Air combat: what does the RIO/WSO do?

Top Gun has been in heavy rotation on TV lately. The pilots are portrayed as the superstars - flying the planes, making the command decisions, shooting the missiles. OTOH the role of the Radar Intercept Officer (RIO), according to the movie, consists mostly of telling the pilot “You’ve got five MiGs coming at you.”

So what’s the Dope on this? I’m not a pilot, but I think I’ve got at least a coarse grasp of what a fighter pilot’s job is, and what makes a good fighter pilot, specifically:

-a good cognitive and visceral understanding of the plane’s flight envelope and maneuvering capabilities
-a full repertoire of air combat maneuvers, and good judgment on when to employ any of them
-good situational awareness and 3-D spatial perception
-good energy management skills

OTOH, Top Gun’s portrayal notwithstanding, I don’t really understand what a RIO or Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) does before/during an ACM engagement, or what makes a RIO/WSO a good one.

Moreover, if one fighter plane (e.g. the F-18C) can have a single occupant running the entire show, why do some other fighter planes require the duties to be split between the pilot and the WSO (e.g. the F-18D)?

Anyone in the know care to lay it all out?

Found this article with quotes from a retired F14 RIO. It talks a lot about how they divided tasks between the pilot and RIO. As for why 1 person could sometimes do (seemingly) all of those tasks, I don’t know if you’re going to get a satisfying answer other than there’s a lot going on and sometimes 2 people can do it better. However, it does seem that having an RIO on board opened up the possibility for additional roles:

AIUI, air battle managers often coordinate air strikes from a slower aircraft, e.g. an AC130. I can see the benefit of moving that role to a strike aircraft in certain situations.

Top Gun’s idea of air combat was stuck in the 1940s. You don’t have to be three feet away to make a missile kill; on the contrary. That close you’ll likely damage your own plane.

Given that, ask a real F14 crew what each one did, and the pilot would complain about the GIB, the JAFO, about how they were just dead weight, and the WSO would say the pilot is just the driver than takes the plane to where the WSO can do his job. The F14 carried missiles that were designed to shoot down multiple planes at the same time hundreds of miles away. It’s the GIB’s job to control and fire them.

Any movie that features ACM engagements is pretty much guaranteed to show them duking it out withing a few fuselage-lengths of each other; I can accept this as necessary artistic license, required so as to allow both planes to appear on the screen at the same time and make things entertaining for a viewing audience that’s more interested in a good show than in technical accuracy.

It comes down to technology level and task. There is a tendency for electronic warfare (EW) tech to require fewer people as the tech gets smarter and operation is automated. On the other hand, some use cases may strongly benefit from having a person dedicated to it. For example, I think the F/A-18C is the “basic” model whereas the F/A-18 D is intended for night attack and forward air control. Night attack presumably requires the pilot to focus more of his attention on flying and navigation, especially if done at low altitude, leaving little attention for other tasks. Forward air control involves coordinating other aircraft which would be a little much to ask while flying yourself.

Another aspect of task: Is the EW tech just one aspect of what the platform brings or the main contribution? If it’s one aspect equal to many, adding a second crewmember may not be worth it but if it’s the raison d’être for the platform, having a person dedicated to it makes sense. For example, it’s not surprising that the EA-18G Growler is a two-seater; It’s there specifically for its EW capabilities, you want to make the most of those.

This was/is a gripe of mine; it seems that Hollywood has never heard of BVR combat.

Still, pilots practice air combat maneuvering in the present day, and this video shot over a year by the 67th Fighter Squadron on GoPros and a Sony HD camera shows that pilots can see each other some of the time while they do what they do. Even if the shots aren’t framed as beautifully as they were in Top Gun.

10 minute ish video. Neat if you’re an aviation buff. If it’s been shown here before—it’s 6-7 years old—apologies in advance. In a perfect world, they’d show it without the nu-metal soundtrack.

Sure they have. But as noted, BVR (1) doesn’t lend itself to good moviemaking (or in the case of Top Gun, to recruiting for the Navy; and (2) doesn’t actually happen except in a hot war.

The USN and USAF’s rules of engagement for non-wartime operations require visual confirmation of targets before opening fire. Plus, BVR capability is no guarantee of BVR success. That’s why the F-22 is optimized for dogfighting, even though it is theoretically capable of dealing with any opponent from beyond visual range.

I didn’t know this was the case. A brief Googling doesn’t turn anything up; do you know where I can read this? If it’s verbal from people who’ve been there/done that, I get it, but it’s still boggling that, a two-ship can get shot at by something like, e.g., Amraamski from BVR and not be able to respond. Or, more likely in someplace like Syria, have friendlies taking fire from some unknown aerial contact BVR from the US air, and the US air still be unable to shoot until visually acquiring the target.

Though, with instances like theshootdown of the two UH-60s in Northern Iraq—and a few whispered incidents that almost, but didn’t happen—I can see why TPTB insist on positive visual ID of hostile action.

Couldn’t the question be turned around ? As in : yes, a lone pilot could conceivably do the hotshot flying + comms + rubbernecking & keeping up with one’s flight mates + air radar monitoring + A/G threat assessment and ID + the ground pounding stuff (in the case of the F15 strike eagle for example) on his own and be at least adequate at the job while juggling all those plates at the same time ; but what’s the downside of bringing a second brain and set of hands aboard ?
Answer : it’s a bit more weight. Whether the trade off is worth the increased efficiency is, I suppose, contingent on what the plane’s main role is going to be or how complex that task is.

A related question I’ve occasionally wondered about: Is the RIO/WSO a copilot?

Meaning, are there a second set of flight controls, and the RIO/WSO has the appropriate training and certification to take over flying if necessary. It seems like that would be the obvious thing, but I’ve always seen the duty separation as described in this thread, and never an explicit mention of also being a backup/co-pilot.

Although, wasn’t the whole point of the Top Gun school to teach in-close dogfighting because pilots in Vietnam became too reliant on long range missiles?

I’ve occasionally wondered this, as well.

Yes although the F-14 could expect more long range fights than most of the aircraft that flew in Vietnam. Aircraft operating over land can expect much worse visibility than those operating over the sea. The F-14 was chiefly intended to destroy high altitude heavy Russian bombers before they launched their cruise missiles against US ships, not strike against ground targets over enemy territory that allowed enemy fighters to sneak up on them.

At least some aircraft separate the controls, I think the linked article talks about it.

Since Kosovo, allied pilots have on occasion been taken under fire from an air to air missile, thats been modified to be ground launched. In a case like that, you don’t want to open fire on any airborne contacts that happen to be on the reciprocal vector of where the missile came from.

To clarify, they need visual confirmation to engage a target unless they have already been fired upon. But either way, the point is that air-to-air BVR capability is generally not much use outside a hot war.

Another issue : has anyone played HOTAS or another realistic military flight simulator?

Well, I’ve only looked at one briefly, but the thing I found out was that the computers and interfaces from that era and earlier were very hard to use. There were non-standard menus, miles of incomprehensible jargon, these were full custom solutions cooked up by a defense contractor to spec and so you needed to do a lot of button pushing to make your missiles and laser guided bombs actually work. It was too much workload for a single pilot to do all the tasks in a battle.

Of course all that can be automated. You can have clean, easy to use glass panel GUIs with touchscreens. But aircraft with that kind of thing, like the F-22/F-35, are decades younger and from what I’ve read, it has taken years to develop these advanced software features. In the F-35s case, many of these features are still nominal. Basically the computer is supposed to be your WSO in the F-35, but that doesn’t fully work yet.

For pretty much the same reason, airliners used to have a flight engineer in the cockpit. Think older airliners had even more crew than that. But the task of managing the engines is easily automatable, it’s a very straightforward set of decisions based on rules, so eventually the position was done away with.

Eventually we’ll have AI pilots good enough that perhaps airliners will be down to one pilot instead of two. I mean, obviously the ultimate outcome is zero, but it’s such a complex task and there are so few airliners that simply having AI copilots might be what we see for decades.