A fighter pilot patrols the area allotted to him in any manner he sees fit. When he sees the enemy, he attacks and kills.” What makes it likely that Manfred von Richthofen really said that is the sentence that follows it: Alles andere ist Unsinn. Anything else is nonsense.

The Red Baron (see photo) may be a face on a pizza box, but the best way to get 21 contradictory yet absolute opinions is still to ask 20 fighter pilots . Case in point: reactions to Sergey Bogdan’s display on the Sukhoi Su-35S fighter at the Paris air show. Bogdan’s explanations of the combat relevance of the maneuvers, no matter that they were flown low and slow by a lightly loaded aircraft, did not stop a lot of comments about “air show tactics” and their irrelevance to combat.

But the Soviets did not build weapons to thrill showgoers but to kill people and break their stuff, a practical philosophy that remains in effect in the era of Mr. Putin. It was the Soviets who delivered the last big technological shock in the air combat world, which happened after the Cold War, when people realized just how quickly the combination of the agile R-73 missile and a helmet-mounted sight could decide a fight. There is a reason why the AIM-9X emerged as fast as it did. It’s called “panic.”

Today, 20 air forces, including Russia’s, have 21 opinions as to what an air campaign between two equally matched adversaries would look like.

Europe’s tacticians and engineers, in the 1980s, produced simulations such as Joust (from British government researchers at Farnborough) that pointed to a complex long-range air battle as a result of better radar and active-radar-homing missiles, with fighters shooting and then “cranking” to avoid return fire. Typhoon’s supersonic maneuverability and the late adoption of active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar (because of off-boresight performance limits) have their roots in this work.

So does the MBDA Meteor ramjet-powered air-to-air missile, designed to rectify a perceived deficiency in the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range AAM: Against a simulated “Super Flanker,” alerted and evading, its effective range was drastically less than its brochure maximum because the target could run it out of energy. Along with wide-angle AESA radar, it is the future of long-range combat with the Typhoon and JAS 39E Gripen .

MBDA’s newly unveiled Guidance in Uncertain Shooting Domains (GUS-D) software is the latest innovation in this sphere. Using more accurate modeling of missile and target performance, it aims to give the pilot a better idea of when the missile can be allowed to “go autonomous,” freeing the launch aircraft to take full evasive action.

The U.K. and Sweden have been supporters of infrared search-and- track (IRST) systems (AW&ST July 1, p. 26) and are being followed by the U.S. Navy. The Russians were early IRST enthusiasts, seeing it as a counter-jamming tool, although it is emerging as a counter-stealth measure.

The Su-35S also has wide-angle radar , IRST and long-range IR missiles—suggesting that Russian tacticians also foresee complex long-range engagements—but as Bogdan pointed out at Paris , they also see combats decaying into low-speed knife fights where super-maneuverability may decide who gets the first shot.

This is not new. The Su-27 could perform the “cobra” in public because its behavior was predictable, the result of intensive study of vortices (leading to the installation of vortex-tripper fins on the radome) and special engine test rigs. (Unsurprisingly, a senior U.S. Air Force officer, just retired and consulting for industry, dismissed the Su-27 ‘s display at Farnborough in 1992 as an air show stunt.) Combined with three-axis, vectored thrust and new control logic, it is the basis for the 2013 display .

USAF doctrine is headed in a different direction. Technologists pushed a stealth-centric answer in the mid 1980s—with one program manager comparing future air combat to submarine warfare—but when it was time to pick an Advanced Tactical Fighter , the winner was the four-tail, thrust-vectoring YF-22. Now, the F-35 team has declared maneuvering irrelevant because (in their opinion ) a close-range fight is mutual suicide. They say that the F-35 will achieve “greater than six to one relative loss-exchange ratio” in an engagement pitting four F-35s against eight “advanced Red threats”—16 missiles versus 64, if the threats are Su-35s .

That scenario works if the stealth advantage is so great that Blue can fire with a high kill probability before Red can detect and track. Is that visionary, or does it reflect over-reliance on one technology and the fact that the USAF has no other non-painful options? The adversary always has a vote and it is never wise to dismiss his thinking out of hand.

Alles andere ist Unsinn.