DCS Weapons: SPAAG and AAA

Guest Contributor Wes Blazey takes a closer look at some of the anti-aircraft weaponry that harasses us in DCS World…

 

Overview

I was due to write another mini-article on some DCS weaponry so today we shall focus on one of my favorites, Anti-Aircraft weapons. Specifically we shall look at the majority of the AAA and SPAAGs (Self propelled anti-aircraft guns) that DCS has to offer.

There won’t be coverage of the “flak” style of AAA, from the German 88mm and the British QF 3.7″ guns as the flak in DCS is currently quite oddly behaved. I tend to get a vertical “wall” of flak on the first aircraft to be in range which doesn’t translate to good use of ammo. Imagine holding your arm out in front of you, shaping your hand like a paddle and vertically slicing the air in front of you. That is what the flak guns do for lower altitude threats, rather than creating a blanket of fire, which they do OK at with formations of B-17s higher up. But I digress…

I will not be diving in deep in to details about these units, much of the stats are available on Wikipedia if you want to get more information about the guns or shells that they fire. However, I will discuss a few points that I believe matter in DCS.

Effectiveness: Contributing Factors

One: Rate of Fire

The number one factor in determining a successful AAA gun, especially in DCS, is to have a high rate of fire. This allows the AI/user to “walk” the gunfire through the target. This follows in aircraft guns as well, with almost all fighters coming with reasonably high rate of fire cannons, even those that are not using the rotary Gatling style guns. There is also the fact that more rounds in the air = more chances to hit.

Two: Magazine Size

The number of rounds before interrupting fire to reload is key. With a high ROF, a small magazine size as seen with the German 20mm guns can be quite the handycap. This doubly compounds against slower firing guns such as the M1 37mm and the Bofors 40mm guns as not only do they have far fewer rounds in the air, they also have to keep pausing every few rounds to reload.

Three: Total Ammo Capacity

A gun that is out of ammo, is out of the fight. Simple as that. In these tests both the M163 Vulcans and the Bofors 40mm guns ran out of ammo – and these weapons have wildly different ROF.

Four: Caliber

The larger caliber of guns cause more significant damage in DCS, which is important versus AI. The AI can continue to fly when missing one or more various parts such as: horizontal and vertical stabilizers, elevators, rudder and ailerons. While a mountain of .50 cal fire may ruin a player’s day, the AI is usually fine to keep fighting until they are on fire or lose the entire tail or half a wing. The larger 30mm ammunition of the SA-19 and 35mm of the Gepard can cause lethal damage to an AI airframe with only a few rounds and therefore almost sweep the scoreboard.

Five: Range

Range is lower down the list, partly for good reason. The ranges of these guns all vary however the effectiveness of larger ranged guns matches with their increased ROF (Gepard & SA-19), or lack thereof (37mm & 40mm). Range increases with caliber – which doesn’t really need to be mentioned. A larger benefit to range is a reduced chance of losses, rather than directly achieving more kills.

Six: Battery Fire

Single units in DCS can easily be defeated by exploiting their weaknesses. While my test structure, to follow below is quite crude, biased and even unfair in terms of providing each gun system it’s ideal setup; the idea was to provide uniformity in setup to eliminate that specific variable. However, in the case of all guns involved they all significantly benefit from being part of a battery. Even two guns can vastly do better than a single gun. One of the best examples of why AAA of all sizes has to be used en masse is to look at old WWII footage from the Pacific, especially when dealing with Kamikaze. Flying straight at the guns is about as easy a target as you are going to get and even then they are hard to hit!

Test Configuration

My test is pretty simple, and they are all clones of the one original test I did to show how terrible the M163 Vulcan “VADS” is. We have 12 BF109’s flying in from outside the range of the AAA units at the default 6562 feet, carrying a SC250 (250kg) bomb. The choice of WWII plane was because they are relatively slow, and easy targets – if the AAA can’t hit these, then there is little point testing jets. The 109 specifically would follow it’s programmed task well, dropping it’s bomb on target like it was laser guided and then proceeding to strafe with 30mm and 13mm gunfire. Twelve aircraft means that the AAA guns will be busy – they can’t converge on a single target and survive. These aircraft are aiming to destroy a total of forty AAA weapons, one type per mission file. This ratio proved reasonably ideal as more aircraft lead to decimation of the AAA forces. Fewer aircraft don’t present much challenge to the AAA.

In the case of the SA-19 the mission includes an invulnerable Huey flying outside their gun range to cause them to waste their missiles. Use the F10 radio command to despawn it when they are done, so that the SA-19s can focus their guns on the 109s.

Vehicle based units are set to not disperse under fire, so that it is fair against the stationary units. If the 109’s are bombing in quick succession, allowing them to move drastically improves the survival rate. All ground units are given ROE = Weapons Free and State = Red with an Expert AI. The aircraft AI is at Veteran.

SA-19 test setup, Bf109s at further range to allow time for SA-19 missile wastage.

AAA gun layout, ten batteries of four, along the Kobuleti runway.

 

Table of Results

The following results were recorded from a single test of each mission. The table is sorted by least units lost, then most units killed/damaged.

Unit AAA Lost [out of 40] Bf109s Lost (Damaged) [out of 12] Notes
SA-19 6 12 Invulnerable Huey to cause missile waste, despawn via F10 option. Severe performance issue when many fire at once.
Gepard 8 10 (2) Best pure AAA/SPAAG. Performance impact far less than SA-19, near negligible typically.
M6 Linebacker 10 8 (4) Managed to damage all aircraft. Required multiple Hueys to waste missiles. Gun range near equal to missile range. Reduced elevation capability, attack from steep dives. Lethal against low-angle strafing opponents. 25mm gun very effective with HE, not so much with AP.
BMP3 11 11 (1)
ZSU-57-2 11 11 (1) Damaged all aircraft. Rate of fire is moderate. Range is excellent and allows the guns to take trailing shots against the relatively slow Bf109s. Moderate damage per shell.
Zu-23 Closed 13 10 (2)
BMP2 15 9
Vulcan M163 17 8 (3) All Vulcans ran out of ammo, test ended. Severe performance issue when many fire at once.
Shilka ZSU-23-4 31 12
Bofors 40mm 31 7 Bofors ran out of ammo, test ended with one Bf109 still active and conducting strafing runs with only 13mm ammo left & missing most of the time.
Flak38 20mm 40 3 (2) Did not suffer Flakvierling collateral damage issue despite same unit layout.
Flakvierling 40 2 (2) Potential disqualification, the Flakvierling suffer easy collateral damage from bombs. Other soft units under the same layout not affected, such as 37mm, Bofors & Flak38.
37mm 40 2
Quad .50 Cal DQ DQ Disqualified due to near immunity to both bombs – requiring actual direct hits, and gunfire. These survived having a bomb land a few feet away and being near but not at the center of a crater.

Conclusions – From the Tests & General MP Experience

SA-19

  • The SA-19 reigns supreme especially if you allow it to use it’s missiles. The margin is small to the Gepard, which can do better in some cases by getting more critical hits with it’s larger shells.
  • 2k22 Tunguska/SA-19 Grison;

Gepard

  • The Gepard is the best SPAAG and AAA unit available to Blue forces in the modern era, and by a very wide margin. These are reasonably effective as singles, and fairly excellent in real missions versus helicopters when used in pairs and given good terrain cover. This is also the easiest unit to get kills with as a player as it’s firing solutions are extremely accurate. The Gepard can also take a beating pretty well.
  • Flakpanzer Gepard;

ZU-23

  • The ZU-23 (closed emplacement used) scored very well and for good reason. While having been very poor, especially in MP for quite some time a recent patch seems to have perked them up. They can even shoot very accurately at night, with no moon – despite the lack of night vision or radar gun sights. Don’t be surprised to have one of these shoot you down out of the blue if you fly within their range if you aren’t paying attention.
  • Wikipedia Link: 2A13/ZU-23;

BMP-2 & BMP-3

  • The BMP2 and BMP3, while neither an AAA or SPAAG make the cut because as anyone who has tried to strafe one (or played the A-10C for any length of time) will know – they have always been excellent at sniping engines, snapping wings off and getting pilot kills. It is therefore no surprise that they are not only very capable as AAA/SPAAG – but one of the best. As an actual armor unit, they can take damage.
  • Wikipedia Link: BMP-2 and Ob’yekt 688MBMP-3;

M163 Vulcan “VADS”

  • The M163 Vulcan “VADS” is reasonably capable once you have enough to make DCS a slideshow. These suffer immense losses, and do awful at any range. They seem to almost get lucky, rather than have skill. Using these in MP missions as single units they are useless – easy bait for helicopters or a pilot willing to strafe. While a set of Gepards converging fire will go through the target, the VADs always tend to be stuck trailing the target. They do eventually clear the skies, but it takes significantly longer and they suffer immense losses such that with fewer on field, they would be wiped out with ease.
  • Wikipedia Link: M163 VADS;

Additional Note on Vulcan cannons in DCS

Another point with the Vulcan 20mm is that we have a big issue of inconsistency with these in the game. The F-16C and F/A-18C have different ballistics with the same gun, by the same developer which I have reported in a thread at the ED forums – the same slant range cue in the same conditions yields different landing areas during a strafe. This may be due to them using different shell types, but being from the same rough era that shouldn’t be so. The F-14’s version is like a laser rifle by comparison, even after the two ED jets got a dispersion fix. The F-15C I am unsure of. The M163 seems to still have the older wide dispersion, which may be correct for AAA usage. The M163 also lacks a reticle for the base optical aiming in CA, meaning even with a lock you can’t really “aim”. There is a reticle for the zoom view.

ZSU-23-4 “Shilka”

  • ZSU-23-4 Shilka – a unit that many of us have met personally face to face and had a very bad experience, it feels weird to see these so low down the list. Unlike some of the units on this list, they seem overly hesitant to take a shot and are not great at converging fire. The Shilka can take some damage, and Vulcan equipped aircraft may have trouble damaging them when strafing although if they shot quicker and better – you wouldn’t survive to knock them out. It seems riskier to strafe a ZU-23 than this presently and it has fire control radar!
  • Wikipedia Link: ZSU-23-4 Shilka;

Bofors 40mm

  • Bofors 40mm guns do quite poorly and this makes sense. They lack the outright destructive force of something like an 88mm, and the high rate of fire of smaller guns. Unsurprisingly these sort of mid-size guns fell out of favor until the modern guns of the SA-19 and Gepard started bringing the caliber back up.
  • Wikipedia Link: Bofors 40mm;

Flak38 20mm

  • Flak38 20mm guns did quite poor due to lower levels of damage, although it may be enough when targeting players. These single barrel guns lack outright firepower of multi-barrel setups, and the 20mm rounds lack range too. It’s quite apparent why AAA systems contained guns of various sizes back in WWII.
  • Wikipedia Link: Flak 38;

Flakvierling Quad 20mm

  • Flakvierling Quad 20mm had a disastrous result. Unlike any other unit tested, they suffered collateral damage – when one unit was hit with a bomb, one adjacent gun would also die. All the test were built off the same original file with units changed – so the in-battery spacing is the same. I allowed this to stand rather than modify the test as it shows the weakness of using these without more sufficient spacing.
  • Wikipedia Link: Flakvierling 38;

37mm M1

  • 37mm M1 – Like the Bofors 40mm, these guns lack ROF and outright damage. Watching either of the two shows how much ROF improves AAA performance. The small magazine size also leads to numerous breaks in fire, which further ruins the performance. These should always be used as part of a multi-caliber system (as should the Bofors).
  • Wikipedia Link: 37mm M1;

Quad .50cal

  • Quad .50cal – Unfortunately these could not get a proper test. Unless a bomb landed directly on their heads, they were unaffected meaning that they are essentially invulnerable. However, you can run the test and see how little the .50 cal guns affect the AI until there is so much fire they starting cutting the aircraft into pieces. The drastically shorter range means a brave pilot could strafe them, if the Quad .50’s accept incoming fire as damage. Anything newer than WWII aircraft (or the F-86 for the US) with a cannon, can out range these and has the advantage of gravity on it’s side.
  • Wikipedia Link: TBD;

M6 Linebacker

  • M6 Linebacker – the 25mm HE shells have near the same range as the stingers. These can easily be killed by dive bombing as they don’t have very high elevation limits. Tertiary weapon is a 7.62mm coaxial MG. These can take the damage of the 109s without much trouble and present a serious hazard to the 109s that opt to strafe in low angle dives. So they are not ideal, but do not discount them. The 25mm HE shell packs a good wallop and you don’t want to be dealing with the damage.
  • Wikipedia Link: M6 Linebacker;

ZSU-57-2

  • ZSU-57-2 – The one we have all been waiting for (okay that’s really the S-60, but this is “beta” for it!). The 57mm has a low-moderate rate of fire which means that it can still do reasonably well to create follow up shots. Matching it’s caliber, it has the most range by far and can make use of it – getting a one shot kill on one of the first 109s to approach the airfield. The shells don’t always punch that hard and it can take perhaps a half dozens sometimes to fully knock a 109 down if nothing critical is hit. It’s key to remember they are NOT flak guns with variable-time fuses. They do self-destruct, but prior to that you have to see the tracers and the lower ROF means that if you are not watching – you may not see some rounds go by and the next ones might not miss. There is no stream to watch for like with a Gepard, SA-19, Vulcan or ZSU-23-4. I think these will be a great addition to our defenses networks and should help push something @Franze has always preached – don’t violate the hard deck. MANPADs don’t have the persistence or volume of fire the same way that these do, although the MANPADs are certainly more lethal. When placed in a good network, these should be a good threat to slower aircraft like the A-10C as well.
  • Wikipedia Link: ZSU-57-2/Ob’yekt 500;

Data Table

Included below is a “User Test” version of the mission with one of each unit, the group on hold fire so you can compare side by side and fiddle a bit.

Unit Magazine Reserve Reload from Reserve Notes
SA-19 1936 N/A N/A 30mm = AP+HE
Gepard 660 N/A N/A 35mm = HE
M6 Linebacker 230 N/A N/A 800rds 7.62mm, 25mm = HE
BMP3 340 N/A N/A 30mm = HE
ZSU-57-2 8 112 2s
Zu-23 Closed 100 400 10s
BMP2 340 N/A N/A 30mm = HE
Vulcan M163 1180 N/A N/A
Shilka ZSU-23-4 2000 N/A N/A 23mm = AP+HE
Bofors 40mm 200 N/A N/A
Flak38 20mm 20 580 3s
Flakvierling 80 2320 5s
37mm 8 792 3s
Quad .50 Cal 800 3200 12s

Mission Files

AAA-Testing-20mm.miz (18.4 KB)
AAA-Testing-37mm.miz (17.5 KB)
AAA-Testing-BMP2.miz (18.5 KB)
AAA-Testing-BMP3.miz (19.0 KB)
AAA-Testing-Bofors.miz (17.5 KB)
AAA-Testing-Gepard.miz (19.2 KB)
AAA-Testing-Quad20.miz (18.0 KB)
AAA-Testing-Quad50.miz (17.5 KB)
AAA-Testing-SA19.miz (21.6 KB)
AAA-Testing-Shilka.miz (20.0 KB)
AAA-Testing-Vulcan.miz (19.1 KB)
AAA-Testing-M6Linebacker.miz (26.1 KB)
AAA-Testing-ZSU572.miz (20.1 KB)
AAA-Testing-Zu23.miz (20.0 KB)
AAA-Testing-UserTest.miz (19.8 KB)

Final Words

While far from scientific, the tests completed my original goal of identifying a better unit for modern missions for blue force. We had been running missions with US units having M163 VADS for close in support, only to find they rarely ever shot and were typically picked off by helicopters. The Red side has much better selection of weapons. From a practical standpoint to get the desired effect in game it makes more sense to break pattern of a US-only blue force and use Gepard, than to stick with the VADS. Once the initial runs had been done, with closer to equal aircraft to AAA, testing all the various guns was just for fun and ended up highlighting issues we had been starting to see with other units – such as the recent improvement to ZU-23, and the hesitant ZSU-23-4. I did not test the open ZU-23 as I reason it is close enough to the closed unit. The ZU-23 on Ural-375 I did not test as it does not have a uniform field of fire, with the truck cab blocking some of it.

More specific testing, and data comparison I reason is good for follow-up discussion on this post!

P.S: If you really want to defend something, use some SAMs as well!

Article by Guest Contributor: @Wes – Wes Blazey