#BookReview – Korean Air War: Sabres, Migs and Meteors, 1950-53

#BookReview – Korean Air War: Sabres, Migs and Meteors, 1950-53

Michael Napier, Korean Air War: Sabres, Migs and Meteors, 1950-53. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2021. Images. Notes. Bibliography. Glossary. Appendices. Index. Hbk. 320pp.

Reviewed by Dr Ross Mahoney

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In the western world, the Korean War is often thought of as the forgotten war of the early Cold War. This was, at least from an American perspective, because ‘[l]ike the proverbial shrimp caught between two whales, the Korean War [was] trapped between World War II and the Vietnam War.’[1] Furthermore, from a British and French perspective, the war does not easily fit into national narratives surrounding their ‘retreat’ from empires in Southeast Asia, namely the Malayan Emergency and the French-Indochina War. The Korean War did, however, significantly impact the Cold War’s early course, particularly strengthening the recently established North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

From the perspective of the application and development of air power, the Korean War was also significant. Specifically, it was the first time jet fighters met in combat. Furthermore, the war also saw a wide range of air power capabilities deployed over Korea, including discussions throughout the conflict about the potential delivery of nuclear weapons.[2] This has meant that, despite the unfortunate epithet of being a forgotten war, several important works, such as Conrad Crane’s American Airpower Strategy in Korea (2000), have appeared and examined the use of air power over the Korean peninsula.

Michael Napier, a retired Royal Air Force fast-jet pilot and author, comes into this mix with his 2021 volume, Korean Air War. In just over 300 pages, Napier systematically describes the course of the air war over Korea. The book, chronologically laid out, deals with the air war in seven chapters plus a retrospective to finish the volume. There are also two appendices included. The chapters follow the broad course of the main phases of the Korean War. For example, Chapter Three deals with the period of the offensive by United Nations (UN) forces between August and October 1950 (pp. 72-113). This is then followed up by a chapter that looks at the period of the Chinese offensives (pp. 114-55) against UN forces that forced them back to roughly the 38th Parallel. Within these chapters, Napier details the various uses of air power by both sides during the war. This includes the use of tactical and strategic air power as well as naval air power. Napier also does a good job of describing the coalition character of the air war for both sides. However, his attempt to highlight the British contribution can sometimes be overstated.

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US Marines of the First Marine Division Reconnaissance Company make the first helicopter invasion on Hill 812, to relieve the Republic of Korea 8th Division, during the renewed fighting in Korea, 20 September 1951. (Source: Wikimedia)

While the book comprehensively deals with the air war over Korea, readers should not expect an academic examination of the use of air power between 1950 and 1953. That is not what this book is. However, this is not a criticism per se. Instead, the book has been written with a specific audience in mind – the general reader looking for an introduction to the subject. This is highlighted by Napier’s choice to examine the war chronologically (p. 6). This is a choice that makes it easier for the lay reader to understand what was a complex and contested operating environment. Ultimately, therefore, we end up with a very useful narrative of the course of the air war that introduces readers to the subject matter.

One area, however, where the book does fall down is in its use of sources. Regarding primary sources, Napier has overwhelmingly relied on files in British archival institutions, notably The National Archives and the Royal Air Force Museum. While perhaps a pragmatic decision given the author’s location and the character of this book as a popular account of the air war, it does, nonetheless, skew the author’s interpretation. Furthermore, at least from the perspective of UN forces deployed, most of the air power deployed in support of the war effort came from the US. As such, one would expect more attention to be given to the records produced by those forces involved. Finally, given the above issue, Napier relies on secondary sources to fill in the gaps despite arguing that published accounts of the air war over Korea were less than ‘objective’ (p. 6) in their analysis. However, it appears from the notes and bibliography that Napier did not consult important, more ‘objective’ works such as Crane’s noted above and others.[3] The use of such works would have further enriched Napier’s narrative

Overall, despite the above criticism, Napier has done an excellent job of writing a comprehensive introductory narrative to the air war over Korea. In particular, Napier does a good job of weaving together a narrative that tells the story of both sides of the air war over Korea. The book is lavishly supported by high-quality imagery and maps that help support the text.

Dr Ross Mahoney is the Editor-in-Chief of From Balloons to Drones and is an independent scholar specialising in air power and the history of air warfare. He is currently the Senior Historian within the City Architecture and Heritage Team at Brisbane City Council in Australia. He has over 15 years of experience within the heritage and education sectors in Australia and the United Kingdom. He was the inaugural Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum in the UK. In Australia, he has worked as a Historian for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and taught at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University based at the Australian War College. His research interests are focused on military history, with a specific focus on the history of air warfare, transport history, and urban history. He has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He has a website here and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header image: Four US Air Force North American F-86E Sabre fighters over Korea in November 1952. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Allan Millett, The War for Korea, 1945-1950: A House Burning (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2005), p. 1.

[2] Daniel Calingaert, ‘Nuclear weapons and the Korean War,’ Journal of Strategic Studies 11, no. 2 (1988), pp. 177-202.

[3] Other works of note not cited include: Eduard Mark, Aerial Interdiction: Air Power and the Land Battle in Three American Wars (Washington DC: Office of Air Force History, 1994); John Sherwood, Officers in Flight Suits: The Story of American Air Force Fighter Pilots in the Korean War (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1998); Jacob Neufeld, Coalition Air Warfare in the Korean War 1950–1953 (Washington DC: U.S. Air Force History and Museums Program, 2005); Roger Horky, ‘Clipping the Eagle’s Wings: The Limiting of the Korean Air War, 1950-1953’ (PhD Thesis, Texas A&M University, 2013).

#Podcast – The True Origins of the Cold War: An Interview with Dr John Curatola

#Podcast – The True Origins of the Cold War: An Interview with Dr John Curatola

Editorial Note: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

In the years after the Second World War, the US shifted its strategy to one focused on air power and delivery of nuclear weapons–but why and how did this happen? Dr John Curatola, the Military Historian for the Center for War and Democracy at the National World War II Museum, takes us through the fierce rivalry between the US Air Force and Navy, the scandalous ‘Revolt of the Admirals,’ and the development of thermonuclear weapons. 

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Dr John Curatola is the Military Historian for the Center for War and Democracy at the National World War II Museum. He was formerly a Professor of Military History at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Curatola is a retired Marine Officer of 22 years with a Doctorate from the University of Kansas. In addition to his published works, he has lectured extensively on airpower and early Cold War topics at the National Archives, C-SPAN, and international venues. His latest book is Autumn of Our Discontent: Fall 1949 and the Crises in American National Security (2022).

Header image: A US Air Force Convair B-36B Peacemaker of the 7th Bombardment Wing in flight, in 1949. (Source: Wikimedia)

#Podcast – Air Combat in the Gulf War: An Interview with Rick Tollini

#Podcast – Air Combat in the Gulf War: An Interview with Rick Tollini

Editorial Note: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

In our latest episode, we interview F-15 pilot and MiG-killer Rick Tollini. We discuss his new book, Call-Sign Kluso and he tells us all about the harrowing missions flown in the opening of the 1991 Gulf War. 

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Rick Tollini, call-sign Kluso, is a freelance writer, live performer, former United States Air Force F-15C Fighter Weapons Officer, and current F-15C flight simulator contract instructor pilot. Tollini is recognised as an expert in the field of air superiority operations and tactics. He has also worked as a feature writer for Pacific Star and Stripes weekly journal, CNN Travel contributor, and has recorded and published over 30 original songs.

Header image: An air-to-air view of two US Air Force F-15C  Eagles of the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing and a Royal Saudi Air Force F-5E Tiger II fighter aircraft during a mission in support of Operation Desert Storm. (Source: Wikimedia).

#Podcast – Women Naval Aviators: An Interview with Beverly Weintraub

#Podcast – Women Naval Aviators: An Interview with Beverly Weintraub

Editorial Note: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

After the Second World War, women were not allowed to fly in military aviation roles in the US. That began to change in the 1970s. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Beverly Weintraub tells us about the story of six women US Naval aviators from her book: Wings of Gold: The Story of the First Women Naval Aviators from Lyons Press.

Beverly Weintraub is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose coverage of aviation, education and social services has appeared in the New York Daily News and the Washington Post. She served for 10 years on the Daily News Editorial Board, winning the Pulitzer with several colleagues for editorials examining the illnesses afflicting 9/11 first responders. She is currently executive editor at The 74, a K-12 education news site. An instrument-rated private pilot, Weintraub is a member of the Ninety-Nines, International Organization of Women Pilots; serves on the board of directors of the Air Race Classic, the annual all-women cross-country aeroplane race; and is a five-time ARC racer.

Header image: Captain Rosemary Mariner, the commander of VAQ-34 in the early 1990s. (Source: US Naval History and Heritage Command)

#HistoricBookReview – Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam, 1965-1972

#HistoricBookReview – Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam, 1965-1972

Marshall L. Michel III, Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam, 1965-1972. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997. Appendices. Endnotes. Index. 340 pp.

Reviewed by Dr James Young

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As indicated by the title, Marshall Michel’s Clashes is a chronological examination of the air war over North Vietnam. At the time of its publication in 1997, Clashes was the first comprehensive treatment of the conflict to take advantage of North Vietnamese sources. Unlike most of his predecessors, Michel consciously avoided basing his main argument on the political issues surrounding Operations ROLLING THUNDER and LINEBACKER. These political issues include targeting choices by the White House, bombing halts, and rules of engagement enforced by US Navy (USN) and the United States Air Force (USAF) Pacific Air Forces (PACAF). Instead, Michel focuses on the ‘military significance [USAF’s and USN’s bombing campaigns had] in the larger context of the Cold War and possible U.S.-Soviet military confrontation,’ as ‘this was the one area of the Vietnam War that had military significance in the global balance of power.’ (p. 1) Within this framework, Michel posits that the twin campaigns were a ‘test of American air combat performance,’ (p. 1) and then proceeds to explain how the USAF and USN largely failed the exam.

Michel’s organisation is simple, with Clashes divided into two chronological sections. The first of these begins with a discussion of air combat in general, the two American services’ thoughts on fighter doctrine, and how the USN and USAF evaluated these theories in a series of rigorously controlled exercises. Michel takes great pains to point out that these exercises, conducted in the clear skies and low humidity of the western United States, led to a misplaced faith in American technological superiority as the war began. After this introduction, Clashes transitions to the initial campaign against North Vietnam. After a cursory discussion of operational goals, Michel starts with the initial USN air raids and the gradual escalation that became ROLLING THUNDER. Clashes highlights the friction that emerged from both services’ aircrew rotation policies, internal and external service rivalries, a harsh climate and, most importantly, a rapidly evolving and uncooperative enemy. By the end of Part I, Clashes makes two things clear. First, the North Vietnamese proved to be far more capable opponents than the American forces expected, with their Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) arguably the deadliest of its kind in the entire world. Second, it became clear that the USAF/USN’s already inadequate conventional capabilities had worsened throughout ROLLING THUNDER.

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A US Navy Vought A-7A Corsair II from VA-27 prepares to be catapulted off the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Constellation (CVA-64) in the Gulf of Tonkin on 27 August 1968. It is armed with Mark 82 227 kg Snakeye bombs and AIM-9B Sidewinder missiles. VA-27 was assigned to Attack Carrier Air Wing 14 aboard the Constellation for a deployment to Vietnam from 29 May 1968 to 31 January 1969. (Source: Wikimedia)

Having presented the reader with this sobering assessment, Michel begins Part 2 by stating, ‘[t]he judgments about air-to-air combat during Rolling Thunder were a Rorschach test for the U.S. Air Force and Navy.’ (p. 181) The USAF’s leadership had a ‘clear lack of interest in improving its air training’ (p. 185) for several disparate reasons. In contrast, the USN’s admirals ensured that its crews were ‘prepared for the new round of air combat anywhere in the world’ (p. 188) by both enforcing new doctrine and modifying existing equipment. Michel manages to deftly interweave both services’ advances using simple yet accurate language concerning ordnance, electronics, and airframes. Finally, unlike other works before it, Clashes concludes Part II’s introductory chapter with a discussion of the North Vietnamese Air Force’s (NVAF’s) contemporaneous improvement in doctrine, equipment, and training. In this manner, Michel sets the table for the remainder of Part II by ensuring the reader understands why Operations LINEBACKER I and II are not simple continuations of ROLLING THUNDER. As with Part I, Michel’s writing ability stands out as he discusses how the USAF and USN engaged the NV-IADS. Only a prohibitive amount of resources prevented steep losses among strike aircraft for the USAF (p. 242-6). In contrast, the USN’s emphasis on the Top Gun program, missile improvements, and strike doctrine resulted in ‘MiGs concentat[ing] almost exclusively on Air Force sorties’ (p. 277) due to heavy losses. By drawing this stark contrast, Michel both explicitly condemns USAF leadership for their choices from 1968-1972. He implicitly proves his thesis by establishing a connection between difficulties in Southeast Asia being indicative of the USAF’s conventional capabilities in a broader Cold War sense.

Although subsequent books, such as Craig C. Hanna’s Striving for Air Superiority (2002) and Wayne Thompson’s To Hanoi and Back (2000) have taken advantage of more recently declassified documents, Clashes remains a work of tremendous value for anyone interested in post-Second World War air combat. Michel’s reliance on official USAF and USN primary documents, such as Project CHECO, the USAF’s Red Baron report, and the USN’s Ault Report, erases much of the ideological clutter affecting previous works that dealt with the war. When coupled with his skilful prose, the overall result is a balanced, informative account that is quite accessible. Clashes’ continued relevance would make it equally at home in a public library, a professional military course, or an undergraduate Vietnam course. Even beyond these uses, it remains an excellent cautionary tale of what can occur when an air service fails to rigorously test, train, and exercise its doctrine before entering a conflict. It is highly recommended for anyone interested in Cold War military history for all these reasons.

Dr James Young is an air power historian, aviation enthusiast and military analyst. His writing credits include the USNI’s 2016 Cyberwarfare Essay Contest, articles in ArmorThe Journal of Military History, Marine Corps University Press Expeditions, and USNI Proceedings. In addition to his historical work and the critically acclaimed Usurper’s War-series, he has collaborated with bestselling authors Sarah Hoyt, S.M. Stirling, and David Weber.

Header Image: A US Air Force Boeing B-52G Stratofortress from the 72nd Strategic Wing (Provisional) waits beside the runway at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, as another B-52 takes off for a bombing mission over North Vietnam during Operation LINEBACKER II on 15 December 1972. (Source: Wikimedia)

#Podcast – Never Panic Early: An Interview with Fred Haise

#Podcast – Never Panic Early: An Interview with Fred Haise

Editorial Note: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

Fred Haise was on Apollo 13, flew the space shuttle Enterprise, and had an extensive military aviation career. In this episode, he joins us for a deep dive into all of those experiences and reveals how he is able to keep calm in tough situations and not panic. That’s the subject of his new book, Never Panic Early: An Apollo 13 Astronaut’s Journey, from Smithsonian Books.

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Fred Haise served as a backup Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 8 and Apollo 11 before serving as the Lunar Module Pilot for the Apollo 13 mission. He worked with NASA for nine years after Apollo 13, serving on the backup crew for Apollo 16, commanding free flight test missions for the Space Shuttle program, and was scheduled to command Apollo 19 before its cancellation. He left NASA in 1979 to work as an executive for Grumman Aerospace Corp.

Header image: Fred Haise views his Apollo 13 mission patch, the flight on which he served in 1970, in a StenniSphere display donated to NASA by the American Needlepoint Guild. The exhibit is on permanent display at StenniSphere, the visitor center at John C. Stennis Space Center. (Source: Wikimedia)

#Podcast – The Apollo Program in Global Politics: An Interview with Dr Teasel Muir-Harmony

#Podcast – The Apollo Program in Global Politics: An Interview with Dr Teasel Muir-Harmony

Editorial Note: Led by our Editor Dr Mike Hankins, From Balloons to Drones produces a monthly podcast that provides an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and provides a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here. You can also find our podcast on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.

The Apollo program, including the moon landing, is one of the most famous events in world history, and one of the most inspirational. Dr Teasel Muir-Harmony, the Curator of the Apollo collection at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, joins us to re-evaluate Apollo and look at its political dimensions across the world. 

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Dr Teasel Muir-Harmony is a historian of science and technology and Curator of the Apollo Spacecraft Collection at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Before coming to the Smithsonian Institution, she earned a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and held positions at the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics and the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum. Her most recent book is Operation Moonglow: A Political History of Project Apollo (2020).

Header image: The Apollo 15 Service Module as viewed from the Apollo Lunar Module, 2 August 1971. (Source: Wikimedia)

 

#NavalAir22 #BookReview – TOPGUN – The Legacy: The Complete History of TOPGUN and Its Impact on Tactical Aviation

#NavalAir22 #BookReview – TOPGUN – The Legacy: The Complete History of TOPGUN and Its Impact on Tactical Aviation

Editorial note: During 2022, From Balloons to Droneswill be running a series of articles, including book reviews and podcasts, that focus on the development and use of air power in the naval and maritime spheres of operations. In this book review, Dr Michael Hankins reviews Brad Elward’s recent history of the US Navy Fighter Weapons School, which was created during the Vietnam War to help improve fighter capabilities within the Navy.

The call for submissions for our Naval and Maritime Air Power Revisited series can be found here.

Brad Elward, TOPGUN – The Legacy: The Complete History of TOPGUN and Its Impact on Tactical Aviation. Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military, 2021. Notes. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 688 pp.

Reviewed by Dr Michael W. Hankins

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The United States Navy Fighter Weapons School, also known as TOPGUN, is one of the most popular aspects of the history of US military aviation. The 1986 eponymous film about the program launched the school into the public consciousness, and the topic has remained popular enough to prompt a much-anticipated sequel set to release in 2022. It is somewhat surprising then that there has yet to be a solid monograph about the history of TOPGUN. Some useful books exist, such as Robert Wilcox’s Scream of Eagles (2005), based on a series of oral histories, or the memoir of co-founder Dan Pedersen, Topgun: An American Story (2019). However, these are primarily the accounts of participants rather than a deeper analysis of TOPGUN’s development. Aviation author Brad Elward attempts to fill this gap with Topgun: The Legacy, a massive tome covering the school in extreme detail. This book is undoubtedly the definitive guide to the TOPGUN programme, and it is difficult to imagine a more authoritative work on the subject. However, while a few missed opportunities result in the book being a bit less than the sum of its parts, those parts present are very strong and offer significant value to the reader.

The first thing readers will notice about this book is how massive it is. It’s huge, heavy, and hard to hold. It’s packed with small print spread over 688 pages—over 130 of which are reserved for footnotes. Although perhaps difficult for a casual read, the book’s size reveals just how rich it is in detail and research. Elward conducted over 450 interviews and had more access to the archived records of TOPGUN than any other researcher. This allows Elward to present unprecedented intricacy levels about what happened at TOPGUN over its history. Minute details are revealed, including the changes to the curriculum over the years, precisely who participated and in what capacities, the partnerships with other services, the school’s relationship to the rest of the US Navy, and far more. All this detail is bolstered by frank personal accounts of pilots, instructors, and other participants and eyewitnesses, which adds a fascinating layer to the narrative that is a great read.

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Just two months after the Ault Report was published, TOPGUN was up and running in an old trailer at NAS Miramar. The first class graduated later that year, c. 1969. (Source: US Naval Institute)

One element that jumped out was how often the curriculum changed and how quickly the instructors adapted to a changing environment. The courses were constantly revised and kept up to date, even in the face of significant challenges to the concept of TOPGUN. For example, introducing the F/A-18 Hornet prompted the instructors to incorporate more ground attack elements into their classes, overturning their previous exclusive focus on air-to-air combat. Tension remained, however, between the TOPGUN participants and the attack community, particularly those involved in the STRIKE U (Naval Strike Warfare Center) program. At times, the rivalry and posturing between these groups approached levels of drama associated with reality television. The level of cooperation between TOPGUN and other services was significant as well. Close coordination with the US Marines and the US Air Force helped create a more joint approach to training and the sharing of information. This had a noticeable effect on the combat operations of the 1990s and beyond, as aircrews could work together in a more joint-minded way than in previous conflicts.

Elward also brings a much welcome look into this more recent history of the school. Previous work on TOPGUN tends to focus on its early years and its influence on air combat in the Vietnam War. Elward brings an intricate amount of detail to the later years of TOPGUN in chapters arranged by decade. In this analysis, the 1990s emerge as the period of the most major transition in curriculum, approach, and aircraft. The school adopted new aircraft and teaching foci during that period and moved from Naval Air Station Miramar in California to Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada. The programme also took major organizational steps to change its relationship with the rest of the fleet, becoming more integrated and able to spread expertise throughout the force much more effectively. It was during this period, in 1996, when TOPGUN and STRIKE U merged along with the Carrier Airborne Early Warning Weapons School to form what is now known as Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center. Other significant changes to teaching in the 2000s as the global war on terror entailed a much heavier emphasis on ground attack as near-peer threats emerged in the air. Elward’s analysis is so detailed that it includes lengthy discussions of how the school switched to using email or other more mundane aspects of running the program brought about by changes in personal computing.

The book does have a few weaknesses, however. These mostly stem from the author’s enthusiasm for TOPGUN, which at times moves into advocacy for the program. This is evident in Elward’s main thesis, which is that in the major conflicts of the 20th Century, the US military forgot and had to re-learn the fundamentals of air combat, and only the formation of the US Navy’s TOPGUN program ended this cycle. This argument is similar to previous works (such as Wilcox and Pedersen). This thesis is unconvincing. Elward rightly points out that air combat knowledge was passed from pilots with experience in one conflict to those of the next, and the US Air Force’s Fighter Weapons School was active and successful throughout the early Cold War. The alleged habitual forgetting is not evident except in the case of the early 1960s, in which air-to-air combat training was severely reduced (or even eliminated) in the US Air Force and US Navy. The first several chapters are a useful synthesis of other works on the topic of air-to-air combat, but the book might be stronger without them.

In the attempt to portray TOPGUN as the solution to major problems, there are a few noticeable omissions of issues that might reflect less positively on the program. For example, the discussion of the Tailhook sexual assault incidents is dismissive and defensive, and Elward omits the tragic death of pilot Art Scholl while filming the Top Gun movie. Racial disparity is not mentioned, and the book does not address that TOPGUN has been overwhelmingly white and gives no recognition to the few African Americans who participated in and contributed to the program.

These flaws, however, do not change the fact that this book is incredibly well-researched, deeply detailed, and remains an engaging read even given its length. There will always be more room to ask new historical questions about TOPGUN, but this book has cemented its place as a definitive source on the topic. Elward’s work is sure to please enthusiasts and many general readers. Aviation scholars will find this a very useful source as well.

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 Weaponisation of Fighter Pilot Nostalgia (2021). He is also the Podcast 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 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.

Header image: The adversary instructor program was one of TOPGUN’s early contributions. When the US Navy established fleet adversary squadrons in the 1970s, it was important that adversary pilots provide standardized threat presentations in aircraft such as F-5s (top and middle) and A-4s (bottom). (Source: US Naval Institute)

#BookReview – Lavi: The United States, Israel and the Controversial Fighter Jet

#BookReview – Lavi: The United States, Israel and the Controversial Fighter Jet

John W. Golan, Lavi: The United States, Israel and the Controversial Fighter Jet. Lincoln NE: Potomac Books, 2016. Index. Maps. Figures. Tables. Images. Appendices. HBK. 416 pp.

Reviewed by Richard Shimooka

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John Golan’s Lavi is a unique and welcome contribution to the field as the history of defence procurement, in general, remains a somewhat esoteric research area. Golan’s work focuses on the Israeli designed Lavi, a purpose-built close air support aircraft designed to replace the venerable Douglas A-4 Skyhawk in the Israeli Armed Forces (IAF) service. It had a short, bright life before the project reached an ignominious conclusion with a high stakes Israeli government cabinet meeting. Golan’s book chronicles the project’s history, drawing from a wide variety of primary sources, including documentation, interviews, and secondary sources. He effectively conveys Israel’s unique security environment and the need for a strong indigenous industrial base, which helped guide the programme’s development.

Golan’s unique background as an aviation engineer infuses his work with a different perspective than other accounts. He sews together many of the programme’s technical aspects with the project’s political, diplomatic, programme management, and doctrinal dimensions. That synthesis is rare in many accounts, which examine one or two areas and only make perfunctory acknowledgements of other areas. Lavi avoids that trap and is one of the most comprehensive treatments of a recent procurement project. The book starts by exploring the strategic and doctrinal history of the IAF that led to the project and the development of the country’s aviation industry that enabled its creation. A crucial part of these sections is how Golan highlights the experiences of various personnel, such as Benjamin Peled (p. 24) and Ezer Weizman (p. 37), who both played important roles during the Lavi’s gestation. The book then moves onto the programme’s project management, political, and technical dimensions, tracing its development until its demise. The book’s last third covers some of the post-cancellation fallout and effects.

One part of the book bears special mention: the appendixes. While most authors use them to elucidate topics not adequately addressed in the text, Golan adds nearly 100 pages covering various aspects of fighter design, performance, construction, and industrial considerations. No such comparable study exists that collects all these considerations in one place. It is the icing on top of the author’s already excellent book.

However, the account has a few shortcomings. The most apparent is how Golan addresses the factors and decision-making that led to the programme’s collapse. The book catalogues the wide array of factors that led to its cancellation, such as the desperate state of Israeli public finances in the late 1980s. However, the book largely relegates them as contributing factors throughout its narrative. Golan reserves much of the blame surrounding the programme’s collapse to US Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger. In particular, the secretary’s anti-Israeli perspective and dogged bureaucratic approach are noted as being particularly effective at convincing already reticent Israeli authorities to cancel the programme.  Golan prioritises Weinberger’s agency over all other actors and seems to give his role the preponderance of blame for the outcome.

While Weinberger undoubtedly played an obstructionist role, the Israeli government was not the only one to encounter his department’s intransigence towards multinational fighter projects. For example, the development of the Japanese Mitsubishi F-2 programme experienced similar levels of strife. Thus, any multinational programme would encounter political hurdles within the United States.

Nevertheless, Golan’s focus on the political and diplomatic aspects of the programme’s cancellation slightly underplays some of the other dynamics that affected the outcome. One is the economic and industrial trends that affected all western fighter development programmes during the latter half of the Cold War. The number of Western fighter manufacturers started to decline between the 1960s to 1980s, largely due to the rising cost of developing and producing fighters, which far outpaced normal inflation.

In isolation, Israel might have been able to absorb these cost increases. However, the fiscal realities of the state were dire, as Golan described:

At the time that Israel’s National Unity Government took office, the nation was undergoing an economic earthquake. Decades of extended defense budgets had taken their toll. Defense expenditures had always been a leading element in Israel’s national budget. In the aftermath of the 1973 war, however, Israeli defense expenditures had skyrocketed – consuming an average of 24 percent of Israel’s gross domestic product during the decade that followed. In comparison, the United States – even at the height of the war in Vietnam – devoted less than 10 percent of its GDP toward defense. The burden on Israel’s economy was unbearable, driving budget deficits and inflation to unprecedented levels. (p. 101)

Golan’s characterises the factors pertaining to the Lavi’s demise as chess pieces employed by Weinberger and his staff to cancel the fighter. However, given these desperate economic realities, it is difficult to see how the programme would continue even after the fateful cancellation of the fighter on August 31, 1987. Already there was significant support for either cancelling or curtailing Lavi purchases within the Israeli cabinet. If purchases were reduced, this would create a phenomenon known as a death spiral, where decreasing lot purchases result in higher unit costs, often leading to further reductions.

Another significant dynamic unexplored in the book is the major, ongoing doctrinal shift in the close-air support mission. Golan’s work is effusive in its praise for the Israeli fighter, often pointing out its ability to undertake this mission. However, the book fails to cover the changing threat landscape, which would pose significant challenges for the aircraft’s viability in its assigned mission.

It should be noted that these are relatively minor issues in an otherwise excellent book. Very few accounts have synthesised such a disparate but relevant array of facts to create an authoritative account of the programme. Golan’s weighting of these factors may invite some critique and debate, but that should by no means discourage anyone from reading this outstanding work.

Richard Shimooka is a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, Canada. He was a Senior Fellow at the Defence Management Studies Programme at Queen’s University from 2007–2012, and a Research Fellow at the Conference of Defence Associations Institute from 2012-2017. Richard works’ cover a diverse array of topics, including Canadian and American foreign and defence policy, modern air power and defence procurement.

Header image: IAI Lavi B-2 prototype at Muzeyon Heyl ha-Avir, Hatzerim, Israel. 2006. (Source: Wikimedia)

#BookReview – CIA Station D: Area 51 – The Complete Illustrated History of the CIA’s Station D at Area 51

#BookReview – CIA Station D: Area 51 – The Complete Illustrated History of the CIA’s Station D at Area 51

T.D. Barnes, CIA Station D: Area 51 – The Complete Illustrated History of the CIA’s Station D at Area 51. Danbury, CT: Begell House, 2021. Photographs. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. 590 pp. HBK.

Reviewed by Dr Michael W. Hankins

cia-station-d-area-51

Area 51 has long been a source of fascination, intrigue, and conspiracy theories. It has also inspired popular culture from television and film to 2019’s widely publicised (but barely attended) Facebook-based attempt to ‘storm the site. However, those familiar with the military aviation world have long known that Area 51 is little more than a US Air Force (USAF) (formerly Central Intelligence Agency, CIA) facility where experimental aircraft are tested. This includes everything from the U-2 spy plane to the F-117 stealth fighter. T.D. Barnes, who worked with the CIA during its formative years at Area 51, attempts to set the record straight with this new book covering the CIA’s activities in the Nevada desert during the early and mid-Cold War. The result is a profoundly informative work that reveals new stories and will please enthusiasts. Still, the size of the book and its challenging organisation might be overwhelming for casual readers.

From the early origins of Station D, which only much later became known as Area 51, Barnes traces the major CIA aviation programs based there. These include the U-2, the A-12 (and associated Blackbird ‘family’ aircraft of the YF-12, SR-71, and M-21), and the MiG exploitation programs that evaluated and flew captured Soviet aircraft. Some side projects associated with these significant programs are explored as well, most notably Project PALLADIUM, which provided valuable intelligence on Soviet radar capabilities. The details of these programs will already be known to many readers. For example, the Blackbird family programs are well documented by works such as Paul Crickmore’s Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions (revised edition, 2016) or Richard Graham’s The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird (2015). However, Barnes’ work reveals fascinating new details about even these well-covered topics. Barnes presents both familiar and new stories from the perspective of the CIA rather than from the USAF or industry contractors. The Palladium program is particularly interesting, involving complicated, world-ranging plots to send fake signals in the direction of the Soviet Union to see what their radars could detect. Barnes does a good job of tracing the story from field teams collecting information to how information was analysed and used in technological and strategic decision-making at the highest levels.

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A scale model of an A-12 prepared for radar cross section measurements at ‘Area 51,’ c. 1959. (Source: Wikimedia)

This fresh perspective is also wide-ranging. At times, Barnes zooms out to discuss broad historical topics and focuses on minute details of a particular program. As a result, readers will find a wealth of immense detail, as well as many photographs, some of which have not been published before (although some of the photos are of low resolution and appear pixelated on the page). Although technology is often at the centre of these stories, Barnes also sheds interesting light on the institutional histories; seeing the organisational evolution and institutional rivalries from the CIA’s perspective is an interesting and welcome lens on this material. For example, Barnes traces the various tensions between the CIA and the USAF, from high command to individual personnel.

The individual level is where the book really shines. Barnes gives a true, ‘on the ground’ account of many of these programs, not only showing how the CIA’s efforts affected the Cold War, but depicting what it felt like to live there, to work there, and the realities of day-to-day life inside a top-secret facility working on advanced, world-changing programs. The Blackbirds may have been top-of-the-line, sleek, space-age aircraft. Still, Barnes contrasts that with stories about the trouble getting clearances and badges, the type of housing available on the station, the type of bars that employees frequented, and the games with which personnel and pilots amused themselves. Whether he is telling a detailed technological history or something personal, the focus is on the details of these stories – there is no large historical analysis, nor a broad historical argument made in this book.

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A MiG-21F-13 flown by United States Navy and Air Force Systems Command during HAVE DOUGHNUT in 1968. (Source: Wikimedia).

As interesting as the material is, some readers have a few barriers to entry. The first is the whopping price tag of US$149. Although this cost might be too high for some readers, it is worth noting the amount of material one gets for the price. The book is heavy and massive, almost unwieldy. It contains nearly 600 oversized, double-columned pages, each of which is almost twice the dimensions of a typical print book. In terms of word count, this is probably about three typical books’ worth of material, which might help to justify the cost for some readers.Historians looking for a thesis will not find one, as the work does not seek to make a historical argument. Instead, it is focused on detailed accounts of individual stories. Furthermore, although the book is packed with detail, the immense amount of material might be difficult for some readers to navigate. In addition, it is written in a meandering style, which is sometimes charming, but at other times leads to repetition. In some cases, stories are told and retold, sometimes more than once. Usually, the retellings of stories contain slightly different emphases, but periodically sentences are repeated verbatim, and in some cases, photographs are reused. There are no footnotes and only a brief bibliography. Except for a few instances where a document is referenced directly in the text, readers may have trouble finding sources for information or quotes.

In conclusion, enthusiasts of the U-2, A-12/SR-71, and captured MiG programs will likely find much to like about this book, including newly discovered details and fresh images from a new perspective. Although it is a bit less accessible to casual readers, researchers will find plenty to pore over here.

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 Weaponisation of Fighter Pilot Nostalgia (2021). He is also the Podcast 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 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.

Header image: A Lockheed M-21 carrying Lockheed D-21 drone in flight. (Source: Wikimedia)