Call for Submissions – From Balloons to Drones

FeaturedCall for Submissions – From Balloons to Drones

Established in 2016, From Balloons to Drones is an online scholarly platform that analyses and debates air power history, theory, and contemporary operations in their broadest sense, including space and cyber power. To date, with have published over 250 articles on various air power-related subjects.

Since its emergence at the start of the 20th Century, air power has increasingly become the preferred form of military power for many governments. However, the application and development of air power are controversial and often misunderstood. To remedy this, From Balloons to Drones seeks to provide analysis and debate about air power through the publication of articles, research notes, commentaries, book reviews, and historic book reviews – see below for a description of the range of articles published.

The study of air power is to be understood broadly, encompassing not only the history of air warfare, including social and cultural aspects but also incorporating contributions from related fields, such as archaeology, international relations, strategic studies, law and ethics. Possible subjects to be explored might include, but are not limited to:

Strategy, Theory and Doctrine | Organisation and Policy | Roles

Operations – Kinetic and Non-Kinetic | Tactics, Training and Procedures

Strategic and Operational Effect | Technological Developments

Ethical and Moral Issues | National, International and Transnational Experiences

Personal Experiences | Culture | Memory and Memorialisation

From Balloons to Drones welcomes and encourages potential submissions from postgraduates, academics, and practitioners involved in researching the subject of air power.

C-119B_Flying_Boxcar_drops_supplies_near_Chungju_1951
A US Air Force Fairchild C-119B Flying Boxcar air-dropping supplies near Chungju, Korea, in 1951. (Source: Wikimedia)

We publish:

Scholarly Articles

From Balloons to Drones publishes informative peer-reviewed articles on air power that range from historical pieces to the analysis of contemporary challenges. These well-researched articles should attempt to bridge a gap between the specialist and the non-specialist reader. They should be around c.3,000 words, though From Balloons to Drones will accept larger pieces. We reserve the right to publish them in parts.

Air War Books

From Balloons to Drones publishes a series of review articles that examine the top ten books that have influenced writers on air power. See more here.

Commentaries

From Balloons to Drones publishes opinion pieces on recent news on either contemporary or historical subjects. These should be no longer than c.1,000 words.

Research Notes

From Balloons to Drones publishes research notes on contributors’ current research projects. These take the form of more informal pieces and can be a discussion of a source or a note on a recent research theme. These should be c.500 to 1,000 words.

Book Reviews

From Balloons to Drones publishes regular book reviews that aim to be an accessible collection of appraisals of recent publications about air power. If publishers are interested in having a publication reviewed, then, please contact us via the email address below. See more here.

Historic Book Reviews

From Balloons to Drones publishes occasional historic book reviews that aim to be an accessible collection of appraisals of critical historic publications about air power history, theory, and practice. See more here.

Submissions should be submitted in Word format and emailed to the address below with ‘SUBMISSION’ in the subject line. Also, please include a 50-100 word biography with your submission. References can be used, and please be careful to explain any jargon. However, if you are unsure if your idea fits our requirements, please email us with ‘POTENTIAL SUBMISSION’ in the subject line to discuss.

If you are interested in contributing, please email our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here.

Header image: A Panavia Tornado GR4 of No. IX(B) Squadron on a training sortie in preparation for deployment to Afghanisation, c. 2012. (Source: Wikimedia)

Love At First Sight? US Army Aviation before the First World War

Love At First Sight? US Army Aviation before the First World War

By Alexander Reineke

After the Wright Brothers made their first flight in December 1903, it took the US Army several years to start paying attention to heavier-than-air aviation.[1] While lighter-than-air platforms, in the form of observation balloons, had been in use with the US military since the US Civil War, the novelty of heavier-than-air aviation in the form of aeroplanes eventually engaged the minds of military thinkers around the United States and all three combat arms – infantry, cavalry, and the field artillery.[2] Officers from these combat arms offered similar but often diverging takes on the new invention. By examining articles published in professional journals of the period, this article considers how the US Army received and thought about the aeroplane’s application before the outbreak of the First World War.

The Infantry

For the infantry branch, the aeroplane introduced the possibility of lifting the fog of war from the battlefield in the form of easier, faster, and more reliable scouting opportunities. In 1909, Captain John R.M. Taylor, an infantry officer and prolific military theorist of the period, wrote in the Journal of the United States Infantry Association – later the Infantry Journal – that combat had changed little since the US Civil War two generations earlier. Primarily, artillery still functioned as artillery, cavalry as cavalry, and infantry as infantry. Ranges and lethality had increased, but the overall way wars were fought had, he argued, largely remained similar – American theorists at this time tended to look to the experience of the US Civil War as the first modern war, excluding European definitions, which often included the Crimean War and the Franco-Prussian War.[3] However, the aeroplane offered a third dimension to the battlefield in the way that ground-based scouts – be it a group of skirmishers or a cavalry troop – could not replicate.[4]

Taylor’s article, using a counterfactual based on Major-General George McClellan’s campaigns in 1862, suggested that the former might have won the war if he had had reconnaissance aeroplanes. Taylor believed that while the aeroplane was still in its infancy, the same had been said about the automobile a decade prior. Moreover, he envisioned the aeroplane and the airship taking their place in the order of battle as soon as the next great war alongside automobiles in the aid and support of the three combat arms as screening and attack forces.[5]

While Taylor theorised about mechanised warfare broadly, the Massachusetts National Guard experimented with its application during their manoeuvres in 1909. Importantly, as Captain John Sherburne reported in the Infantry Journal’s pages, the Massachusetts National Guard improvised the use of ‘two automobile trucks as mounts for two light guns of naval type.’[6] Moreover, these were used as part of an ‘auto truck platoon’ by one opposing force during the manoeuvres. These experiences led Sherburne to hypothesise about the possibility of guns on such vehicles as potential anti-air assets, thus showing how even in the early years of aviation, officers were already thinking through the challenge of countering the threat from the air.[7]

In 1910 and 1912, respectively, Captain G.L. Townsend, a career infantry officer, and Captain Paul W. Beck, one of the US Army’s first pilots, summed up the mood in the infantry in the pages of the Infantry Journal by arguing for a compromise between enthusiasts and critics of early aviation. They argued that while aeroplanes and airships had not yet matured as platforms, it was the job of the peacetime army to pay attention to new developments and create doctrine and institutions. This was so that aeroplanes might be used in war both through trial and error and through observations of potentially hostile nations’ use of aviation, with particular attention paid to the zeppelins of Imperial Germany even as they remained in their infancy.[8]

The Infantry Journal’s editorial board, presided over by US Civil War veteran and former US Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General John C. Bates and made up of reform-minded career officers who wished to modernise and professionalise the Army, broadly agreed with the ideas and proposals of these Townsend and Beck. Moreover, they believed that once fully developed, the aeroplane would become a great asset to infantry soldiers as a scouting force where cavalry could not reach. Nevertheless, they tempered the mood of aviation enthusiasts by recommending that any work on aviation be postponed to a time when war would be on the horizon. Aviation, as they argued, was too costly at the time. In the end, it all came down to funding. For the price of a squadron of aeroplanes or airships, machinery operating on the bleeding edge of technological progress, the US Army could fund and outfit several regiments or even divisions of infantry:

In the time required for us to create a field army after the declaration of war, and until such an army were in readiness both aeroplanes and aeroplanists would be useless, we should have time to build more aeroplanes and train more aeroplanists than probably any nation will ever use in war. The aeroplane can do us no greater military harm than driving out of mind again that our need now is the same as always — merely men, not machines, even though they be new machines with all the fancied terrors that superstition and ignorance give to things unknown. The invention of gunpowder was once expected to end war (as were the torpedo and the submarine).[9]

Given this attitude, the infantry, always searching for more funding, applied the same logic to aeroplanes as critics of standing armies had done to the infantry: aviation units did not require costly training. They could be raised at a moment’s notice. This obfuscated the real reason: the US Army had no money to investigate the potential of aviation.[10] Despite being stretched thin in manpower and funding; numerous infantry officers had become advocates for aviation. First among them was First Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois, the US Army’s first official aviator and a lifelong air power advocate and pioneer, who wrote in 1908 that in ‘all future warfare, we can expect to see engagements in the air between hostile aerial fleets.’[11]

110303-D-LN615-005
Signal Corps No. 1 in front of its hanger at Fort Sam Houston in 1910. (Source: United States Air Force)

The Cavalry

The cavalry, by contrast, saw its role as the US Army’s eyes and ears threatened by the invention of the aeroplane. Having already acknowledged that its days of charging enemy positions and dispersing troops were long over, the American cavalry had reinvented itself first as a frontier constabulary, a scouting force, and, in its current iteration, a force of mounted infantry ready to fight as infantry, to protect the flanks of the advancing army, and to chase fleeing enemy infantry.[12] Already criticised by the infantry and artillery branches who doubted the viability of horse cavalry against modern weapon systems, the cavalry were determined to keep their role as scouting and routing forces. It was no wonder that in the Journal of the United States Cavalry Association in 1909, the well-respected horsemanship expert Edward L. Anderson dubbed the Wright Brothers’ aeroplane and automobiles as abominations.’[13]

In a 1911 article in the Journal of the United States Cavalry Association on the reorganisation of the cavalry branch, Brigadier General Walter Schuyler, a long-serving cavalry commander since the American Indian Wars, saw the aeroplane and any other form of modern technology like the radio or the automobile as auxiliary forces that would help the cavalry increase its reaction time on the battlefield.[14] However, on the other hand, others, such as retired officer E.L. Gilpin saw the cavalry as more than capable of taking on the aeroplane in single combat, believing that while the aeroplane might offer a bird’s eye view of the battlefield, the horse cavalry was the superior scout for detailed information even as they used their carbines to shoot down reconnaissance aeroplanes with superior marksmanship.[15] Even the supporters of the aeroplane among the cavalry belittled aviation enthusiasts as having a ‘child-like faith.’[16] They believed that the maturation of the technology would, eventually, lead to it becoming a great support system. Nevertheless, like its peer, the infantry, the cavalry could not – and would not – see the aeroplane as revolutionary in its current state.[17]

The Artillery

The artillery, meanwhile, precisely saw that. Colonel John P. Wisser, a coastal artillery officer and an accomplished West Point educator and military attaché, became a staunch supporter of the aeroplane, as did many other artillery officers at the time. Reviewing the events of the Russo-Japanese War, Wisser echoed many views held by the infantry’s Taylor. He also believed that the US Army’s overall make-up had not changed since the US Civil War except for longer ranges and increased firepower. By contrast, aviation was still advancing exponentially to the point that an army fighting in the 1910s would have identical infantry and cavalry assets to the previous decade. However, its aviation assets would set it apart from any army of the last 50 years.[18] By 1912, the artillery community concurred with Wisser’s original conjecture and believed they had found in aviation the best tool for mastering indirect artillery fire.

It was also an artillery officer, Isaac Lewis, whose light machine gun, the Lewis Gun, was first tested by the US Army as an aircraft-mounted weapons system. In 1912, Captain Charles Chandler and Lieutenant Roy Kirtland took a Wright Model B Flyer up in the sky. They tested the Lewis Gun as an air-to-ground weapon, scoring adequate hits against paper targets and collecting valuable data about air-to-air and air-to-ground combat.[19]

While the artillery arm welcomed the aeroplane and the airship most enthusiastically among the three combat arms, this was likely due to its position as a largely technical and engineering-driven arm that was not in direct competition with the changes military aviation later brought to the battlefield. Indeed, artillery was already seen as an auxiliary to cavalry and infantry operations and relied on accurate reconnaissance to provide just that. While the infantry could not justify the cost at the time and the cavalry felt threatened in its role as the reconnaissance arm of the US Army, the field artillery accepted the aeroplane as another tool that would help them accomplish their mission more quickly as well as more precisely.[20]

Conclusion

US Army aviation remained in its infancy after the outbreak of the First World War. While military aviation faced criticism as a novelty across the US Army, it largely enjoyed at least some measure of support across all combat arms who saw in it a valuable new tool for scouting, transportation, and even what would eventually be called close air support. The American military was quick to experiment with arming aeroplanes and creating ad-hoc anti-aircraft guns, showing they were quick to comprehend, use, and adapt to modern technology. However, fear of change and budgetary concerns remained, sabotaging efforts to experiment with aviation to its fullest extent. Additionally, the combat arms essentially saw aviation as a support arm, severely limiting the military theory that could be developed around the new invention.

Alexander Reineke is a PhD candidate in the North American History Department at Ruhr University Bochum. His thesis, provisionally entitled, ‘Prussia Envy? Alienation and War Preparedness in the Peacetime US Army, 1900-1941, focuses on the peacetime US Army before and after the First World War. He received his MA in History from Ruhr University Bochum in 2019. Since 2020, he has been a member of the editorial staff at AKM Portal für Militärgeschichte.

Header image: A Wight Model A arrives at Fort Myer, Virginia aboard a wagon for testing by the US Army, attracting the attention of children and adults, 1 September 1908. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] On the development of US Army aviation in this period, see: Herbert A. Johnson, Wingless Eagle: US Army Aviation through World War I (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2001); Laurence Burke II, At the Dawn of Airpower: The U.S. Army, Navy, and Marine Corps’ Approach to the Airplane, 1907-1917 (Baltimore, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2022).

[2]  F. Stansbury Haydon, Military Ballooning during the Early Civil War (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), passim. First published in 1941 as Aeronautics in the Union and Confederate Armies: With a Survey of Military Aeronautics Prior to 1861 by Johns Hopkins University Press.

[3] A.D. Harvey, ‘Was the American Civil War the First Modern War?’ History 97, no. 2 (2012), pp. 272-280.

[4] Captain John R.M. Taylor, ‘Cavalry and the Aeroplane,’ Journal of the United States Infantry Association VI, no. 1 (1909), p. 84; Lori Henning, Harnessing the Aeroplane: American and British Responses to a New Technology, 1903-1939 (Norman, OK: Oklahoma University Press, 2019), p. 35.

[5] Taylor, ‘Cavalry and the Aeroplane,’ pp. 85-7.

[6] Captain John H. Sherburne, ‘Automobile Guns in the Massachusetts Maneuvers,’ Journal of the United States Infantry Association VI, no. 3 (1909), p. 375.

[7] Sherburne, ‘Automobile Guns in the Massachusetts Maneuvers,’ pp. 380-81.

[8]  Captain G.L. Townsend, ‘The Use and Effect of Flying Machines on Military Operations,’ Infantry Journal VII, no. 2 (1910), pp. 246-55; Captain Paul W. Beck, ‘Military Aviation in America. Its Needs,’ Infantry Journal VIII, no. 6 (1912), pp. 796-817.

[9] Anonymous, ‘Concerning Aeroplanes for the Army,’ Infantry Journal VII, no. 3 (1910), p.461.

[10] First Lieutenant Benjamin D. Foulois, ‘Military Aviation and Aeronautics,’ Infantry Journal IX, no. 3 (1912), pp. 314-6; Harvey M. Spaolsky et al., U.S. Defense Politics. The Origins of Security Policy (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010), p. 116.

[11] Benjamin D. Foulois with Carroll V. Glines, From the Wright Brothers to the Astronauts. The Memoirs of Major General Benjamin D. Foulois (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company 1968), p. 44.

[12] Louis A. DiMarco, War Horse. A History of the Military Horse and Rider (Westholme, PA: Yardley 2008), pp. 289-298.

[13]  See Anonymous, ‘Editorial,’ Infantry Journal I, no. 3 (1905), pp. 174-81 and similar analyses of the use of cavalry in the Russo-Japanese War published in the service journals between 1904 and 1906. Edward L. Anderson, ‘Horses and Riding,’ Journal of the United States Cavalry Association XIX, no. 72 (1909), p. 729.

[14] ‘Cavalry Reorganization,’ Journal of the United States Cavalry Association, Vol. XXII, No. 85, p. 23; Henning, Harnessing the Aeroplane, pp. 33-4.

[15] E.H. Gilpin, ‘Armament and Equipment of the Cavalryman,’ Journal of the United States Cavalry Association XXII, no. 85 (1911), p. 82.

[16] First Lieutenant Daniel L. Roscoe, ’The Effect of Aeroplanes Upon Cavalry Tactics,’ Journal of the United States Cavalry Association XXIV, no. 101 (1914), p. 856.

[17] Roscoe, ’The Effect of Aeroplanes Upon Cavalry Tactics,’ p. 857.

[18] Colonel John P. Wisser, ‘German Ideas on Tactics,’ Infantry Journal VII, no. 3 (1910), pp. 377-80.

[19] C.H. Powell, ‘The Lewis Automatic Gun,’ Infantry Journal IX, no. 1 (1912), p. 44.

[20] Colonel John P. Wisser, ‘The Tactical and Strategical Use of Dirigible Balloons and Aeroplanes,’ Cavalry Journal XXI, no. 81 (1910), p. 414.

#DesertStorm30 – Electric Avenue: Electronic Warfare and the battle against Iraq’s air defences during Operation Desert Storm

#DesertStorm30 – Electric Avenue: Electronic Warfare and the battle against Iraq’s air defences during Operation Desert Storm

By Dr Thomas Withington

In January 1991, a US-led coalition launched Operation DESERT STORM to evict Iraq from Kuwait, which the former had invaded six months earlier. DESERT STORM was a combined operation involving a major air campaign. At the time, Iraq had one of the world’s most sophisticated air defence systems. The radars and communications necessary to spot hostile aircraft and coordinate their engagement were integral to this. As a result, the coalition correctly determined that the air campaign would only succeed by establishing air superiority and supremacy. This would be achieved through an Offensive Counter Air (OCA) campaign against the Iraqi Air Force (IQAF). A crucial part of this was an electronic war waged against Iraqi air defence radars and communications. This article explains the extent to which Iraq’s air defences threatened coalition air power, how the electronic war against these air defences was fought and why they were not able to overcome the coalition’s electromagnetic supremacy.

When Operation DESERT STORM began on the morning of 17 January 1991, Iraq possessed one of the world’s most fearsome Integrated Air Defence Systems (IADS). At 02:38, its demise began. Task Force Normandy, an armada of US Army AH-64A Apache gunships and US Air Force (USAF) MH-53J Pave Low helicopters attacked a group of IQAF radars. These were positioned a few miles behind the midpoint of the Saudi-Iraqi border within the Iraqi 1st Air Defence Sector’s area of responsibility. The radars consisted of P-18 Very High Frequency (VHF), P-15 Ultra High Frequency (UHF) and P-15M2 UHF ground-based air surveillance radars.[1] This attack left a large swathe of Iraq’s southwest airspace without radar coverage. As a result, Iraq’s IADS failed to detect waves of incoming aircraft tasked with hitting strategic targets. These planes followed USAF F-117A Nighthawk ground-attack aircraft which had slipped through Iraqi radar coverage earlier to hit targets in Baghdad.

The Story so Far: From Vietnam to DESERT STORM

The United States had learned about well-operated air defences the hard way during the Vietnam War. Vietnam’s air war saw the United States lose over 3,300 fixed-wing aircraft across all services. Rotary-wing and uninhabited aerial vehicle losses pushed this figure to over 10,000.[2] In addition, the North Vietnamese IADS, consisting of Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) and SA-2 high-altitude Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs), reaped a grim toll on American aircraft. The experience led to the development of the USAF’s Wild Weasel concept.

Republic F-105G
Republic F-105G ‘Wild Weasel’ in flight on 5 May 1970. External stores include QRC-380 blisters, AGM-45 Shrike and AGM-78B Standard Anti-Radiation Missile. (Source: Wikimedia)

First seeing service in the summer of 1965, customised F-105F Thunderchief fighters outfitted with radar detectors, listened for transmissions from an SA-2’s accompanying radar. The purpose of locating the accompanying radar was that it helped locate the associated SAM battery. The aircraft would then attack the radar, initially with gunfire and rockets and later with specialist Anti-Radar Missiles (ARMs). These attacks destroyed the radar site and blinded the SAM site, thus reducing the threat to incoming attack aircraft. These aircraft were eventually upgraded to F-105G standard. The Wild Weasel concept was progressively honed during and after the Vietnam War with ever-more capable radar sensors, ordnance, and platforms. When the USAF deployed to Saudi Arabia in 1990, the Wild Weasels used F-4G Phantom-II jets with sophisticated radar-hunting equipment and AGM-88 high-speed anti-radar missiles.

The skies over Southeast Asia gave the US armed forces, and their North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies a taste of the potency of Soviet and Warsaw Pact air defences as they had for the Israeli Air Force during the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. No sooner had the last US units left Vietnam than the so-called ‘New Cold War’ began to unfold. Both NATO and the Warsaw Pact prepared for a confrontation that might engulf East and West Germany. Part of the Warsaw Pact’s role was to ensure that air approaches into the European USSR were heavily defended. This required robust IADSs of fighter defences and an umbrella of short-range/low-altitude, medium-range/medium-altitude SAM systems covering the altitudes NATO aircraft were likely to use. This SAM umbrella protected everything from dismounted troops on the front line pushing through the Fulda Gap on the Inner German Border to strategic politico-military leadership targets in the Soviet Union.

The Wild Weasel units were not the only assets involved in degrading Soviet air defences. Also important were SIGINT (signals intelligence) platforms, such as the USAF’s RC-135U Combat Sent ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) gathering aircraft. These aircraft allowed NATO to develop an understanding of where the radars supporting Soviet and Warsaw Pact air defences were situated. Understanding where the radars were located allowed NATO to build up an electronic order of battle of the ground-based air surveillance radars and Fire Control/Ground-Controlled Interception (FC/GCI) radars the air defences depended upon to detect and engage targets with SAMs or fighters. Many aircraft configured to collect SIGINT and prosecute Soviet/Warsaw Pact air defences were the same that deployed to the Persian Gulf. After arriving, they soon discovered similar defences to those on the eastern side of the Inner German Border.

KARI: Defending Iraqi Airspace

The US Department of Defence’s official report on DESERT STORM did not mince its words regarding the potential ferocity of Iraq’s IADS:

The multi-layered, redundant, computer-controlled air defence network around Baghdad was denser than that surrounding most Eastern European cities during the Cold War, and several orders of magnitude greater than that which had defended Hanoi during the later stages of the Vietnam War.[3]

The components of Iraq’s air defence system were sourced from the USSR and France. In the wake of the 17 July Revolution in 1968, which brought the Iraqi affiliate of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party to power, France steadily deepened its relationship with Iraq. As a result, France sold some of its finest materiel to Iraq during the 1970s and 1980s. For Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein, who had seized power in July 1979, this was ideal.

With tensions growing between Iraq and Iran, the Iraqi armed forces needed as much support as the regime could muster. They were not disappointed. Paris supplied Roland Short-Range Air Defence (SHORAD) SAM batteries. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, furnished Iraq with SA-2 batteries, SA-3 medium-range/medium-altitude, SA-6A low/medium-altitude/medium-range, SA-8, and SA-9 SHORAD SAM batteries. Additional SHORAD coverage was provided by a plethora of ZSU-23-4 and ZSU-57-2 AAA systems and SA-13 Man-Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS). The SAMs were mainly to protect Iraqi strategic targets. Divisions of the elite Republican Guard also had some organic SA-6 and Roland units. AAA was used for corps and division air defence, along with the point defence of strategic targets. These units would also have MANPADS coverage, some SA-8s and Rolands. These provided air defence coverage over the manoeuvre force.[4]

These air defences received targeting information from Chinese-supplied Type-408C VHF ground-based air surveillance radars with a range of 324 nautical miles/nm (600 kilometres/km). Iraq received five of these radars between 1986 and 1988. France also supplied six TRS-2215/2230 S-band ground-based air surveillance radars between 1984 and 1985. These had a range of 335nm (620km).[5] Iraq supplemented these with five French TRS-2206 Volex ground-based air surveillance radars transmitting on an unknown waveband with a range of 145nm (268.5km). The Soviet Union also supplied several ground-based air surveillance and height-finding radars for use with Iraq’s SAM batteries and independently. These included six P-12 and five P-14 VHF ground-based air surveillance radars with ranges of 135nm (250km) and 216nm (400km), respectively, plus ten P-40 radars with a 200nm (370km) range and five PRV-9 height-finding radars with a 162nm (300km) range.[6]

The IQAF’s radars, fighters, airbases, SAM batteries and supporting infrastructure that provided operational/strategic level air defence were networked using the French-supplied KARI Command and Control system.[7] The nerve centre of the IADS was the Air Defence Operations Centre in downtown Baghdad. This was responsible for Iraq’s operational/strategic air defence, particularly industrial and political installations.

Iraq’s airspace was segmented into four sectors (see figure 1).[8] Each was commanded from a Sector Operations Centre. Subordinate to the Sector Operations Centres were the Intercept Operations Centres. The Intercept Operations Centres would control a segment of airspace in a specific sector using organic radars. Their radar pictures would be sent to the Sector Operations Centre. There they would be fused together creating a Recognised Air Picture (RAP) of the sector and its air approaches. The recognised air picture was sent up the chain of command to the Air Defence Operations Centre using standard radio, telephone, and fibre optic links. A ‘Super RAP’ of Iraq’s airspace and approaches was created at the Air Defence Operations Centre. KARI used several means of communication to provide redundancy. If radio communications were jammed, communications with the Air Defence Operations Centre could be preserved using telephone and fibre optic lines. If telephone exchanges and fibre optic nodes were hit, radio communications could be used.

Iraq Air defence
Figure 1 – Iraqi Air Defence Sectors, Sector Operations Centres, and Intercept Operations Centres

Cooking up a Storm

Coalition air planners had two critical Iraqi threats to contest in the bid to achieve air superiority and air supremacy; the Iraqi IADS and deployed Ground-Based Air Defences (GBAD) protecting the Iraqi Army and Republican Guard units. The IADS/GBAD had to be degraded to the point where they would effectively be useless if coalition aircraft enjoyed relative freedom in the skies above the Kuwait Theatre of Operations. Electronic Warfare (EW) was intrinsic to this effort. The IADS and GBAD relied on air surveillance, battle management and weapons control.[9] Air surveillance was dependent on radar, battle management was dependent on communications, and both depended on the electromagnetic spectrum.

The concept of operations for coalition electronic warfare to support the air campaign was to attack the two electronic elements of the IADS/GBAD, namely radar and radio communications, without which situational awareness and command and control would be badly degraded if not neutralised altogether. Alongside electronic warfare, kinetic attacks on radars were made using anti-radiation missiles and against key nodes and targets in the IADS using conventional ordnance. Following Kuwait’s occupation, the coalition’s immediate task was to build an electronic order of battle of the radars and communications intrinsic to the IADS and GBAD. Space and airborne assets were instrumental to this effort. Although much information regarding the specifics of the US Central Intelligence Agency/National Reconnaissance Office Magnum SIGINT satellite constellation remains classified, they were almost certainly employed to collect raw signals intelligence germane to the IADS/GBAD. This would have been analysed at facilities in the US before being disseminated to allies.[10]

SIGINT collection followed a hierarchical approach. The Magnum satellites made a ‘broad brush’ collection of Iraqi electromagnetic emissions, discerning potential signals of interest from radars or communications from the prevailing electromagnetic noise generated by the country.[11] Further investigation of these signals of interest would be done using airborne SIGINT assets.[12] For example, the USAF based two RC-135Us at King Khalid International Airport, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.[13] These jets flew close to Iraq’s borders to ‘hoover up’ as much ELINT as possible.[14] This served two purposes. First, the collection of ELINT allowed the coalition to determine which radars were used by Iraq’s IADS/GBAD and where they were located. This allowed potential gaps or more weakly defended areas in Iraqi air defence coverage to be identified. Second, regular ELINT collection allowed SIGINT experts to determine the pattern of electromagnetic life. This would have helped answer pertinent questions about whether Iraqi SA-2 batteries switched their radars off every evening or every weekend. By identifying geographical or temporal gaps in radar coverage, coalition planners could take advantage of weak coverage.

American SIGINT aircraft were joined by Royal Air Force Nimrod RMk.1s flying from Seeb airbase in Oman, and Armée de l’Air (French Air Force) C-160G Gabriel and DC-8F Sarigue SIGINT planes based at King Khalid International Airport. However, the Iraqis knew they were being watched. Iraqi air defenders had correctly deduced that coalition SIGINT efforts would extract as much usable SIGINT as possible. As a result, they tried to keep their radar and radio use to a minimum while coalition warplanes relentlessly probed Iraqi air defences to tempt radar activation and communications traffic for collection by SIGINT aircraft hanging back from the fighters.[15]

Support was also provided by the US Navy’s Operational Intelligence Centre’s Strike Projection Evaluation and Anti-Air Research team, better known as SPEAR. This unit helped build a comprehensive order-of-battle of the Iraqi IADS/GBAD.[16] In cooperation with the USAF and national US intelligence agencies, SPEAR identified key nodes in the Iraqi IADS that would badly degrade its efficacy if destroyed.[17] In addition, the process helped draft simulation programmes that built an increasingly detailed model of the Iraqi IADS/GBAD system. These programmes were continually updated as new intelligence arrived, allowing analysts to perform ever-more detailed replications of the expected potency of Iraqi air defences.[18]

DESERT SHIELD
An RC-135V/W Rivet Joint from the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing approaches a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 1700th Air Refueling Squadron Provisional during Operation DESERT SHIELD. (Source: Wikimedia)

Alongside the RC-135Us discussed above, USAF RC-135V/W Rivet Joint and US Navy EP-3E Aries planes primarily collected Communications Intelligence (COMINT) on Iraq’s IADS/GBAD. Although the Rivet Joints were primarily configured to collect COMINT from radios and telecommunications transmitting on V/UHF wavebands of 30 megahertz to three gigahertz, these frequencies were also used by several Iraqi early warning and ground-based air surveillance radars. This allowed the Rivet Joints to assist their Combat Sent counterparts in gathering ELINT.[19]

Determining Iraq’s electronic order of battle allowed the radars to be attacked kinetically by USAF F-4G Wild Weasels using the AGM-88B/C missiles. Radars were also engaged electronically by USAF EF-111A Raven EW aircraft. Likewise, radio communications were attacked electronically with USAF EC-130H Compass Call planes. However, the USAF was not the only custodian of the suppression of enemy air defence mission. The US Navy was an avid user of the AGM-88 and, together with the US Marine Corps (USMC), flew EA-6B Prowlers. These jets could electronically and kinetically target hostile radars and gather ELINT.

Now in the streets, there is violence

‘The attack on the Iraqi electronic order of battle affected every aspect of the air supremacy operation,’ noted the official record of Operation DESERT STORM.[20] The initial focus of the electronic warfare battle was to destroy critical radars and communications nodes in the Iraqi IADS to paralyse the air defence network at strategic and operational levels.[21] At the tactical level, deployed SAM systems were then attacked with anti-radiation missiles when they illuminated coalition aircraft. This was done by patrolling F-4Gs and EA-6Bs, waiting for these radars to be activated or having the same aircraft and other anti-radiation missile-armed warplanes, such as the Royal Air Force’s Tornado GR.1 ground attack aircraft with their ALARMs (Air-Launched Anti-Radiation Missiles) accompany strike packages of aircraft. This had the dual purpose of helping keep these aircraft safe and continually attritting the kinetic elements of Iraq’s air defence.[22]

As noted earlier in this article, plans for attacking Iraq’s IADS/GBAD system became a reality in the early morning of 17 January. While Task Force Normandy laid waste to Iraqi radars, F-117As hit the Sector Operations Centres and Intercept Operations Centres in the 1st and 2nd Air Defence Sectors.[23] The actions of the Nighthawks and Task Force Normandy opened gaps in southern and western Iraqi radar coverage and air defence command and control network, which was then exploited.[24] Stealthy and non-stealth aircraft alike ingressed into Iraqi airspace to reach their strategic targets with electronic attack assistance provided by EF-111As and EA-6Bs. These platforms effectively jammed Iraqi early warning/ground-based air surveillance radars transmitting on V/UHF frequencies and FC/GCI radars transmitting in higher wavebands.[25] Typically, the EF-111As and EA-6Bs flew jamming orbits to protect air operations in a particular segment of the Kuwait Theatre of Operations. For example, USAF EF-111As flew orbits in western Iraq, providing jamming support to strikes in that part of the country, performing similar missions in the vicinity of Baghdad.[26] The EF-111As and EA-6Bs also relayed near-real-time updates on the Iraqi Electronic Order of Battle in their locale using radio and tactical datalink networks. Air campaign planners then adjust the air campaign’s electronic dimension accordingly.[27]

EA-6B DESERT STORM
EA-6B Prowlers of VAQ-130 refuelled by a KC-135 Stratotanker en-route to an attack during Operation DESERT STORM. (Source: NARA)

With one part of its radars destroyed and jamming afflicting the others, coalition aircraft headed into Iraq, clearing a path through the IADS, and hitting IADS targets with anti-radiation missiles and air-to-ground ordnance.[28] As well as hitting these targets, BGM-109 cruise missiles hit transformer yards dispersing carbon fibre filaments. This caused short circuits in the power supply.[29] Air defence facilities without backup power went offline. Even those with generators would still see their systems shut down before being reactivated, costing valuable time.[30]

Influenced by Israeli Air Force operations over the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon close to that country’s border with Syria in June 1982, another tactic used by the coalition was the use of USAF launched BQM-74C Chukar drones to mimic coalition combat aircraft ingressing Iraq’s 1st Air Defence Sector. The intention was for Iraqi air defenders to illuminate the drones and engage them. This allowed anti-radiation missile-equipped aircraft to determine the position of SAM batteries engaging the drones and attack their radars. The US Navy performed similar missions with their ADM-141A/B Tactical Air-Launched Decoys This was an effective tactic as it not only revealed the location of Iraqi SAM batteries, but it forced them to expend missiles.[31]

The Continuing Campaign

Initial overtures in the air defence suppression campaign were aimed at attritting Iraqi long and medium-range/high and medium-altitude SAM systems to help sanitise the airspace for following coalition strikes.[32] Typically, AAA would be effective up to altitudes of circa 15,000 feet/ft (4,572 metres/m), with Iraqi SAM batteries effective up to circa 40,000ft (12,192m).[33] The controlled kinetic and electronic violence unleashed against the Iraqi IADS/GBAD during the first 24 hours of the war was palpable. The official record notes that almost 48 targets, including an array of air defence aim points, were hit: ‘This was not a gradual rolling back of the Iraqi air defence system. The nearly simultaneous suppression of so many vital centres helped cripple Iraq’s air defence system.’[34] This inflicted a level of damage from which the Iraqi IADS/GBAD could not recover.

As the campaign unfolded Iraqi air defenders learnt that activating their radar invited an AGM-88 or ALARM attack. By the end of the first week of combat operations, the Iraqis realised that a significant dimension of the coalition air campaign focused on destroying their air defences.[35] SAMs would still be fired ballistically in the hope of a lucky strike, but sans radar, SAM capabilities were severely degraded. Switching off the radars did not stop the attacks. AAA or SAM sites that kept their radars switched off were engaged with conventional air-to-ground ordnance.[36] Life was increasingly unpleasant for Iraqi air defenders who realised that switching off their radars did not stop the attacks. One can only imagine the demoralisation this must have caused.

Assessment

Benjamin Lambeth correctly asserted that DESERT STORM exemplified the decisive migration of electronic countermeasures and EW in general ‘from a supporting role to a direct combat role.’[37] Quite simply, without EW, the coalition would not have succeeded in degrading the Iraqi IADS/GBAD to a point where it could no longer meaningfully challenge coalition air power in such a short space of time. One of the major successes of the electronic warfare aspect of the air campaign was its dislocation of Iraqi IADS/GBAD command and control. Despite the technological sophistication of KARI, it could not mitigate the hierarchical nature of Iraqi air defence doctrine. The Intercept Operations Centres struggled to operate when their Sector Operations Centre and the Air Defence Operations Centre was neutralised.[38] There appeared to be little redundancy within KARI by which these centres could assume the responsibilities of their destroyed or badly degraded counterparts. For instance, the Air Defence Operations Centre was destroyed as a priority target at the start of the air campaign. It does not appear that Iraqi air defenders could rapidly replicate Air Defence Operations Centre functions at either a back-up facility or at one of the Sector Operations Centres. Likewise, when Sector Operations Centres were taken out of the fight, their functions were not immediately assumed by Intercept Operations Centres in their area of responsibility or adjacent sectors.

While KARI was a sophisticated system, Iraq possessed radars and SAM systems already known to the US and its allies on the eve of DESERT STORM. The US had encountered similar SAM systems in the skies over Vietnam and during Operation Eldorado Canyon in 1986 when the US attacked strategic targets in Libya in retaliation for the sponsorship of political violence by its leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Likewise, Israel had faced similar defences during numerous conflicts with its neighbours. Although Israel remained outside the US-led coalition, it is all but certain that intelligence germane to Iraq’s air defence systems would have been made available to the US.[39] The French are also thought to have shared intelligence regarding Iraq’s Roland and KARI systems in a similar fashion.[40] Egypt, an avid user of Soviet-supplied air defence equipment and member of the US-led coalition, was also believed to have been furnished the latter with intelligence.[41] Some of Iraq’s air defence equipment may have lacked Electronic Counter-Countermeasure (EECM) protection to exacerbate matters. Some of Iraq’s radars, notably early versions of the SNR-75 S-band and C-band 65nm (120km) to 75nm (140km) range fire control radars accompanying the SA-2 batteries may not have been fitted with ECCM.[42]

Once the war commenced, the Iraqis fell for the US ruse of using drones to seduce radars into revealing themselves, only to receive an ARM for their trouble. A glance at the history books would have revealed that given the success the Israeli Air Force had enjoyed using this tactic a decade previously, there was every chance the coalition may follow suit. This tactic was recently revisited during the 2020 conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Azeri armed forces skilfully exploited Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). UAVs were used to tempt Armenian GBADs to activate their radars. By activating the radars their location could be determined, and the GBADs then struck with suicide UAVs equipped with explosives.

Furthermore, Iraq’s air defence doctrine lacked flexibility. Indeed, it has been argued that Iraq’s air command and control writ large during the preceding Iran-Iraq War was characterised by over-centralisation and rigid planning.[43] This may have resulted from two factors; the authoritarian nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the procurement of Soviet materiel not only for air defence but across the Iraqi armed forces with a similar acquisition of Soviet doctrine not known for its flexibility.[44] There are significant questions to ask regarding the degree to which subordinates in the IADS believed they had latitude and blessing for individual initiative in the tactical battle. Similar questions apply to higher echelons. Did operational commanders in the air force and air defence force feel emboldened to take decisions as the battle unfolded? Saddam Hussein presided over a totalitarian state where insubordination, real or perceived, could be punished harshly. This raises the question as to whether the fear of taking the wrong decision paralysed decision-making. The result being that the Iraqi IADS lost the initiative in the coalition’s electronic battle. An initiative it never recovered. The net result of a lack of doctrinal flexibility, and against the backdrop of Saddam Hussein’s regime, meant that Iraq’s air defences did not respond and adjust to the electronic battle. Tactical and operational flexibility did not extend beyond radar operators switching off their systems to avoid an attack by an ARM.

However, the coalition’s success was underpinned by a vitally important factor, the luxury of time. DESERT STORM was not a ‘come as you are’ war. The US and its allies had 168 days between Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the commencement of the air campaign to plan the electromagnetic scheme of manoeuvre that supporting the air war.

DESERT STORM underlined a truism in air power: Air superiority as a prerequisite for air supremacy must be achieved over an opponent as early as possible. OCA was central to this effort. Electromagnetic superiority and supremacy are central to OCA. One must ensure one can manoeuvre in the spectrum with minimal interference from one’s adversary while denying their adversary use of the spectrum. Working towards electromagnetic superiority and supremacy reduces red force access to the spectrum, denying its use for situational awareness and command and control. Denying Iraqi air defenders’ situational awareness and command and control blunted the efficacy of the kinetic elements of Iraq’s IADS/GBAD, which were then attritted using ARMs and conventional ordnance.

DESERT STORM ended on 28 February. Electronic warfare was intrinsic to the air campaign’s success. Iraq’s IADS and GBAD were prevented from meaningfully interfering with the coalition’s actions. However, this was not the end of the story. The US and the UK would continue to confront the rump of Iraq’s air defences for several years to come until the final showdown with Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.

Dr Thomas Withington specialises in contemporary and historical electronic warfare, radar, and military communications, and has written numerous articles on these subjects for a range of general and specialist publications. He holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham.

Header image: EF-111A Raven aircraft prepare to take off on a mission during Operation Desert Shield. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] C. Kopp, ‘Operation Desert Storm: The Electronic Battle, Part-2’ @http://www.ausairpower.net/Analysis-ODS-EW.

[2] J. Schlight, A War Too Long: The USAF in Southeast Asia 1961-1975 (Washington DC: Air Force History and Museum Programme, 1996), p. 103.

[3] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress, (Alexandria, VA: US Department of Defence, 1992), p. 15.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Author’s proprietary information.

[6] Ibid.

[7] KARI is the French name for Iraq spelt backwards.

[8] ‘Iraqi Air Defense – Introduction’.

[9] P.W. Mattes, ‘Systems of Systems: What, exactly, is an Integrated Air Defense System?’, The Mitchell Forum No.26, (Arlington VA: The Mitchell Institute, June 2019), p. 3.

[10] Confidential interview with US electronic intelligence expert, 17/3/21.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] S. Morse (ed), Gulf Air War Debrief, (London: Aerospace Publishing, 1991), p. 37.

[16] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. 124.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Kopp, ‘Operation Desert Storm’.

[19] Morse (ed.), Gulf Air War Debrief, p. 37.

[20] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. 220.

[21] Kopp, ‘Operation Desert Storm’.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. 153.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid, p. 172.

[26] Ibid, p. 220.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Kopp, ‘Operation Desert Storm’.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Confidential interview with US electronic intelligence expert.

[31] Kopp, ‘Operation Desert Storm’.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. 202.

[34] Ibid, p. 156.

[35] C. Kopp, ‘Operation Desert Storm: The Electronic Battle, Part-3’ @http://www.ausairpower.net/Analysis-ODS-EW.html consulted 12/2/21.

[36] Ibid.

[37] B. Lambeth, The Winning of Air Supremacy in Operation Desert Storm, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1993), p. 5.

[38] ‘Iraqi Air Defense – Introduction’.

[39] Confidential interview with US electronic intelligence expert.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Kopp, ‘Operation Desert Storm: The Electronic Battle, Part-1’.

[42] Ibid.

[43] A.H. Cordesman, A.R. Wagner, The Lessons of Modern War Volume-II: The Iran-Iraq War, (London: Mansell, 1990).

[44] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. 9.

#DesertStorm30 – On the Brink of Combat: The Women Aviators of DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM

#DesertStorm30 – On the Brink of Combat: The Women Aviators of DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM

By Eileen Bjorkman

At one minute past midnight on 17 January 1991, US Air Force Major Kathy Rambo-Cosand prepared to take off in a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter from Ramstein Air Base, Germany. It was snowing, and her aircraft was packed with 44,000 pounds of cluster bombs headed for Saudi Arabia. The aircraft was severely overweight: she was authorised to fly at ‘emergency war weights.’ If the C-141 lost an engine on take-off from Ramstein’s short runway, they would most likely crash. She worried about what the cluster bombs might do if that happened. Moreover, an accident was a realistic possibility: A Lockheed C-5 Galaxy had crashed, taking off from Ramstein just a few months earlier, killing 13 of the 17 people on board.

As Rambo-Cosand and her crew waited for their take-off clearance, a call came on the radio: “All missions are cancelled.” The airspace over Saudi Arabia had been shut down as coalition fighters and bombers kicked off Operation DESERT STORM, the coalition effort to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Rambo-Cosand and her crew waited in their aircraft as planners decided what to do. Finally, at 2:30 a.m., she received the call to take off. With the C-5 crash and the enormity of her cargo weighing heavily on her, Rambo-Cosand pulled onto the runway and lumbered into the sky. Unfortunately, the most stressful take off of her career was for naught: when they arrived over Italy, they were turned back to Ramstein.[1]

At that point, Rambo-Cosand had been flying in and out of Saudi Arabia for the past four months, and it would be many more months before she finally returned home to her family. Indeed, the rapid build-up, sustainment, and eventual employment of forces in the Middle East as part of Operation DESERT SHIELD/STORM was only possible because of support aircraft that did everything from hauling cargo to communications jamming.[2] Moreover, it was these aircraft that women like Rambo-Cosand flew since they were not allowed to fly in combat; a provision within the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act passed by Congress in 1948 prohibited that. This article explores the experience of some of those women during DESERT SHIELD/STORM and details some of the challenges faced by US females operating in a combat environment.

Wells
Major Stephanie Wells and her C-5 crew delivering tanks to Al Jubayl, Saudi Arabia on 19 January 1991 (Source: Stephanie Wells)

The Women Aviators of Operation DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM

Despite the combat restrictions, women soon arrived in Saudi Arabia. Some of the first women were pilots, like US Army Captain Victoria Calhoun, a Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter pilot at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, who deployed on 9 August, two days after Operation DESERT SHIELD began in response to the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. Calhoun had asked to be stationed at Fort Bragg the previous year because she figured if any action happened, it would happen there. She was right, but shortly after arriving, her unit deployed to support the 1989 invasion of Panama, and her operations officer would not let her go, replacing her with a less-experienced male pilot. A year later, she feared the same thing might happen. However, when someone questioned her battalion commander about whether women would deploy to Saudi Arabia, he said, “They have to go. If they don’t go, we’re not mission capable as a unit!”

Calhoun arrived at Dhahran Air Base with an advance party to conduct reconnaissance and prepare the base for more arrivals. At first, there was not much flying for the Chinooks, mainly because the sand in Saudi Arabia caused maintenance nightmares. The missions Calhoun flew transported parts and supplies around to other units, a mission nicknamed “Desert Express.”[3]

Reserve units began activating on 24 August. All C-5 reserve squadrons were activated as the massive cargo aircraft hauled most of the Army’s tanks and larger helicopters to the theatre. Major Stephanie Wells, a C-5 pilot from Kelly Air Force Base, Texas, was activated on 29 August. She was thrilled to be part of the team: when she had initially called her unit on 6 August to inquire about deploying, she was told that women would not be allowed to go.[4] Nevertheless, Wells was soon flying C-5s all over the world. At first, she never knew where she would be going on any given day, but then things settled down, and she began flying missions out of Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.[5]

Technical Sergeant Donna Davis, a C-5 flight engineer in a reserve unit at Travis Air Force Base, California, soon wound up in Germany. When a crew landed, after eight hours of crew rest, Davis says they were normally assigned to an aircraft brought in by another crew. The crews stopped to rest, but the aeroplane kept going. The crews often pulled 24-hour shifts before going back into crew rest, and Davis found it hard to sleep more than about four hours at a time. She was not alone; most of the crews were exhausted all the time and, as she says, “Thank goodness for autopilot.”[6]

Wells 2
Major Stephanie Wells in the cockpit of a C-5 at the beginning of Operation DESERT STORM. (Source: Stephanie Wells)

As the initial troops and equipment flowed to Saudi Arabia, Rambo-Cosand, who was in a reserve unit at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, debated what to do. She had met her husband when she had been one of the first ten women to attend US Air Force pilot training in 1976, and they had just settled with their two children into new quarters after a move to Honduras. She hated to leave her 2-year-old and 7-year-old at home, but she decided to volunteer to fly some missions, thinking that if enough reservists volunteered, her unit would not be activated. However, before she could arrive to begin her volunteer tour, her unit was activated on 9 September. Rambo-Cosand moved heaven and earth to get to McGuire in less than 24 hours, begging the US Embassy to get her on a 6:00 a.m. flight out of Honduras the following day. Even living overseas, she beat several airline pilots in her squadron to McGuire.

After arriving at McGuire, Rambo-Cosand flew first to Zaragoza, Spain, and then began flying shuttles to Saudi Arabia. Working 30-hour days, she and her crew flew 150 hours in 16 days compared to the normal 75 hours they might fly in a month. She recalls, “We were like zombies.” But like most pilots, Rambo-Cosand enjoyed what she was doing. She found aeromedical evacuation flights of wounded personnel to be the most special. Whenever she carried patients, she always went back to talk to them and hold their hand before returning to the cockpit, hoping they would make it.

By early October, enough forces were in place to defend Saudi Arabia should the Iraqis attack. An additional a build-up of forces began in early November to prepare for an offensive operation.[7] In November, the United Nations Security Council also set a deadline for Iraq to withdraw forces by 15 January 1991. The deadline passed, and the air war started on 17 January.

On the first day of the war, US Air Force Captain Sheila Chewing helped two McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle fighter pilots shoot down two Iraqi Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrums. She was a weapons controller onboard a Boeing E-3 Sentry, an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft distinguished by a gigantic disc-shaped radar antenna mounted on top of the aircraft and used for tracking both friendly and enemy aircraft. She spotted the MiG-29s on her radar screen onboard the AWACS and then directed the F-15 pilots until their own radars could track the enemy aircraft and launch missiles at them. Chewing later said, “When that happened [bringing down an enemy plane], we really felt like we were doing our jobs.”[8]

While airlift crews shuttled endlessly among the US, Europe, and the Middle East, some women who flew refuelling tankers and other support aircraft settled at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. Air Force Captain Christina Vance Halli, a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker pilot, was happy to deploy to support DESERT STORM. She was tired of being at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, where she mostly sat alert with bomber crews and rarely flew. Instead, she and the rest of her crew flew as passengers to get to Incirlik. During a stop in Greece, it was obvious they were getting closer to the action: a man wearing a flak jacket met them at the aircraft and instructed them to low crawl across the ramp to his vehicle.

The aircraft that launched from Incirlik did so as part of a large strike package of tankers, communications jammers (EC-130s), tactical reconnaissance aircraft (RF-4Cs) and the fighter aircraft that would be striking targets deep into Iraq. For most missions, the slower Lockheed EC-130s launched first to get into position to provide jamming protection for the striking aircraft. At the same time or shortly after, McDonnell Douglas RF-4C Phantom aircraft took off and finally, the KC-135s departed, followed by the striking aircraft. A typical strike package had three to five tankers, each servicing four to eight fighters. The refuelling’s were a bit of an adventure, done in radio silence and mostly at night, but the skill of all crews involved prevented any mishaps. The fighters followed the tankers to Iraq’s northern border, refuelling as needed and getting a top-off before entering Iraq. At that point, the tankers did a U-turn and held in orbit, waiting for the strikers to return.[9]

In the meantime, the EC-130s orbited nearby to provide jamming support. Captain Amy Hermes Smellie was an EC-130 co-pilot. She recalls sometimes seeing anti-aircraft artillery in the distance as the strikers reached their targets; on other occasions, she wore night vision goggles look for targets. Unlike the other support aircraft that might carry one or two women aviators on a mission, the EC-130s were often packed with women linguists in the back of the aeroplane. Smellie says the linguists were the driving factor in EC-130s; the Air Force might have been able to fly EC-130 missions without women pilots, but they did not have enough male linguists.[10]

The ground campaign began on early 24 February. That day Major Marie Rossi, the company commander of one of Calhoun’s sister units, appeared on CNN, saying, “[T]his is the moment that everybody trains for – that I’ve trained for – so I feel ready to meet the challenge.”[11] To prepare for the assault, coalition ground forces had quietly moved hundreds of miles to the west, including Calhoun’s CH-47 unit, which moved from Dhahran to Rafha. Instead of flying to Rafha, Calhoun was put in charge of a convoy for the move. However, once at Rafha, she got in on the action. On the second day of the ground war, she flew Chinook missions to move elements of the US 101st Airborne Division to Forward Operating Base Cobra, 93 miles inside Iraq, to provide a logistics base for the 101st as they conducted their assault. Overall, Calhoun flew 22 hours of combat, flying into Iraq and coming within 90 miles of Baghdad.[12]

DS Map
Map depicting Army unit locations at Dhahran and Rafha; FOB Cobra is north of Rafha. (Source: Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress)

Offensive operations ended at 08:00 on 28 February, but that did not stop the danger. Marie Rossi, the pilot who had appeared on CNN, died on 1 March, the day after the cease-fire, when her helicopter hit an unlit radio tower.

US Navy women did not get as many opportunities to fly during the war as their Air Force and Army counterparts. A handful of women, mostly in helicopter combat support squadrons, carried personnel and equipment around the Persian Gulf and flew other support missions, including search and rescue.[13] Lieutenant Commander Lucy Young, who had qualified to fly Douglas A-4 Skyhawk strike aircraft and was the US Navy’s first female strike instructor, nevertheless was not allowed to fly in combat. By 1991, she had left the Navy and was in a reserve unit in Atlanta, flying McDonnell Douglas C-9s, a small cargo aircraft like the commercial DC-9. Young’s squadron was never activated, but she spent three weeks flying people and cargo around the Middle East during the build-up in September 1991 while male strike pilots she had trained headed for the war on aircraft carriers.[14]

Captain Peggy Phillips, a C-141 pilot in the reserves at McChord Air Force Base, Washington, says that the women transport pilots were the ‘first in and last out’ of the theatre. This was especially true of the reservists; many were activated in August or September of 1990 and not deactivated until May or June 1991. Another aspect of being an airlifter was that the crews received no parades or big welcomes when they returned home like many of the combat units, who deployed and returned as a group. Instead, the airlifters dribbled over and back, activating, and deactivating on individual timelines. Phillips had a two-day notice to deactivate. She quietly went home with no fanfare.[15]

The Dangers faced by Female Aviators

Going up against the fourth largest army in the world, planners expected the overall battle to be short but potentially very bloody, with as many as 30,000 casualties.[16] Given that the all-volunteer force in place since the mid-1970s was 15% female, at least some of those casualties were expected to be women.

Although the aircraft flown by women aviators largely kept them away from enemy fire, the missions weren’t risk-free. Tankers occasionally flew over hostile territory with their strike package. For example, Captain Ann Weaver Worster reportedly flew her tanker 250 miles inside Iraq on one mission.[17] In another instance, an SA-8 surface-to-air missile exploded above a KC-135 flying out of Incirlik.[18]

Once the Iraqis started launching SCUD missiles during Desert Storm, the transport and other support crews were vulnerable when they landed in Saudi Arabia. For example, Rambo-Cosand received word of a ‘black flag’ SCUD alert during one flight, and the crew donned their chemical warfare gear before landing. Once on the ground, the crew dashed to a bunker in their gear, where they stayed for several hours until their aircraft could be refuelled and reloaded for their return flight.[19]

In addition to dealing with hostile forces, the women aviators also dealt with a hostile environment from their hosts. For example, Saudi ground crews refused to take fuel orders from women crewmembers and women who stayed in Saudi Arabia overnight had to cover up if they wanted to go off base.[20]

Family Issues

Naysayers had predicted that women would become pregnant to avoid going to war. Some pregnant women could not deploy, but it was not only women who wanted to stay home for family reasons. Halli, the KC-135 pilot, recalled that her navigator did not want to deploy because his wife was pregnant; he was replaced with another navigator.[21]

During their deployments, men and women left behind families, including small children. For example, C-5 flight engineer Donna Davis left her son with her parents, although she made it home for Christmas.[22] Unlike crewmembers who lived near McGuire, Rambo-Cosand found it difficult to get home whenever she had a few extra days in the US, although she did make it back to her family in Honduras for a few days about every six weeks.[23] Sometimes childcare took creative juggling. For example, C-141 pilot Peggy Phillips had three small children and an airline pilot husband who was also an activated reservist. The couple served in the same unit at McChord, and their commander allowed them to work their schedules so that while one was flying on a trip, the other worked in the squadron.[24]

Conclusion – An Opportunity for Change

Carolyn Becraft, a significant player in the fight to overturn the archaic combat exclusion law, says activating the reserves had a huge impact on the public’s acceptance of women going into hostile territory. Unit activations turned into local stories, and people saw their neighbours, both men and women, heading to war.[25]

The women aviators in Desert Shield and Desert Storm and other women who served in the Middle East, collectively proved they could participate in combat. After legislation and a Presidential Commission to further study the issue, women aviators finally earned the right to fly combat aircraft on 28 April 1993. However, for most women who flew in Desert Storm, the change came too late in their careers. Tanker pilot Christina Vance Halli left the Air Force and applied to fly General Dynamics F-16s at the Air National Guard unit in Fresno, California. The unit seemed receptive, allowing her to go through a process of visits and interviews before turning her down. Their reason? She did not have any fighter experience.[26]

Eileen A. Bjorkman is a former flight test engineer in the USAF with more than thirty-five years of experience and over 700 hours in the cockpits of F-4s, F-16s, C-130s, and C-141s. Her most recent book is Unforgotten in the Gulf of Tonkin: A Story of the U.S. Military’s Commitment to Leave No One Behind (2020) She is also the author of The Propeller under the Bed: A Personal History of Homebuilt Aircraft and has published articles in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space MagazineAviation HistorySport Aviation, the Everett Daily Herald, and the Herald Business Journal.

Header image: Members of the US.’ Air Force disembark from a Lockheed C-141B Starlifter aircraft upon their arrival in support of Operation DESERT SHIELD. This is the type of aircraft flown by Major Kathy Rambo-Cosand and Captain Peggy Phillips as mentioned in this article. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Interview with Kathy Rambo-Cosand, 21 April 2021.

[2] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Defense, 1992), p. 45

[3] Interview with Victoria Calhoun, 2 May 2021.

[4] Jeanne Holm, Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution, Revised Edition (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1993), p. 450.

[5] Interview with Stephanie Wells, 29 April 2021.

[6] Interview with Donna Davis, 22 April 2021.

[7] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. 83

[8] Joby Warrick, ‘AWACS Proves to be Gulf ‘Trump Card,” Air Force Times, 26 March 1991, p. 11, as quoted in Holm, Women in the Military, p. 452.

[9] Interview with Christina Vance Halli, 30 April 2021.

[10] Interview with Amy Hermes Smellie, 21 April 2021.

[11] Holm, Women in the Military, p. 460.

[12] Calhoun interview.

[13] Jean Ebbert and Marie-Beth Hall, Crossed Currents: Navy Women from WWI to Tailhook (McClean, VA: Brassey’s, 1993), p. 264.

[14] Interview with Lucy Young, 29 April 2021.

[15] Interview with Peggy Phillips, 2 May 2021.

[16] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. ii; Richard P. Hallion, Storm over Iraq: Air Power and the Gulf War (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), pp. 2-3.

[17] Holm, Women in the Military, p. 449.

[18] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, pp. 234-235

[19] Rambo-Cosand interview.

[20] Multiple women mentioned these issues to me during interviews.

[21] Halli interview.

[22] Davis interview.

[23] Rambo-Cosand interview.

[24] Phillips’ interview.

[25] Interview with Carolyn Becraft, 21 April 2021.

[26] Halli interview.

Who Ruined the F-16? The Fighter Mafia’s Battle against the United States Air Force

Who Ruined the F-16? The Fighter Mafia’s Battle against the United States Air Force

By Dr Michael W. Hankins

Editorial note: This article is adapted from an excerpt from Flying Camelot: The F-15, the F16, and the Weaponization of Fighter Pilot Nostalgia, by Michael W. Hankins. Copyright (c) 2021 by Michael Wayne Hankins and Smithsonian Institution. Used by permission of the publisher, Cornell University Press.

On January 20, 1974, test pilot Phil Oestricher began a high-speed taxi test of the General Dynamics YF-16 prototype. When the plane went into an oscillating roll that slammed the left-wing into the ground, he decided it was safer to just take off for what became the aircraft’s first flight. The YF-16 was a passion project for many people across the aerospace defense community, especially a group known as the ‘Fighter Mafia,’ led by US Air Force (USAF) Colonel John Boyd. The group also included General Dynamics engineer Harry Hillaker, analyst Pierre Sprey, fighter pilot Everest Riccioni, analyst Thomas Christie, among many others. The YF-16 was the realization of their dream of a lightweight, ultra-specialized dogfighter – what Oestricher called ‘a pure air-to-air fighter airplane […] the Camelot of aeronautical engineering.’[1]

Yet, when USAF began the process of turning the YF-16 into the production model F-16A Fighting Falcon, the Fighter Mafia became bitterly opposed to the process. Their extreme frustration with the changes to the airplane set the stage for later debates as the group expanded and morphed into the Defense Reform Movement.

YF-16_and_YF-17_in_flight
An air-to-air right side view of a YF-16 aircraft and a YF-17 aircraft, side-by-side, armed with AIM-9 Sidewinder missiles. (Source: Wikimedia)

After winning a flyoff competition in January 1975 against Northrop’s YF-17 Cobra, the F-16 design went to the Configuration Control Committee, headed by former fighter pilot General Alton Slay, to produce an operational version of the plane. The Fighter Mafia nicknamed this group the ‘Add-On Committee,’ assuming Slay’s role was to exact the Air Force’s revenge by making sure the F-16 did not threaten the F-15 Eagle program. That meant turning the Fighting Falcon into a multi-role craft emphasizing ground attack.[2]

Christie, and his subordinate Robert J. Croteau, tried to stop this process before it started with a memo to Leonard Sullivan, Jr., the Director of Defense Program Analysis and Evaluation. They warned that moving away from the focus on air superiority would ‘subvert the purpose of the entire LWF/ACF [Lightweight fighter/Air Combat Fighter] program.’ The radar was the largest point of contention. They argued that a small radar such as the APQ-153 used in the F-5 was plenty. They wanted a configuration ‘based on primary commitment of the ACF to intense high frequency dogfights.’[3]

Instead, the production version of the F-16 put on almost 1,000 pounds. The landing gear was strengthened, the fuselage, wings, and tail area grew, and a tailhook was added. Chaff and flare systems and improved avionics also appeared. The production model added more pylons for ground-attack ordnance, with the existing pylons strengthened for heavier weapons. The loading capacity almost doubled, from 7,700 pounds to 15,200. Although the acceleration and agility of the operational F-16 was slightly less than the prototype YF-16, the production model did have increased range, thrust, and load factor, able to pull 9 Gs.[4]

The Air Force added a ground-looking, all-weather, night-capable, medium-range radar to the F-16, the Westinghouse AN/APG-66. The company maintained that this system was ‘The Fighter Pilot’s Radar,’ that would ‘allow the pilot to keep his head up and his hands on the throttle and stick throughout a dogfight engagement.’ With the flick of a switch, the radar provided ground mapping, improved with a Doppler beam, for both navigation and weapons delivery.[5] The avionics systems incorporated Boyd’s ‘Energy Maneuverability Theory’ into the cockpit via an ‘Energy-Maneuverability Display’ that gave pilots visual cues to indicate their current available energy, how to maximize their turn rates, the level of G-forces available, altitude and airspeed limits, and how to gain maneuvering energy quickly.[6]

Picture3
The YF-16 displayed alongside the ground attack armament it can carry, Edwards AFB, California, 12 February 1975 (Source: US Air Force)

Slay thought that the F-16 could complement the F-15 best if it was a multi-role aircraft. As he told the Senate in 1976:

The F-16 has a capability that the F-15 does not have, deliberately so. We did not choose to burden the F-15 radar with a significant air-to-ground capability. We have engineered the F-16 radar to have very good ground mapping [and] to do an extremely good job of air-to-ground missions.[7]

Slay appreciated the F-16’s maneuverability, noting ‘I almost had a heart attack watching the F-16 do a split ‘S’ from 2,700 feet. It was fantastic as far as maneuverability is concerned.’ He argued this made it useful in roles beyond dogfighting:

[t]he things that made [the F-16] good in an air-to-air role […] were extremely good in [an] air-to-ground context […] We got more than we paid for in having a multipurpose capable airplane.[8]

Boyd was unhappy with these changes and wrote to Slay several times in the opening months of 1975, arguing that ‘F-16 maneuvering performance has diminished significantly because of engineering necessity and conscious decisions that resulted in a substantial weight increase.’ Boyd said that the wing area, which had already been increased from 280 to 300 square feet, must be increased further to 320 to preserve the plane’s agility. This plan was rejected due to increased cost and a perception of increased risk with a larger wing.[9]

Boyd remained cordial in his correspondence with Slay, but privately, he and the rest of the Fighter Mafia seethed. Major Ray Leopold, Boyd’s assistant and mentee, described the group as worried that the F-16 would be ‘a disastrous compromise’ and ‘fall prey to the same vagrancies of the bureaucracy’ that the F-15 had. Leopold recalled Boyd complaining about the addition of armor plating, arguing that ‘it was mor[e] important to be maneuverable and less likely to get hit in the first place.’ He railed against the increase in bombing capacity, claiming that ‘the original concept of designing for energy maneuverability was compromised.’ Sprey was frustrated as well, claiming that the Air Force ‘degraded’ the F-16 more than they had the F-15 by increasing its size and adding equipment, most of all the radar.[10]

Hillaker, however, was not against some of the changes. Although he said that Boyd and Sprey’s frustration was reasonable, he recognized that the mafia’s original design was perhaps too limited: ‘If we had stayed with the original lightweight fighter concept,’ he explained, ‘that is, a simple day fighter, we would have produced only 300 F-16s.’[11]

On February 4, 1975, Croteau and Christie wrote to Sullivan, arguing that the changes to the F-16 were ‘unacceptable.’ They believed that the aircraft should have ‘a minimum of sophistication,’ that the additional avionics and radar capabilities were too complex and expensive, and that the added weight reduced performance in air combat. They charged: ‘Extensive air-to-ground capability of [the] proposed configuration compromises air-to-air capability.’ Croteau’s memo did present a potential design that offered the compromise of accepting some avionics, a radar, and limited ground-attack capability, but not including all the Air Force’s changes.[12] This model was not adopted.

By February 21, test pilot Chuck Myers sent a memo to Defense Secretary James Schlesinger’s special assistant, Martin Hoffman, arguing that the changes made to the plane made it ‘a far cry from the austere FIGHTER’ that the Fighter Mafia had envisioned, and that USAF needed to ‘restore the character of the airplane.’[13] He gave instructions for fixing the plane, titled ‘F-16 (LWF/ACF) PROGRAM RESTORATION.’ It excoriated the inclusion of ground attack and radar capability, then charged: ‘The expansion of mission spectrum is accomplished with an associated increases [sic] in weight, complexity, support burden and a loss of air combat maneuvering capability, the one mission for which the original design had been optimized.’ The paper concluded: ‘This mutilation of the character of the LWF through the ACF missionization process is a management travesty which cannot go unchallenged.’[14]

Members of the Fighter Mafia tended to assume that the changes made to the F-16 were retaliation for their challenges to the Air Staff. However, the Air Force had understandable reasons for adding additional capabilities to the F-16. The Air Staff argued that if the F-16 had no ground attack capability, then it could not truly replace the F-4 Phantom, which USAF wanted to phase out while preserving mission capabilities. If the F-16 conformed to the Fighter Mafia’s vision, then 30 percent of the Air Force inventory would be incapable of attacking ground targets. The Air Staff found that unacceptable. Although the F-16 could achieve air superiority, the aircraft would be useless once that superiority had been achieved in a conflict. By adding ground-attack functions, the Air Staff argued, the F-16 could be used in a ‘swing role’ to attack ground targets after air superiority had been won.[15]

An austere F-16 likely would have faced challenges without substantial radar capability. The inability to operate at night or in low-visibility weather conditions would render the aircraft problematic at best. Given that US planners expected a potential Soviet mass attack to occur in Europe, known for its often-cloudy weather conditions, deploying large numbers of such a clear sky, day-only fighter in that scenario would leave US forces particularly vulnerable. No amount of maneuverability could overcome the inability to see through clouds or in the dark against other aircraft that could. It is possible that some Air Force officials could have sought some sort of retaliation against the Fighter Mafia’s pet project, but the case for multi-role requirements had logical arguments behind it and came from a wide group.

Picture1
This cartoon from a 1977 General Dynamics briefing depicts the ‘myth’ that the F-16 production model had inferior performance to the original YF-16 prototype (Source: Lockheed Martin photo via Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum).

The F-16 modifications were a breaking point for Boyd and the Fighter Mafia. During the late 1970s, Boyd frequently gathered with his acolytes, complaining that the Air Force’s ‘goldplating’ was destroying the ‘pure’ fighter he had designed. After this point, Boyd focused entirely on his intellectual activities. He and others set their sights on different issues, sometimes regarding military hardware, but also doctrine, education, and procurement. These efforts expanded his movement. The Fighter Mafia soon took their arguments beyond the halls of the Pentagon and directly to the public.

Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator for US Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps post-World War II Aviation at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the author of Flying Camelot: The F-15, the F-16, and the Weaponization of Fighter Pilot Nostalgia (2021). He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD in history from Kansas State University in 2018 and his master’s in history from the University of North Texas in 2013. He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

[1] Quoted in Wade Scrogham, Combat Relevant Task: The Test & Evaluation of the Lightweight Fighter Prototypes (Edwards AFB: Air Force Test Center History Office, 2014), p. 67.

[2] James Fallows, National Defense (New York: Vintage, 1982), p 105; Grant Hammond, Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (Washington, Smithsonian Books, 2001), p. 97.

[3] US Marine Corps Archives and Records Division, Quantico, VA, Robert Coram Personal Papers, Box 3 Folder 13, Robert J. Croteau, Memorandum for Mr. Sullivan, through Mr. Christie, ‘F-16 Air Combat Fighter DSARC II,’ January 27, 1975.

[4] Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (NASM) Archives, General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon Series, Briefing Packets, AG-033100-03. General Dynamics, ‘F-16 Program Summary,’ August 15, 1977, ASD 771456.

[5] NASM Archives, General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon Series, Avionics Systems, AG-033100-02, Westinghouse Pamphlet, ‘AN/APG-68, The New Standard for Fighter Radar,’ no date; NASM Archives, General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon Series, Avionics Systems, AG-033100-02, Westinghouse Public Relations Release, ‘Westinghouse Starts Full-Scale Development of the F-16 Radar,’ no date.

[6] NASM Archives, General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon Series, Briefing Packets, AG-033100-02, General Dynamics, ‘F-16 Energy Management Displays,’ pamphlet, no date.

[7] Hearings before the Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate, 94th Congress, 2nd Session, S.2965, Part 6: Research and Development, February 25-26, March 2, 4, 9, 1976, 3739-3740.

[8] Ibid, Part 9: Tactical Airpower, March 8-12, 1976, 4896.

[9] US Marine Corps Archives and Records Division, John Boyd Personal Papers, Box 13 Folder 1, John Boyd, Memorandum for General Slay, ‘F-16 Wing Area Selection,’ March 31, 1975; US Marine Corps Archives and Records Division, Boyd Papers, Box 13 Folder 1, John Boyd, Memorandum for Maj Gen Slay, ‘F-16 Wing Area,’ March 4, 1975; US Marine Corps Archives and Records Division, Boyd Papers, Box 13 Folder 1, John Boyd, Memo to Major General Slay, ‘ACF Wing Area,’ January 23, 1975.

[10] US Marine Corps Archives and Records Division, Coram Papers, Box 6 Folder 7, Email, Thomas Christie to Robert Coram, February 5, 2001; US Marine Corps Archives and Records Division, Coram Papers, Box 6 Folder 7, Email, Ray Leopold to Robert Coram, January 31, 2001; US Marine Corps Archives and Records Division, Coram Papers, Box 5 Folder 1, Sprey Interview notes, August 2000.

[11] ‘Interview Part II: Harry Hillaker: Father of the F-16,’ Code One (July 1991), p. 9.

[12] President Gerald Ford Presidential Library, Martin R. Hoffman Papers, Box 21, folder ‘Lightweight Fighters (Navy & Air Force), 1974-75 (5),’ Memo, Robert J. Croteau, to Mr. Sullivan, through Mr. Christie, ‘F-16 DSARC II Position Recommendation,’ February 4, 1975, p. 1, 3.

[13] President Gerald Ford Presidential Library, Hoffman Papers, Box 21, folder ‘Lightweight Fighters (Navy & Air Force), 1974-75 (4),’ Chuck Myers, Memo to Hoffman, 21 February 1975.

[14] President Gerald Ford Presidential Library, Hoffman Papers, Box 21, folder ‘Lightweight Fighters (Navy & Air Force), 1974-75 (4),’ ‘F-16 (LWF/ACF) PROGRAM RESTORATION,’ Myers Memo to Hoffman, 21 February 1975, pp. 2-3.

[15] President Gerald Ford Presidential Library, Hoffman Papers, Box 21, folder ‘Lightweight Fighters (Navy & Air Force), 1974-75 (5),’ ‘Air Combat Fighter DSARC-II, General Counsel,’ 11 March 1975, ‘Air Force Response to the OSD List of Questions on ACF (F-16).’

Clearing the Skies for the Red Army – Part 2: The Destruction of Luftflotte IV

Clearing the Skies for the Red Army – Part 2: The Destruction of Luftflotte IV

By Dr Luke Truxal

Editorial Note: In the conclusion of a two-part series on the contribution of US air power to the conduct of the Second Iași-Chișinău Offensive, Dr Luke Truxal examines the role of the US Fifteenth Air Force in the destruction of Luftflotte IV in the lead up to the launch of the Second Iași-Chișinău Offensive by the Red Army in August 1944. You can read the first part of this article here

On 6 June 1944, the same day that the Allies landed in Normandy to begin the liberation of western Europe, the US Fifteenth Air Force attacked Galati airfields. This represented a new phase of the air war over Romania, one where Luftflotte IV came under direct attack because of an American air superiority campaign. This article will contend that the American attacks against Luftflotte IV, at the request of the Soviets, contributed to the success of the Second Iași-Chișinău Offensive.

When American bombers flew from Soviet bases against Axis forces in Romania on 6 June 1944, it marked the first time in the war that they took off from behind Soviet lines to attack Axis targets. This mission was a part of Operation FRANTIC I, the first shuttle bombing missions from western Allied bases to Soviet bases. After leaving their bases in Ukraine, American bombers struck the primary Axis airfield in Romania at Galati. One hundred and four American B-17s and 42 P-51s of the Fifteenth Air Force attacked the German and Romanian air facilities at Galati. Fourteen Axis fighters along with another 25 spotted near the airfield engaged the strike force. During the ensuing air battle, American fighters accounted for six Axis fighters at the loss of two American fighters. The 104 B-17s dropped 155.3 tons of explosive bombs and 51.3 tons of incendiary bombs on the airfield and its facilities. Much of the buildings, hangers, and facilities at Galati were destroyed or damaged during the bombing. Of the 40 aircraft still on the ground during the attack, the Fifteenth Air Force destroyed eight and damaged 11.[1] FRANTIC I’s final mission was an attack on the Focsani airfield on 11 June and a return to the American airfields in Italy. Flying from the Soviet bases, 121 B-17s dropped 223.9 tons of bombs on the Focsani airfield escorted by 52 P-51s. The bombers struck the barracks and workshops along with additional facilities. The attacking force engaged 15 to 20 ME 109s and FW 190s over Focsani.[2]

FRE_008681
A P-51 Mustang nicknamed ‘Tempus Fugit’ of the 31st Fighter Group, Fifteenth Air Force in 1944. (Source: IWM (FRE 8681))

In another attempt to weaken Axis air power over Romania, the Americans executed Operation FRANTIC III, the first fighter sweep shuttle mission to the Soviet Union. According to the FRANTIC III plan on 11 July 1944, the purpose of the mission was to send 72 P-38s and 48 P-51s from the 306th Fighter Wing of the Fifteenth Air Force to execute counter-air operations from the American airfields located behind the Soviet lines in Ukraine. The three tactical objectives of FRANTIC III included: strafing of aircraft at Mielec, Poland; strafing of aircraft airfield and dive-bombing of the facilities at Lviv; strafing of targets that are identified through photo reconnaissance while in the Soviet Union.[3] At 7:45 AM on 22 July 1944, the 82nd and 31st Fighter Groups of the 306th Fighter Wing took off from their bases in Italy to attack the Romanian airfields near Zilistea and Buzau. When approaching the target, the American fighters dropped to an altitude of 5,000 feet. When they reached 4,000 feet, they passed several Axis aircraft flying near the airfield. The 82nd Fighter Group bypassed them to attack the airfields, while the 31st Fighter Group provided air cover. Once below 4,000 feet, Romanian anti-aircraft fire engaged the formations. The city of Ploesti began to deploy a smokescreen as they noticed the incoming American fighters. The 82nd Fighter Group attacked five airfields: Zilistea, Buzau, and three satellite fields. The 82nd Fighter Group destroyed 41 aeroplanes on the ground. Both the 82nd Fighter Group and 31st Fighter Group destroyed another 15 aeroplanes in the air at the loss of five P-38s. After the attack, the two groups reassembled and proceeded to their airbases located in Ukraine at Piryatin, Poltava, and Mirgorod.[4]

The next day the 306th Fighter Wing received orders to attack the German airfield at Mielec. One problem that the 306th Fighter Wing ran into was the fact that the Soviet offensive against German Army Group Center, codenamed Operation BAGRATION, had driven within 88 miles of the airfield, and there was concern that the Americans might accidentally strafe a Soviet ground formation. Additionally, poor weather delayed the attack until 25 July. By that time, the Soviet advance was 48 miles away from the airfield.[5] On 25 July, 36 P-38s and 36 P-51s of the 306th Fighter Wing attacked the airfield at Mielec, destroying anywhere from nine to 16 German aircraft on the ground. South of Mielec the fighters spotted a train and column of trucks which were also attacked destroying four locomotives and 14 trucks. On their way back to their bases in Ukraine, the fighter formation stumbled across a German bomber formation of 36 German JU-87 bombers without an escort. The American fighters engaged and destroyed 29 of the bombers. By the end of the day, the American fighters returned to their bases without suffering a loss.[6] The 26 July mission was a low-level fighter sweep of Ploesti and Bucharest and then a return to the Fifteenth Air Force bases in Italy. Poor weather forced the formation to divert to the Galati and Zilestea area. This led to an engagement with German fighters that resulted in 20 German fighters being shot down at the loss of two P-38s. [7]

The Red Army requested more follow up counter-air operations on the eve of the Second Iași-Chișinău Offensive. The Red Army General Staff sent a request to Deane’s counterpart in Moscow, Major General Robert L. Walsh, who oversaw all American air operations on the Eastern Front. Walsh sent an urgent message to the commander of the United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe, Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz, on 2 August. He wrote, ‘The Soviets requested that we concentrate our attacks on the following: enemy airdromes just south of the Iasi-Akkerman front.’ This included at least twelve airfields near the front lines. The Soviets provided a list, which Walsh transmitted directly to Spaatz. [8] The Americans had already carried out three fighter-bomber missions against German airfields in July.[9]

Operation Frantic
Russian officers chat with Colonel Barton, Commanding Officer of the 483rd Bomb Group, and Colonel Rice of the 2nd Bomb Group at Mirgorod. The girl in the center is an interpreter. (Source: National Museum of the USAF)

This request led to FRANTIC IV, the second all fighter shuttle mission of the war conducted by the 306th Fighter Wing. On 4 August, 45 P-38s of the 82nd Fighter Group took off to strafe the airfields around Focsani, while 45 P-51s of the 52nd Fighter Group provided air cover. The attack destroyed four Axis aircraft, three locomotives, and one tank car. Additionally, the P-38s strafed the hangers, buildings, and troop trains. Afterwards, the 306th Fighter Wing proceeded to Poltava. On 6 August, 30 P-51s and 30 P-38s of the 306th Fighter Wing took off from Poltava for the return fighter sweep. The 306th Fighter Wing destroyed 30 railway cars, 11 locomotives, four tank cars, and one aircraft at Cariova and Ploesti.[10]

After 2 June, the Luftwaffe’s sorties declined to 1,347 sorties.[11]  This data is also backed up by Fifteenth Air Force studies done after the fall of Romania of the air defences in the Ploesti and Bucharest area. The study estimated that in April 1944, Axis aircraft deployed around Bucharest and Ploesti numbered 200 to 255. Those numbers declined after the counter-air operations began. By May 1944, the number of Axis aircraft deployed to the area was anywhere between 125 to 145. In June, the numbers further decreased to 95 to 110 aircraft located in that same area. By August, Axis air power had declined in the Bucharest-Ploesti area to approximately 40 to 45 aircraft.[12] According to an American assessment of the decline, the Fifteenth Air Force concluded that the decline resulted from American counter-air operations and a redeployment of Luftwaffe forces to other theatres.[13] American counter-air operations and additional attacks against vital parts of Romania, significantly reduced Axis air power in the country during the summer of 1944. This, in part, explains part of the reason for the success of the Second Iași-Chișinău Offensive. Axis air power in the region had been, for the most part, eliminated.

In conclusion, the successful air superiority campaign against Axis air in Romania reveals a lot about the Allied offensives in Romania. First, the American Fifteenth Air Force played a pivotal role in the Second Iași-Chișinău Offensive by clearing the skies of Axis air power.  Next, this is an excellent example of successful joint operations. The Fifteenth Air Force worked in conjunction with the Red Army to attack targets of importance to the Soviet ground war in a timely fashion. Finally, from a historiography standpoint, more needs to be written about this subject. Preliminary research into these air operations indicates that American air operations in the Balkans were not confined strictly to attacking targets related to oil production.

Dr Luke Truxal is an adjunct at Columbia State Community College in Tennessee. He completed his PhD in 2018 from the University of North Texas with his dissertation ‘Command Unity and the Air War Against Germany.’ His previous publications include ‘Bombing the Romanian Rail Network,’ in the Spring 2018 issue of Air Power History. He has also written ‘The Politics of Operational Planning: Ira Eaker and the Combined Bomber Offensive in 1943’ in the Journal of Military Aviation History. Truxal is currently researching the effectiveness of joint air operations between the Allied air forces in the Second World War. He can be reached on Twitter at: @Luke_Truxal.

Header Image: American and Russian soldiers in 1944 during Operation FRANTIC. In the background is a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber and a C-47 Dakota transport aircraft. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] United States Air Force Historical Research Agency (USAFHRA), Montgomery, AL, Call 622.430-6, Headquarters Eastern Air Command, ‘Eastern Command Narrative of Operations: 2nd Italy-Russia Shuttle Operation – 2 June 1944.’

[2] USAFHRA, Call 622.430-6, MASAF, “Excerpt-MASAF Intops Summary No. 325, 11 June: Foscani North Aerodrome Installations 5th Wing,” 11 June 1944.

[3] USAFHRA, Call 622.430-6, Headquarters Fifteenth Air Force, ‘Fifteenth Air Force Plan for Operation Frantic III,’ 11 July 1944.

[4] USAFHRA, Call 622.430-6, Headquarters 306th Fighter Wing, ‘Narrative Report of Frantic III Operation,’ 28 July 1944.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Library of Congress (LoC), Papers of General Carl Spaatz, Robert L. Walsh to Spaatz and Eaker, 2 August 1944.

[9] LoC, Spaatz Papers, George McDonald to Anderson (“Frantic”), 21 August 1944.

[10] USAFHRA, Call 622.430-6, 306th Fighter Wing, “INTOPS No. 381,” 7 August 1944.

[11] Hardesty and Ilya Grinberg, Red Phoenix Rising: The Soviet Air Force in World War II (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2012), p. 292

[12] Ike Skelton Combined Arms Research Library, Army Air Force Evaluation Board, ‘Army Air Force Evaluation Board Report VI: Ploesti,’ n.d., p. 21.

[13] Ibid, p. 19.

Clearing the Skies for the Red Army – Part One: Learning from Failure

Clearing the Skies for the Red Army – Part One: Learning from Failure

By Dr Luke Truxal

Editorial note: On 20 August 1944, the Soviet Union launched two army group sized formations, the Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts, against Axis Army Group South Ukraine. Army Group South Ukraine had been tasked with defending Romania. During this offensive, known as the Second Iași-Chișinău Offensive, the Soviets routed the Third and Fourth Romanian Armies and destroyed the German Sixth Army. By the end of the offensive on 29 August, the Romanian fascist government under Prime Minister Ion Antonescu was overthrown, and Romania defected to the Allies. In the first of a two-part series on the contribution of US air power to the conduct of the Second Iași-Chișinău Offensive, Dr Luke Truxal examines some of the lessons and issues that emerged from the First Iași-Chișinău Offensive between April and June 1944.

Few historians have delved deeply into the history of the Second Iași-Chișinău Offensive. Those who have written about the campaign typically only analyse the ground war. The foremost authority on the ground war on the Eastern Front, David Glantz, has covered the fighting in Romania in two of his books. In Red Storm Over the Balkans, Glantz analyses the First Iași-Chișinău Offensive. He also writes about the Second Iași-Chișinău Offensive in his overview of the fighting on the Eastern Front. Neither work referred to the air war that influenced the outcome of the fighting on the ground. Rob Citino, in his analysis of the fighting in Romania, excludes the air war.[1] Likewise, much of the historiography of the air war has overlooked the role of American air support provided to the Soviets during the invasion of Romania and focused more on the attacks against the Romanian oil industry. James Lea Cate and Wesley Frank Craven, in the official history of the United States Army Air Forces in the Second World War, focus strictly on the bombing of Romanian oil at the exclusion of the interdiction and air superiority campaigns. As a result, their narrative remained unchallenged for years.[2] In the 1990s, historians began to examine other aspects of the air war over Romania, including attacks against Romanian civilians and an air interdiction campaign.[3]

FRE_000860
Personnel of the 96th Bomb Group and the 452nd Bomb Group receive briefing against the wall of a bombed-out railway building in Poltava, Russia during Operation FRANTIC in summer 1944. (Source: IWM (FRE 860))

This first article examines the lessons learned from the First Iași-Chișinău Offensive and the Soviet-American planning that led to an aggressive air suppression campaign against Axis air forces in Romania.  As a result of this work, the US Fifteenth Air Force, under the command of Major General Nathan Twining, was able to execute a successful air superiority campaign that aided the Soviet advance into Romania in August 1944 during the Second Iași-Chișinău Offensive from 20 to 29 August 1944. The success of this air campaign was due to the considerable level of coordination between the Fifteenth Air Force and the Red Army before launching the offensive against the Luftwaffe. The architect of this coordination was none other than the commander of the United States Strategic Air Forces in Europe (USSTAF), Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz. In establishing air superiority over Romania, the Fifteenth Air Force ground down German and Romanian air assets from as high as 255 aircraft deployed in the Bucharest area in April 1944 to as low as 40 aircraft in that same area by August 1944.[4]

The unsuccessful first attempt to seize Romania came during the First Iași-Chișinău Offensive between 8 April to 6 June 1944. The Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts aggressively pressed forward after their success in Ukraine. Despite initial breakthroughs, the German and Romanian forces counter-attacked and held the frontier, then known as Bessarabia. Soviet forces suffered setbacks both on land and in the air.

Perhaps the only positive to come from the First Iași-Chișinău Offensive for the Allies was the establishment of a system to coordinate the operations of the Fifteenth Air Force with Soviet ground forces. The system, established over the course of March and April 1944, coordinated Fifteenth Air Force air operations through the Red Army General Staff in Moscow. This laid the groundwork for future coordination when the Soviets resumed their invasion of Romania. United States Army representative in Moscow, Major General John R. Deane, worked tirelessly during March and April to establish a system to coordinate Fifteenth Air Force operations with the Red Army. Ultimately, the Soviets only agreed to an indirect communication system through Moscow to the Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts. On 20 April, General Aleksei Antonov, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces, made it clear to Deane that any such coordination had to be done through Moscow. Antonov went on to say that his superior, Field Marshal Aleksandr Vasilievsky, Chief of Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces, did not believe that the Soviet forces advancing into Romania needed an air liaison officer.[5] This created a slow process when it came to coordinating air attacks with Soviet forces. According to Deane, without the liaison officers, coordination passed from Spaatz to Deane. Afterwards, Deane scheduled a meeting with his counterpart, Major General N. V. Slavin, who then sought approval of the air attacks from his superior Antonov. Antoniv communicated with Soviet field commanders to determine if the American missions interfered with their operations. Antonov then relayed everything back through the same chain. This was not the ideal means of coordinating air missions with the Red Army.[6] Nevertheless, while deeply flawed, the system did allow for the Soviets and Americans to coordinate a bombing campaign in Romania.

Starting in June 1944, the Fifteenth Air Force began to carry out air support operations once again for the Red Army in Romania at the direction of Spaatz. The first area of focus was the Luftwaffe in Romania. One of the critical factors for German success in the First Iași-Chișinău Offensive was that German air power had checked the Red Air Force.  From May to June 1944, the Luftwaffe regained a level of air superiority in the skies over northern Romania. A series of intense air battles took place over the town of Iași between German and Soviet airmen for control of the skies. In Red Phoenix Rising, Von Hardesty and Ilya Grinberg state that the air battles over Iași were some of the most intense of the air war on the Eastern Front. Due to the strategic importance of the Romanian oil refineries, the Luftwaffe transferred some of their most experienced air units to aid in defence of Iași. On 28 April alone the Luftwaffe flew 807 sorties over Iași. The following day the Germans flew another 1,181 sorties against the Soviets. During the entire week, the Germans launched 4,000 sorties against Soviet troops located in the Iași sector. By comparison, the Soviets only carried out 1,970 sorties of their own during that same period. [7]

The Soviet Fifth Air Army tried to enlarge its own air operations to counter the Germans throughout May. Starting on 28 May, forward units of the Soviet Fifth Air Army attempted to reverse the gains made by the Luftwaffe. They attacked German and Romanian airfields located at Roman and Khushi. The goal was to destroy 200 Axis aircraft located at these two locations. Romanian and German forces located the attacking force. The raid only destroyed 35 German and Romanian aircraft. The Germans responded on 30 May. The Luftwaffe flew 2,082 sorties against the Second Ukrainian Front, countered by only 703 sorties flown by the Soviet Fifth Air Army. Throughout the fighting over Iasi, German fighters continued not only to carry out close air support missions of their own but also disrupted those of the Soviet Fifth Air Army.[8]

Operation Frantic
A Badly damaged US B-17 bomber and Russian soldiers in Poltava, Russia, on 22 June 1944 during Operation FRANTIC. (Source: National Museum of the USAF)

As this was happening, the Soviets relayed their struggles against Luftflotte IV to the Americans. On 13 May, the head of USSTAF intelligence, Colonel L.P. Weicker, and Red Air Force General D.D. Grendal met as a part of a conference between the USSTAF air staff and the Red Army to discuss the air war on the Eastern Front. The Soviets provided the Americans with their analysis of the deployment of the Luftwaffe on the Eastern Front. According to Soviet air intelligence, the Germans had concentrated 500 of their 900 bombers on the Eastern Front in the south-facing the Second and Third Ukrainian Front. Additionally, the Luftwaffe deployed 240 of its 650 fighters on the Eastern Front in the south. At the same time, approximately half of the German aerial reconnaissance aircraft were also deployed on the Soviet Southwest Front. In total, 970 of the 2,090 aircraft deployed on the Eastern Front were arrayed against the Soviet Second and Third Ukrainian Front. [9]  During the same meeting, Grendal informed the Americans that many German aircraft began operating from Romania after they retreated from the Ukraine. Those at the meeting recalled: ‘The Soviets estimate that at present the Germans have in excess of 1,000 aircraft on the Roumanian territory.’[10] With this information, the Soviets and Americans were now able to eliminate the threat that Luftflotte IV presented to ground operations.

One means of providing more direct aid to the Soviet advance was through shuttle bombing missions, codenamed Operation FRANTIC. During these missions, American bombers from bases either in the United Kingdom or Italy would fly attack a German target on the Eastern Front, then continue east and land at Soviet airfields. FRANTIC I’s planning and execution was designed to aid the Soviet air power in the Iasi-Chișinău sector. In the 22 May draft of FRANTIC I, the Americans contemplated ‘an operation from Foggia against airfields in the Galatz area, followed by 3 operations from Russian bases against targets selected by the Russians.’[11] The Americans believed that attacking Axis airfields in Romania could alleviate the pressure on the Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts. On 27 May, the commander of the Mediterranean Allied Air Force (MAAF), Lieutenant General Ira Eaker, laid out the proposed plan to Twining. He wrote: ‘Fifteenth Air Force will conduct its first FRANTIC bombing operation on the first day weather permits after June first. Force will consist of 130 B-17s and 70 P-51s.’ Eaker then briefed Twining on the preferred targets that the USSTAF wanted to strike, which included the Galatz airfields, an aircraft factory at Mieléc, and an aircraft factory at Riga.[12] While the factories at Mieléc and Riga were on the list, the Galatz airfields had a more immediate effect on air operations in Romania. According to a briefing memo dated 28 May 1944 for the Fifteenth Air Force: ‘The German Air Force in the Southeast, Luftflotte IV, has been forced to withdraw its aircraft to a small number of fields in the Foscani-Galatz area. While recent coverage of this area is not complete, latest photography indicates over 550 aircraft (principally fighters, ground support and bombers) on five fields in the area, of which 450 are on the two Foscani landing grounds and Zilistea.’[13] The primary objective of FRANTIC I was the destruction of these airfields.

On 2 June 1944, the Fifteenth Air Force carried out FRANTIC I. The 2nd, 97th, 99th, and 483rd Bomb Groups, struck the Debreczen marshalling yards before continuing to the Russian airfields located at Poltava in modern-day Ukraine. This had been a last-minute request by the Soviets. Therefore, the Americans added to their first mission as a part of FRANTIC I.[14] With the first leg complete, the Fifteenth Air Force then prepared to strike at the target that American and Soviet planners wanted to get in Romania, Axis air power.

Operation Frantic
Russian pilots and ground crew stand in front of a Petlyakov Pe-2 at Poltava, Russia, during Operation FRANTIC in June 1944. The American is Technical Sergeant Bernard J. McGuire of the 348th Bomb Squadron, 99th Bomb Group. (Source: National Museum of the USAF)

We can take two lessons away from the failures of the First Iași-Chișinău and the period afterwards. First, the Allies recognised the reasons for the shortcomings of the offensive in the air and on the ground. Remarkably, they were able to figure out what went wrong with the offensive in a matter of days and weeks. As a result, the Allies spent the following month, May 1944, working to fix the problem. That problem, the threat posed by Luftflotte IV, became the main topic of discussion when planning the FRANTIC shuttle missions between the Americans and the Soviets. At the end of these planning sessions, both sides agreed that the Fifteenth Air Force needed to pour more resources into defeating Luftflotte IV before the next major ground offensive. This set the stage for the air superiority campaign that would begin on 2 June 1944.

Dr Luke Truxal is an adjunct at Columbia State Community College in Tennessee. He completed his PhD in 2018 from the University of North Texas with his dissertation ‘Command Unity and the Air War Against Germany.’ His previous publications include ‘Bombing the Romanian Rail Network,’ in the Spring 2018 issue of Air Power History. He has also written ‘The Politics of Operational Planning: Ira Eaker and the Combined Bomber Offensive in 1943’ in the Journal of Military Aviation History. Truxal is currently researching the effectiveness of joint air operations between the Allied air forces in the Second World War. He can be reached on Twitter at: @Luke_Truxal.

Header Image: American and Russian soldiers in 1944 during Operation FRANTIC. In the background is a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber and a C-47 Dakota transport aircraft. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] For a comprehensive history of the First Iasi-Chișinău Offensive, see David Glantz, Red Storm Over the Balkans: The Failed Soviet Invasion Spring 1944 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2006), pp. 60-70, 76-100. Glantz is the first historian provide a detailed analysis of the Red Army’s failed first attempt to take Romania. He argues that the history of the campaign was forgotten because of its shortcomings. Glantz also covers the Second Iasi-Chișinău Offensive in David Glantz and Jonathan House, When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1995), pp. 218-21. See also Rob Citino, The Wehrmacht’s Last Stand: The German Campaigns of 1944-1945 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2017), pp. 307-12.

[2] Wesley F. Craven and James L. Cate (eds.), The Army Air Forces in World War II, Volume 6: Europe, Argument to VE Day, January 1944 to May 1945 (Chicago, IL: The University Press of Chicago, 1951), pp. 280-7. Examples of other historians who have also focused only on the oil bombing in Romania include Donald Miller, Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), pp. 312-21. While Miller is a popular historian, the influence of his book on the public at large has influenced how many outside the academic community view the air war against Romania. Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas About Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), pp. 236-43.

[3] For more scholarship that covers the bombing of Romania outside the spectrum of oil see Mark Conversino, Fighting with the Soviets: The Failure of Operation FRANTIC, 1944-1945 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1997). For an analysis of the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces’ attacks against Romanian rail targets and the mining of the Danube see Robert S. Ehlers Jr., The Mediterranean Air War: Air Power and Allied Victory in World War II (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2009), p. 364 and pp. 373-7; Conrad Crane, Bombs, Cities, and Civilians: American Air Power Strategy in World War II (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1993), pp. 95-8. To date, the best analysis of the attacks against Romanian civilians is Richard Overy, Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe, 1940-1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), p. 8, 404, and 413. For further analysis of attacks against the Romanian infrastructure see Luke Truxal, ‘Bombing the Romanian Rail Network,’ Air Power History 65, no. 1 (2018). For a short summary of American and Soviet coordination during the Second Jassy-Chișinău Offensive see Luke Truxal, ‘Forgotten Fights: The Second Jassy-Chișinău Offensive and the Destruction of German Sixth Army,’ National World War II Museum, 14 September 2020.

[4] Ike Skelton Combined Arms Research Library Digital Library, US Army Command and General Staff College, Army Air Force Evaluation Board, ‘Army Air Force Evaluation Board Report VI: Ploesti,’ n.d., , p. 21.

[5] US Library of Congress, Personal Papers of General Carl Spaatz, 30 Mission Moscow to AFHQ, Combined Chiefs of Staff, and British Chiefs of Staff, 20 April 1944. See also Truxal, ‘Bombing the Romanian Rail Network,’ pp. 17-8.

[6] John R. Deane, The Strange Alliance (London: John Murray, 1947), pp. 127-8. See also Truxal, ‘Bombing the Romanian Rail Network,’ p. 18.

[7] Von Hardesty and Ilya Grinberg, Red Phoenix Rising: The Soviet Air Force in World War II (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2012), pp. 286-7.

[8] Hardesty and Grinberg, Red Phoenix Rising, pp. 287-9.

[9] United States Air Force Historical Research Agency (USAFHRA), Call 622.430-6, Fred Anderson to Carl Spaatz, ‘Report on visit to Russia by Mission of USSTAF Officers,’ Exhibit D. Williamson Murray places Luftflotte IV’s numbers at 390 ground attack aircraft, 160 single-engine fighters, and 45 twin-engine fighters. William Murray, Strategy for Defeat: The Luftwaffe, 1933-1945, (Montgomery, AL: Air University Press, 1983), p. 285.

[10] USAFHRA, Anderson to Spaatz, ‘Report on visit to Russia by Mission of USSTAF Officers,’ Exhibit B.

[11] USAFHRA, Call 622.430-6, To Spaatz, ‘Plan for Operation “Frantic,”’ 22 May 1944.

[12] USAFHRA, Call 622.430-6, Ira Eaker to Nathan Twining, 27 May 1944.

[13] USAFHRA, Call 622.430-6, 1. Headquarters Fifteenth Air Force, ‘Annex No. I Combat Operation Enroute Fifteenth Air Force Plan for Operation ‘Frantic Joe’ Part One,’ 28 May 1944.

[14] USAFHRA, Call 622.430-6, ‘Debreczen-Damage Assessment’; USAFHRA, Call 622.430-6, Headquarters Eastern Air Command, ‘Eastern Command Narrative of Operations: 1st Italy-Russia Shuttle Operation-2 June 1944.’

#DesertStorm30 – The Ghosts of Vietnam: Building Air Superiority for Operation DESERT STORM

#DesertStorm30 – The Ghosts of Vietnam: Building Air Superiority for Operation DESERT STORM

By Dr Michael Hankins

Editorial Note: 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Operation DESERT STORM. To mark this anniversary, during 2021, From Balloons to Drones will be publishing a series of articles that examine various aspects of DESERT STORM’s air campaign. We will be publishing pieces throughout 2021, and if you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here. The official call for submissions can be found here.

I think to understand the success of Desert Storm, you have to study Vietnam.

Lieutenant General Chuck Horner, Joint Force Air Component Commander during Operation DESERT STORM[1]

This reflection applies to many aspects of the 1991 Gulf War, undeniably so in the realm of air-to-air combat. As in most wars, air-to-air combat played a relatively small role, certainly not a decisive one. However, the differences between air combat during the Vietnam War and DESERT STORM are stark. In the skies above Southeast Asia between 1965 and 1973, the United States shot down approximately 200 enemy aircraft while North Vietnamese MiGs claimed about 80 US fighters.[2] During DESERT STORM, coalition pilots shot down 42 Iraqi aircraft and only lost one to a MiG.[3] There is no single reason why air-to-air efforts were so much more successful in DESERT STORM than in Vietnam. However, several factors synergistically combined to contribute to a considerable shift in air superiority efforts: training, situational awareness, technology, and the nature of the enemy being faced. These factors were interconnected. Technologies that had first appeared in Vietnam had matured and became more reliable. These technologies were also more interwoven with training and doctrine, drastically increasing their effectiveness in situations like those faced in the Gulf in 1991.

What went wrong in Vietnam

The 1970s and 1980s constitute a second interwar period. As with the period between the First and Second World War, the years between the Vietnam War and DESERT STORM was a time of massive technological, doctrinal, and organisational change within the US military. It was also a time of competing theories and visions regarding what the future of warfare might look like. These debates centred on the idea of fixing the perceived problems of Vietnam. However, there was little agreement over what exactly the problems were and even less about how to fix them.

Regarding the air-to-air realm, clearly, there had been problems in Southeast Asia. To avoid fratricide, restrictive rules of engagement prevented most missiles from being fired in the conditions for which they were designed. At the same time, the jungle environment compounded issues from transport and maintenance that frequently damaged delicate sensor equipment. North Vietnamese MiGs often did not stick around to fight. However, their agility was effective against the larger, heavier American interceptors when they did. US pilots often had little – if any – air combat training and rarely (if ever) against aircraft that mimicked the MiGs capabilities and tactics.

An F-4C Phantom II of the 559th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, South Vietnam, September 1967. Front to back: Captain John P. Flannery, 1st Lieutenant Lewis M. Hauser. (Source: US Air Force)

To fix these problems, two main camps emerged: the self-described ‘Fighter Mafia’ that later evolved into the larger Defense Reform Movement (Reformers) was led by former fighter pilots, analysts, engineers, and journalists linked to Colonel John Boyd.[4] They argued in favour of new aircraft that they were simple and cheap. The poor performance of missiles in Vietnam frustrated the ‘Fighter Mafia,’ who argued that the key to winning air battles required small, lightweight aircraft that emphasised maneuverability and gunnery. In their argument, aircraft did not need to be burdened with long-range radars. Countering these views was the defence establishment – the service leaders in the Pentagon, the USAF Air Staff, and other analysts, including the commander of Tactical Air Command, General Wilbur ‘Bill’ Creech. This group argued that a high-tech approach was necessary to counter the Soviet threat. They argued that although weapons may be expensive, they were not only effective but could protect more American lives and reduce casualties.[5]

These debates occurred in a context of larger doctrinal changes within all the US military services during a second interwar period of heavy debate and significant technological changes. Nonetheless, the Reformers had a large influence on the direction of air war planning in those years. However, ultimately, few of their proposed reforms truly took hold as the defence establishment had the advantage of being established and in power. However, in having to defend themselves against the Reformers’ frequent critiques, the defence establishment was forced to confront important issues, particularly regarding readiness and weapons testing procedures.

Train How We Fight

Even the most significant changes in technology would be of limited use without equal changes in training. This was something even the revered ace pilot Brigadier General Robin Olds realised. Speaking of his experience flying F-4 Phantoms in Vietnam, Olds lamented, ‘If only I’d had a gun!’ However, Olds opposed adding a gun pod to the F-4s in his unit because, as he recalled:

[o]ut of all my fighter guys, only a precious few have ever fired a gun at an aerial target, let alone learned how to dogfight with guns. Hell, they’d pile into a bunch of MiGs with their hair on fire and be eaten alive.[6]

Some US Navy officers realised the importance of air combat training, instituting the Navy Fighter Weapons School, also called TOPGUN, specifically to train F-4 and F-8 pilots how to defeat MiGs in air-to-air encounters. The school’s graduates began having success in the air battles of 1972. The US Air Force (USAF) was slower to institute similar training but did create the Red Flag exercises in 1975. The key to both programs was ‘dissimilar air combat training’ (DACT): training in mock combat against different aircraft types than one’s own. Said another way, DACT means to train how you fight.[7]

That meant that F-8, F-4, and F-105 pilots needed to square off against smaller, nimbler planes that could simulate the MiGs. T-38s, F-5s and F-86s were perfect for that. Pilots flying as these pretend adversaries became known as ‘aggressor’ squadrons. Eventually, captured MiG fighters of the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron (nicknamed the ‘Red Eagles’) could give coalition pilots mock combat experience against actual MiGs.[8]

We Have the Technology

The new DACT training programs were not all about maneuvers and volleyball. The programs incorporated a wide array of new tactics emerging from rapid evolution in new technologies both in new airframes and the new generations of missiles that were far more capable than their Vietnam-era ancestors. These included new fighters like USAF’s F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon, and the US Navy’s F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18 Hornet. A far cry from the interceptors designed in the early Cold War, these new generations of planes emphasised air combat capability as their first priority, with multi-role functions like ground attack as an add-on. In other words, these planes were agile, born to mix it up in dogfights, but could still perform the vital missions of strategic and tactical bombing, close air support, and interdiction. Like the F-16’s fly-by-wire controls, their new control systems maximised the pilot’s command over their aeroplanes. At the same time, head’s up displays enabled pilots to see vital information and keep their eyes on the skies instead of looking down at their instruments and switches.[9]

The prototypes of the YF-16 Fighting Falcon (left) were smaller, lighter, and held less electronics, optimized for the day fighter role. The production model F-16A (right) was larger to incorporate all-weather and ground attack capabilities, among other modifications. (Source: US Air Force)

One of the most significant upgrades was a new model of the heat-seeking Sidewinder missile, the AIM-9L. Unlike previous versions, the ‘L’ (nicknamed ‘Lima’) could be fired from any direction. No longer did pilots need to maneuver behind an enemy after the ‘merge’ (in which two fighters flying head-on zoom past each other before beginning a maneuvering dogfight). This new weapon complimented the new AIM-7F Sparrow missile – a radar-guided missile with improved range and look-down capability. These missiles, combined with the Hughes AN/APG-63 radar housed in the F-15 Eagle’s nose, allowed the new generation of fighters to identify their targets from far beyond what the human eye could see. It also meant they could coordinate with other coalition pilots and “sort” their targets. Maneuvering was still crucial, but as former F-15 pilot Colonel C.R. Anderegg noted:

The cycle of counter vs. counter vs. counter continued, but the fight did not start at 1,000 feet range as in the days of ’40 second Boyd.’ The struggle was starting while the adversaries were thirty miles apart, and the F-15 pilots were seriously intent on killing every adversary pre-merge.[10]

Pilots in previous decades had often decried the lack of a gun on the F-4 and were sceptical of claims that missiles were the way of the future. Missiles were problematic in Vietnam, but in the Gulf War, they dominated. Of the 42 official coalition aerial victories, three were due to ground impact. The only gun kills were two A-10 Thunderbolt IIs that shredded Iraqi helicopters with their infamous GAU-8 cannon. In one case, an F-15E Strike Eagle dropped a laser-guided GBU-10 bomb onto a helicopter and received an aerial victory credit. The remaining 36 – almost 86 per cent – were the result of a guided missile. Of the AIM-7 kills, 16 (44 per cent of the total number of missile kills) were beyond visual range attacks.[11]

Even the best-trained and equipped pilots in the world cannot use their advantages if they are unaware of the threats around them. Effective situational awareness and early warning have proven crucial to air combat success. Throughout Vietnam, several long-range radars provided this capability. Airborne radar and surveillance programs like College Eye and Rivet Top and US Navy ship-based radar-like Red Crown became invaluable to pilots during Vietnam. Bringing the variety of systems together into Project Teaball in the summer of 1972 provided an even more powerful aid to pilots aiming to take out MiGs. Nevertheless, these systems (and the many other similar efforts) had limitations. The invention of pulse-Doppler radar systems enabled a reliable way of distinguishing airborne threats from ground clutter when looking down. This innovation led to the USAF’s E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS). The Navy used a similar concept in their E-2 Hawkeye. These systems gave operators a view of aircraft operating in the entire airspace, allowing them to pass on the word to coalition fighter pilots where the MiGs were from very long ranges. Almost every single aerial encounter during the Gulf War began with a call from AWACS or an E-2.[12]

Know Your Enemy

The US and its allies prepared for a conventional war against the Soviet-style threat that Iraq seemed to be. As the saying goes, the enemy always gets a vote. In the Gulf War case, as one General Accounting Office report put it: ‘the Iraqi air force essentially chose not to challenge the coalition.’[13] Of course, that is not entirely true, as some intense air battles did occur, and a few Iraqi pilots proved quite adept. Nevertheless, overall, the Iraqi Air Force had not invested in air-to-air combat preparedness. There was no Iraqi equivalent of Top Gun or Red Flag, and air-to-air training was lacking. One US Navy Intelligence report stated: ‘Intercept tactics and training [were] still predominantly conservative, elementary, and generally not up to western standards.’ Culturally, while US fighter pilots tended to prize aerial combat, the Iraqi Air Force culture did not, viewing ground attack as a more desirable assignment. As historian Williamson Murray argued, Iraqi pilots ‘did not possess the basic flying skills to exploit fully the capabilities of their aircraft.’[14]

F-15C Eagles of the 58th Tactical Fighter Squadron takeoff on deployment to Saudi Arabia during Operation DESERT SHIELD. (Source: US Air Force)

As F-15s flew combat air patrol missions during the opening strikes, searching for possible MiG threats, infrared cameras revealed one MiG-29 crashing into the ground. At the same time, another launched a missile that destroyed a friendly MiG-23 crossing ahead of it. In some cases, when coalition pilots obtained radar locks, Iraqi pilots made little to no attempt to maneuver before missiles destroyed their planes. When coalition planners began targeting the hardened shelters protecting Iraqi aircraft, many pilots attempted to flee to Iran. Reiterating the Iraqi fighter pilot force’s lack of competence, many of them did not have enough fuel for the trip and crashed. Coalition pilots seized the opportunity to destroy the enemy in the air as they fled.[15]

Conclusion

The lives lost in air combat during the Vietnam War are tragic. Many aircrew members died, others became prisoners, and many suffered lifelong psychological trauma. Every single loss affected the families and loved ones of those crews, creating ripple effects lasting generations. If some strands of hope can be pulled from those tragedies, one of them is that allied airmen’s struggles in the Vietnam War planted the seeds of change that led to the massive increase in air-to-air combat effectiveness in Operation Desert Storm. Technologies, training methods, and tactics first introduced in Southeast Asia continued to mature throughout the 1970s and 1980s, strengthened further by the heat of intellectual debate during those years. The coalition’s effectiveness in air-to-air combat alone did not win the Gulf War, of course. However, it did undoubtedly save many lives and contributed to the US achieving its objectives.

As Horner recalled: ‘Vietnam was a ghost we carried with us.’ One way to exorcise that ghost was by gaining control of the air in Iraq from the outset, which had not happened in Vietnam. It worked. As Horner recalled:

[e]very time the Iraqi interceptor planes, their best defences, took off, it was take off, gear up, blow up, because we had two F-15s sitting on every airfield, overhead every airfield, and so we never gave them a chance.[16]

Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator of US Air Force History at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and is an Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018, and a master’s from the University of North Texas in 2013, He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header image: An F-15C Eagle of the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing during Exercise Gallant Eagle, 1986. (Source: US Air Force)

[1] ‘Oral History: Charles Horner,’ Frontline, 9 January 1996.

[2] Sources differ on exact numbers. The best work on the air-to-air aspect of Vietnam to date is Marshal Michel, Clashes: Air Combat over North Vietnam, 1965-1972 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997).

[3] Lewis D. Hill et al, Gulf War Air Power Survey: Volume V: A Statistical Compendium and Chronology (Washington D.C.; US Department of Defense, 1993), p. 637, 641, pp. 653-4; hereafter cited as GWAPS. The one loss was US Navy Lieutenant Commander Michael Scott Speicher. Information about that event can be found here: CIA, FOIA Electronic Reading Room, ‘Intelligence Community Assessment of the Lieutenant Commander Speicher Case,’ 27 March 2001.

[4] For a precis of Boyd’s career, see: Michael Hankins, ‘A Discourse on John Boyd: A Brief Summary of the US Air Force’s Most Controversial Pilot and Thinker,’ From Balloons to Drones, 22 August 2018.

[5] For a pro-reform view, see Grant Hammond, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001); and James Burton, The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard (Annapolis, MD, Naval Institute Press, 1993). The defense establishment view is best represented by Walter Kross, Military Reform: The High-Tech Debate in Tactical Air Forces (Fort McNair: National Defense University Press, 1985); and James C. Slife, Creech Blue: Gen Bill Creech and the Reformation of the Tactical Air Forces, 1978-1984 (Maxwell AFB: Air University Press, 2004).

[6] Robin Olds, with Christina Olds and Ed Rasimus, Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010), p. 304, 317.

[7] The best overview of the origins of the Red Flag program is Brian Laslie’s The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam (Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2015).

[8] Gaillard R. Peck, Jr., America’s Secret MiG Squadron: The Red Eagles of Project Constant Peg (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2012)

[9] For a history of the development of both aircraft, see Steven A. Fino, Tiger Check: Automating the US Air Force Fighter Pilot in Air-to-Air Combat, 1950-1980 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017); and Michael Hankins, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991’ (PhD thesis, Kansas State University, 2018).

[10] C.R. Anderegg, Sierra Hotel: Flying Air Force Fighters in The Decade After Vietnam (Washington D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2001), p. 163.

[11] GWAPS Summary Report, p. 60; GWAPS V5, pp. 653-4; Daniel Haulman, ‘No Contest: Aerial Combat in the 1990s,’ Presentation, Society for Military History annual meeting, May 2001, 6; Craig Brown, Debrief: A Complete History of U.S. Aerial Engagements, 1981 to the Present (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History, 2007), pp. 23-149.

[12] Kenneth P. Werrell, Chasing the Silver Bullet: U.S. Air Force Weapons Development from Vietnam to Desert Storm (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2003), pp. 187-205; Michael Hankins, ‘The Teaball Solution: The Evolution of Air Combat Technology in Vietnam, 1968-1972,’ Air Power History 63 (2016), pp. 7-24; Michael Hankins, ‘#AirWarVietnam – Making a MiG-Killer: Technology and Signals Intelligence for Air-to-Air Combat in Vietnam,’ From Balloons to Drones, 15 August 2019. For details of individual encounters, see Brown, Debrief.

[13] GAO/NSIAD-97-134, ‘Operation Desert Storm: Evaluation of the Air Campaign,’ United States General Accounting Office Report to the Ranking Minority Member, Committee on Commerce, House of Representatives, June 1997, p. 66.

[14] Williamson Murray, with Wayne M. Thompson, Air War in the Persian Gulf (Baltimore, MD: The Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America, 1995), 67, 92.

[15] Brown, Debrief, pp. 51-73; Murray, Air War, pp. 110-1, p. 162, 180.

[16] ‘Oral History: Charles Horner,’ Frontline, 9 January 1996.

#DesertStorm30 – Lessons Taught, Lessons Forgotten

#DesertStorm30 – Lessons Taught, Lessons Forgotten

By Dr Benjamin S. Lambeth

Editorial Note: 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Operation DESERT STORM. To mark this anniversary, during 2021, From Balloons to Drones will be publishing a series of articles that examine various aspects of DESERT STORM’s air campaign. We will be publishing pieces throughout 2021, and if you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here. The official call for submissions can be found here.

From Balloons to Drones is pleased to be working in conjunction with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies to publish a series of articles on various aspects of the DESERT STORM air campaign. These articles were initially published as part of a Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies special report, Desert Storm: 30 Years Later – Lessons from the 1991 Air Campaign in the Persian Gulf War. These article were originally presented at a day-long Mitchell Institute program on the DESERT STORM air campaign held on 19 March 2016, You can download the report here.

In this latest instalment, we are pleased to present a piece by Dr Benjamin Lambeth of the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment. In this article, Lambeth discusses some of the lessons learnt and forgotten from the DESERT STORM air campaign and their influence on more recent operations.

It is a special honor for me to have been invited to share the podium with this symposium’s roster of distinguished speakers to offer some final thoughts on what I believe we all would agree still remains even today – a quarter of a century later – the most epic American combat experience since Vietnam. Having now heard all of the preceding presentations this afternoon, I believe that my charter for my concluding remarks is to try to reinforce the most important and memorable recollections that were voiced earlier by those who were actually there in the fight—both in the war zone in Southwest Asia and back here in Washington.

A Combat First

To begin with, as most of you all will remember, not long after Operation Desert Storm ended, then-Secretary of the Air Force Don Rice commissioned the Gulf War Air Power Survey, or GWAPS as it is more commonly called for short. That was an in-depth, five-volume assessment of the air war modeled on the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey conducted after World War II. Professor Eliot Cohen at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies here in Washington led it.

In the preface to their unclassified synopsis of the GWAPS effort, Eliot and his co-author Tom Keaney wrote that one important purpose of the exercise had been to provide ‘an analytical and evidentiary point of departure for future studies of the air campaign.’ Inspired by that enticement, I subsequently sought to try my best to make broader sense of the Gulf War and its meaning in a substantial study of American air power’s evolution since Vietnam that was sponsored by General Ron Fogelman during his tenure as Air Force chief of staff. That study was eventually published as a commercial book by Cornell University Press in 2000. After much careful consideration, I finally chose as its title, The Transformation of American Air Power. I did so, I will now admit, before what I later came to disparage as the ‘T-word’ became so popularized and devalued by the Rumsfeld Pentagon that it eventually ended up meaning almost anything one might want it to mean. But I still have no regrets over having made that title choice, since, if used with all due discretion and discipline, ‘transformation’ remains an uncommonly powerful word. My dictionary defines ‘to transform’ as ‘to change the nature or character of something radically.’ And that is exactly what I believe happened to the substantially improved American air posture after Vietnam that we finally took to war against Saddam Hussein in 1991.

A F/A-18C Hornet strike-fighter VMFA-232 of the US Marine Corps taxies on the runway before a mission in support of Operation DESERT STORM. (Source: US National Archives and Records Administration)

Transformed Airpower in Action

We have already heard abundant first-hand testimony this afternoon as to the main details of the air component’s performance throughout the campaign, so I will not waste time recapitulating any of those events in my own remarks. Let me just say that after the campaign’s cease-fire went into effect, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind about the determining influence that the initial air attacks had in producing the subsequent course and outcome of Desert Storm. Those attacks against Iraq’s air defenses and command and control facilities were uniformly effective, with initially, more than 600 strike sorties launched in radio silence against the country’s most significant targets the first night and with just one coalition aircraft lost to enemy fire—a Navy F/A-18, presumably to a lucky long-range infrared-guided air-to-air missile fired from an Iraqi MiG-25 that had somehow escaped being detected and identified by our E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft that was operating on station nearby. Over the next three days, the air war struck at the entire spectrum of Iraq’s military assets, gaining unchallenged control of the air and the needed freedom to operate with near-impunity against Iraq’s airfields, ground forces, and other targets of interest. In one of the first serious assessments of the campaign’s air offensive to have appeared in print after the dust settled, the United Kingdom’s most respected commentator on air warfare, retired RAF Air Vice-Marshal Tony Mason, aptly characterized it as ‘the apotheosis of 20th-century air power.’

Perhaps the single most important point to be made about the planning approach that underlay Desert Storm’s air effort has to do with its having sought and achieved desired combat effects as a major departure from our earlier targeting practice. For example, there was no assessed need for the air component of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) that conducted the campaign to destroy each and every last Iraqi acquisition and tracking radar and surface-to-air missile (SAM) site. It was enough for it simply to be so effective in its initial SAM-suppression attacks that Iraq’s SAM operators were intimidated from turning on their radars and engaging the coalition’s attacking aircraft, since they had quickly learned from the first-hand experience of others that if they did, they would invite a high-speed anti-radiation missile (HARM) shot down their throats with the certainty of sunrise.

And, by the same token, there was no assessed need for the air component to destroy each and every last Iraqi fighter aircraft. The coalition was so totally dominating in the air-to-air arena that the Iraqi Air Force soon lost any incentive to turn a wheel. Before long, it was said by some inside observers of the ongoing air war that the three most fearsome words to an Iraqi fighter pilot were ‘cleared for takeoff.’

An aerial view of four hardened aircraft shelters at Kuwait International Airport that were attacked by coalition air forces seeking to destroy Iraq aircraft during Operation DESERT STORM. (Source: US National Archives and Records Administration)

What Made it Possible?

To sum it all up in brief, American airpower showed during Operation Desert Storm that it had finally matured in its ability to deliver the kinds of outcome-determining results that its early visionaries had promised in vain years before. Thanks to our exploitation of the latest technology, our pursuit of more realistic aircrew training, and our development of better strategies and concepts of operations after Vietnam, American airpower in all services underwent a nonlinear growth in capability as a result of the advent of stealth and our ability to attack targets consistently with high accuracy around the clock. Only later, of course, with the subsequent advent of the satellite-aided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), could it do so in any weather conditions as well.

But by the time of Desert Storm, our air assets had finally gained what they needed by way of combat wherewithal to set the conditions for victory in high-intensity warfare. They also ever more steadily came to supplant the traditional role of our ground forces in contributing the bulk of heavy lifting toward achieving joint-force combat objectives, with friendly ground forces now fixing enemy ground troops and air power doing most of the killing of them rather than the other way around, as had been the case in all previous joint air and land operations.

To offer just two examples of this momentous combat role reversal, during the pre-campaign Operation Desert Shield buildup of allied forces in the war zone, CENTCOM shipped nearly 220,000 rounds of M1A1 Abrams main battle tank ammunition to the forward area, of which less than 2 percent were actually fired in combat. For its part, the air component dropped more than 23,000 bombs on Iraq’s ground forces, making for 67 percent of the campaign’s overall air effort.

By the same token, fast-forwarding to the three-week major combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in early 2003, the U.S. Army flew only two deep-attack missions with fewer than 80 of its AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, and it fired only 414 of its high-end MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) in support of its march northward from Kuwait to the heart of Baghdad. In contrast, CENTCOM’s air component during the same three weeks flew more than 20,000 strike sorties, using 735 fighters and 51 bombers to attack, with devastating effect, more than 15,000 Iraqi target aim points in direct facilitation of CENTCOM’s land offensive, but also mostly ahead of and independent of any friendly ground-force action.

Perhaps the most compelling testimony to what that air capability allowed in Operation Iraqi Freedom came from Lieutenant Nate Fick, a Marine Corps platoon commander during CENTCOM’s land offensive, who later wrote in his book One Bullet Away:

For the next hundred miles, all the way to the gates of Baghdad, every palm grove hid Iraqi armor, every field an artillery battery, and every alley an antiaircraft gun or surface-to-air missile launcher. But we never fired a shot. We saw the full effect of American air power. Every one of those fearsome weapons was a blackened hulk.

Later Airpower Successes

With respect to the air component’s successful performance in beating down Iraq’s ground forces in the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations (KTO) in just a little more than a month to a point where they no longer presented a major threat to the coalition’s final four-day land push, some observers tended for a time afterwards to dismiss that performance as nothing more than a one-off anomaly. It was, they said dismissively, the open desert setting, or the unusual vulnerability of Iraq’s armored forces to precision attacks from above, or any number of other unique circumstances that somehow made the air war an exception to the familiar time-honored rule that it takes friendly ‘boots on the ground’ in large numbers, and ultimately in head-to-head close combat, to defeat well-endowed enemy forces in high-intensity warfare.

To many people, that argument sounded reasonable enough when American and allied air power’s rapid rout of the Iraqi army was something the world had never seen before. Yet in the 12 years that followed Desert Storm, allied air power prevailed again in four widely dissimilar subsequent cases, starting with NATO’s two air-dominated wars over the Balkans in 1995 and 1999 and followed soon thereafter by Operation Enduring Freedom against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in late 2001 and then by the major combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March and April 2003. True enough, in none of those five cases, with the one exception of Kosovo, did air power produce the sought-after result all by itself. Yet one can fairly say that in each instance a mature air component was the main enabler of all else that followed by way of producing the desired outcome at such a low cost in friendly and noncombatant enemy lives lost. In so doing, American air power showed to the world that it had finally come of age, at least for high-intensity wars against well-equipped enemy forces.

A US Air Force F-15 Eagle from the 494th Fighter Squadron taxis for take-off for an airstrike against a Bosnian Serb target during Operation DELIBERATE FORCE. (Source: US National Archives and Records Administration)

Airpower’s Triumphant Years

In the wake of that uninterrupted succession of air warfare achievements, the first twelve years that followed Desert Storm looked for the entire world like an unqualified air power success story. Thanks to its preeminent role in the 1991 Gulf War, it seemed to many that the air weapon had finally become the tool of first choice for U. S. Joint Task Force (JTF) commanders. That impression was further reinforced by the similarly preeminent role played by air power in shaping the equally successful outcomes of Operations Deliberate Force and Allied Force in 1995 and 1999. Indeed, as Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute remarked at the turn of the 21st century, by the time the second Bush administration took office in January 2001, ‘not only did it look like air power could win wars, but there was a new crop of policymakers ready to embrace that message,’ starting with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

That view was further reinforced by the outcomes of the major combat phases of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom in late 2001 and early 2003, both of which were also largely enabled by the effective use of air power in making possible the unimpeded ground operations that brought an early end to the existing regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. In all, by the end of major combat in Iraq in April 2003 after just three weeks of sustained allied air and land operations, the evolved capabilities offered by transformed American air power seemed finally to have heralded a new style of war for the United States and its coalition partners, at least with respect to high-intensity combat against conventional forces like the ones that Saddam Hussein had fielded.

A New Insurgent Challenge

Unfortunately for that fact-based and well-founded conviction, however, the end of major combat in Iraq heralded a new era of warfare for Americans in not just one way but in two. Just as the Iraqi Freedom experience confirmed our final mastery of high-intensity combat, it also confronted us with a newly emergent wave of counterinsurgency fighting for the first time since Vietnam. That second challenge, for which we were totally unprepared, became clear within just days of the occupation’s onset as coalition ground forces were shown to have been both completely untrained and un-resourced to meet the needs of post-campaign stabilization. A similar challenge arose in Afghanistan after the Bush team took its eye off the ball there, opening up a chance for the Taliban to move back into the ensuing power vacuum in an attempt to regain control of the country.

Before our initial successes in Afghanistan and Iraq went sour and morphed into prolonged land-centric wars of attrition, the main focus of the American defense debate in Washington had been on the relative merits of air power versus ground power in joint high-intensity combat. By the time we were ready to take on Iraq in 2003, the American ‘boots on the ground’ community had clearly become the more beleaguered of the two in the continuing inter-service tug-of-war over roles and resources. However, the insurgencies that soon thereafter consumed us in Iraq and Afghanistan for half a decade and more entailed enemy wartime conduct of a quite different sort—designed to avoid our greatest strengths and instead to make the most of our vulnerabilities and weaknesses. As a result, the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps gained a new lease on life after 2003 as the challenges of combating newly-emergent insurgencies moved the spotlight from air power to our ground forces as those bearing the brunt of daily combat losses and accordingly those in greatest need of daily sustenance and funding.

Lessons Forgotten in the Fight Against ISIS

Looking now at our current effort against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it has already been under way at a lethargic pace for more than two years, with still no end in sight or any truly significant progress achieved so far, yet at a cost of more than $5 billion in sunk cost to date, to say nothing of the additional cost in reduced service life for our jets that have flown so many combat sorties for so little gain. To my mind, it has been more than disheartening to see just how far we seem to have regressed in the 25 years since the first President Bush told us after Desert Storm that “we’d finally kicked the Vietnam syndrome.” We are now back to Vietnam all over again, it appears, with the return of the daily body count and CENTCOM’s daily recital of the number of sorties flown, bombs dropped, and targets attacked in the absence of any more meaningful metrics of performance to show how effectively we are actually faring.

I am reminded too in this regard of how we seem to have forgotten the wise counsel of the classic Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz, who stressed the criticality of correct situation assessment and of duly fighting the war one is actually in rather than the war one believes one is in or would prefer to be in. In that respect as well, it is hardly surprising that a U.S. Army-dominated CENTCOM that has been so deeply habituated to counterinsurgency warfare as a daily diet for more than a decade would naturally roll into this latest fight against ISIS as though it were just a continuation of the counterinsurgency war in Iraq. That unthinking approach has, among other things, occasioned the draconian no-civilian-casualties rules of engagement that have so badly hampered our air effort since it began ever so haltingly in early August 2014.

But ISIS is not an insurgency. On the contrary, it is a self-avowed emerging nation state that is replete with coherent leadership, territory, an infrastructure, an economy, a central nervous system, and the beginnings of a capable conventional army, all of which are eminently targetable by precision air power. Accordingly, it should be engaged by our air assets as such and not in the more gradualist and ineffectual way in which CENTCOM has pursued the Obama administration’s half-hearted campaign so far.

Two US Navy E/A-18G Growlers and two US Marine Corps F/A-18C Hornets fly in formation over the US Central Command area of responsibility in support of Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, 25 September 2020. (Source: US Department of Defense)

Has Airpower Paid a Price for Its Precision?

In that regard, before turning to my final reflections on Desert Storm, it behooves us to ask first how the current fight against ISIS may offer the latest telling example of how our very ability to avoid causing noncombatant casualties in warfare almost routinely has increasingly rendered air power a victim of its own success since 1991. People like most of us in the audience here whose formative images of air power were steeped in Vietnam had our eyes opened during the first few nights of Desert Storm by watching cockpit weapon system video clips on the nightly TV news showing laser-guided bombs homing down the air shafts of Iraqi bunkers one after the other with unerring precision. Thanks to that substantially improved capability that was first pioneered in Vietnam, avoiding unintended civilian casualties in the course of conducting air strikes naturally became a goal that air campaign planners sought to bend every effort to strive for in future conflicts.

But by the time of Operation Deliberate Force against the Bosnian Serbs in 1995, just four scant years after Desert Storm, American political leaders and rank-and-file citizens alike had become so habituated to such accuracy that what campaign planners once strove for in good faith, because air power could now generally permit it, had become not just expected but was now a binding precondition for getting an approval to drop a bomb or strafe a target. Even one inadvertent civilian fatality as the result of an errant air attack was now likely to become front-page news, as it has been ever since our would-be air war against ISIS began in early August 2014.

True enough, air power’s heightened ability to minimize unintended civilian casualties in warfare has brought along with it a new responsibility on the part of airmen to make the most of that ability in their target planning in good faith. But at the same time, it has also levied a new challenge on our most senior leaders, both civilian and uniformed, to do better at managing public expectations when even the most stringent Laws of Armed Conflict are not as exacting as our own self-imposed rules of engagement have lately become. Otherwise, collateral damage avoidance will continue to trump mission accomplishment in priority, which is tantamount to the tail wagging the dog in the conduct of war.

What Made Desert Storm Unique

With all of that by way of background, how can we best summarize the main takeaways to be drawn from the 1991 Persian Gulf War? For my money, American air power between the end of the Vietnam War and the start of Operation Desert Storm had finally evolved to a point where it had become truly strategic in its character, thanks to its by-then proven ability to produce outcome-determining effects. That was not the case before the advent of low observability to enemy radar, precision target attack capability, and vastly better real-time battlespace situation awareness in the American air posture. Earlier air wars were limited in the combat successes they could achieve because it simply took too many aircraft and too many losses to achieve too few results at too high a cost. But by 1991, American air power had finally arrived at a point where it could make its presence felt quickly and could impose effects on an enemy from the very outset of fighting that could have a determining influence on the subsequent course and outcome of a campaign. How? In large part by enabling almost unopposed friendly ground maneuver and thereby establishing the needed conditions for achieving a JTF commander’s campaign goals fairly quickly. Or, put more simply, by granting JTF commanders and their subordinate forces freedom from attack and freedom to attack.

This breakthrough in capability, however, was not just about technology. As Congressman Les Aspin rightly remarked after the Gulf War ended when he was still chairman of the House Armed Services Committee: ‘One, the equipment worked and was vindicated against its critics.’ But also, he added: ‘Two, we know how to orchestrate it and use it in a way that makes the sum bigger than all the parts.’ His second point in that statement was really the more important of the two by far. For if Desert Storm’s ultimate successfulness heralded any ‘revolution’ in warfare, then it was as a result of the campaign’s effective exploitation of all the inputs discussed earlier this afternoon, including the critically important and unquantifiable intangibles like training, tactics, proficiency, skilled leadership, concepts of operations, and boldness in execution in addition to all the technology magic that Americans usually fixate on when considering the main ingredients of military capability.

What the Gulf War Bequeathed to Us

In light of all the foregoing, it is long past time for airmen to stop seeking their intellectual guidance from such outmoded prophets as the Italian general Giulio Douhet, who advocated for air power at a time in the early 1920s when it was still embryonic and had virtually nothing in common with what it has since become today. If we need to identify new sources of such guidance for tomorrow’s still-evolving air weapon, then they should be drawn instead from the successor generation of American airmen whose path breaking insights into force employment allowed the example set by airpower’s more recently acquired performance capabilities in 1991. For in Operation Desert Storm, air power showed, for the first time ever, its ability to achieve strategic effects directly through its increased survivability and lethality. In earlier years, air forces sought to impose the greatest possible pain on enemy populations and industry, as was done against Germany and Japan in World War II and even against North Vietnam toward that war’s end in 1972, because such a strategy was the only one that air power could then underwrite with any hope of achieving success. Today, however, there is so much more one can do with air power to produce combat outcomes that more directly affect an enemy’s ability—not his will, but his ability—to continue fighting.

Of course, all force elements, including ground forces, have the opportunity in principle to seek the effects of mass without actually having to mass by leveraging modern technology to the fullest in quest of greater precision in force employment. But what was unique about modern air power as it first showed its hand in 1991 was that it had finally pulled well ahead of surface forces in its relative ability to do this, thanks not only to its newly-gained advantages in stealth, target-attack accuracy, and battlespace awareness, but also to its long-standing and enduring characteristics of speed, range, and flexibility. That, I would suggest, is the main legacy of air power’s transformation since Vietnam that we saw demonstrated for the first time in Operation Desert Storm.

Dr Benjamin S. Lambeth is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in the US. He assumed this position in July 2011 after a 37-year career as a Senior Research Associate at the RAND Corporation, where he remains an adjunct associate. Before joining RAND in 1975, he served in the Office of National Estimates at the Central Intelligence Agency. A civil-rated pilot, Lambeth has flown or flown in more than 40 different types of fighter, attack, and jet trainer aircraft with the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and with eight foreign air forces worldwide. He also attended the USAF’s Tactical Fighter Weapons and Tactics Course and Combined Force Air Component Commander Course, the Aerospace Defense Command’s Senior Leaders’ Course, and portions of the Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) and Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Instructor’s Course. In 2008, Lambeth was appointed by the Secretary of Defense to serve an eight-year term as a member of the Board of Visitors of Air University, which he completed in 2016. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Air Force Association, the U.S. Naval Institute, the Association of Naval Aviation, the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, and the Editorial Advisory Boards of Air and Space Power Journal and Strategic Studies Quarterly. He is the author of numerous books including The Transformation of American Air Power (2000), which won the Air Force Association’s Gill Robb Wilson Award for Arts and Letters in 2001. His most recent book is Airpower in the War against ISIS (2021).

#DesertStorm30 – Leading with Airpower

#DesertStorm30 – Leading with Airpower

By General John Michael Loh, USAF (Ret.)

Editorial Note: 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Operation DESERT STORM. To mark this anniversary, during 2021, From Balloons to Drones will be publishing a series of articles that examine various aspects of DESERT STORM’s air campaign. We will be publishing pieces throughout 2021, and if you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here. The official call for submissions can be found here.

Over the coming weeks, From Balloons to Drones is pleased to be working in conjunction with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies to publish a series of articles on various aspects of the DESERT STORM air campaign. These articles were initially published as part of a Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies special report, Desert Storm: 30 Years Later – Lessons from the 1991 Air Campaign in the Persian Gulf War. You can download the report here.

In this latest instalment, we are pleased to present a piece by General John Michael Loh, USAF (Ret.). In this article, General Loh discusses some of the debates and decisions that took place in Washington in the months leading up to the start of the DESERT STORM air campaign as well as some of what he viewed as the lessons learnt from the campaign.

Desert Storm was the only major war since World War II that ended in victory, with all objectives met; a war dominated by airpower and remarkable for its brief duration—only 43 days. Airpower played the dominant role in Desert Storm. But Desert Storm did not start with airpower in the lead. The air campaign plan had many detractors. The decision to lead with airpower, before and independent of a ground invasion, was a war in itself. I am going to take you through the debates and decisions in Washington that put and kept airpower in the lead in the five months preceding the start of the war, and give you my version of lessons learned from Desert Storm.

The War of the Pentagon

Four battles characterized what I call ‘The War of the Pentagon.’

The first was a phone call from General Norman Schwarzkopf, the commander of U.S. Central Command and the Joint Force Commander for Desert Storm, to me on Wednesday, August 8, asking for help in expanding the existing war plan for a Middle East regional war.

The second was the meeting of our Air Staff team, called Checkmate, with General Powell and the Joint staff that Saturday, seeking the Chairman’s agreement to proceed with our air campaign planning activity.

The third were the frequent skirmishes in the Tank between me and the other three service chiefs who wanted their service to take the lead and be the dominant player in Desert Storm. I called them the counterattacks.

And the fourth was the meeting at the White House on October 11 with President George H. W. Bush, the Commander in Chief, seeking his approval to proceed with the air campaign plan.

I will briefly describe each of those four ‘battles’ in the ‘war of the Pentagon.’

Request from General Schwarzkopf

I received a call from General Schwarzkopf on the morning of August 8. It surprised me because I only knew Schwarzkopf professionally, but not personally. Here’s what he said:

Mike, I need your help in expanding our war plan to include a more robust air campaign that includes strikes against strategic targets as well as tactical targets. The air operations plans here are traditional air/land battle scenarios in collaboration with, and tethered to, ground forces, but very little independent air operations that destroy strategic targets around Baghdad and other parts of the country.

I could hardly believe what I was hearing. Here was an Army commander talking like an airpower advocate. General Schwarzkopf was an airpower champion in a green suit.

Fortunately, our Checkmate planning cell on the air staff was already putting together a strategic-level air campaign concept. Checkmate was formed to think ahead about the application of airpower in several scenarios. Checkmate’s leader was Colonel John Warden, a bright conceptual thinker, who was already designing an air campaign for the Iraq war.

I told General Schwarzkopf:

We have the concept of the air campaign you want. I will take the lead in fleshing it out as best we can and bring it to you ASAP. I need a day or two to make sure it works your problem, and I will bring it to you ASAP. “He said, “Thanks. Please hurry!

I then called our Ops Deputy, and told him to get John Warden and his Checkmate team here immediately. I gave Warden strong marching orders and told him:

Get with Intel, turn your generic plan into one that begins to address the strategic target set in Iraq, and be prepared to brief General Powell later this week.

I also called General Bob Russ, commander of Tactical Air Command, and General Jack Chain, commander of Strategic Air Command, telling them of Schwarzkopf’s call and asking them to send a few of their air planners to the Pentagon to assist Checkmate. They did.

Briefing to General Powell

The second battle was our meeting with General Powell and the Joint Staff directors on that Saturday, three days after the call from Schwarzkopf. The Joint Staff was dominated by Army officers, not just Powell, but particularly the influence of the J-3, an Army general steeped in land warfare and dismissive of airpower.

A stormy session ensued. Colonel Warden briefed and I chimed in from time to time for reinforcement. We emphasized the independent application of airpower against the Iraqi centers of gravity, and our confidence in waging both an air campaign in the greater Baghdad Theater and also tactical-level attacks in the Kuwaiti Theater.

General Powell listened for the most part, but let his J-3 argue against a pre-invasion air campaign. His arguments centered on his experiences in Vietnam, and those of others present. They claimed that airpower could not defeat an enemy and could not even interdict effectively. He even cited the World War II air armadas against Germany, claiming they were ineffective. And on and on. Others piled on.

I listened patiently for a while, but after listening to these false claims, I spoke up forcefully with logical arguments countering accusations about airpower, but, mostly, I argued about the renaissance in airpower in the 20 years since Vietnam. I gave a full-throated defense of our plan based on this rebirth of airpower in the Air Force. I challenged them with information of which they were unaware regarding a new generation of combat aircraft and weapons and training since Vietnam that changed the nature of air warfare, which made possible the innovative plan for Desert Storm. Stealth, precision weapons with lasers, night attack with FLIRs and Red Flag force-on-force training, the real 2nd offset strategy in my opinion, gave us confidence for a dominant air campaign plan.

Ground crews service F-117A aircraft of the 37th Tactical Fighter Wing on the flight line in 1990 as the Wingprepared to deploy to Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Shield. (Source: USAF)

At the end of this meeting, General Colin Powell, under great pressure from SecDef Cheney and President Bush to devise a winning plan quickly, agreed to let us continue our planning as we briefed it. His only objection was not to the two-theater air campaign and its strategic nature, but that he wanted us to destroy the Republican Guard Armies as part of the strategic plan. And he insisted we make it a joint campaign, not just Air Force. So, I agreed to include Navy and Marine air where it fit. General Powell said he would tell General Schwarzkopf that he approved.

We briefed Schwarzkopf. He approved and told the team to take it to General Chuck Horner and the operational air planners in Riyadh.

Skirmishes in the Tank

The third battle was a series of skirmishes in the Tank, the room where the Joint Chiefs of Staff meet in the Pentagon. While Air Force planners—Lt. General Chuck Horner, Brig. General Buster Glosson, and the Checkmate guys, Colonel John Warden and Lt. Colonel Dave Deptula—went to Riyadh to plan the specifics of the air campaign, I continued to fight for, and defend, the air campaign as the leading edge of the upcoming war.

The Pentagon is the temple of parochialism. Now don’t get me wrong. We fight as a joint team. Jointness works beautifully on the battlefield. But it doesn’t work as well in the wars of the Pentagon where each service wants to show how vital it is, and, therefore, how it must be in the vanguard of any major military action, particularly a major regional war.

I vigorously defended our leadership role in the Tank during September and October when the other chiefs realized the Air Force was dominating the plan. Each of the other service chiefs—Army, Navy, and Marine—had his own ideas for taking the lead.

The Navy wanted to divide the airspace into route packages the way it was done in Vietnam, which, incidentally, was not an efficient way to allocate airpower. The Navy wanted to control all air action in the east from carriers in the Persian Gulf, and in the west from carriers in the Red Sea. The Navy’s plan would leave only the middle for the Air force working with Army forces. We won those skirmishes handily.

The Marine Commandant argued forcibly that the Marines take the lead with an amphibious landing from the Persian Gulf and then attack through Kuwait. After all, amphibious operations are the Marines’ primary competence. But his proposal was shot down over time.

Now, the Army Chief did not like the idea of the Air Force operating independently. The Army preferred a simultaneous, dual invasion, with the bulk of air sorties tethered to the Army supporting the ground war. Their chief had two motives: position the Army, not the Air Force, as the leading force in the war, and keep most of the air sorties under the air/land scenario doing close air support and shallow interdiction.

In the end, General Powell sided with our air campaign plan because it made good sense.

President Bush Gives his Approval

The final battle was the meeting with President Bush on October 11. General Schwarzkopf sent Brigadier General Buster Glosson to brief President Bush on the air campaign plan. The evening before, Secretary Cheney, General Powell, and the Joint Chiefs previewed both the air and ground plans in the Pentagon. Glosson gave a powerful briefing with detailed information about the air campaign and his confidence in its successful execution. On the other hand, the Army general presented a ground campaign that was unimaginative, lacked detail, and was not a confidence-builder. General Powell was displeased with the Army plan, but also wary of the confidence Glosson displayed in his briefing.

After the meeting, General Powell stopped Glosson after I had already departed for my office. He told Glosson to tone down his confidence level, that the briefing and the air campaign were too optimistic. Glosson hastened to my office and asked what to do. I told him to not change anything in his briefing, but to invoke General Schwarzkopf’s name several times during the briefing.

Buster, remember this is not your plan, it is not General Horner’s plan, it is not an Air Force plan, it is the Joint Force Commander’s air plan. So, let the President and all present know you are speaking for General Schwarzkopf and he has approved the essence of the air campaign plan.

General Glosson gave his briefing superbly. President Bush, to his credit, knew the value of airpower and was excited about our plan. After hearing the briefing by Buster Glosson, he wanted to begin the war right then. But General Powell dissuaded him arguing that ground operations were necessary to ensure victory. He wanted to deploy the VII Corps from Germany to Saudi. President Bush approved. That took more than two months. We won that battle and the air campaign concept spawned in the Pentagon became the vanguard force in Desert Storm.

Then the war began on the morning of January 17 with a massive air attack against strategic targets around Baghdad led by the stealthy F-117, and continued for the next 42 days, followed by a 4-day ground invasion before the Iraqis surrendered. We won Desert Storm quickly, decisively, with overwhelming force and few casualties, leading with airpower.

Airpower lessons learned

So, what are the lessons learned? There are many. Let me give you three macro, ‘big picture’ lessons that I took from Desert Storm and are still applicable today. One: airpower is consistently underestimated and not well understood, even in the Air Force. Two: computer models and ‘experts’ always over-estimate air attrition. And three: strong, decisive leadership and trust from the top down are essential for success.

Let’s look at each one more closely.

F-15E Eagle fighter aircraft from the 4th Tactical Fighter Wing is parked on a desert airfield during Operation Desert Shield. (Source: USAF)

Airpower disparaged

Recognize that others do not share your enthusiasm about the effectiveness of airpower. Just before Desert Storm the other military services did not recognize the ‘Rebirth of Airpower’ from 1970 to 1990 in the Air Force. In my opinion, the 2nd offset strategy for the Air Force was the investment in three technologies: stealth, precision weapons, and forward looking infrared (FLIR) sensors to take away the sanctuary of night the enemy had enjoyed in Vietnam. We fielded systems that exploited all three technologies: the stealthy F-117 Nighthawk with its FLIR and laser designator; the laser-guided bombs employed by many fighters, and laser designators on the F-11F and F-15E, and going from flares to FLIRs to attack at night. These systems were ready for Desert Storm but most war planners did not appreciate their significance.

Currently, the Army’s zeal to get ‘boots on the ground’ in the war against ISIS has had the unintended effect of disparaging airpower as ineffective in that fight, giving airpower an undeserved bad reputation. The real problem with air attacks against ISIS is the misapplication of airpower, dribbling it out piecemeal, six sorties per day (in Syria, the locus of ISIS) rather than over a thousand strikes a day as in Desert Storm.

In the recent past, our Air Force leaders, seeking to be team players in the joint arena, have promoted airpower tethered to the ground battle rather than having a component of the air campaign in which airpower is employed independent of the ground battle. They have forgotten this valuable lesson of Desert Storm.

And, some seek to promote their own service at the expense of the contribution of air. The Army teaches and preaches Desert Storm as the ‘100-Hour War.’ They deliberately forget that it took only 100 hours to ‘mop up’ after 1000 hours of airpower put Iraq in shambles and rendered the Iraqi army virtually ineffective as a fighting force.

So, we need to continually learn, then educate. Now, don’t get me wrong: airpower can’t do everything. We must have ‘boots on the ground’ to force total victory and surrender. But the right formula should be the Desert Storm formula: lead with relentless, overwhelming airpower, then follow with a massive ground invasion.

Models overestimate air attrition

Computer models and ‘experts’ always over-predict air attrition. Historically, a mismatch exists between the forecasts versus actual attrition experienced in air campaigns. Models have always erred on the pessimistic side. They predict higher loss rates. This was true for Desert Storm and other major air campaigns.

Why is this so? Well, models cannot replicate the complexity of large-scale air battles. Models are good for evaluating the relative impact of changing one or two parameters of threats or air defense systems, but not for predicting the absolute outcomes of large air battles. Modelers also invariably assume the adversary is ‘ten feet tall,’ with systems working at peak performance and 100 percent reliability.

A brief look at past air campaigns, including Desert Storm, will prove my point and warn you to be wary of attrition analysts.

In December 1972, in operation Linebacker II, B-52 raids over heavily defended Hanoi, Vietnam, were successful in destroying the state-of-the art IADS and other military targets in North Vietnam. This led to the successful negotiation of our exit from Vietnam and the return of our prisoners of war.

Analysts and ‘experts’ predicted we would lose one B-52 out of every three B-52 sorties flown. In the 11-day operation, we lost 15 B-52s in 729 B-52 sorties flown into the teeth of the air defense system—an attrition rate of 2%, not 33%.

In the June 1982 Bekaa Valley campaign, the Israeli Air Force mounted a mass operation against a modern Soviet-supplied air defense system fielded by Syria in Lebanon. Analysts predicted an attrition rate of 15%. In 1,100 fighter sorties, the IAF lost no aircraft—zero percent attrition, not 15%.

How about Desert Storm? In the first five days, the experts, even Air Force leaders, predicted a loss of 70 or so aircraft before total air dominance was achieved. Analysts’ models predicted much higher attrition. After all, the IADS around Baghdad was the state-of-the-art French Kari system. Coalition forces flew more than 5,000 combat sorties in those five days and lost 27 fixed-wing aircraft, an attrition rate of less than 0.4%—less than half of Air Force estimates, and way below analysts’ predictions.

Why are forecasts of air attrition consistently higher than actual results, and why is this important today? Models lose their fidelity when they try to simulate large-scale air campaigns like Desert Storm because they cannot faithfully replicate their enormous complexity. They just cannot account for the countermeasures, both electronic and kinematic, the decoys, on-scene decisions by pilots, changes of tactics as the campaign progresses, or the sheer quantity and swarming tactics air battles. Many models merely extrapolate from a one-versus-one single-engagement to many-versus-many scenarios.

That is grossly faulty modeling.

Why is this mismatch important today? Well, today we again hear the predictions of the analysts that manned aircraft cannot penetrate modern ‘anti-access/area denial’ systems in development by Russia, China, and Iran. They tout results of their models to show that air losses would be unacceptable. I have been hearing that argument for more than 50 years! Manned fighters and bombers can negate sophisticated air defense systems and successfully attack heavily defended targets with the same success enjoyed in these three campaigns with a combination of standoff and penetrating aircraft, decoys, drones, and smart tactics.

The lesson is to challenge assumptions of the models, examine the algorithms critically, and use models only where they apply: for limited, relative changes, not absolute outcomes in large air campaigns. Be skeptical and critical of attrition models.

Leadership from the top down

The third lesson: Strong, decisive leadership from the top is necessary for success. President Bush 41 provided that leadership. He set clear military objectives and let his military leaders plan the campaign without interference from the White House. He gained the support of both the Congress and the U.N. for the war. He skillfully knitted together a large coalition of international partners in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia from Congress and the U.N. He placed heavy demands on General Colin Powell to put together a winning war plan with force sufficient to win quickly. He recognized the problems of a long war without an exit strategy. In short, he wanted to get in, win, and get out after meeting his military objectives.

President Bush 41 was under enormous pressure politically and from the whole U.S. population to not invade. Instead, political leaders of both parties advised him strongly to allow economic sanctions to continue for another year, hoping that would force Saddam Hussein to withdraw his forces from Kuwait. The pressure against the war was intense. Various studies concluded upwards of 10,000 American lives would be lost. The airwaves and newspapers were replete with comments like “8,000 body bags are being shipped to Saudi.” One hundred forty-eight American lives were lost in Desert Storm—148 lives, not eight or ten thousand.

Eight of the nine living former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, including one Air Force chairman, wrote a letter and testified before Congress that we should not go to war, but rather let sanctions continue. Senator Sam Nunn, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, argued and voted against the war. This doomed his plans to run for president in the 1992 election. The fierce opposition underscored the lack of understanding of the impact of airpower in 1990, and the advances in airpower since Vietnam.

But, throughout it all, President Bush was steadfast and resolute. He displayed undaunted courage, and he placed unprecedented trust in his military leaders. That trust pervaded all the way down the chain of command to the troops engaged in Desert Storm. Trust was the coin of the realm at every level of command from the commander-in-chief to the aircrews and troops on the ground. And trust went both ways: down the chain and back up the chain. The pilots and troops trusted their leaders. They knew their leaders had their back and that confidence allowed them to perform knowing their leaders would support them even if they made an occasional honest mistake in the heat of battle.

Desert Storm compared to the War against ISIS

 The contrast between Desert Storm and the current war against ISIS could not be sharper. President Bush 41 gave the military clear objectives, gained approval of Congress and the U.N., formed a strong coalition that participated willingly and actively, and won quickly and decisively with few casualties on both sides. None of these principles defining a justified war are present against the Islamic State.

The trust, so prevalent in Desert Storm, is weak in the ISIS war. Rules of engagement for pilots are so restrictive that the pilots are fearful of retribution and thus too risk averse in combat. Instead of clear military objectives and a defined end state for combat action, attrition of ISIS members appears to be the measure of success. Vietnam taught us the folly of using body count as a measure of success. How soon we forget.

Since Desert Storm, airpower seems to have stepped backward. Current conflicts do not unleash airpower like Desert Storm. Today, critics disparage airpower, but only because it is misapplied against ISIS. That must change.

Closing Observations and lessons

At the start of Desert Storm, airpower was not the leading force. Airpower had to fight its way to take the lead. We had to convince our critics that a rebirth of airpower took place after Vietnam, emphasizing the asymmetric application of stealth, precision weapons, and night attacks. That took away the sanctuary of night the enemy enjoyed previously. The battles in the Pentagon were waged and won that positioned airpower as the dominant force with compelling arguments and forceful logic.

President Bush 41 let the military plan both the air and ground campaigns without interference, approved the air campaign plan, and never wavered from his support.

The air campaign became the vanguard force in Desert Storm. Generals Horner and Glosson broadened the conceptual work done in the Pentagon, put together detailed force packages to take down the air defenses, and matched air forces against targets in both the Baghdad and Kuwait theaters. The six-week air campaign allowed the ground forces to complete the victory in just four days.

Three broad lessons emerged. First, we have already forgotten the lesson of Desert Storm that airpower can be applied independent of a ground campaign and in close support of ground forces at the same time. Airpower continues to be misunderstood and misapplied in the War against ISIS.

Second, air attrition is always over-predicted because computer models and ‘experts’ do not understand how airpower is applied in an overwhelming way. The examples of Desert Storm, Linebacker II, and the Bekaa Valley campaign prove the point. Modelers do not understand and account for the many complex variables in air campaigns that allow for changes in tactics and on-scene decisions. Over-predicting air attrition is happening in models today to declare that manned fighters and bombers cannot penetrate A2AD air defense systems of Russia, China, and Iran. Airpower advocates need to challenge the assumptions and methodology of air attrition models.

And third, President Bush 41 placed enormous trust in his military leaders to plan and wage a decisive two-theater campaign that allowed the coalition to win, quickly, decisively, with overwhelming force, and few casualties. That trust flowed down to the pilots and troops in the cockpits and on the ground. In turn, the pilots and troops trusted that their commanders would support them in the heat of the battle. That mutual trust is not as strong today as it was in Desert Storm.

The lessons of Desert Storm, from inception of the air campaign through its execution that led to victory, must not be forgotten. Rather, as we look forward to future enforcement of deterrence and plans for wars across the spectrum of conflict, airpower should be the leading force, the vanguard to pave the way for the successful conduct of campaigns and victory.

General John Michael Loh, USAF (Ret.) graduated from the USAF Academy in 1960. His final command was as Commander, Air Combat Command from June 1992 to July 1995. During Operation DESERT STORM he served was the Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force. He served as Commander, Tactical Air Command from March 1991 to June 1992. Loh has a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He commanded the Aeronautical Systems Division, Air Force Systems Command. He was a command pilot with more than 4,300 flying hours, primarily in fighter aircraft, and flew 204 combat missions in Vietnam. Loh retired from the USAF in 1995.