su-25T can carry an ELINT pod to help you find SAM radars and Kh-58 and Kh-25MPU antiradiation missiles to kill them. With the A-10C, you have to rely on the Maverick, which basically means you can only kill Osa and Strela-1 SAMs with any degree of safety. Strela-10s can be engaged with care.

The A-10C’s avionics really put it ahead of the Su-25T. The MFDs, Digital stores management, moving map capability, and, most especially, Litening Targeting Pod capability dramatically improve flyability. The Litening pod’s electro-optical sensors are stabilized, so airframe buffeting doesn’t show up in your display. It will also remember where it was pointing provided you don’t exceed it’s G-limits, which is next to impossible in the A-10C. So the pod will helpfully remain pointed at the bit of dirt, Soviet armored vehicle or terrorist’s left nostril that you were looking at before you decided to turn to bring weapons to bear or evade ground fire. This also lets the experienced Hog-driver orbit either around the target area or next to the target area while he searches. The one advantage of the Shkval and/or Khod on the Su-25T is that since it is forward-aspect only, you always see an indication of where it’s searching in your HUD, making searching with visual references in front of you much easier for the novice pilot.
The Digital Stores Management System (DSMS, pronounced diz-miz) is super convenient, and analog systems don’t even come close. DSMS lets you select which pylon you want to launch stores from (helpful for balance), tells you how many rockets you have remaining, and lets you set fusing options and targeting modes (e.g. CCIP/CCRP). The A-10C’s presentation of CCIP and CCRP are better, as they help you fly onto the correct path to hit your target.

As mentioned before, the Su-25T handles better than the A-10C full stop. It’s faster and more agile. Ground handling is a bit tricky, and that is the one handling vice of the type. The Su-25T is also not well equipped for loitering, using thirsty turbojet engines.

I will also add that the Su-25T’s weapons encourages close flying, so I got to test how well the Rook could withstand 12.7mm BMG rounds the hard way. Several passes over M1 Abrams tanks had resulted in my plane being positively riddled, causing Flight Instructor Fishbreath to recommend that I return to base twice. I did no such thing and pressed my attack until I was happy I killed enough tanks. Afterwards, damage assessment from my instructor indicated that my plane was riddled with holes and it was missing several panels. However, handling wasn’t very impaired, which impressed me (and was the reason I had kept attacking, since it seemed like nothing important was damaged). Airbrakes deployed fine on my final approach. Given damage to my wings and flaps, my instructor suggested not using flaps to avoid a spin if only one of them deployed. At approach altitude, I agreed. Passing the outer marker, I put my gear down. But main gear did not budge. I opted for a belly landing, and continued with the approach. As my plane jolted to the ground, I deployed my parachute, but it didn’t seem to do anything. Eventually I skidded to a stop and shut down my engines. Now I could take a look at the external view, which showed that the part of the tail holding the braking chute was completely shot away. But despite all of the damage and missing bits, the Rook brought me home alive, and earns that special place in my heart, along with other ugly-but-tough planes like the Hog and the Wildcat.

With the newfound SEAD ability, Fishbreath and my now-proficient self decided we would go SAM-killin’. I took the ELINT pod and ARMs to kill SAM radars, and he took rockets and cluster bombs to kill TELs and command vehicles. We took off simultaneously, and then held formation like pros into the target until we started getting lit up by search radars. Our targets were an MIM-23 Hawk battery, an 9K37 Buk (SA-11 Gadfly) battery and an 9K33 Osa (SA-8 Gecko) battery. My plan was to hit the Hawk and the Buk with long-range Kh-58s, and then nail the Osa with a Kh-25MPU. Fishbreath would then destroy remaining launchers and command vehicles with cluster bombs and rockets. Closest to our ingress route was the Hawk battery, and it is very unnerving to hear that it has locked onto you while you wait for the battery to come within range of your missiles.

Accompanied by the Bomb Run theme from Dr. Strangelove, I shoved my throttles to the stops and bore in on the Hawk battery at full power. I launched one Kh-58 at it, and then turned to engage the Buk. By now I was much closer to the Buk, so I was able to launch shortly after acquiring it. I then promptly turned away hard to stay out of range of the missiles and avoid reprisals. Once I noted that the missiles had hit their targets, I engaged the Osa battery with a Kh-25MPU. After impact, I thought my threat display ought to be clear, and at first it was.

After only the briefest of moments, it became clear that there were still active radars. I detected radars from the Buk and the Hawk still active. I thought that we probably only had search radars left, but I decided to silence the infernal beeping of the RWR just the same. I rolled in on the Buk, locked it up, and fired my other Kh-25MPU. Bozhe moi! It blew up just in front of my nose! Clearly capitalist spies had gotten to our missile stocks. Also, I was out of ARMs. I would have to use other missiles. And, unfortunately, I couldn’t directly cue these with the ELINT pod. So I got my flightpath so that the radar icon was near an attitude marking on my HUD, then switched to air-to-ground mode and engaged the Buk search radar with a Kh-25ML. That target down, I decided to finish off the Hawk sensors. After a few tries, the same technique worked like a charm. Fishbreath finished off the battery with some rockets, guided in by smoke from the burning radars.

Landing the Su-25T with its parachute was quite fun. The return from this flight was my first proper landing in a fully functional plane and ILS cues made it a breeze.

Whirlybird Student Parvusimperator

It was all going so well last week. I got over my inherent fear of an aircraft who’s normal state has the wings moving faster than the fuselage and is, by definition, unsafe. I got over the fact that the cockpit has minimal visibility (except to port, where the door is), is claustrophobic, and has not much more advanced than switches. I even got over the fact that there’s a 70’s TV in front of me that gets only one channel. And hey, I guess I can get over the fact that I’m trusting some stupid satellites for my position rather than letting my INS do its own dirty work. My first takeoff wasn’t too bad to begin with, but I started messing with the cyclic too early and left my tail on the ground. Apparently this isn’t an optional part (or so I’m told–it does about as much as a pet platypus), so I tried again, being more careful with the cyclic this time. Worked great, and I was able to accelerate, slow down, and do some snazzy looking turns. And in spite of myself, I started to like the Akuloshka. I was having fun and she (or do the Russians call it a he?) was very responsive and agile. Alright, for a guy who just climbed out of an A-10C, this isn’t saying much, but it was still a blast.

Then my instructor told me that ‘Flight director mode is not for real flying’. Figures. I picked it up easily, so it must be a useless skill. Apparently the Kamov Design Bureau decided that one man was enough for flying and gunnery if they gave him an autopilot to do all the flying work so he could concentrate on the missiles. Great theory. So now I had to put this plan into practice. First, I had to be conscious of where my controls had last been centered from the autopilot’s perspective. Second, I had to be aware of the limitations of the autopilot’s control authority. This all came out okay with some practice and trying to keep my control inputs small. All of it that is, except hover mode. Which, basically makes you get in a hover before hover mode can do anything. When I just had to damp my forward motion, I got into a hover okay. But then I flew around a bit and tried again, and I had introduced a bit of sideslip. Sideslip that just wouldn’t go away and stay gone. I focused on getting rid of it, and then tried to kill my speed, and oh look, sideslip’s back. Did you forget to completely zero out the horizontal inputs? Probably. Or maybe you kicked in too much on the pedals, and you’ve got a bit of a turn coming. Lovely. Now time to correct again, but oh wait—no, you’ve got more forward velocity.

After much cursing, and not much help from my instructor beyond “small inputs” (although to be fair, he can do very little when he can’t see my control inputs—a two-seat trainer would be great), I decided that I was getting entirely too frustrated. You know you need a break when you decide that you’d rather figure out your CDU than work on aerial maneuvers. And at that point, I was ready to code coordinates in my CDU rather than keep wrestling with the autopilot. Which brings me to another gripe with Akuloshka—where are the acronyms? Where are the barriers to understanding? How are we supposed to minimize actual words in our procedural checklists?

But, after a little research and practice, I finally figured out how to not move at all. In the air. It’s a bigger accomplishment than it sounds like, believe me.