In this post, we will discuss the Military Aircraft Identification Guide and military aircraft recognition. The U.S. Army’s manual to help troops identify fast-moving aircraft has at least one major issue: it seems to have trouble itself distinguishing planes.
The guide is hobbled with misidentifications and misspellings of aircraft names. The vital training doc has also failed to keep up with changes in the geopolitical environment, listing obsolete aircraft and drones, and virtually ignoring the Asia-Pacific.
Military Aircraft Identification Guide
TC 3-01.80: Visual Aircraft Recognition (VAR), was published just last month by the Army’s Air Defense Artillery Branch. VAR describes itself as “reference to assist the user in the technique of identifying friendly, hostile, or foreign country aircraft.” The target audience is “leaders, trainers, and evaluators of Air and Missile Defense (AMD) units all the way down to Soldier level.”
One of the most glaring and obvious problems with VAR are the aircraft misidentifications—especially those that confuse airplanes used by potential adversaries with friendly aircraft. On page A-14, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is misidentified with a picture of a Chinese J-20 fifth generation fighter.
On page A-26, the Soviet/Russian MiG-27 Flogger strike jet is depicted with the NATO-ally Tornado jet. There are at least three other misidentifications, one including the Yugoslavian Jastreb light attack aircraft and the Swedish J-37 Viggen.
military aircraft recognition
There are other identifying errors. The VAR identifies the Orao J-22 ground attack jet as an American plane, when in fact it is from Yugoslavia. It also refers to the Su-7 “Fitter” jet as variously the “Fittera” or “Fittler”, “TF/A-18” Hornet (actually, just F/A-18) and the Su-27 “Flaker” (actually, Flanker).
The Tornado ADV, the air-superiority version of the Tornado strike aircraft, is listed on page A-54 as simply the “To ADV”. The Mi-2 “Hoplite” helicopter is identified merely as the “Mi-Hoplite”.
The guide has listings for a number of unmanned aircraft, but all of them seem to predate September 11, 2001. U.S. drones such as the Fire Scout, Reaper, Gray Eagle, and Scan Eagle, Russian drones such as the Orlan-10 and Dozor-600, and Chinese drones such as the CH-4 are all absent. Of the drones listed, likely none of them are still flying today.
Many of the planes in the guide are obsolete and unlikely to be seen by U.S. forces in combat. The Alouette II helicopter, the Sioux helicopter (perhaps best known from the TV show “M.A.S.H.”), the Saab Draken, the Wasp helicopter, the F-117A Night Hawk stealth fighter, the World War II-era DC-3 Dakota transport, and the C-141 Starlifter transport are all either extinct in the wild or in very, very limited service. Meanwhile, newer aircraft such as the AW101 Merlin helicopter, A400M transport, Su-34 “Fullback” strike fighter, among many others, are not listed.
Despite the rise of China’s military and the looming importance of the Asia-Pacific region, just one Chinese, aircraft—the obsolete Fantan Q-5—is listed. Even then, it’s misnamed as the “Fantana Q-5.” Japanese and South Korean planes not made in the USA—such as the Mitsubishi F-2, OH-1 Ninja, and T-50 Golden Eagle are ignored.
visual aircraft recognition
The Need for Visual Aircraft Recognition
This chapter outlines the causes for the decline in recognition skills in the past, the
reasons for visual aircraft recognition skills today, and an overview of the potential
1-1. Air platforms are as much a part of the operational environment as tanks and artillery. These aircraft,
with their various roles and missions, add a vertical dimension. On today’s battlefield, a Soldier must be able
to recognize and identify aircraft (i.e. Close Air Support (CAS) rotary-wing, and unmanned aircraft system
(UAS)). Since there may be many of each type, aircraft recognition training is necessary for every Soldier in
the combat force.
FACTORS OF VACR
1-2. A unit’s area of operation can be the deciding factor of the types of aircraft that will be seen in the
area. Air threat awareness is critical at the Soldier level. Knowledge of enemy and friendly aerial platforms
further decreases any chance of fratricide. Lessons learned have identified factors listed below as the major
cause of improper identification of various aircraft entering the combined arms Soldier’s areas of operation.
Increased aircraft capabilities and proliferation demands increased visual aircraft recognition (VACR)
capability. Possible results of incorrect identification include:
Factor 1. Recognizing a friendly aircraft as a hostile aircraft will result in fratricide.
Factor 2. Recognizing a hostile aircraft as a friend aircraft will allow hostile aircraft entry into or safe
passage through a defended area.
1-3. The geographic location of the theater of operations can be a deciding factor on the type(s) of aircraft
that will be encountered. Personnel must be provided ongoing training with specific focus on these particular
types of aircraft and their evolving changes in performance and designs that will be seen in that particular
theater of operations to decrease the possibility of fratricide. The emphasis on VACR remains a required skill
for Soldiers. However, this skill has declined as a critical enabler because of the increased capabilities of
sensors, missiles, missile defense, and identification systems (e.g. identification friend or foe (IFF). To
maintain air superiority, Soldiers should also realize that some formerly friendly types of aircraft are
gradually finding themselves in the hands of non-friendly forces and nations.
1-4. Surveillance for threat aircraft is a 24-hour mission. Unmanned aircraft platforms have been
increasingly used for missions as they are cost-effective and there are no requirements for safety
considerations for the pilot or increased cost for pilot training. The enemy’s will to fight, state of readiness,
order of battle, and combat capability are some additional factors that will determine the enemy’s mission
rates or frequencies (sorties) of attacks. Air defense personnel follow rules of engagement that include hostile
target criteria, identification, friend or foe (IFF), sensors, and air defense warnings (ADW) in making their
engagement decisions. Additionally, weapon control status (WCS) apply to air defense systems in particular,
and may be a part of the supported ground force standing operating procedures as well.
1-5. The WCS sets the degree of control over the firing of Air Defense weapon systems. During wartime,
aircraft are engaged according to the WCS in effect. The WCS are:
Weapons Free: Fire at any aircraft not positively identified as friendly.
Weapons Tight: Fire only at aircraft positively identified as hostile according to the prevailing hostile
1-2 TC 3-01.80 5 May 2017
Weapons Hold: Do not fire except in self-defense. This status may be set in an area in terms of aircraft
type and time. For example, weapons hold, rotary wing, 1200 to 1500 hours.
1-6. Soldiers of these weapon systems depend on visual recognition and identification of aircraft when
making engagement decisions. The effectiveness of weapon systems in defeating the low-altitude air threat
is directly affected by the skills of the crews and teams in recognition and identification of aircraft. Depending
on the environment, rules of engagement may demand that both positive visual identification and electronic
identification are obtained prior to target engagement, which makes it imperative that Soldiers have the
appropriate level of VACR skill.
1-7. The air threat to friendly ground forces operating in the forward area near the line of contact are UAS,
fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft. The threat consists of low performance and high performance groundattack aircraft. These aircraft will conduct CAS reconnaissance, surveillance, interdiction, anti-armor, and
troop support missions.
1-8. Thousands of aircraft manufactured by the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics remain in the
inventories of potential enemies throughout the world. Many of these aircraft were modified to perform
certain roles or upgraded using some of the latest technology. Countries continually upgrade their guidance
and weapon systems as needed to support their standing military forces.
1-9. Aircraft manufactured by friendly countries can also be a threat in some regions depending on current
situations. For example, the A-4 Skyhawk and Mirage F1 platforms were in the hands of the Iraqi military
during the Persian Gulf War. The current air threat makeup is of various types of aircraft with specific
missions. Specific threat information in your area of operation is included in your unit’s operation order,
intelligence preparation of the battlefield and tactical standing operating procedures.
1-10. A major air threat in the forward area near the line of contact is rotatory-winged aircraft and low, slow,
small UAS. Rotary-wing aircrafts once unmasked are very noticeable, but UAS can provide their operators
generally close contact with opposing forces with little or no notice.
1-11. Elements in the division and corps rear areas, especially nuclear-capable units, command posts,
logistics facilities and reserve forces, can expect repeated attacks by high-performance aircraft. Fighterbombers and ground attack aircraft are also used to attack convoys. This threat’s effectiveness can be greatly
enhanced when UAS tactics are implemented when providing intelligence and surveillance.
1-12. The enemy’s order of battle, combat capability, readiness, resources and willingness to fight are some
of the factors that will determine the times and rates of attack.
1-13. Members of the ground forces should understand that while an aircraft may be hostile, not all hostile
aircraft are a direct threat. For example, an interceptor or highflying reconnaissance aircraft have little or no
direct or tactical threat.
1-14. Threat interceptor aircraft are normally given the mission of countering friendly aircraft on approaches,
flanks, and beyond the maximum range of forward area air defense weapon systems. These hostile aircraft
will seldom enter the engagement range since their normal operating altitudes are suitable only for air-to-air
combat. Additionally, highflying reconnaissance aircraft are not normally within the engagement range.