I’ve noticed for a while now that RTS games don’t really present/model/animate air-to-air combat satisfactorily. That’s if air units are provided at all. Some earlier games (Command and Conquer) have a plane that strafes ground targets and returns to an airfield. Warcraft and Starcraft do have air units. They can only be attacked other air units and some types of ground units (archers and missile units).
But air to air combat is not modeled well. It consists of two fleets just hovering in one place and shooting at each other, at the same altitude. Maybe it would be too complicated to make it more realistic.
After some months of intensive reading, I found that combat aircraft tactics are broadly divided into “turn and burn” (TnB) and “boom and zoom” (BnZ). Turn and burn (TnB) is the classical maneuvering dogfight, usually at lower speeds. It favours the most maneuverable aircraft such as the Zero and the early Spitfire. Boom and Zoom (BnZ) is the aerial equivalent of the drive-by shooting, usually a plane with a height advantage would dive at high speed and deliver a burst of fire and run away. Mustangs and Fw-190 exemplify this.
If somehow these two tactics can be incorporated into RTS? For example, BnZ attacks require the units to “charge” at the enemy air unit from a certain distance. The player has the option of making the units continue in a straight line beyond the target to avoid enemy counter fire. The tactic works even better (ie more damage) if the unit pounces from a Fog of War zone, or is cloaked. If attacking from complete visibility, the attacked units suffer less damage or may even avoid, depending on their maneuverability.
TnB combat may be represented by the air units swirling around each other and shooting. It is useful when defending a static location, or ships, from “bomber” units, and when there is radar cover eliminating the possibility of BnZ ambush from the Fog of War zone.
An air unit may be more suitable for one or the other type of tactic, depending on the characteristic of the said air unit. A BnZ attack is most lethal when coming from Fog on to an enemy BnZ-optimized unit unawares. It is somewhat less so on a TnB-optimized unit, and with good radar coverage (moving from a no fog zone) the TnB may dodge altogether. BnZ escorting bombers and strafers are vulnerable to TnB while they loaf around the ground target as the bombers do their work, so TnB make better escorts. ALternatively the bombers may be preceded by BnZ fighters to sweep the defending fighters away.
Bombers and strafers are good against ground units, ships and structures.
Among important static structures would be radar stations and radar ships, as these eliminate Fog of War in large areas and make otherwise lethal BnZ attacks less effective. Then Factories producing the units, and airfields. Airfields, where units need to return to to refuel every few turns, might be too complicated to do in real time strategy and may be more suitable for turn-based strategy games. Using bombers to destroy these structures would degrade the opposing side’s ability to respond to attacks and replace losses.
I suspect that as more units and structures are destroyed, there comes a point of no return where victory becomes impossible for one on the defending side.
We might have limited missions involving hunting down a target such as a number of ships at sea, or destroying a radar station. Or it could be all out war in the air. One could try handicaps such as no strategic bombers (Luftwaffe were particularly handicapped in this, conducting a strategic bombing campaign over Britain using only tactical bombers) or no BnZ fighters until a certain time or number of turns (Imperial Japanese Navy Air Force didn’t develop any until 1944 when they finally got the J2M Raiden).
I wish I was programmer enough to develop these ideas. Maybe I’ll start by making a tabletop or board game… except how to model the most crucial element, the Fog of War? Hmmmmm….