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Why Warplane Sortie Generation Rate Is the One Key Performance Parameter to Rule Them All!

While the A-10's toughness is legendary, and its modernized avionics make it second to none when it comes ground attack sophistication and effectiveness, it is its very high sustained sortie generation rates that give it an unmatched, ability to destroy and intimidate the enemy. The F-16 has also been able to maintain high SGRs.

Why Warplane Sortie Generation Rate Is the One Key Performance Parameter to Rule Them All!

"It isn't how many airplanes you have. It's how many you can put in the air, what they can do, and how long you can keep them flying."—Robert S. Dudney, former senior editor, Air Force Magazine.

Warplane enthusiasts love to debate and discuss such statistics as top speed, turning rate, payload, angle of attack, radar cross-section, roll rate, etc. Much less discussed is what's arguably the single most important characteristic for a warplane: its sortie generation rate (SGR).

In military aviation, a sortie is the mission of an individual aircraft, starting when the aircraft takes off and finishing when it lands. For example, one mission involving six aircraft would tally six sorties. More specifically, if an F-16 takes off for the purpose of attacking enemy ground targets, does so, and then returns to base, then it has completed a sortie. Even if the F-16 ended up not attacking its targets, it would still be a sortie.

The SGR is the number of sorties that can be consistently maintained over a given period of time. A typical time period would be a 24-hour period. When a plane can maintain a certain SGR over a longer period of time, let's say a week or month, that will often be referred to as the sustained SGR.

Higher SGRs Equal More Combat Power

In short, a plane with a higher SGR will be able to spend more time in the air than a plane that has a comparable loiter time and or operational radius but can't fly as often. Assuming all other capabilities are roughly comparable, the plane with a significantly higher SGR will provide more overall combat power as it's actually in the air, while the other plane is on the tarmac or in the hangar.

It's often the case that the latest and greatest fighters may have superior capabilities on paper, but because they contain advanced/bleeding edge technology that may or may not provide real-world combat power, they require far more maintenance than do “less-advanced,” more reliable aircraft. The end result is that the most complex plane will often have a much lower SGR than that of a less-complex, more reliable aircraft, and consequently generate less real-world combat power. And, of course, more reliable aircraft generally cost less to fly per hour.

High SGR Fighters Enable More Skilled Pilots

The higher reliability and lower cost per flying hour of a high SGR plane enables superior training due to more stick time (actual time in the cockpit) being available for pilot training. And a better-trained/more skilled pilot equals more combat power for the plane/pilot system.

So, let’s say that we have two different aircraft that are equally supported, but the low SGR plane has a base theoretical combat power on paper that is 20 percent higher than the high SGR plane. Further, suppose the high SGR plane’s pilot has been getting 30 hours of stick time per month, enough to maintain high proficiency, and the low SGR plane’s pilot has been getting only enough flight stick time to maintain familiarity with his plane, about 10 hours per month. And we can further suppose that the pilot blessed with 30 hours of stick time per month has been training to tactics designed to maximize his plane’s advantages while negating his opponent's plane’s advantages.

Suffice it to say, the pilot getting 30 hours per month is going to bring such a large advantage to the fight as to easily overwhelm the on-paper advantage the low SGR plane has when flown by the pilots with far less training and skill.

The importance of enabling more training via high SGR aircraft, resulting in more skilled pilots, can't be overestimated. Speaking on the importance of training in general, Lt. Col. Tom “Chuck” Norris, a retired USAF pilot with more than 3,000 hours of flight time, observed, “Ten to 15 hours per month is enough to maintain familiarity with your aircraft, but not enough to maintain proficiency.”

The combination of more sorties with more skilled pilots is a potent combination that has a multiplicative effect on real-world combat power. Sadly, the last two major fighters developed by the Pentagon, the F-35 and F-22, are both low SGR planes. This means not only do they fail at giving those who pilot them the opportunity to maintain high proficiency in flying them, but also their low SGRs means that they spend the vast majority of their existence on the tarmac or in hangars, providing zero combat power when

This isn't to say that they'll provide zero combat power going forward, but that if SGRs had truly been the one key performance parameter to rule all key performance parameters when they were being designed, they could have been so much better.

THE BOTTOM LINE Bottom line, a plane siting on the tarmac, or n hanger getting maintained is not providing combat power, but instead is a target no matter how advanced.

Original version of this was first published in the Epoch Times:

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