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As usual, air combat is the most thrilling type of combat in the game. Who doesn't look to the skies as the next frontier? However, air combat doesn't happen until late in the Modern Era, when civilizations have researched the Flight technology and managed to construct the necessary infrastructure to support air units - a task which is not trivial, since it involves constructing a whole new type of District (the Aerodrome) and its buildings.
What is an air unit?
Air units (a.k.a. "airplanes" or "aircraft") are those units native to the sky, which perform their battle functions in or from the sky. In most cases air units actually attack ground targets, but they do it from the air. Unlike Civilization V, in which air attacks were considered melee and caused retaliation damage, in Civilization VI all air attacks are ranged, and the attacking plane doesn't suffer damage in return unless it gets Intercepted by another unit. The only exceptions to this rule are ships with the Anti-Air Strength stat - they have additional close-range defenses, which activate when they are attacked by an aircraft, and damage it in return.
Note that the Helicopter is not an air unit! Because it has to fly much closer to the ground, the Helicopter is considered a land unit, attacks in melee and suffers appropriate retaliation damage. It also must embark like any other land unit to move through water. Finally, Helicopters cannot pass over Mountains, as in previous games.
Building air units
Air units, as mentioned above, can only be built in a city with an Aerodrome. All but the earliest unit, the Biplane, require Aluminum. Newly built aircraft will spawn in the Aerodrome, as long as it still has empty slots.
Aerodromes should be well-situated, because they are also the most important bases for airplanes. You should try to build them in cities with high Production potential, because airplanes are quite costly. You should also try to build them close to areas where you expect combat to occur at some point. And, of course, the Aerodrome will allow you to Airlift land units later in the game - you should think about that as well.
Bases for air units
Each air unit has to be based somewhere. You will not be able to build more units than you have space for in your bases.
Air units may be based in these places:
- City Centers: Each city you have may serve as a base, but they only have 1 slot.
- Aerodromes: The most important base. They have 2 slots initially, and can reach 4 slots with the Hangar and Airport buildings constructed.
- Aircraft Carriers: The critical naval base starts with 2 slots, but may gain more through Promotions. Note that you will absolutely need Carriers to move your air force across oceans!
- Airstrips: Good strategists know that you cannot plan for every occasion. So, an improvised base for airplanes, the Airstrip, has been developed. This tile improvement can be placed inside your territory or in neutral territory, and has 3 slots for aircraft.
You may spend a turn to re-base any aircraft, moving it to a new, valid base which is close enough. The maximum re-base distance is twice the Movement of that air unit.
Should your airbase be pillaged, your aircraft stationed within will scatter to nearby valid bases instead of being destroyed.
Types of air units
There are two main types of air units: fighters and bombers.
Fighters' main purpose is to function and replace late game Ranged units, also to defend against other air units. They have the special ability to Intercept, which allows them to automatically attack incoming aircraft within their operational range.
Fighters are used differently than in Civilization V. Their operational range is considerably smaller (the Biplane, for example, has a Range of only 4); however, they may be deployed on Patrol duty, which effectively extends their range (see below). Still, their flight autonomy is much less than that of a bomber unit, and this also affects the bases they may re-base to.
Fighters deal ranged-type damage, which is effective against units, but not against cities. Their Promotions are focused primarily on attacking other air units and land units.
Bomber units are dedicated to blowing structures on the ground to smithereens. Their operational range is considerably larger than Fighters, but they cannot intercept other aircraft, and cannot be deployed - they always operate from their base.
Bombers deal bombard-type damage, which is effective against cities but not against units. However, they may greatly increase their capabilities against ground or naval units via Promotions. Promotions also allow them to defend better against Interception.
Bombers may also carry and deliver both types of nukes, which makes them the first natural unit able to do this (and is also historically correct). However, they require at least 50 HP to carry out nuking missions.
Bombers may attack tile improvements and districts, though they need more than 50% health to do so (or the Superfortress Promotion, which removes the minimum health requirement). With these attacks they destroy the targets, which is equal to Pillaging, but without gaining any loot.
Air strikes are the main mode of aerial combat (and for bombers, the only mode). Both fighters and bombers may perform them from their bases (or from their Patrol location, in the case of fighters).
Air strikes are in fact the normal attacks of air units. You will need to select a target in the operational range of the aircraft, and it will attack that target. While bombers may only choose ground targets, however, fighters may choose both ground targets and enemy planes Patrolling in the air. In this second case, they will engage in "dogfighting," or plane-to-plane combat. In any case, any air strike takes a full action to perform. When dogfighting, both air units use their Combat Strength stat, instead of their Ranged Strength.
While performing air strikes, air units are vulnerable to Interception.
All fighter-type airplanes may perform Patrol. To start it, you have to first deploy the plane to a tile inside its Movement range, which takes a full action. Note that this tile cannot be over enemy territory - just over your own, or neutral territory. The tile of their Patrol effectively turns into a sort of secondary base, from where they may perform air strikes. The range for these attacks is the same as their operational range (4, in the case of the Biplane), so you can effectively extend the fighter's Range if you want to. While on Patrol, fighters cannot Heal damage unless they've earned the Ground Crews Promotion. They can also be attacked via ranged attacks, both from the ground (or the sea, if they're Patrolling over Water), or from other fighters.
While on Patrol, fighters are able to Intercept enemy aircraft.
Interception is when an air unit gets attacked by an enemy (either another air unit, or a land unit) while on the way to its target. Interception is actually the only way to defend against air power in Civilization VI, now that all air attacks are considered ranged and thus not subject to retaliatory damage.
Among air units, only fighters may intercept, and only while they're on Patrol. Fighters cannot intercept while they're in their bases. You don't need to give a separate order to Intercept - once you've placed a fighter unit on Patrol, it will automatically Intercept all enemy aircraft which enter its zone of patrol (adjacent hexes). Note that enemies are only prone to interception when they attack a tile within the interception range, not when they're passing through it en route to their real target. During interception, both air units use their Combat Strength, not their Ranged Strength. Support units and naval units with Anti-Air Strength stat can also intercept without being given any special mission, as long as the air unit enters their interception radius.
The unit that will attempt to intercept an air strike is determined by the unit with highest air Combat Strength or Anti-Air Strength. This unit then receives a +5 Support Bonus for every anti-air unit to which it is adjacent.
A unit can attempt Interception multiple times per turn. Fighters-class units, however, will take damage for each attempt, making them less effective for future attempts.
Every Interception does damage to the unit being intercepted. If the damage is enough, the plane will be shot down; otherwise, it will still perform the attack (but suffer the damage, of course). Bombers and Jet Bombers can only be intercepted if they will receive damage taking them below 50 health after Interception. If the anti-air units are too weak to deliver this amount of damage, the aircraft will never be intercepted.
Nuclear and Thermonuclear Strikes
Bomber units are capable of delivering your nukes to the enemy. Thanks to the new system, in which nukes are stored centrally, any bomber may deliver any weapon you wish (as long as you have it in your inventory). The bomber itself is unaffected by the blast, of course. However, this doesn't mean that it is invulnerable while trying to deliver the nuke! It may be Intercepted and shot down, if the enemy has sufficient capabilities. If this happens, you will lose both the bomber and the nuke.
There is no difference between intercepting a Nuclear Device and a Thermonuclear Device. Currently, there are three main ways to deliver a nuke: using aircraft (Bombers or Jet Bombers), using a Nuclear Submarine, and launching nukes from a Missile Silo. The units dedicated to anti-air defense differ as follows:
- The Anti-Air Gun cannot intercept nukes from Nuclear Submarines, but can intercept nukes delivered from aircraft (if the planes take enough damage in return) and from Missile Silos.
- The Mobile SAM can intercept nukes from all sources.
- The Battleship can only intercept nukes delivered from Missile Silos.
- The Missile Cruiser can intercept nukes from all sources.
- Fighter class aircraft can only intercept nukes delivered from bomber class aircraft, not from Missile Silos or Nuclear Submarines.
Again, Bombers and Jet Bombers can only be intercepted if they receive 50 damage or more after interception, meaning your anti-air units will not intercept if their Anti-Air Strength is much lower than the aircraft's Melee Strength.
Unlike other types of interception, interception of any nuclear weapons requires the intercepting unit to be protecting the target tile and not just a tile between the target and the launch site. For example, a Mobile SAM will not intercept a missile from a Missile Silo if it is between the silo and a target city and not in or adjacent to the target city. Also, as mentioned above, the intercepting power of multiple anti-air units does not stack, so one tile will only be protected by the strongest anti-air unit on that tile or on one of the six adjacent tiles. In order to intercept nukes, the only tile that requires protection is the target tile; the tiles in the blast radius are irrelevant.
Considering that a Thermonuclear Device has a blast radius of 2 and anti-air units' protection radius is 1, and there is no difference between the amount of damage dealt to the target tile and the tiles in the blast radius, it is possible to remove all health, walls and defenses from a city by dropping the Thermonuclear Device 2 tiles away from the City Center (since the most common target for nuking missions, and thus nuke protection, is the City Center). In order to shield yourself from this nuking tactic, you will need at least 4 anti-air units to fully cover the 2-tile radius area around a City Center. If you visualize the area that requires protection as an equilateral hexagon whose side is equal to 3 hex tiles, these 4 units need to be placed as follows:
- Two units in 2 directly opposite tiles adjacent to the City Center (they are reflections of one another through the central point, the City Center).
- The two units above will account for 4 sides of the hexagonal area. On the 2 sides that have not been accounted for, place the last two units at the respective midpoints. These units should also be reflections of one another through the central point.