The Downfall of the Red Baron: Lessons Learned from the First World War ‘Ace of Aces’

The Downfall of the Red Baron: Lessons Learned from the First World War ‘Ace of Aces’

By Squadron Leader Michael Spencer

Baron Manfred von Richthofen was killed in air combat on 21 April 1918. He was unequalled in having shot down 80 enemy aircraft in aerial combat during the First World War to become the most famous ‘Ace of Aces’ in the early history of air combat. He was the pride of the German Imperial Army and respected by military aviation historians as the ‘Red Baron.’ A study of Richthofen’s aerial victories highlights the importance of critical thinking to identify and repeat the rules for success in aerial dogfighting. Evidence-based analyses of his behaviours and medical forensics in the months before his death indicate how the war may have been exacting an increasing toll on his judgement and decision-making abilities. The combination of seemingly discrete events that occurred during on 21 April triggered his abnormal behaviours and poor decisions, which had an accumulative effect that led to his ultimate downfall.

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Flying officers attached to Rittmeister Manfred Freiherr Von Richthofen’s squadron, Jasta 11, c. April 1917. Richthofen himself is seated in the Albatros D.III. aircraft. From left to right: standing: unidentified (possibly Leutnant Karl Allmenroeder); Hans Hintsch; Vizfeldwebel Sebastian Festner; Leutnant Karl Emil Schaefer; Oberleutnant Kurt Wolff; Georg Simon; Leutnant Otto Brauneck. Sitting: Esser; Krefft; Leutnant Lothar von Richthofen, younger brother of Manfred. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Manfred von Richthofen and Learning Lessons

The British called him the ‘Red Baron’, the French scorned him as the ‘le diable rouge’ (Red Devil) while his 1917 autobiography was called Der Rote Kampfflieger, which broadly translates as the ‘Red Battle Flyer.’[1] F.M. Cutlack, the official historian of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC), described him as the ‘star of stars in the German Air Force.’[2] On 21 April 1918, Richthofen pursued a Royal Flying Corps Sopwith Camel low over enemy-controlled territory, breaking one of his fundamental air combat maxims, and was fatally wounded. Until then, Richthofen had strictly followed Dicta Boelcke and his critical-thinking of air combat to be scorned, feared, and respected as the highest scoring air ace of the First World War.[3]

The quality of the box matters little. Success depends upon the man who sits in it.

Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 182.

One of the reasons behind his significant success in air combat was his adherence to doctrinal maxims that guided his judgements in deciding when and how he would enter an action in the battlespace and engage a target. The Dicta Boelcke was named after their developer: Oswald Boelcke, Germany’s first air ace, with a total of forty victories. While early aircraft commanders were still seeking to understand roles for aircraft as the newest war machines to enter the battlespace, Boelcke is recognised as being one of the first fighter aces to apply critical thinking to air combat. Boelcke drew on his observations in air combat, reviewed his successes and failures, and critically analysed them to identify the critical decision points, ethical behaviours, and practical tactics that he considered would lead to repeated successes in the air. Boelcke tested and evaluated his air combat rules before recommending them as ‘rules for success’ that should be applied by other German pilots when flying into air combat as individuals or as a group in a squadron.

Boelcke promoted his lessons-learned as dicta to increase the chance of success in air combat by the pilots under his command, especially those who were new and inexperienced. His aerial warfighting principles were endorsed by the German Army to all its airmen, as Dicta Boelcke. After Richthofen was assigned to serve in Boelke’s squadron, Boelke became Richthofen’s mentor, instructor, squadron commander, and close friend. Richthofen became a keen practitioner of Dicta Boelcke.

We were all beginners. None of us had had a success so far. Consequently, everything that Boelcke told us, was to us, gospel truth.

Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 109.

Richthofen fully embraced Dicta Boelcke and, after gaining his own experiences in aerial combat, he learned to apply his critical-thinking to identify his maxims to improve and complement his list of successful air combat tactics doctrine. One of his doctrinal maxims to complement Dicta Boelcke was to ‘never obstinately stay with an opponent’ or, having initiated a dogfight in favourable circumstances, know when to break off the attack when the situation has changed and is no longer favourable. He did not adhere to this principle, later, in his final mission.

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General von Falkenhayn and Richthofen inspecting a Fokker triplane. Mr A.H.G. Fokker is seated in the cockpit and General von Falkenhayn is on his right. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Richthofen’s Final Mission

On 21 April 1918, Richthofen pursued a British Sopwith Camel piloted by novice Canadian pilot, Lieutenant Wilfrid May of No. 209 Squadron. May had just fired on the Richthofen’s cousin, Lieutenant Wolfram von Richthofen. On seeing his cousin being attacked, Richthofen flew to aid his cousin and engaged May, causing the latter to disengage from his dogfight with Wolfram. In turn, Richthofen was attacked by another Sopwith Camel piloted by Canadian Captain Arthur ‘Roy’ Brown. Richthofen successfully evaded his attacker and, even though his Spandau machine guns had now jammed and could only be fired manually, resulting in single shots, he decided to resume his pursuit of May.

Richthofen was known to be very calculating in his observations of air battles before deciding when and whom to engage. Engagement only occurred when circumstances were likely to result in a favourable outcome. On this day, Richthofen’s judgment might have been affected by wanting to pursue the attacker who threatened his cousin, despite the circumstances – going against the aforementioned dicta that he considered critical for air combat success. Additionally, Richthofen had a reputation of being a skilled hunter on the ground with a single-shot rifle, and he may have decided that a victory with a single-shot Spandau machine gun be well within his capabilities and would significantly enhance his reputation and the morale of his flying Jasta.

May sought to escape Richthofen by rapidly descending to fly low across the front line into Allied-held territory. May later explained that his aircraft guns had jammed while being pursued and unable to out-manoeuvre Richthofen, he decided to fly low across the ridge into friendly territory, to ‘make a dash for a landing as his only hope.’[4] Eyewitness accounts reported seeing the Richthofen pursue May down to rooftop heights over the nearby village, which had a church with a bell-tower, and hearing the repeated cracking sounds of single gunshots coming from the aerial pursuit as the aircraft passed.

Richthofen appeared to decide to break one of his fundamental rules that he had previously applied so consistently in air combat by persisting in chasing May without regard for the new dangers arising around him. Richthofen was now flying low over Allied-held territory, with a strong easterly wind causing his aircraft to drift further behind enemy lines, and he was now flying low enough to be within the range of the Australian machine-gunners watching from the trenches. Richthofen seemed to have lost his situational awareness in focusing on May. Richthofen was then observed by the gunners in the trenches to fly up suddenly as if suddenly recognising the new dangers around him and only then decided to break off his pursuit of May – but it was too late. While pulling-up to ascend to a higher altitude above the trenches and ground troops, Richthofen was fatally struck by a single .303 round

He who gets excited in fighting is sure to make mistakes. He will never get his enemy down.

Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 137.

Mortally wounded, Richthofen managed to execute a controlled crash landing, on the Australian-held battleground, before dying in the cockpit. Australian soldiers were quick to attend the crash site and seek to recover Richthofen.

Medical forensic analysis has indicated that Richthofen seemed to suffer from an uncharacteristic episode of ‘target fixation’, breaking his own rule to ‘never obstinately stay with an opponent.’ Medical researchers considered that this uncharacteristic error in judgement might be attributed to a persistent head injury from a head wound caused by a machine gun projectile ricocheting from his head during a dogfight that occurred nine months earlier.[5]

There has been controversy over multiple claims as to who was responsible for the fatal shot that brought down Richthofen; was it fired from a pursuing aircraft or one of the machine-gunners in the trenches? Although Brown was initially credited with the victory, medical forensic analyses of the wound ballistics, conducted in detail in later years, have indicated that Richthofen was struck in the chest by groundfire and not from an airborne shooter. Australia’s Official Historian, C.E.W. Bean, gathered eyewitness accounts from the battlefield that indicate it was most probable that Sergeant Cedric Popkin, an Australian Vickers machine gunner in the trenches, had fired the fatal shot that brought down Richthofen.[6]

Members of No. 3 Squadron, AFC, assumed responsibility for Richthofen’s remains as it was the Allied air unit that was located nearest to the crash site. Richthofen was buried in a military cemetery in France, with full military honours, by members of No 3 Squadron. A British pilot flew solo over the German air base of Jasta 11 to airdrop a message to respectfully inform them of the death of their celebrated commander, Baron Manfred von Richthofen on 21 April 1918.

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The funeral cortege of Baron Manfred von Richtofen moving along to the cemetery at Bertangles, 22 April 1918. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Enduring Lessons for Modern-Day Aerospace Professionals

While accepting the challenges associated with extrapolating lessons from a historical example, Richthofen’s development and experience as a fighter pilot in the First World War does, however, highlight several enduring lessons for those flying in today’s operating environment. A key lesson is the need to develop critical thinking amongst military professionals who can effectively analyse their operating environment and develop solutions to challenges.

Boelcke was one of the first air aces to apply critical thinking to air combat and draw out best-practices as a way to increase the probability of success for other pilots, especially new and inexperienced ones. This was something that Richthofen built on, and he recognised the need for what in the modern vernacular might be referred to as a system-of-interest whereby in the operation of aerospace systems, the air vehicle, operator, and operating procedures and tactics need to work effectively in combination to achieve success. However, the recognition that a weapon, such as an aeroplane, was only as good as the person who operated it, and the training, tactics and procedures used by that individual, was only one part of the critical thinking process.

It was also necessary for the likes of Richthofen to capture lessons learned in the combat environment and regularly test and evaluate critical systems to improve performance. This also required pilots such as Richthofen to learn from personal mistakes and those of critical peers through ongoing discourse with both subordinates and superiors. The next step in this process was the ability to apply them in operation. Nevertheless, these lessons learned processes were all for nothing if not usefully applied as evidenced by Richthofen’s final flight where we see the significance of high-consequence decision-making and the failure to reduce risk.

The accumulation of seemingly small discrete decisions made by Richthofen on his last flight, where each decision had a seemingly minor consequence when reviewed in isolation, resulted in an accumulative effect that ultimately resulted in catastrophe. As such, it is essential that organisations need to develop the right culture, management systems, and training programs to reduce catastrophic risks to a minimum. Indeed, in Richthofen’s case, arguably, someone should have ensured that he did not fly on that fateful day as he was neither in the right physical or mental condition to fly effectively. Pilots and aircrew are expensive assets to train and maintain, and unnecessary losses such as Richthofen’s impact on operational effectiveness. Richthofen’s state on 21 April 1918 affected his judgement as he ignored one of his critical dicta – to never obstinately stay with an opponent.

Finally, it is worth reflecting that innovation and inventiveness never rest. Sometimes it is beneficial to study the past before looking to the future and look for opportunities to build on the experiences and inventiveness of others rather than starting at an experience level of zero. As Richthofen himself reflected:

Besides giant planes and little chaser-planes, there are innumerable other types of flying machines and they are of all sizes. Inventiveness has not yet come to an end. Who can tell what machine we shall employ a year hence in order to perforate the atmosphere?

Manfred von Richthofen, ‘The Red Battle Flyer,’ para. 222.

Squadron Leader Michael Spencer is currently serving in the Royal Australian Air Force at the Air Power Development Centre in Canberra, analysing potential risks and opportunities posed by technology change drivers and disruptions to the future applications air and space power. His Air Force career has provided operational experiences in long-range maritime patrol, aircrew training, and weaponeering, and management experiences in international relations, project management in air and space systems acquisitions, space concepts development, and joint force capability integration. He is an Australian Institute of Project Management certified project manager and also an Associate Fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics & Astronautics. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Royal Australian Air Force or the Australian Government.

Header Image: The remains of Baron Manfred von Richthofen’s plane and the two machine guns. Most of these officers and men are members of No. 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

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[1] Der Rote Kampfflieger was first published in 1918. The quotes in this article are taken from the 1918 translation by T. Ellis Barker, with a preface and notes by C.G. Grey, editor of The Aeroplane. This edition published by Robert M. McBride & Co. can be found on the Gutenberg.org site.

[2] F.M. Cutlack, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 – Volume VIII: The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914-1918, 11th Edition (Sydney, NSW: Angus and Robertson, 1941), p. 215.

[3] R.G. Head, Oswald Boelcke: Germany’s First Fighter Ace and Father of Air Combat (London: Grub Street, 2016), pp. 97-8.

[4] Cutlack, The Australian Flying Corps, p. 251.

[5] P. Koul, et al, ‘Famous head injuries of the first aerial war: deaths of the “Knights of the Air”,’ Neurosurgical Focus, 39:1 E5 (2015).

[6] ‘Appendix 4 – The Death of Richthofen’ in C.E.W. Bean, The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918 – Volume V: The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Main German Offensive, 1918, 8th Edition (Sydney, NSW: Angus and Robertson, 1941), pp. 693-701.

Air Power and the Battle of Hamel

Air Power and the Battle of Hamel

By Dr Michael Molkentin

Editorial Note: The 4th of July 2018 represented that 100th Anniversary of the Battle of Le Hamel. While Hamel was important, its place as a model on which subsequent operations were based has been overplayed. Furthermore, notable popular Australian historians have also distorted the significance of the battle. Nevertheless, as Dr Michael Molkentin highlights in this article, Hamel was valuable in highlighting the evolution of, and the diverse roles played by, air power in support of land battles during the First World War.

In the historiography of the First World War, the Battle of Hamel (4 July 1918) has frequently been cited as an example of significant tactical innovation and a ‘model’ on which subsequent British offensive operations were planned. While neither interpretation bears up to scrutiny when the battle is viewed within the broader context of British Army operations on the Western Front, relative to its size the Australian Corps’ capture of Hamel integrated air power to a hitherto unprecedented extent and, in hindsight, provides a revealing case study of the varied, distinct and specialist air power roles that had evolved during the conflict.

The Australian Corps’ headquarters, commanded by the recently appointed Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash, planned the capture of the village of Hamel (located south of the Somme) as a line-straightening operation. Besides the troops of his own corps’ 4th Division, Monash had ten infantry companies from the US 33rd Division, 60 tanks from the British 5th Tank Brigade (including the new Mark V tank) and 639 artillery pieces. Monash planned to launch a surprise assault behind a creeping barrage and tank screen (much like British Third Army had done at Cambrai the previous November); he anticipated that his infantry could secure their objectives – two kilometres deep on a seven-kilometre wide front – within an hour and a half.

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A unique photo of a disabled British RE8 aircraft diving towards earth during the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade attack at Vaire Wood in the Battle of Hamel. It was subsequently discovered that the machine had been hit by a presumably faulty shell. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Monash’s staff also worked with the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) V Brigade to organise substantial and multi-layered air support for the operation. The Australian Corps’ corps squadron, No. 3 Squadron Australian Flying Corps (AFC), would conduct the ‘majority of the tactical work’ during the battle. Its airmen would maintain a continuous presence over and directly beyond the battlefield to follow the progress of the Australian infantry (contact patrols), watch for enemy counter-attacks (counter-attack patrols), identify and direct artillery fire onto active German batteries (artillery patrols) and to photograph the new front line once it had been secured. New maps would then be produced and issued to troops in the front line within a matter of hours.[1] Assisting No. 3 Squadron with providing tactical air support, the RAF’s No. 8 Squadron would co-operate with the tanks while No. 9 Squadron parachuted ammunition to troops at their objectives. The night-bombers of No. 101 Squadron flew above the staging area on the night before the battle to mask the noise of the tanks as they moved up to their starting line.

The squadrons of 22nd (Army) Wing were also assigned to support the land battle: three of its four fighter squadrons would fly ground-attack sorties while its Bristol Fighter unit watched roads, railways and debussing points as far east as Proyart (10 kilometres east of Hamel). The army wing’s two bomber squadrons would meanwhile raid known German bivouacs. This aspect of the air plan reflected the RAF’s preference for interdiction over ‘trench strafing’ – the belief being that it was better to harass German troops and artillery behind rather than on the battlefield itself.[2] GHQ allocated three additional fighter squadrons from, IX Brigade, the RAF’s strategic reserve, to provide air superiority and the neighbouring Third Army’s fighters extended their offensive patrols south to cover the rest of Fourth Army’s front.[3]

Probably no other division-sized operation of the war enjoyed the combined support of aircraft from three wings, that is, 13 squadrons, or 230-odd aircraft. As well as the multi-faceted and highly integrated function that air power had assumed by this stage, the air plan, devised by the Australian Corps’ BGGS in collaboration with V Brigade illustrates the British Army’s growing reliance on machinery and firepower to reduce casualties and compensate for dwindling manpower.[4]

As the plan dispensed with a preliminary bombardment, No. 3 Squadron’s artillery spotting began at zero hour. For the first few hours, airmen reported batteries neutralised by the barrage so that artillery commanders could switch their guns onto active targets. The plan also allocated five heavy batteries to answer zone calls, airmen being briefed on where the Germans might move batteries once the battle started.[5] No. 3 Squadron issued 80 zone calls and co-operated in the neutralisation of at least 17 batteries (‘in many cases’ airmen did not see the artillery’s response to zone calls).[6] Although not entirely preventing it, the Australian Corps counter-battery arrangements suppressed the German artillery’s response adequately during the advance and consolidation.[7]

Counter-attack patrols flew beyond the German lines to ‘an unheard of distance’ with instructions to transmit zone calls on concentrations of German troops and engage them with bombs and machine guns.[8] One crew reported a concentration of enemy infantry just before 0700 but otherwise, seeing no enemy counter-attacks the airmen, as Lieutenant Arthur Barrett put it, ‘bombed and machine gunned everything we saw.’ Crossing the line just after zero hour he and his pilot halted a train, silenced several machine gun positions and strafed a pair of limbered guns, overturning one. Descending below 300 feet, Barrett’s eyes ran from gas in the barrage.[9] 3rd Squadron’s airmen dropped 138 bombs and fired 9,500 rounds on 4 July 1918.[10] Combined with the record 54,000 rounds and 850 bombs expended by 22nd Wing’s fighter pilots, this had a considerable impact on such a narrow battlefront.[11] ‘Several’ prisoners attested to the ‘moral effect’ of air attacks and noted how:

[t]hey prevent men getting machine guns into action almost as effectively as a barrage […] it was almost impossible to look over the top without getting machine gunned from the air.[12]

Corroborating this is German Second Army orders that noted ‘heavy casualties caused by machine gun fire from low-flying enemy machines’ at Hamel and issued instructions for dealing with British aircraft.[13]

Although Australian infantry had been signalling to aircraft since operations at Poziéres in 1916, contact patrols represented a new role for 3rd Squadron at Hamel. Despite difficulties experienced during the 1916-17 campaigns, the general staff recognised that aircraft provided the shortest possible passage of information from the battlefield to corps (and, atypically at Hamel, divisional) headquarters.[14] Dropped by airmen returning from the line, contact patrol reports reached headquarters staff in 24 minutes on average – up to half the time taken by a wireless message and a third of that usually taken by carrier pigeon.[15] Experience indicated that staff needed to synchronise contact patrols with the infantry’s timetable carefully. At Hamel, No. 3 Squadron had instructions to call for flares on the objective at 90 minutes after zero.[16] No. 8 Squadron followed the tanks across the battlefield and ‘in one or two cases were able to give information as to those which had been put out of action.’[17] The infantry’s clockwork progress and minimal resistance at the objective allowed the infantry and tanks to respond ‘well’ when contact patrol pilots sounded their klaxon horns; the airmen delivered ‘exceedingly accurate’ reports.[18] It remained to be seen, however, how the system would cope during running battles and exploitation operations when it would be arguably more crucial for staff to keep track of their troops.

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A parachute, used as an ammunition carrier, caught in the trees at Vaire Wood, during the Battle of Hamel on 4 July 1918, when the supply of ammunition to the infantry by means of parachutes was a feature of aircraft cooperation. The picture was taken the day following, during shelling by the enemy of newly won Australian positions. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

For the first time, at Hamel, the RAF organised battlefield resupply using equipment designed and built at No. 3 Squadron’s aerodrome under the direction of ‘B’ Flight’s commander, Captain Lawrence Wackett. The idea apparently came from the Luftstreitkräfte’s (German Air Service) attempts at dropping ammunition to troops on the battlefield during the spring offensives.[19] At Hamel a detachment from No. 9 Squadron carried out the work, dropping 111,600 rounds to Australian troops at their objectives and at dropping stations close behind the line.[20] Endorsing Wackett’s claim for a £1,000 inventor’s fee from the British government (he received £350), Monash declared the scheme ‘an unqualified success’, noting how it permitted the rapid resupply of troops in ‘isolated and exposed positions’ and saved casualties among carrying parties.[21] His subordinates, though more prosaic, also indicated the trial’s success. 4th Australian Infantry Brigade’s CO described it as working ‘satisfactorily’ while 6th Brigade’s commander noted how the scheme ‘worked very well,’ delivering ammunition within 10 yards of one machine gun position.[22] Though faster, aircraft lacked the carrying capacity of other transportation available to the Australian Corps: a single tank could deliver four times as much ammunition as each of No. 9 Squadron’s aircraft, plus 300 grenades, 450 litres of water and a vast quantity of food and other trench stores.[23] Employed in all subsequent British offensives (the RAF delivered 30-60,000 rounds each day during the Amiens offensive), ammunition drops by corps squadrons thus remained an ‘emergency’ adjunct to other forms of battlefield logistics.[24]

The RAF’s tactical support was enabled, to a substantial extent, by the air superiority that British airmen exercised over the battlefield. Throughout the day, the fighter squadrons of 22nd (Army) Wing and three additional fighter squadrons attached from IX Brigade, ranged east of the battlefield to intercept any German aircraft that attempted to interfere. It was RAF policy to employ air superiority patrols offensively, east of the lines, rather than as a protective screen or close escorts. The airmen of the Luftstreitkräfte made no sorties over the Hamel battlefield until 9.30am – some five hours after the Australian infantry had secured their objective line. German fighters after that became ‘fairly active’ over the area, and there were ten air-to-air combats. In the largest of these, the SE5as of No. 24 Squadron engaged a mixed formation of 20 Fokker DVIIs, Pfalz scouts and Albatros DVs over Cerisy, six kilometres east of Hamel. The British pilots claimed three enemy aircraft and lost none themselves.[25] It is noteworthy that No. 24 Squadron was one of the 22nd (Army) Wing fighter units allocated to bomb and strafe targets on the ground behind German lines – its involvement in this dogfight illustrates the integration of air superiority and interdiction roles that British airmen had begun to undertake at Third Ypres the previous year.

Altogether, of the hundreds of sorties flown by the RAF in support of the Hamel operation, only three resulted in the loss of an aircraft to air combat– and only one of these involved one of the aircraft involved in direct tactical support over the battlefield. All other British losses resulted from ground fire, to which the pilots of low-altitude contact patrols and ammunition drops, were considered vulnerable.[26] The RAF’s efforts to maintain air superiority, therefore, appear to have been overwhelmingly successful – although the woeful deficiencies in material (especially fuel) that the Luftstreitkräfte faced in the summer of 1918 need to be recognised when evaluating the success of the British air plan.

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The remains of RE8 C4580, which was shot down at Hamel Wood, by the enemy, after it had succeeded in dropping ammunition to the forward troops by means of parachutes. This aircraft was flown by No. 9 Squadron RAF during the Battle of Hamel and used for ammunition drops to the forward troops. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

The Battle of Hamel, therefore, indicates the extent and sophistication to which the application of British air power in support of surface operations had evolved during the First World War. The efforts of British airmen to support of Monash’s troops were not only extensive but organised carefully, through a variety of distinct air power roles, to provide a range of tactical and operational-level services that, considering the aircrafts’ technical limitations, functioned effectively. Indeed, the operation represented the high-water mark of efficacy in air-ground cooperation in the British Expeditionary Force during the First World War. As a limited, set-piece battle, Hamel drew on structures, procedures and technologies that had evolved during four years of trench warfare. Subsequent British operations during the ‘Hundred Days’, in which exploitation and pursuit replaced carefully planned set pieces, would test this system of integrating air power with surface forces and in some respects undermine the efficacy of British close air support. The war’s final battles would, in some respects, force airmen to begin their ‘learning curve’ all over again.[27]

Dr Michael Molkentin is a head teacher at Shellharbour Anglican College and an adjunct lecturer at the University of New South Wales Canberra. He has a PhD in History from the University of New South Wales and is the author of three books, including Australia and the War in the Air (OUP, 2014). His next book, a biographical history of Sir Ross Macpherson Smith and the 1919 England to Australia air race will be published in 2019.

Header Image: An R.E.8 aircraft, serial number A3662, ‘J’, presented to the Australian Flying Corps by Mr H. Teesdale Smith of Adelaide, South Australia. This was the type of aircraft used by No. 3 Squadron AFC at the Battle of Hamel. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

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[1] Australian War Memorial (AWM), Canberra, AWM4 8/6/19 Part 1, 3rd Squadron War Diary, 4 July 1918.

[2] For a clear expression of this idea, see the Royal Flying Corps’ plans for defence in the German spring offensives: H.A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, Vol. IV, (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1934), p. 445.

[3] The National Archives (TNA), London, AIR1/677/21/13/1887, Air Historical Branch, The Western Front Air Operations, May-November 1918, pp. 54-5.

[4] TNA, AIR1/1592/204/83/17, Brigadier-General Thomas Blamey, BGGS Australian Corps to GOC 4th Australian Division and GOC V Brigade RAF, 29 June 1918; Gary Sheffield, Forgotten Victory: The First World War – Myths and Realities (London: Review, 2002), p. 236.

[5] AWM, AWM26 364/12, Counter-battery Australian Corps HA Operation Order No. 7, 1 July 1918.

[6] AWM, AWM4 8/6/19 Part 1, 3rd Squadron war diary, 4 July 1918; TNA, AIR1/1009/204/5/1289, RAF Headquarters, Notes on corps squadrons work on the First and Third Army fronts during recent operations, 14 September 1918.

[7] AWM, AWM4 1/48/28 Part 1, 4th Division general staff war diary, 4 July 1918. The divisional staff noted that enemy artillery was ‘not very active’ and that retaliation against the Australian barrage was ‘weak’.

[8] AWM, AWM 2DRL/0053, Lieutenant Arthur Barrett to mother, 30 August 1918.

[9] AWM, AWM 2DRL/0053, Barrett to mother, 30 August 1918.

[10] AWM, AWM4 8/6/19 Part 1, 3rd Squadron war diary, 4 July 1918.

[11] TNA, AIR1/1592/204/83/17, CO 22nd Wing RAF, ‘Summary of Operations’, 11 July 1918.

[12] TNA, AIR1/2124/207/74/3, Summary of air intelligence, 18 July 1918; AWM, AWM4 8/14/2, RAF Communiqué No. 15, 17 July 1918.

[13] TNA, AIR1/2124/207/74/3, Summary of air intelligence, 18 August 1918.

[14] General Staff, SS 205 – Notes on Observation from Aeroplanes (France: Army Printing and Stationary Services, February 1918), p. 10; AWM, AWM4 8/6/18, Captain Errol Knox, recording officer, 3rd Squadron to 3rd Squadron flight commanders, 3 July 1918.

[15] Jonathan Boff, ‘Air/land integration in the 100 Days: the case of Third Army’, RAF Air Power Review, 12:3 (2009), p. 82.

[16] AWM, AWM4 8/6/18, Knox to 3rd Squadron flight commanders, 3 July 1918.

[17] TNA, AIR1/677/21/13/1887, Air Historical Branch, Western Front air operations May-November 1918.

[18] AWM, AWM4 8/6/19 Part 1, 3rd Squadron war diary, 4 July 1918.

[19] F.M. Cutlack, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918: Volume VIII – The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914-1918 (Sydney, NSW: Angus and Robertson, 1939 [1923], p. 272; EML Gorrell papers, Series M, Item 14, GHQ AEF, Summary of Air Information, No. 29, 19.6.18.

[20] AWM, AWM4 8/6/19 Part 1, 3rd Squadron war diary, 4 July 1918.

[21] AWM, AWM10 43/13, Lieutenant-General John Monash, GOC Australian Corps to The Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors, 13 May 1919.

[22] AWM, AWM4 23/4/34 Part 1, Fourth Australian Infantry Brigade Intelligence Summary, 6am 3.7.1918 to 6am 4.7.1918; AWM4 23/6/35 Part 1, Brigadier-General J. Paton, CO 6th Australian Infantry Brigade, Preliminary Report on Operations of 6th AI Brigade on 4-7-1918.

[23] AWM, AWM4 1/48/29 Part 3, Fourth Australian Division Report on Operations- August 7th to August 10th 1918.

[24] Jones, The War in the Air, Vol. VI (1937), p. 484; TNA, AIR1/1009/204/5/1289, RAF Headquarters, Notes on corps squadrons work on the First and Third Army fronts during recent operations, 14 September 1918; TNA, AIR1/1591/204/83/8, 15th Wing Operation Order No. 112, 17 September 1918.

[25] AWM, AWM4 8/14/2, Royal Air Force Communique No. 14, 10 July 1918.

[26] Trevor Henshaw, The Sky their Battlefield II: Air Fighting and Air Casualties of the Great War, (London: Fetubi Books, 2014), p. 187.

[27] This argument is expanded in Michael Molkentin, Australia and the War in the Air (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2014), pp. 196-206.

The Rise of Armed Unmanned Aircraft – Part Two

The Rise of Armed Unmanned Aircraft – Part Two

By Dr Peter Layton

Editorial Note: In the second part of a two-part article, Dr Peter Layton explores the evolution of the armed unmanned aircraft from its first use in the Second World War through to the First Gulf War. The first part of this article can be found here.

In retrospect, during the Cold War, the dice were stacked against armed unmanned aircraft.  Improving aircrew survivability in a major war – the primary requirement – involved operating in a very hostile, sophisticated air environment in the presence of extensive jamming that could defeat the data links necessary to control unmanned aircraft. Furthermore, the computers, aircraft systems and onboard sensors needed to make such an aircraft work were all big, cumbersome, unreliable and costly. Even when cost was not an issue as in the case of Advanced Airborne Reconnaissance System project of the late Cold War, the unmanned aircraft designs ended up being very large, technically challenging, of doubtful effectiveness and somewhat inflexible in operation.

In the 1990s the stars radically realigned to favour armed unmanned aircraft. In the early 1990s, armed violence erupted in Yugoslavia. The conflict was slow paced with a need for protracted surveillance rather than episodic reconnaissance, but none of the existing systems seemed quite right. Manned aircraft lacked persistence while satellites had predictable orbits and known overhead times, could not easily be repositioned to survey new areas and were impacted by bad weather. Meeting the new requirements driven by the wars in the Balkans was however eased somewhat by the air environment now being permissive with little threat from air defences. In the winter of 1992, the US Joint Staffs and the Office of the Secretary of Defense initiated a quick reaction program for a long-endurance unmanned aircraft. First flight came within six months of contract award, and a year later the General Atomics Predator unmanned aircraft was in operations over Bosnia.

Seemingly quick, the Predator’s rapid entry into service exploited some 15 years of DARPA experiments, trials, partial successes and utter failures. The overall airframe design was point-optimised for the particular mission with a slender fuselage with pusher configuration, long sailplane-like wings, inverted V-tails and a ventral rudder. The engine was a horizontally-opposed, liquid-cooled, four-stroke, geared piston engine with a minimal frontal area that offered high power at a moderate rpm, very low fuel consumption and very low vibration. The Vietnam-era unmanned jet aircraft saved weight by not being fitted with an undercarriage but were difficult to launch and recover. Predator’s used a tall, lightweight fixed undercarriage that gave considerable ground clearance.  This design meant that the Predator had a maximum speed of only some 120kts, but they could loiter for almost a day flying at 70kts at an altitude of 12-15,000 ft. This performance was adequate – if not sparkling – for the new requirement for long persistence albeit useless for the earlier Cold War type missions where survivability was critical.

In design terms, the airframe and engine were skillful but somewhat primitive having more in common with the 1944 TDR-1 unmanned aircraft (see Part One here) than a 1990s military aircraft. The real innovations that addressed the big technological challenge – how to fly and operate an unmanned aircraft in combat for 24 hours or more without on-board humans – lay in the electronics. Computer advances now allowed dramatic increases in computing power, speed and reliability while communication advances connected the Predator literally to the world, changing everything.

Controllability was addressed using a purpose-built flight control computer more powerful than that used in the F-16 fighters of the time. This made the Predator stable in flight in all weathers and easy to control remotely especially during the problematic take-off and landing phases. Navigation was addressed using the satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS). Earlier unmanned aircraft had significant navigation problems with Vietnam era aircraft often missing their planned target by some 10-12 kilometres. GPS was a real breakthrough that provided an off-board, ubiquitous, highly accurate navigation method. However, it was new communications technology that made armed unmanned aircraft practical.

Over its first few years of operational service, the Predator system took advantage of and was integrated into, the rapidly advancing online world. It broke away from being dependent on line of sight control with the fitment of high bandwidth satellite communication data links. This has made the armed unmanned aircraft both remarkably flexible and remarkably useful.

Remote Split Operations endowed remarkable flexibility. A small team at a forward airbase launched a Predator using a line-of-sight wireless link and then transferred control to operators located anywhere globally who used satellite communications links. These remote operators then flew the long-duration operational part of each sortie, changing crews throughout the mission as necessary. After the mission, the Predator was handed back to the small forward deployed team which landed the aircraft and turned it around for the next mission. This way of operating meant the forward team was small, requiring only very limited support and minimising the people and equipment needed to be deployed.

The second aspect – that of being remarkably useful – was made possible using modern communications technology that allowed data from the unmanned aircraft to be sent worldwide in near-real-time.

By the late 1990s, sensor technology had considerably advanced allowing relatively small high-quality daylight and night television systems to be made for an affordable cost. Moreover, these, when combined with a laser rangefinder and the onboard GPS navigation system, allowed an unmanned aircraft to now very accurately determine the location of the object being looked at. Such pictures and the position data though were of limited use if access to them had to wait for the aircraft’s return to base. Now with high-bandwidth satellite communication systems, full-motion video tagged with its accurate location could be sent to distant locations. Multiple users worldwide could access real-time imagery of events as they occurred.

The impact of this was that not just the aircrew controllers could see the video and make use of it. Now local land, sea and air commanders could have instant access to the imagery allowing more active command and control of assigned forces. High-level commanders and government ministers at home could also gain an appreciation of the tactical events unfolding. These live feeds from the world’s battlefield were compelling viewing; the term ‘Predator Porn’ was coined – you cannot take your eyes off it.

As importantly, imagery analysts and other exploitation specialists at locations worldwide could now bring their expert skills to bear to provide instantaneous advice on niche aspects to the complete command chain, including the operators controlling the Predator. The satellite communications links allowed many skilled people to be ‘onboard’ the unmanned aircraft flying in some distant theatre of operations, making its operations much more useful than a manned aircraft traditionally could be.

161208-F-YX485-100
A US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper awaits maintenance 8 December 2016, at Creech Air Force Base. The MQ-1 Predator has provided many years of service, and the USAF is transitioning to the more capable MQ-9 exclusively and will retire the MQ-1 in 2018 to keep up with the continuously evolving battlespace environment. (Source: US Department of Defense)

The final technological piece in the armed unmanned aircraft jigsaw came together with the fitment of air-to-ground weapons. On operations in the Balkans in the 1990s, Predator’s provided imagery that was used to cue manned aircraft to essential targets, so they could deliver weapons on them. This worked well but sometimes the manned aircraft were not readily available and hours might elapse before they were overhead. This delay meant that hostile forces could group and attack civilians or friendly forces before defensive measures could be taken.  To overcome this, lightweight, small-warhead Hellfire missiles were fitted to the Predators that could be fired by the remote aircrew controllers against time-urgent targets. The range of weapons that could be fitted greatly expanded in later Predator developments but the fundamental constraint of needing to be lightweight to allow the unmanned aircraft to fly long-duration missions remained. Manned aircraft were still necessary for the battlefield situations and targets that required large warhead weapons.

In the early part of the 21st Century, armed unmanned aircraft finally came of age. This occurred with the coming together of several factors. Firstly, in the operational circumstances of the time, the air environment was much less hostile allowing simple aircraft to survive and potentially undertake meaningful roles. Secondly, there was now a pressing operational need for persistent surveillance; a task manned aircraft were unable to meet. Thirdly, aircraft technology has sufficiently mature to allow an unmanned aircraft to be controllable, navigate successfully, carry suitable sensors and incorporate satellite communications equipment. Lastly, in the internet age, once a video stream was received anywhere, it could be sent worldwide to allow anybody with an authorised computer terminal to access and use it.

After more than half-century of development, the aircraft was the easy bit. It was the electronics onboard and overboard, the ground controlling equipment, the complex support base and the large numbers of skilled staff involved at every level that made the whole operation work. It was not surprising then that defence forces pivoted to talk less of unmanned aircraft and towards terminology such as Unmanned Air Systems. Predators and their ilk were a system of systems, mostly ground-based but with one element that flew.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book Grand Strategy.

Header Image: An MQ-1 Predator, armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, on a combat mission over southern Afghanistan, c. 2008. (Source: Wikimedia)

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The Rise of Armed Unmanned Aircraft – Part One

The Rise of Armed Unmanned Aircraft – Part One

By Dr Peter Layton

Editorial Note: In the first part of a two-part article, Dr Peter Layton explores the evolution of the armed unmanned aircraft from its first use in the Second World War through to the First Gulf War.

In the Solomon Islands off Australia’s northern shores, on the 19 October 1944, a US Navy flown, Interstate Aircraft-built TDR-1 dropped a mix of ten 100lb and 500lb bombs against Japanese gun emplacements on Ballale Island.  This was the first operational armed unmanned aircraft attack in history.

The twin-engined unmanned aircraft involved was just one of some fifty sent into combat in late 1944 with Special Task Air Group One. The armed unmanned aircraft took off under radio control that was then transferred to accompanying manned TBM-1C Avenger control aircraft for the long transit to the target area. The control aircraft remained some 8-12 kilometres outside of the ground defences while using a data linked real-time video picture displayed on a cockpit mounted television screen for close-in guidance. Few of the Air Group personnel involved had even seen a television set before they joined the unit. Their feats would not be replicated until early in the 21st century.

In truth, while after 1944-armed unmanned aircraft continued to attract considerable interest and at times funding, the technology available was too immature. The crucial issue was to find technological solutions that could overcome the many problems arising from not having a person in the aircraft. Finding the right blend of complex technological solutions took several decades, but this was not enough to see armed unmanned aircraft fly again in combat. There had to be a compelling operational need only they could best meet.

Curiously enough, the next armed unmanned aircraft was again operated by the US Navy. In the 1950s, the US Navy was concerned that the Soviets were building submarines faster than it could build anti-submarine warfare (ASW) destroyers. The solution was to upgrade a large number of old Second World War vessels, but these were too small to operate manned ASW helicopters from. Soviet submarines of the time could fire on ASW destroyers at longer ranges than the destroyers could fire back. A helicopter that could drop homing torpedoes was necessary to allow them to engage first. The answer was the small QH-50 Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter controlled by the ship’s crew through a line-of-sight data link and able to deliver two MK-44 ASW homing torpedoes where and when required. There were numerous problems and many crashes, but hundreds were built and saw service throughout the 1960s.

QH-50 enthusiasts consider the more pressing operational demands arising from the worsening Vietnam War prematurely killed the unmanned helicopter off, and in this, they may be right. In the second half of the 1960s, there was a significant air war almost daily over North Vietnam. Attacking US Air Force (USAF) and US Navy strike aircraft were pitched against a continually improving Soviet-equipped integrated air defence system featuring the latest SA-2 and SA-3 Surface-to-Air Missile systems. Bomb damage assessment was a real problem; bad weather and the heavy defences made manned aircraft reconnaissance problematic.

QH-50C_DD-692_1969
A QH-50C anti-submarine drone hovers over the destroyer USS Allen M. Sumner during a deployment to the Mediterranean Sea in 1969. (Source: Wikimedia)

The solution was a fast jet, unmanned aircraft and again hundreds were built, and thousands of sorties flown. These Ryan Lightning Bugs were launched from modified C-130 transport aircraft, flew pre-planned missions and were then recovered using a parachute that was caught in mid-air by a large helicopter. This was an inflexible and expensive way to do business that only fitted the oddities of the Vietnam air environment. With the war’s end in 1975, interest also faded albeit after some trials of armed unmanned aircraft carrying bombs and missiles.

The USAF’s focus shifted to the European Central front then characterised by strong air defences, long-range fighters, a harsh electromagnetic environment and extensive jamming. Launching and recovering unmanned aircraft using slow, vulnerable C-130 transports and CH-53 helicopters in such a hostile air environment looked both very unappealing and most probably operationally ineffective.

The need that drove TDR-1 development however remained. When attacking well-defended targets in a significant war, aircrew survivability was still a real concern. In the late 1970s, the aircrew losses in a new major European War looked as though they would be exceptionally heavy, but there would not be time to bring newly trained aircrews into service as in the Second World War: what should be done? Could armed unmanned aircraft meet the need? After much thought and numerous experiments, the answer adopted instead was to invest sizable funds into high performance manned aircraft equipped with stand-off precision-guided weapons that lowered the sortie numbers required to inflict the necessary damage, field a fleet of electronic warfare attack aircraft able to defeat hostile SAM systems and build secret stealth bombers, the F-117 fleet. This approach was stunningly validated in the short very successful air campaign of the 1991 Gulf War.

Unmanned aircraft lost out not because of aviator biases as some assume but because of their technological immaturity, their relative operational ineffectiveness and their prohibitive costs. Other systems were just plain better. Unmanned aircraft were left as a potential solution in search of a mission. However, the world was about to change.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book Grand Strategy.

Header Image: An Interstate TDR-1 at the National Museum of Naval Aviation, Pensacola, Florida. (Source: Wikimedia)

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Inventing the Enemy: Colonel Toon and the Memory of Fighter Combat in Vietnam

Inventing the Enemy: Colonel Toon and the Memory of Fighter Combat in Vietnam

By Dr Michael Hankins

A recent post on the popular website The Aviation Geek Club told the story of what they called ‘the most epic 1 v 1 dogfight in the history of naval aviation.’[1] This is the story in which Lieutenants Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham and William Driscoll, from among the first batch of graduates from the US Navy’s then-new Top Gun training program, shot down the number one North Vietnamese Air Force fighter ace, Colonel Toon, and became the first American aces of the war. Very little of that tale is true, but it makes for an exciting story, and this website is not the first to tell it. Although the details of these claims bear some scrutiny, the tale raises more interesting more significant questions about how and why legends like this form and grow over time.

Cunningham and Driscoll meet with Secretary of the Navy John Warner and CNO Admiral Elmo Zumwalt
Lieutenant Randy Cunningham (second from left) in a ceremony honouring him and Lieutenant William Driscoll (third from left), the US Navy’s only Vietnam War air ‘Aces’ in June 1972. On the left is John Warner, then Secretary of the Navy, and on the right is Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, then Chief of Naval Operations. (Source: Wikimedia)

Combat situations breed storytellers. Any stressful, exciting, death-inducing human endeavour does. Perhaps even more so among fighter pilots engaging in acrobatic dogfights at near (or above) the speed of sound, combat stories, as they are told and retold, heard and re-heard, become legendary. Especially enticing is the need to explain defeat or even a lack of decisive victory. During the Vietnam War, skilled North Vietnamese pilots shot down US aircraft in numbers that some Americans found embarrassing. The final official tally of air-to-air combat kills was 137 to 67, almost exactly 2:1 in favour of the US. This sounds like a victory to some. Indeed, General William Momyer, Commander US Seventh Air Force, saw it that way when he recalled later that winning by 2:1 was ‘an acceptable rate.’[2] However, it did not seem acceptable to those who drew historical comparisons. The US had fared better in previous wars, peaking in the Korean War, which saw US F-86 pilots defeating MiG-15s by a factor of more than 10:1.[3] By those standards, Vietnam felt like a massive step backwards.

Explaining the seeming backslide in combat performance was the official task of several investigations, from the US Air Force’s Red Baron Reports to the US Navy’s Ault Report. Pilots ranted about the poor performance of their planes, especially the F-4 Phantom’s thick black smoke trails that gave away its position to anyone caring to look up. Pilots scoffed at the lack of training in basic combat manoeuvring, much less dogfight training. They decried the fact that only ten percent of their missiles hit anything, and that their F-4s lacked the most basic instrument of air combat: a gun. Without a trigger to pull, many argued, how were they supposed to shoot anyone down?

Other pilots took to creating legends. What could explain the fact that so many US aircraft were getting shot out of the sky by an allegedly inferior, third-world country’s hand-me-down air force that only had a few dozen aeroplanes to its name? There must be an amazing, inexplicable, near-mythical, born-genius dogfighter on the enemy side.

Thus, was born the legend of Colonel Toon, AKA Colonel Tomb, AKA Nguyen Tomb.

Telling the Tale

As the legend goes, Toon was more than a double ace, with at least twelve kills to his name, maybe as high as 14, which was how many stars were allegedly painted on the side of his MiG. Toon displayed the typical fighter pilot personality characteristics of aggressiveness and independence. He utilised frequent head-on attacks and a ‘lone wolf’ style of engaging in which he refused to obey the orders of his ground controller and engaged F-4s in vertical manoeuvres, where his MiG was at an inherent disadvantage.[4] According to the typical story, as American pilots struggled, the US Navy’s Ault Report had led to the introduction of Top Gun: a graduate school for fighter pilots. The intensive training there gave US Navy aviators the skills to destroy MiGs wherever they found them. Moreover, allegedly, Top Gun graduates Cunningham and Driscoll used their newly found skills to shoot Toon out of the sky on 10 May, during a massive dogfight at the beginning of Operation Linebacker. Cunningham claimed this himself, and the story is still often repeated in popular outlets.[5]

There is just one problem: almost none of this is true. Top Gun, although undoubtedly useful, was, at the time, a tiny outfit that many leaders in the US Navy did not take seriously. The narrative of Top Gun as the saving grace of air-to-air combat also ignores all of the other useful changes instigated by the Ault Report, as well as other practices the US Navy was doing at the time. These included enhancements to their aircraft, upgraded missiles, the increased reliance on early warning radar systems that gave pilots situational awareness, and the increase in jamming of enemy communications that limited North Vietnamese situational awareness.[6] Besides that, Cunningham and Driscoll were not even Top Gun graduates. Moreover, what of Colonel Toon? He was simply not real. He did not exist.

NVAF MiG-19 pilots of the 925th fighter squadron discussing tactics in 1971
North Vietnamese Air Force MiG-19 pilots of the 925th fighter squadron discussing tactics in 1971. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

Busting Myths

To unravel these tales, let’s start with Cunningham and Driscoll at Top Gun. The principal disputed aspect of the common claim hinges on the word ‘graduates.’ Cunningham and Driscoll had not been students at Top Gun, but they were involved with the school. Before the start of Operation Linebacker in 1972, Top Gun was in bad shape. It had struggled and fought to get access to aeroplanes to train in, and throughout 1971 most of the instructors assumed it was only a matter of time before the US Navy would shut the place down.[7] With limited student slots, selection for Top Gun was competitive. Only the top-performing pilots of select squadrons were picked, and Cunningham had simply not made the cut – twice. Cunningham’s roommate Jim McKinney, and later Steve Queen, both of whom were his colleagues in VF-96, were selected ahead of him. This was in part because they were viewed as more skilled, partially because Top Gun selection favoured career officers the US Navy could count on to stay in the service after the war, which did not, at that time, describe Cunningham. Also, as his skipper noted, Cunningham was simply immature. Top officers and those selected for the coveted Top Gun training needed to be more than just typical fighter jocks, they needed to be well-rounded officers capable of strong leadership. Cunningham’s commander did not see those qualities in him.[8] His fellow pilots noted the same lack of leadership. When Cunningham later pled guilty to taking millions of dollars in bribes as a congressman, those that served with him said they were ‘not necessarily surprised,’ because even when he was a pilot during the war, he had shown a remarkable lack of officership. Some noted that Cunningham was ‘a mind undistracted by complicated thoughts.’[9]

Cunningham and Driscoll
An autographed picture of Lieutenants Cunningham and Driscoll (Source: Randy Cunningham and Jeff Ethell, Fox Two: The Story of America’s First Ace in Vietnam (Mesa, AZ: Champlin Fighter Museum, 1984)

Just because Cunningham was passed over for Top Gun does not mean he was not participating in some way. In 1971, during his squadron’s turnaround period, Cunningham was assigned to temporary duty at Top Gun as a ‘gopher,’ mostly doing paperwork for the school. However, it gave him a chance to listen to some of the lessons and occasionally sit in the backseat of adversary aircraft. He spent much time with the Top Gun instructors, including Jim Laing, J.C. Smith, Dave Frost, and Jim Ruliffson. The squadron then went on leave for a month, during which time Cunningham’s new commanding officer, Early Winn, permitted him to run exercises in the squadron’s F-4 Phantoms since they would be sitting idle for that time. Cunningham used the opportunity to practice what he had learned from his informal lessons. Upon returning from leave, the whole squadron became the first to go through the new Fleet Adversary Program, which some described as ‘mini-Top Gun.’ Primarily the program was a short workshop that introduced some of the concepts that Top Gun explored in more detail. VF-96 ran the workshop twice before returning to Vietnam.[10]

The claim that Cunningham and Driscoll were Top Gun graduates, as is often repeated, is false, but it is easy to see why many might be confused about that. Indeed, in an ad hoc sense, the pair had some access to higher level training than others, including Top Gun instructors. The other claim; that the duo’s fifth kill was the legendary Toon – or that there even was a Toon – is much more dubious.

Part of the confusion comes from the insistence of US SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) by the National Security Agency (NSA) that Toon was real. Claiming to have cracked the North Vietnamese callsign system, the NSA, intercepting enemy communications, began keeping track of individual pilots. They especially singled-out a North Vietnamese MiG-21 ace pilot named Toon, based at Phuc Yen, who developed a reputation for aggressively disrupting B-52 raids. They referred to him as ‘The Red Baron of North Vietnam,’ or ‘an airborne outlaw in the image of a Wild West gunslinger,’ who, whenever he was spotted, ‘U.S. planes took up the chase like some sheriff’s posse of old.’ The NSA claimed that Momyer was ‘obsessed’ with destroying Toon.[11] This could be possible, although it is strange then, that Momyer does not mention Toon at all in his book on the subject.

Cunningham’s debriefing report from 10 May 1972 – in which he very carefully words his statement to give the reader the impression that he was a Top Gun student without stating that directly – has ‘The 5th Kill (Col. Tomb)’ typed in the margin. After describing the dogfight, he claimed:

Intelligence later revealed that this 17 driver was Colonel Tomb, the North Vietnamese ace credited with 13 U.S. aircraft.[12]

Cunningham did not identify who told him this, and his claim raises questions, as it seems to contradict the intelligence from the time. The NSA referred to this pilot as ‘Toon,’ not ‘Tomb,’ and did not identify him as a Colonel. The NSA also specified him as a MiG-21 pilot whereas the Cunningham kill was a -17. They also credited Toon with five kills, not the 13 that Cunningham referenced. Furthermore, the NSA report states that Toon was never defeated, and eventually was promoted out of combat flying and became a ground controller.[13] Cunningham might be telling the truth that some intelligence source, which he does not identify, told him that the -17 he killed was Tomb, but because his claims are so at odds with the NSA’s information on nearly every point, Cunningham’s story raises more questions than it answers.

Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17F
A Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17F at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

However, the NSA could also be wrong. In fact, they probably are. Even though the NSA claimed Toon was real at the time, there is little evidence to verify this. Indeed, any ace pilots that North Vietnam had – and eventually they had fifteen that were confirmed by US sources, though Vietnamese records claim sixteen, which was triple the number of US aces – would be of immense propaganda and morale value for their cause. If Toon were real, he would likely have been celebrated as a national hero. When researchers and former pilots began talking to North Vietnamese veterans, any questions about Toon were met with confusion. There’s no record of a Toon or Tomb, which is not even a Vietnamese name. Some have claimed that ‘Toon’ was the result of SIGINT operators mishearing the name of Din Tonh, who was an effective pilot known for ‘lone wolf’ attacks. However, Tonh also flew the MiG-21, not the -17, and was not an ace, much less one with kills in the double digits.[14]

Historian Roger Boniface travelled to North Vietnam and conducted extensive interviews with former MiG pilots. His conclusion? Toon was merely an invented figment of American fighter pilots’ imagination, made up specifically to stroke their damaged egos. As he put it:

The existence of Colonel Toon in the mind of an American pilot may have provided a psychological comfort zone if a North Vietnamese pilot should out-fly him or, even worse, shoot him down.[15]

NVAF ace pilot Nguyen Van Coc meeting with Ho Chi Minh
Nguyen Van Coc meeting Ho Chí Minh, N.D. (Source: Wikimedia)

The closest real pilot to fitting the description, however, was Nguyen Van Coc. He flew a MiG-21 with 14 ‘kill’ stars painted on the side. Vietnam officially credits Van Coc with nine kills of US aircraft, and the US has officially recognised six of them. Still, Van Coc cannot have been the ace-making kill for Cunningham and Driscoll, not only because he flew MiG-21s, but by 1968 he had already been pulled out of combat duty and made an instructor of new North Vietnamese pilots.[16]

Conclusion

Why does this controversy – and others like it – continue to plague the memory of the Vietnam War? Possibly because losing a war is psychologically devastating. This is evident simply in how divisive it is to call the American-Vietnam War a ‘loss’ for the US. Some are reluctant to do so in any terms, but no one can deny that the US did not achieve its strategic goal of creating a stable, independent, non-communist South Vietnamese state. Indeed, North Vietnam did achieve its goal of creating a unified communist state. However, the air-to-air war was not at all the make-or-break factor in any of that. The US did not fail in their goals because of the MiG force. Also, former war records aside, Momyer was not wrong to claim that a 2:1 kill ratio in air-to-air combat is still a victory, in at least a technical definition although the ability of MiGs to frequently interrupt bombing strikes was a more significant problem. Despite these clarifications, Vietnam felt like a loss even to many air combat pilots. Explaining that sense of loss, or even just a sense of a lack of decisive victory is difficult at best. Many pilots, and some historians and observers since, including Cunningham and Driscoll, found it easier to invent an enemy rather than must deal with those painful feelings head-on. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Nearly every war sees these types of inventions as a coping mechanism. Toon may not exist, but what he represents as a way of dealing with the psychological trauma of warfare, is all too real.

Dr Michael Hankins is an Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones and a Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool. He is also a former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled “The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.” He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: US Navy McDonnell Douglas F-4J Phantom II ‘Showtime 100,’ which was assigned to VF-96 of Carrier Air Wing 9 onboard USS Constellation Lieutenants Randy Cunningham and William Driscoll used this aircraft for their third, fourth, and fifth MiG-kills on 10 May 1972. (Source: Wikimedia)

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[1] Dario Leone, ‘Showtime 100 Vs Colonel Toon: the most epic 1 V 1 dogfight in the history of naval aviation,’ The Aviation Geek Club, 9 May 2018

[2] William W. Momyer, Air Power in Three Wars (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2003), p. 178.

[3] For example, see: Kenneth P. Werrell, Sabres Over MiG Alley: The F-86 and the Battle for Air Superiority in Korea (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005).

[4] Roger Boniface, MiGs Over North Vietnam: The Vietnam People’s Air Force in Combat, 1965-75 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008), p. 59, 74.

[5] For Cunningham’s claim, see: Randy Cunningham and Jeff Ethell, Fox Two: The Story of America’s First Ace in Vietnam (Mesa, AZ: Champlin Fighter Museum, 1984), pp. 107-8.

[6] For a more in-depth look at some of these changes in both the US Navy and the USAF, see Michael Hankins, ‘The Teaball Solution: The Evolution of Air Combat Technology in Vietnam 1968-1972,’ Air Power History, 63 (2016), pp. 7-24.

[7] Robert Wilcox, Scream of Eagles (New York, NY: Pocket Star Books, 1990), pp. 203-6.

[8] Ibid, pp. 207-8.

[9] Alex Roth, ‘Shooting down Cunningham’s legend: Ex-comrades in arms say disgraced congressman was a good fighter pilot but a poor officer with flair for self-promotion,’ San Diego Union Tribune, 15 January 2000.

[10] Wilcox, Scream of Eagles, pp. 210-12; Cunningham, Fox Two, p. 106.

[11] ‘On Watch: Profiles from the National Security Agency’s past 40 years,’ National Security Agency, 1984, declassified 2007, pp. 58-9.

[12] US Air Force Academic Library, Lieutenant Randy Cunningham, ‘Naval Intelligence Debriefing of 10 May 1972 MiG Engagement by VF-96,’ 10 May 1972, pp. 5-6.

[13] ‘On Watch,’ pp. 58-9.

[14] Sebastien Roblin, ‘The Legend of the Vietnam War’s Mystery Fighter Ace,’ War is Boring, 3 July 2016.

[15] Boniface, MiGs Over North Vietnam, p. 74.

[16] Ibid.; Roblin, ‘The Legend of the Vietnam War’s Mystery Fighter Ace.’

The Challenges of Fifth-Generation Transformation

The Challenges of Fifth-Generation Transformation

By Wing Commander André Adamson and Colonel Matthew Snyder

Plan Jericho, published in 2015, outlined a strategy that would transform the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) into a fifth-generation air force by 2025 which, if delivered on schedule, would make it the world’s first. This transformation is not based on merely the possession of the next generation of aircraft technology including the F-35A, P-8 Poseidon, EA-18G Growler and E-7A Wedgetail, but on a reconceptualisation of the RAAF as an integrated, networked force. Significantly, this new operating concept is based on working in a highly collaborative manner with the Australian Army, Royal Australian Navy, industry, and allies – especially partners in the F-35 programme – to achieve the full potential of the new technologies, and to ensure that the networked force can work effectively with them.

The Australian plan has given many air forces pause for thought. That an air force comprising fewer than 15,000 regular personnel is seeking to transition to an entirely fifth-generation air force within the next decade to meet its strategic and security objectives demonstrates an undertaking to conduct future air operations in a conceptually different way. The commitment to a similar transformation among other F-35 partners is firmly underway – both the US Air Force (USAF) and Royal Air Force (RAF) have pledged to transition to fifth-generation air forces.[1] In contrast, for air forces that are not committed to a fifth-generation programme, or the transformational concepts that underpin it, the time is rapidly approaching where a hard-nosed evaluation and decision will need to be made on where they want to be as an air force in the next 10-15 years. The choice is tactical, strategic, and political.

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An E-7A Wedgetail from No. 2 Squadron RAAF sits on the tarmac at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, during Exercise Red Flag 18-1. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

Since the inception of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) precursor of the F-35 in the mid-1990s, there has been a broad, often polarised, and inevitably highly charged debate surrounding the programme. Over the past decade, as the first prototypes took to the air, this debate focused on cost – perhaps unavoidably given that it is the most expensive military project in history. As the aircraft subsequently moved into its production phase, attention shifted to technical problems with engines, software, and its data fusion capabilities. More recently, however, supporters of the F-35, not least the international partners themselves, have highlighted successes that indicate that the programme may have now turned a corner. These successes include the declaration of initial operating capability (IOC) by the US Marine Corps and USAF, production rates steadily increasing, encouraging feedback from the increasing number of F-35 pilots, and an impressive performance in exercises.

Although these positive developments may not entirely amount to a ‘game changer’, they arguably represent significant steps forward in the delivery of the fifth-generation capability. It is, therefore, useful to frame the debate regarding a new template: that of a capability that is, if not yet fully validated, nonetheless in the process of being delivered to partners, tested in increasingly challenging scenarios, and moving towards full operational capability (FOC). This article analyses some of the stakes involved as this capability increasingly acts as a driver for fifth-generation transformation, and to consider some of the implications for air forces that have committed to fifth-generation programmes and, perhaps more significantly, for those that have not.

Defining Fifth Generation

Most people are now familiar with the term fifth-generation as the naming convention most often used when discussing this next generation of fighter aircraft. Although there is no specific or formal definition of what constitutes a fifth-generation fighter, it is routinely accepted that those aircraft that are designed and capable of operating in highly contested operational environments. To be able to do so it is accepted that the platforms must have not only low-observable features inherent in the design of the aircraft but also onboard radar and sensor features that include low-probability of intercept and low-probability of detection. They also must possess highly sophisticated self-protection and jamming systems combined with advanced avionics and powerful computers. This integration has allowed the evolution of a capability to fuse both onboard and off-board data without the involvement of the pilot. These aircraft are, therefore, able to feed real-time information autonomously into the joint operational network, significantly increasing the awareness and reducing the decision time of commanders. It is, therefore, essential to define a fifth-generation system not just as a fighter but as a system able to operate in a networked and integrated manner. Fifth-generation systems fundamentally revolve around powerful fusion capabilities which enable fusion of data to create a highly accurate picture of the battlespace independently of an operator.

These new systems present clear operational advantages over older platforms. In the ever-increasing high-threat environment characterised by modern integrated air-defence systems (IADS), fifth-generation platforms can operate where non-fifth-generation platforms cannot. Their ability to work cooperatively and talk with other platforms in the battlespace transforms even a limited number of assets into significant force multipliers and force enablers. Thus, the F-35 is not only an air asset; it is also a collection platform which can interact with, and provide data to, both ground and maritime forces. However, possession of such an advanced platform comes at a considerable price. It is complicated to take a non-stealth platform and make it stealthy. Therefore, not only does a country need to sign up to make a significant financial commitment to purchase a fifth-generation platform such as the F-35, but significant investment is required elsewhere, such as in new maintenance facilities and the robust data networks that are necessary to exploit its full capabilities. It is worth briefly reviewing the reasons for the decision to commit to the F-35 programme for those states that have joined.

The Partners and Why they Joined the F-35 Programme

Nine countries originally signed up as partners to the JSF programme, the precursor to the F-35: the US; the UK; Australia; Canada; Italy; The Netherlands; Norway; Turkey; and Denmark. Three others committed through Foreign Military Sales: Israel; Japan; and South Korea. As the most expensive military development and procurement plan in history, the F-35 has attracted a great deal of controversy since the development contract was signed in November 1996. From its conception, the JSF was to be an international co-development programme, a decision that was driven by several factors. All the partners were either NATO countries and/or close US allies, and there was, from the outset, a clear imperative for interoperability and interconnectivity in coalition-based air operations. The partners had been operating a range of different platforms of varying levels of capability, and the F-35 enabled them to operate the same aircraft with all the evident advantages that it brings regarding interoperability, training, logistics, among others. Furthermore, the partners were all involved, to varying degrees, in the design, building and testing of the aircraft. This was a unique element of the programme that helped maintain domestic hi-tech military industries. The UK, for example, was the only Tier 1 partner and is responsible for 15 percent of the aircraft, worth an estimated £30 billion over the lifetime of the programme sustaining 24,000 jobs. The European F-35 production facility in Cameri, Italy, is projected to bring $15.8 billion of economic benefit to the Italian economy.[2]

The F-35 programme and the cooperative and industrial advantages it confers are, however, as described above, more than the next-generation platform conceived at the outset of the JSF programme. The F-35 represents a commitment by the partner air forces to exploiting a range of new, highly advanced capabilities that constitute a step change in the gathering, processing, and sharing of information, particularly in contested environments. Indeed, it is the recalibration of strategic and operational thinking that has been driven by the requirement to operate in those increasingly contested environments, and against near-peer adversaries, which has proved so persuasive in winning the argument for the fifth-generation partners. It has required a shift in thinking and a reconceptualisation of the conduct of air operations in the joint and combined environment through the significantly enhanced surveillance, command and control, and information sharing that fifth-generation capabilities provide. It also compels fifth-generation air forces to integrate and network with land and maritime forces in an unprecedented way – next-generation air forces will require next-generation joint forces.

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An F-35 Lightning II performs a maneuvre on 12 September 2016 over Luke Air Force Base. This sortie marked the 10,000th flying hour for the F-35 program at Luke. (Source: US Department of Defense)

The countries that committed to the F-35 programme did so over 15 years ago following the first flight of the prototype X-35B. As described above, motivations at the time were primarily centred on the requirement of those air forces to replace their legacy fleets, or to run those fleets alongside platforms that exploited the latest technological developments, including stealth. The potential of those technologies has evolved significantly over the subsequent years, often beyond the original expectations and understanding, and those air forces which are part of the programme are now beginning to take delivery of a capability that represents a genuine generational change. The geopolitical context has also evolved over that period and, following 15 years of assumed air superiority in Iraq and Afghanistan and the counterinsurgency operations that followed, the air forces that will be using the F-35 are discovering that they have a capability that is credible in contested environments. However, most of those air forces have equally begun to realise that having a fifth-generation aircraft does not merely equate to having a fifth-generation capability as defined above. Although the US Marine Corps declared IOC in 2015 and the USAF in August 2016, there are still significant challenges to be addressed, both technically and conceptually, before the declaration of a genuinely fifth-generation FOC. Furthermore, there are undoubtedly continuous and continuing problems in the development of the F-35 itself, as might be expected in a programme of such size and complexity and the programme is, by some order of magnitude, the costliest in the Department of Defense’s history.[3]

Implications for F-35 Partners of Integrating Fourth- and Fifth-Generation Fighters

F-35 deliveries are now firmly underway with over 200 jets flying, most of the partners operating their aircraft and production rates scheduled to exceed 60 per year soon. This puts considerable pressure on those partner countries and Foreign Military Sales customers to prioritise the elements that will allow them to realise the full force-multiplier potential of the aircraft. This includes the enhanced data management, connectivity and bandwidth upgrades required to operationalise and fully exploit the capability that fifth-generation aircraft offers for information-centric warfare and cross-platform connectivity.

In this regard, the F-35 has a ‘forcing function’ for militaries looking to adopt a fifth-generation standard. Naval and ground forces stand to benefit significantly from the network-centric, cross-platform, multiple-shooter concept of operations of which the F-35 will form such a significant element. As Justin Bronk suggested, given the almost unlimited scope of connecting the F-35 to every system in the battlespace, joint force commands will be compelled to invest in the connectivity and bandwidth for the platforms that stand to provide the most significant increase in combat power and flexibility.[4] This will drive the development of fifth-generation joint forces, a concept that has significant potential, particularly in contested environments. It also is a critical element of underpinning programmes such as Plan Jericho – the transformation to an integrated networked joint force that has combat power much more significant than the sum of its parts.

Whereas the RAAF is looking to upgrade its entire legacy fleet over the next decade, most of the F-35 partners, including the USAF, will need to run their legacy fleets alongside their fifth-generation platforms for some years beyond that. The RAF and Italian Air Force, for example, possess the highly capable Typhoon, a fourth-generation aircraft with high performance, an active scan radar, Link 16, and a comprehensive air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons suite. As Bronk pointed out, in such cases investment in the F-35 and Typhoon should not be seen as a binary choice as ‘each aircraft offer strengths to complement the other’s capabilities. The combination of F-35 and Typhoon can be far more potent than a force composed entirely of either type in many operational scenarios’.[5]

As a US-led, but highly collaborative, programme, development of the F-35 has drawn the partners together. The sharing of technologies, concepts, tactics, training, maintenance, logistics, and procedures represent a significant opportunity for fifth-generation air forces. With the F-35 being operated by so many states there are also substantial prospects for tactical, technical, and conceptual innovation which will allow the aircraft to be highly ‘future-proof’ without compromising issues such as sovereignty, national defence industries or strategic autonomy. All these elements contribute to powerful forces drawing the F-35 partners into what might be described as a fifth-generation ‘club’. The level of international cooperation is unprecedented, with pilots training together at the F-35 multinational pilot training centre at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, maintenance facilities being developed in Italy, Turkey, Norway and The Netherlands, and a global logistics supply chain. The result is a deepening of cooperation between the partner air forces, many of whom already possess a strong ability to do so through links forged over the years through NATO and operating in coalitions since the end of the Cold War.

Implications of Integrated Fourth- and Fifth-Generation Air Forces for Countries that are not F-35 Partners

Air forces that have not yet committed, or do not have current plans to transition to fifth-generation systems, will need to consider the operational and strategic implications of such decisions. Four areas should be considered considering future military operations: the ability to engage near-peer adversaries in a high-intensity environment; the military status and political parity with allied countries; the integration and collaboration capabilities with partner forces; and the potential limitation of the depth and breadth of defence technological innovation.

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One of the UK’s first F-35B Lightning II aircraft takes off from Eglin Air Force Base, c. 2014. (Source: UK Ministry of Defence)

As previously discussed, fifth-generation systems are not merely about employing stealth attributes, but rather about harnessing the substantial advancements in processing ability and data fusion capabilities inherent in such systems. Tellingly, the aim is to create and operate a networked environment where the lines are seamless between sensors, shooters, and operators. As a result, air forces that do not possess these capabilities are likely to find themselves increasingly relegated to a supporting rather than a leading role in planning for, and executing, future contingency operations. Countries that are not able to contribute and operate effectively in high-threat environments will potentially find themselves not on an equal footing with their coalition partners, a position that may compromise their role in military operations and, increasingly, political decision-making. Except for Australia, all the original nine partner countries are NATO members, allowing the smaller air forces of the Alliance – such as Spain and Belgium – to mitigate the limitations of their continued reliance on fourth-generation assets by optimising the capabilities of the F-35 with their legacy platforms in a NATO context. For larger Western countries not in the F-35 programme – such as France and Germany – there will be pressure to prioritise the optimisation of their existing platforms with the capabilities of the F-35. France faces the challenge of preserving its much-valued strategic autonomy, continued global aspirations and protection of its defence industrial base in the context of fifth-generation transformation. In his evidence to French MPs last year the Chief of the French Air Force, General Lanata, warned that, in less than five years, the F-35 would become the standard for operating in the most demanding operational scenarios, and that it would bring to a head the decision as to whether an air force can engage in those scenarios in the future.[6]  In short, without fifth-generation aircraft, an air force risks being in a supporting role in a coalition air environment and will require a fifth-generation partner to provide mission success against a near-peer adversary.

Finally, the benefits of privileged access to the highest level of military technology enjoyed by the F-35 are substantial. The highly collaborative nature of the programme ensures that technology transfer occurs at an unprecedented scale and provides a wealth of opportunities for hi-tech defence industries across the partner countries. The fact that so many states will operate the F-35 will also boost the opportunities for innovation in disciplines such as engineering and avionics, as well as tactics and concepts. For air forces outside of the programme, technological advances can, of course, be pursued at the national level but they will not benefit from the exchange of ideas, concepts and innovation that are generated by this collaborative programme.

Conclusion

This article has articulated some of the critical implications for air forces committed to a fifth-generation programme centred on the F-35 and for those that have not. After a decade and a half of delays, setbacks, and bad press, the F-35 programme and the technological advancements linked to it are gathering momentum. The programme is driving the partner states not just to unprecedented levels of military cooperation and convergence but also developing the networked joint forces necessary to operate in an increasingly contested environment. For states that have chosen to not participate in the fifth-generation programme, the challenges will be tactical, strategic, and political.

At a tactical level, operators of legacy fleets will struggle to interoperate effectively with the F-35 and other fifth-generation assets and indeed may degrade the effectiveness of coalition operations centred on fifth-generation systems. Furthermore, they may well be restricted to operating only in semi-permissive environments with a low IADS threat. At a strategic level, air forces that do not operate fifth-generation platforms may face the challenge of not being considered on an equal footing with the F-35 partners who, within a decade, are likely to have developed means to fuse, process, distribute and exploit data that will out-pace anything that even updated legacy fleets can match. At a political level, the range of credible options available to a national executive in the context of a highly contested environment against a peer competitor risk being limited. There will, therefore, be an increasing onus on air forces not operating fifth-generation platforms to articulate a credible and conceptually coherent ‘offer’, what they can contribute to a fifth-generation-led coalition, for example, to justify their status at each level. This will be a point that will not be lost on many who look to avoid the risk of fourth-generation air forces being restricted to a supporting role in the air environment against a near-peer.

Furthermore, partners in fifth-generation system development are pushing the boundaries of collaborative networked systems and transforming military operations. The ‘forcing function’ – the incentives generated by the F-35 for further technological developments and integration – provides a potent impetus for change and innovation among the fifth-generation partners. Conversely, countries not actively involved in fifth-generation transformation are starting to face a capability gap that will only continue to widen over the next decade. Other means – political, financial, or industrial – will be needed to drive the change necessary to mitigate the divergence or offset its effects. Set against these challenges, these air forces might argue that their national security priorities over the next 10-15 years are perfectly well met by remaining outside the F-35 programme and the fifth-generation capabilities of which it is a core element. An approach such as this relies on updating fourth-generation assets in the short term and developing other solutions either nationally or in collaboration with other partners for deployment beyond the 2035 timeframe. They might also credibly contend that legacy assets are inherently less vulnerable to disruption of the networks on which fifth-generation platforms rely and that the significant costs associated with the programme could be more effectively apportioned elsewhere to meet those national priorities.

The arguments presented in this article suggest, however, that the implications of this approach in the longer-term are potentially severe and that there will be, eventually, a cost regarding capability, operational effectiveness, technological superiority, and status. Writing in 1989, William Lind et al. wrote that ‘whoever is first to recognize, understand, and implement a generational change can gain a decisive advantage. Conversely, a nation that is slow to adapt to generational change opens itself to catastrophic defeat.’[7] Although he was writing in the context of the end of the Cold War, Lind’s observation remains apposite and is at the core of the conceptual leap being undertaken by Australia, the US, the UK and the other F-35 partners. These are increasingly clear strategic choices that will have implications for all air forces, and they will soon discover whether the price will have been worth paying.

N.B. This article is derived from the author’s work as published in The RUSI Journal. See: André Adamson and Matthew Snyder, ‘The Challenges of Fifth-Generation Transformation,’ The RUSI Journal, 164:4 (2017), pp. 60-6.

Wing Commander André Adamson is an officer in the RAF and was until recently liaison officer for the Plans Bureau with the French Air Staff in Paris. Colonel Matthew Snyder is an officer in the USAF and strategic partnership exchange officer for the Plans Bureau with the French Air Staff in Paris. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not represent the official position of their respective organisations.

Header Image: An F-35 Lightning II departs RAAF Base Amberley for the Avalon Air Show, c. 2017. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

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[1]  The RAF has decided to refer to a ‘next generation’ air force in its recently published strategy to emphasise the concept of integration and to reduce the risk of the strategy being seen to be platform based. See RAF, Royal Air Force Strategy: Delivering a World-Class Air Force, (London: Royal Air Force, 2017).

[2] PWC, ‘Italian F-35 Lightning II Program: Economic Impact Assessment,’ February 2014.

[3] By way of comparison, the estimated cost of the US Navy’s first four new Gerald R Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers will cost approximately $50 billion and the costs for modernising all three components of US nuclear forces will cost approximately $350 billion over the next decade. See, Congressional Budget Office, ‘Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2017 to 2026,’ February 2017.

[4] Justin Bronk, ‘Maximum Value from the F-35: Harnessing Transformational Fifth-Generation Capabilities for the UK Military,’ RUSI Whitehall Reports, 1-16 (February 2016), p. viii.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Franck Delétraz, ‘Le cri d’alerte du général Lanata,’ Présent, 8 August 2017.

[7] William S. Lind, Colonel Keith Nightengale (USA), Captain John F. Schmitt (USMC), Colonel Joseph W. Sutton (USA), and Lieutenant Colonel Gary I. Wilson (USMCR), ‘The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation,’ Marine Corps Gazette, (October 1989), p. 22.

NORAD at 60

NORAD at 60

By Dr Brian Laslie

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NORAD tracks Santa (Source: Author)

Editorial Note: This weekend, 12 May, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the Bi-National defense command between the United States and Canada (and yes, the same organization that tracks Santa every Christmas Eve) is celebrating its 60th Anniversary. As such, we here at From Balloons to Drones wanted to share a portion of the history of this unique organization. The following comes to you from the NORAD History Office and our Assistant Editor Dr Brian Laslie, who is also a historian at NORAD.

With the beginning of the Cold War, American defence experts and political leaders began planning and implementing a defensive air shield, which they believed was necessary to defend against a possible attack by long-range, manned Soviet bombers. By the time of its creation in 1947, as a separate service, it was widely acknowledged the Air Force would be the centre point of this defensive effort. Under the auspices of the Air Defense Command (ADC), first created in 1948, and reconstituted in 1951 at Ent Air Force Base (AFB), Colorado, subordinate US Air Force (USAF) commands were given responsibility to protect the various regions of the United States. By 1954, as concerns about Soviet capabilities became graver, a multi-service unified command was created, involving US Navy, US Army, and USAF units – the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD). USAF leaders, most notably Generals Benjamin Chidlaw and Earle Partridge, guided the planning and programs during the mid-1950s. The USAF provided the interceptor aircraft and planned the upgrades needed over the years. The USAF also developed and operated the extensive early warning radar sites and systems which acted as ‘tripwire’ against air attack. The advance warning systems and communication requirements to provide the alert time needed, as well as command and control of forces, became primarily a USAF contribution, a trend which continued as the nation’s aerospace defence matured.

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Four US Air Force Convair F-106A Delta Dart fighters from the 5th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, Minot AFB, fly over Mount Rushmore, on 27 July 1981. (Source: Wikimedia)

As USAF leaders developed plans and proposed warning system programs, they became convinced of the logical need for extended cooperation with America’s continental neighbour, Canada. US-Canada defence relationships extended back to the Second World War when the two nation’s leaders formally agreed on military cooperation as early as 1940 with the Ogdensburg Declaration. These ties were renewed in the late 1940s with further sharing of defence plans in light of increasing Soviet military capabilities and a growing trend of unstable international events, such as the emergence of a divided Europe and the Korean War.

Defence agreements between Canada and the United States in the early 1950s centred on the building of radar networks across the territory of Canada – the Mid- Canada Line (also known as the McGill Fence), the Pinetree Line, and the famous Dew Line. This cooperation led to a natural extension of talks regarding the possible integration and execution of air defence plans. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and USAF exchanged liaison officers and met at critical conferences to discuss the potential of a shared air defence organisation. By 1957, the details had been worked out, and the top defence officials in each nation approved the formation of the NORAD, which was stood up on 12 September at Ent AFB, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, home of the US CONAD and its subordinates, including USAF ADC. General Earl Partridge, USAF, who was both the ADC and CONAD Commander, also became commander of NORAD, and the senior Canadian RCAF official, Air Marshal Roy Slemon, who had been the critical Canadian delegate in most of the cooperation talks, became deputy commander, NORAD. Nine months after the operational establishment of the command, on 12 May 1958, the two nations announced they had formalised the cooperative air defence arrangements as a government-to-government bilateral defence agreement that became known as the NORAD Agreement. The NORAD Agreement and its associated terms of reference provided the political connections which would make possible the longevity of the Canadian-US aerospace defence relationship into the future years. The NORAD Agreement, with its requirement for periodic review, ensured flexibility to adapt to a changing defence environment as would be evident by the events that would soon face the fledgeling command.

NORAD Map 1960s

Within one year of its establishment, NORAD began the process of adapting its missions and functions to ‘a new and more dangerous threat.’ During the 1960s and 1970s, the USSR focused on creating intercontinental and sea-launched ballistic missiles and developed an anti-satellite capability. The northern radar-warning networks could, as one observer expressed it, ‘not only [be] outflanked but literally jumped over.’ In response, the USAF built a space-surveillance and missile-warning system to provide worldwide space detection and tracking and to classify activity and objects in space. When these systems became operational during the early 1960s, they came under the control of the NORAD.

In NORAD’s 60-year history, perhaps the most notable symbol of the command has been the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center (CMOC), often referred to as simply ‘Cheyenne Mountain.’ This vast bunker complex, which became fully operational in 1966, sat more than 1,500 feet underground and consisted of 15 buildings, which comprised the central collection and coordination facility for NORAD’s global-sensor systems.

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Entrance to Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center complex. (Source: Author)

Throughout the 1970s, the ballistic missile threat caused policymakers to reassess the effectiveness of the air defence system. This meant the potential demise of the arguments for enhanced traditional air defence and moved NORAD to focus on such challenges as an improved warning of missile and space attack, defence against the ICBM, and more significant protection and survival of command, control and communication networks and centres. This resulted in a reduction of the USAF interceptor forces and closure of various portions of the radar network. Modernization of air defence forces became a hard argument. Because of changes in US strategic policy, which had come to accept the concept of mutual vulnerability to ICBM attack, the need to spend about $1 billion a year on air defence was challenged. In 1974, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger stated the primary mission of air defence was to ensure the sovereignty of airspace during peacetime. There followed further reductions in the size and capability of the air defence system. By the late 1970s, the remaining components – some 300 interceptors, 100 radars and eight control centres – had become obsolescent and uneconomical to operate.

Over the years, the evolving threat caused NORAD to expand its mission to include tactical warning and assessment of possible air, missile, or space attacks on North America. The 1975 NORAD Agreement acknowledged these extensions of the command’s mission. Consequently, the 1981 NORAD Agreement changed the command’s name from the North American ‘Air’ Defense Command to the North American ‘Aerospace’ Defense Command.

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NORAD Commanders have even turned up in the funny pages! Here the NORAD commander, who bore a striking resemblance to actual NORAD commander General Laurence Kuter, briefs Steve Canyon (Source: Author)

The 1980s brought essential improvements for the aerospace defence mission. Again, NORAD demonstrated adaptability to meet these changes. In 1979, the US Congress ordered the USAF to create an air defense master plan (ADMP). The ADMP, modified and upgraded, became the US administration’s outline for air defence modernisation and the foundation for NORAD cost-sharing discussions between Canada and the United States. The modernization accords signed in 1985 called for the replacement of the DEW Line radar system with an improved arctic radar line called the North Warning System (NWS); the deployment of Over-the-Horizon Backscatter radar; greater use of USAF Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft; and the assignment of newer USAF aircraft, specifically F-15s, F-16s, and CF-18s, to NORAD.

The late 1980s witnessed another expansion of the NORAD mission. On 29 September 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation that involved the US Department of Defense, and specifically NORAD, in the campaign against drug trafficking. The command’s role in this mission was to detect and track aircraft transporting drugs and then report them to law enforcement.

On 11 September 2001, terrorists hijacked four passenger airliners, two of which obliterated the World Trade Center, in New York City, while another shattered part of the Pentagon. One of the four aircraft crashed in Pennsylvania before hitting its target, apparently either the US Capitol or the White House. The event made it clear that attacks on the homeland would not necessarily come only from across the poles and oceans which buffered the North American continent.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, NORAD began Operation NOBLE EAGLE. The purpose of this still-ongoing air patrol mission was to defend the United States against terrorist aggression originating from either within or outside the nation’s air borders. NOBLE EAGLE missions were executed primarily by the USAF First Air Force, a NORAD unit under the command of the Continental NORAD Region (CONR), located at Tyndall AFB, in Florida. By June 2006, NORAD had responded to more than 2,100 potential airborne threats in the continental United States, Canada, and Alaska, as well as flying more than 42,000 sorties with the support of USAF AWACS and air-to-air refuelling aircraft.

NOBLE EAGLE’s response has become institutionalised into daily plans and NORAD exercises through which the command ensures its capability to respond rapidly to airborne threats. USAF units of NORAD have also assumed the mission of the integrated air defence of the National Capital Region, providing ongoing protection for Washington, D.C. Also, as required, NORAD forces have played a critical role in air defence support for National Special Security Events, such as air protection for the NASA shuttle launches, G8 summit meetings, and even Superbowl football events.

In recognition of the changing threat environment of the post-9/11 world, the United States Department of Defense stood up, in October 2002, US Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) as a joint service command to execute the mission of homeland defense across all domains. With NORAD already executing the air defense mission of North America, it was a logical step to co-locate the headquarters of NORAD and USNORTHCOM in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and to retain a dual-hatted commander relationship between NORAD and the new US joint command.

As NORAD looked to the future, past threats re-emerged. In 2014, Russian long-range aviation and maritime activity reached levels not seen since the Cold War: more sorties, supported by more tankers, and more sophisticated linkages between air and maritime intelligence collection than ever before. This activity underscored an aggressive Russian military enjoying new prosperity, proficiency, and ever improving capabilities that had NORAD focused on the Russian Bear once more. NORAD’s three operational regions in Alaska, Canada, and the Continental United States, routinely responded to incursions by Russian long-range aviation aircraft entering the North American Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) or the Canadian Air Defense Identification Zone (CADIZ).

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As NORAD celebrates its 60th this weekend, we here at From Balloons to Drones send a very ‘Happy Anniversary’ to both America and Canada and to the Command itself for providing 60 plus years of aerospace warning, control, and defense to the Homeland. We know that you have the watch!

Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. He is the author of Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force (2017) and The Air Force Way of War (2015). The latter book was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list and the 2017 RAF Chief of the Air Staff’s reading list. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: A USAF F-22 Raptor of the 3rd Wing escorts a Russian Air Force Tu-95 Bear bomber near Nunivak Island, c. 2007. This was the first intercept of a Bear bomber for an F-22, which was alerted out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson’s Combat Alert Center. (Source: US Department of Defense Images)

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