DCS F-14 & RIO Gaming

[Thoughts] DCS: A Poor Combat Sim

This article should have been released a few weeks ago, along the related video about engaging jamming aircraft. I took a longer route instead, discussing the topic with the community first (on r/hoggit and elsewhere), and receiving lots of interesting comments. Long story short, DCS has a ton of issues when it comes to combat and interaction between different objects.

Somewhere in Summer 2022, Heatblur hints at the upcoming implementation of jamming effects. The excitement is high, as EW/ECCM controls have been included in the F-14 manual since the beginning. We were finally close to play with one of the, allegedly, strongest points of the Tomcat in an EW scenario: powerful radar and a dedicated radar operator.

October 2022: Patch 2.8 is close…

The F-14 is close to receive jamming effects. The Radar Intercept Officer has a good set of new toys to play with!
In the days before the release, I had a look at the basic parameters involved with jamming, where basic is the understatement for “whatever works for a videogame”. In other words, I was trying to figure out what a player can use to thrive in a heavily simulated EW environment.
I also wondered if the old “PSTT trick” could be used against jamming targets. If you remember, for years now, PSTT has been working as an almost-better-than-TWS mode against hot targets at ranges up to ~20/25nm, thanks to a bit of manual loft at longer ranges. Why? Well, because DCS’ poor missile mechanics does not allow a proper implementation of Pulse STT, so the devs had to do what they can with what they have.

In case you are not familiar with how PSTT behaves, have a look at this video I posted in May 2021 (skip to ~10 minutes):

November 2022: Patch 2.8 drops…

I am amazed by the AGC trace, which opens up plenty of possibilities for every virtual RIO, to the extent that I now think that playing from the backseat is much more efficient than playing as a pilot. So, if you are on your own, do your stuff – depart, AHRS, climb, then move to the backseat, and don’t look back until post crank. Except for manual lofting, perhaps.

As it turned out, most of the jamming-related controls available to the RIO in real life cannot be implemented. Missiles-wise, the trick I mentioned above not only worked, but literally five minutes after the release of the patch, I killed a target well beyond burnthrough range, using the same technique. Even worse, soon after, I have found out how a jamming target can be killed at more than twice its burnthrough range.
Not gonna lie, the disappointment was high. EW should add greater tactical complexity to the game, and rewarding competent crews. This did not happen. On the contrary, the jamming implementation can be easily abused.
All of a sudden, every last limitation I ran into whilst playing this game felt heavier than ever before.

Now, many may think I am exaggerating, but I would argue that, as everything in life, a lot comes down to perception and perspective. Simply put, if you aim for a realistic experience, seeing dozens of unrealistic aspects, some trivial, some game-breaking, eventually dent the enjoyment.

On the other hand, if you love flying in a 2×2 km BFM arena, none of these issues do not affect you. Same if you enjoy the so-called “Competitive PvP”, which bends the rules of realism so much, either by necessity or by design, that no one cares if an aircraft behaves unrealistically, or can use exploits. Problems with the Flight Model might affect you more, but generally speaking, DCS is an excellent flight simulator. Similarly, if you are only here for the immersion of VR, the switchology and procedures, you are fine: DCS is the best “cockpit simulator” around.

The Tip of the Iceberg

As mentioned, DCS is an excellent flight sim. There are some quirks and caveats but, overall, it is very good. It is an even better “cockpit simulator”: avionics, switchology and so on, are top of the class. However, the moment the aircraft you are flying interacts with any other object in the game, something does not work. Think about it.

Comms and Agencies

ATC simulation is non-existent, better pretend that the airfield is unmanned. CVs are in the same boat (Ah!). Supercarrier is coming along and adding depth, but very slowly.
Post departure, you contact the AWACS, which is awful and single-handedly the most important factor for an enjoyable early Cold War scenario, and it is useless.
On the other hand, this is where the community came to the rescue, with Airboss script for better CV ops and OverlordBot.
What about in-game comms with players? ED started something, but the progress is minimal, moving forward with the inertia of a glacier. Luckily, the community is again outstanding. We have had TARS (Tactical Aviation Radio System), based on the venerable Teamspeak, and now SimpleRadio Standalone.

Ground Combat

The JTAC in DCS is almost as awful as the AWACS, with the saving point that it is not as fundamental, as a pre-briefed engagement can be done even without proper talk-on, remarks, and all the important information that constitute CAS (yep, the 9-line is just one step of a dozen).
Both Strike / CAS missions have something in common: targets are in the mud, and they are not airborne. At least when the lag is manageable. However, not even this gameplay is safe: the AI has insane reaction times and precision, and when it takes 5″-6″ for a BMP2 to switch from chilling out to terminator mode, there is something wrong. Speaking of which, the BMP2 is still the scariest ground unit in the game. Screw Shilka and Tunguska, the BMP2 is real nightmare material (and after 11 years flying only the Ka-50, I know what I am talking about).
Another worth mentioning point, is the complete lack of coordination of air defences in the game. They exist to eat anti-radiation missiles. Luckily again, the community fixed most of the issues, creating scripts that allow different batteries and assets to work together in a more meaningful and realistic way. Entering: DCS Skynet IADS.ED as tested the waters to understand if the players had interest in a third-party module dedicated to represent a more interesting and coherent IADS system, but we haven’t heard much recently.

A Damn Big Iceberg

The real big issues, the ones that the community cannot fix, lie under the surface. We have known them for years, we met them in our daily sorties, and they entered our houses, creating a fake status quo and giving the false impression that everything was normal. I am talking about, of course, of the corners cut, the quality forks and the disparity of depth. Surprisingly enough, one of the worst offenders, is ED itself.

This is all quite paradoxical, considering that ED writes, on DCS’ website:

Our dream is to offer the most authentic and realistic simulation of military aircraft, tanks, ground vehicles and ships possible.

Eagle Dynamics – ⁣Source

Different level of depth and fidelity are usually not a problem when they are confined into the aircraft itself. In other words, advantages until jamming arrived tend to affect only one party.
The trend started to shift, and became very visible from the Tomcat player perspective, with the overhaul of the AIM-54 Phoenix. The new implementation gives us a very capable missile, but it relies on having good employment conditions in terms of speed, altitude, geometry, awareness. This is understandable: we are talking about a missile imagined in the 50s. For its era, it was, and it is, mind-blowing.
In DCS, however, it suffers from the greatest, most evident and gross issue: the effortless Situational Awareness.

Cheap Situational Awareness

This is definitely an odd design choice, aimed to make the game more arcade and approachable, rather than following the way of the in-depth simulation as other third parties have done (namely RAZBAM and Heatblur). Eagle Dynamics, in fact, has decided to remove every drawback from the most critical pieces of the avionics used to generate Situational Awareness, namely the RWR and the LINK16 Datalink (we’ll talk about the radar later).
The result is disappointing, and affects most modern modules, such as the F-16/18/et cetera (going forward I will list only 16 and 18). Let’s be honest here: there is no way for you to die in an F-16/18 unless you are giving up safety precautions (perhaps for a good reason, where the mission objective is more important than your virtual life). In fact, you know when missiles are coming towards your Hornet down to the minute, you see everything on the LINK16 without any housekeeping required to maintain it accurate. This single-handedly removes an incredible amount of depth from the game. In real life instead, angles are not as precise, detection range may vary. Moreover, a threat should be known and added to the libraries of the device, in order to present the correct warning to the pilot. This means that F-16/18 should proactively defend, rather than flying until the RWR yells, just to place the “M” to the 3/9 line and call it a day.
So, imagine employing a Phoenix, which has funny performance characteristics, against a target that knows everything and sees everything with absolutely zero effort or ability involved.

What about SARH-only aircraft? This is where the absurd problem described above becomes even worse, as every RWR is capable of detecting guidance instructions that, arguably, not everyone should be able to detect. This becomes a big problem in Cold War scenarios. The reality was very different, depending on the nation and the technological level involved.
Consider this passage:

Mirage F1 EQ 4010 was part of the first batch of 16 Dassault fighters delivered to Iraq in 1981. After a lengthy introduction into service, the type suffered heavy losses to IRIAF Tomcats during several engagements over the northern Persian Gulf in December 1981. Both small and fast, the F1 EQ had good endurance and could employ effective weapons. However, better trained and combat-experienced Iranian pilots, as well as the Mirage’s poor RWR, which made it vulnerable to the AIM-54, eventually neutralised any advantages the F1 might have had. Iranian pilots had more respect for the R 550-armed MiG-21 and the high-flying MiG-25.

Iranian F-14 Tomcat – Units in Combat, Tom Cooper and Farzad Bishop, page 39.

If everyone were on the same boat, this problem would annul itself. However, we have modules such as the F-14 representing the most realistic implementation of an RWR in the game, whilst ED has cheaped out on their version. Thus, the question is: why is an excellent implementation not used across multiple modules, or why ED does not provide a common baseline, realistic and in-depth API to third parties to implement the RWRs? In fact, one of the issues going forward, is the repetition of the same work done by this or that developer, and the fork of implementation that creates unrealistic disparities.

The implementation of the radars have several issues as well. The worst offender, in terms of double-standards, is the ubiquitous Track-While-Scan. However, no radars at the moment is capable of dynamically change the detection range depending on parameters such as RCS or aspect. RAZBAM is, at the moment, the only third-party dev that represents some of the issues that affect real radars. This, however, opens another can of worms, and make the double-standard issue even bigger.

Radar Example #1: Track-While-Scan

Track-While-Scan is a quite terrible radar mode for employment, at least until AESA arrived, apparently. I have read that someone referred to TWS as “Track-While-Lie” as well (or even “Track-While-Scam”). No matter the joke, the point stands: STT should be the go-to radar mode for employment, and this comes after discussions with former RIOs, F/A-18/15 pilots, and others.
The F-14 implements the most realistic implementation of TWS, which relies on a track updated every ~2″. If the target in manoeuvring, sometimes you see the track going for the hyperbolic tangent. Often happens that tracks are lost or merged if targets are too close or, again, manoeuvring. Even the AN/ASN-92 itself can cause issues, as the INS can’t keep up if the pilot pulls more than a couple of Gs post launch whilst attempting to crank. Nevertheless, TWS was renowned for its issues, but in DCS this mode is basically the only used, causing players to over-rely on a sense of “stealth” that is nowhere near as important in real-life.

Radar Example #2: RCS, Aspect and detection range

The RCS, or Radar Cross-Section, describes how visible an object is to a radar. Without going too much into the details, it is understandable how an aircraft tiny as the F-16, when seen from the front, is smaller than the same aircraft with external payload, or seen from 45TA (there are many caveats, such as the intakes, but let’s keep this simple). The question is, how great is the impact of all these parameters on the radar detectability?
To answer this question, let’s consider the following chart I made for my book (more charts and details are available there). It refers to the AWG-10 mounted on the Phantom II, and describe the detection range vs the TA for various interceptor headings.
This chart is very interesting, as it shows how a target as small as a MiG (type not specified, from the chart it looks like a MiG-15) can be detected at twice the range when the TA is close to the beam. As you can see, the curves are complex, but I guess every player would love to see a simplified, but realistic, implementation of such a behaviour. This would make small radars, such as the APG-68 of the F-16, even harder to use vs low TA targets, but it would also give them a boost in other scenarios, forcing the player to actually put a bit of effort into what they are doing.

F-4’s AWG10 vs MiG – Co-alt.

The interesting part is that the AWG-10 of the Phantom II is more modern than the AWG-9 of the F-14, but it is also much less powerful. The peak power output of the AWG-10 is ~2kW, but the AWG-9’s is 10.2kW! This fact that does mean that the F-14 should see 5x as far, it is much more complicated than that. But, from our perspective, it shows how poor the in-game radar simulation is at the moment as, in DCS, radar power only equals to greater detection range.

More can be said about other blatantly wrong aspects of combat. Countermeasures, for example, works a roll of a die, both Chaffs and Flares, when Chaffs should do nothing against, for example, SARH Doppler-guided missiles (note that Chaffs can affect such missiles, but the odds are less than minimal).

Iceberg’s Fat Belly: Jamming

As mentioned, the study of the Jamming effects was de facto the last straw. In fact, I felt the need of incorporating these observations about DCS in the video I made about engaging jamming targets. There was no other way to discuss a game mechanic that have zero realism into a game that aims to be the “best combat simulator“.

A dedicated article describing how it works will follow this one but, long story short, we know that a target beyond burnthrough range can be engaged only in Home-on-jam. Besides the nonsensical fact that burnthrough ranges are randomly assigned (you can see a table in the video above), HOJ launches should not loft as the range is not known. Burnthrough range against most jammers is about 23nm to 29 nm for the F-14 Tomcat, which de facto kills its long-range capability. Again, it matters little if the target is an F-16 or a MiG-21: the range is the same for both. However, I managed to kill targets at a range of 67 nm, and I have not tested farther. The video above shows examples at different ranges, up to 60 nm.
What is crazy is that AIM-120 can partially use some of the same exploits and, even worse, the AI does it too! Yep, the AI can launch beyond burnthrough range, and those AMRAAM do loft! What is the point of these mechanics, when everything can cheat?!

Drawing the Bottom Line

The considerations made so far allow us to draw a line that separates the standards of implementation. Realising that an aircraft performs better or worse not because it is a product of its age, but because of the effort put by the devs, it is so silly.
As we have seen, the Community makes up for several of the issues DCS experiences. Which is absolutely outstanding but, at the same time, it does not absolve ED from putting effort into solving these problems.

Everyone can agree that DCS we play now it is not the same we played almost 15 years ago (even more than that, if we consider Flanker / LOMAC). ED has done a terrific job updating the engine (EDGE), and implementing new features. They have not stopped, we know that multithreading is very, very close. Perhaps ED is waiting for this technology to be fully implemented before increasing the depth and overhauling the mentioned aspects of the game. Which, probably, would also require more processing power and can benefit from parallelisation.
Whatever their priorities are, I would love to see a more central and coordinated effort to provide a common, coherent and, if possible realistic, approach to radars, datalinks, RWR, comms & agencies and so on. The more they wait, the greater the discrepancies between developers will become.

This article was scheduled for mid-November 2022, then I preferred checking the community first. A recent newsletter, posted on 02/12/2022 talked about the upcoming multithreading implementation.

The Tomcat in all this: Caught in the middle

The Tomcat is in a weird and uncomfortable spot: it is a 3.5 gen fighter, its core is a product of the 50s and operative since 1962. The real Tomcat flew in Vietnam, during the withdrawal, in 1975.
However, it is always put into the 4th gen fighters arena, which include aircraft featuring post 2000s technology. At the same time, we do not even have the F-14D (but to be honest, in DCS we have features on the A and B that were later added to the AWG-9, such as the TA display).
The reason, more often than not, is the wrong perception of the capability of this aircraft, which thrives in a server with casual or new players, but that any veteran of DCS can easily outplay thanks to the all-knowing devices discussed before. Unfortunately, there is no good, realistic, mid-to-late Cold War server around, where the Tomcat can show its full potential without dominating the virtual conflict.

F-14D? No, Thanks. Not Now.

Actually, would the F-14D change much? Personally, I do not think so. A Tomcat-D would bring a lot of “Quality of Life” improvements, such as the PTID and the HUD. Tech-wise, LINK16, JDAMs for air-to-ground, and a digital radar featuring MPRF. Would this change much? Probably not. LINK16 is nice but not necessary, MPRF same. The issue is that the F-14D is still a product of the late 80s, an era where the AIM-7 was still the go-to missile, the AMRAAM was not deployed yet, and the Phoenix was still, well, the Phoenix: an excellent long-range weapon, killed by the infinite SA the game provides for free.
So, if I had the option of deciding whether I wanted an F-14D or not, I would say no. I prefer the devs working on the Navy or Brit F-4 Phantom II, since Cold War scenarios are less affected by all the issues described above and where REDAIR can (or will) actually field some competition.

Conclusion

So, after almost 3500 words of this nonsense, what are the takeaway points? Well, the first is that the advantage of modern modules put them in a position where they have nothing in common with anything else. Thus, F-16, F/A-18, are in a league on their own. Everything else, M2000, Tomcat, various Su/MiGs they more or less tend to have more in common, either due to the good work done by the devs, or by the simple fact that tech levels prevent some of them to reach the same absurd level of the aircraft listed in the first group.

The second, is that the Tomcat is in a really odd position. The annoying part, is that the discriminant factor in a fact is not the proficiency, but the cheesiness of the implementation of the avionics.

The last, is that the status of air-to-air combat, modern especially, is really disappointing, and I do not find it enjoyable any more. Thus, as mentioned in my recent news, I am moving to something else, either a Viggen or back to the Ka-50, whilst I wait for the Phantom II to be released.


Correction about OverlordBot: the LOS (line-of-sight) feature is supported. More info in the OverlordBot FAQ.
Thanks Kip for the heads-up.

5 comments

  1. Good post, many facts, and well said.

    However, what other game/sim is as good as DCS World?

    AFAIK, only Falcon+BMS comes close, and it has its own considerable limitations,

    So as soon as we step back from the trees and are able to see the forest, DCSW (and FBMS) once again appear to be quite enjoyable simply because they’re the best available experience for this sort of vicarious activity.

    And given the fact that these games will “never” be accurate or balanced in a way that would satisfy the criticisms in this article, you’re better off diversifying your experiences across multiple modules (and sims) rather than going too deep on just one or two modules. The latter will inevitably lead to your current state of mind.

    Like

    1. Hi, thanks for your comment.
      No other games arrive as close to fidelity as DCS is, as far as I know. ED just needs to implement more flexible and complex APIs to unify and standardise the behaviour of similar components of the avionics. Unfortunately, this is not as fancy as a graphics overhaul is, and that’s probably why it hasn’t been done yet (the other reasons I can image are the simple lack of resources, and the greater priority given to multithreading, before implementing more resource-demanding dynamics).

      I agree with your point about stepping back, but it is not possible. I receive a lot of questions and requests because the AIM-54 does not provide the results it should, especially when compared to real life. Sometimes the player is doing it all wrong, but more and more commonly, it is just the AI perfectly notching when it shouldn’t, or humans in modern modules (16/18) simply notching or turning the second their RWR goes off. What should I answer to those questions? Well, the only correct answer is: you are doing everything correctly, but the game is broken.

      So, I am now moving either forward (Viggen) or backwards (Ka-50). Air-to-ground has its own set of issues, but none have the same magnitude as air-to-air.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Agreed.

        In any case, i’m hoping to see your thoughts/advice on Black Shark / Viggen some day. Both aircraft seem to be rather under-appreciated in the community.

        Like

      2. Thanks.
        I doubt I will go as in depth as I did with the Tomcat. I am more interested in the Navy F-4, the A-6 and the Tornado.
        With the Viggen I start from scratch, but the Ka-50 was the only module I played for 11 years. Actually, my very first semi-successful guide in English was about data-sharing between the Ka-50 and the A-10C, back when they were the only two available modules in DCS (FC2 aside). It’s still in ED’s forum, I’m surprised.
        A re-formatted version with the missing images is on this website.

        Like

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