Are Aerial Dogfights Becoming a Thing of the Past Due to Long-Range Missiles?

As air-to-air dogfights happen on extremely rare occasions. So, why are fighter pilots still required to master this skill?

Despite Hollywood movies like Top Gun that show breathtaking dogfights… such engagements are incredibly uncommon.

Today, most aerial combats are now a thing of the past due to long-range missiles, but we can still see them in the Russo-Ukrainian War – showing that dogfights can indeed happen in the 21st century.

What are dogfights?

MiG-29 Fulcrum dogfights
MiG-29 Fulcrum dogfight by Alan Wilson. Licensed under CC by 2.0.

The dogfight is a close-quarters battle between fighter aircraft that are both aware of each other’s presence, conducted at a short visual range. It only relies on the pilots’ skill, tactics, and training to win.


They were once a common occurrence in air warfare, but they have become increasingly rare in recent years.

This is mainly due to the development of long-range missiles and radar-guided weapons, which allow aircraft to engage each other without ever getting close enough to enter into a dogfight.

Despite this, air combats still occur on occasion.


In Ukraine, there have been some aerial battles between Russian and Ukrainian fighters. It demonstrates that they are suitable for modern warfare and aren’t necessarily a thing of the past.

The evolution of dogfights

MiG-29 Fulcrum dogfights
MiG-29 Fulcrum dogfights by Alan Wilson Licenses under CC by 2.0.

The whole idea of dogfighting emerged during World War I when airplanes gained a relevant role in warfare.

By World War II, air combat became progressively more complex, and many of the tactics learned during World War I provided the foundation for the new approaches. Faster planes and improved maneuverability enabled pilots to take part in a succession of aerial battles.


As warfare technology advanced rapidly, there was a time when dog fighting was seen as an outdated notion. 

However, the Vietnam War proved quite the opposite. With newer technology, dogfighting was still an extremely valuable modern-day strategy.

Today, it is still an aerial warfare tactic that air forces train a lot in case they have to engage the enemy at a close range.


The era of dogfighting is almost over

A left side view of an F-16 Fighting Falcon
A left side view of an F-16 Fighting Falcon by Public Domain.

Fighter jets engaged in combat are no longer common since technology has changed and improved over the years.

Long-range missiles put an end to air-to-air combat because it is possible to attack an aircraft from tens or even hundreds of miles away with minimum risk to the attacking aircraft.

Of course, running out of missiles is entirely possible in an unpredictable real war scenario.


And even top fighter jets like the F-22 only carry a maximum of air-to-air eight missiles – and just its 6 AIM-120 AMRAAM are medium-range missiles.

Modern wars normally involve a military power against insurgent groups with no air force anyway

The US is the country that spends more on military equipment, and many air forces decide not to fight a technologically superior force. They prefer not to use their air power, knowing they would lose anyway (in case they even have an air force).

However, dogfights in conventional warfare between two similar military forces are still possible. 


So, are the days of air combat over? Not necessarily. While beyond visual range combat has become more prevalent, there are still circumstances under which close engagements can occur.

Dogfights must be an essential part of pilots training even in the 21st century

In recent years, technological advances have made it possible for aircraft to engage each other from beyond visual range, making air-to-air combat no longer common.

But war is unpredictable, and fighter jet pilots must be prepared for every possible scenario on a real battlefield. That’s why it remains an essential component of pilots’ training – and it is a skill that is likely to continue playing a role in warfare for years to come.


Featured image credit: Rafale and F-35 during exercise by Staff Sergeant Alexander Cook.

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