Cold War Nuclear-Powered Aircraft: A Step Too Far

Cold War Nuclear-Powered Aircraft: A Step Too Far

By Dr Peter Layton[1]

Birds and aircraft have a fundamental problem: their range and endurance are limited. To remain aloft requires the expenditure of energy. Eventually, birds must land and rest, and aircraft must refuel. The invention of nuclear power in the 1940s appeared to offer a way to cut this Gordian knot. A nuclear-powered aircraft could, it seemed, provide dramatically improved range and endurance compared to chemically fuelled powered aircraft.

Such ambitions were strengthened as the Cold War between the US and the USSR worsened. The Cold War released immense funding for military purposes while providing an operational rationale: a requirement for very long-range bombers able to strike military-industrial complexes deep in the Soviet heartland. The generous funding now available meant numerous new high technology possibilities could be considered, built, trialled and if successful enter mass production. An obvious candidate to research and investigate seemed nuclear-powered aircraft.

The original ideas about using nuclear power for aircraft propulsion had appeared around 1944. These led to a minor research program, the Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft study, beginning in mid-1946. Undertaken by Fairchild, this examined reactor technologies and engine transfer systems. These studies proved encouraging and so in 1951, with the Cold War deepening, the United States Air Force (USAF) proposed to begin actively developing manned aircraft nuclear propulsion. Contracts were let for three main elements: two X-6 prototype test aircraft, a nuclear propulsion system (reactor and turbojets) and an NB-36H reactor flight-test aircraft.

NB-36H_with_B-50,_1955_-_DF-SC-83-09332
An air-to-air view of the Convair NB-36H Peacemaker experimental aircraft and a Boeing B-50 Superfortress chase plane during research and development taking place at the Convair plant at Forth Worth, Texas. This plane was called the Nuclear Test Aircraft (NTA) and was redesignated XB-36H, then NB-36H. The NTA completed 47 test flights and 215 hours of flight time (during 89 of which the reactor was operated) between July 1955 and March 1957 over New Mexico and Texas. (Source: Wikimedia)

Convair received the X-6 contract. The aircraft was envisaged as being of comparable size to the company’s B-36 Peacemaker bomber with a length of 50m, a wingspan of 70m and an empty weight of some 100 tonnes. The X-6 was planned to have 12 turbojets; eight conventionally fuelled used for take-off and landing, and four nuclear-powered used during in-flight trials. This was an ambitious but expensive test program and was cancelled by the incoming Eisenhower administration in 1953 on budgetary grounds. However, the other two elements continued.[2]

General Electric was awarded the propulsion contract, progressively developing across 1955-1961 three direct-cycle nuclear power plants under the ground-based Heat Transfer Reactor Experiment (HTRE) test-rig program. The final HTRE-3 propulsion system featured a solid moderator using lightweight hybrided (sic) zirconium instead of water, a horizontal reactor to meet aircraft carriage requirements and produced sufficient heat to power two X-39-5 (modified J-47) turbojets simultaneously. HTRE-3 had several firsts including demonstrating an all-nuclear turbojet start, having a primary shield able to handle radiation levels expected in flight and in being designed for in-flight stresses, air pressures, temperatures, and G loadings.[3]

The third element was to flight test a reactor. In mid-1952, Convair was contracted to modify two B-36 aircraft: one for a ground test, the other for flight test and designated as the NB-36H. The major modifications involved firstly, the crew compartment and avionic cabin being replaced by an 11-tonne nose section lined with lead and rubber to protect against reactor radiation and secondly, the rear internal bomb bay being altered to allow fitment of the 16-tonne reactor. Less apparent were the cockpit glass transparencies being some 30cm thick and nine water-filled shield tanks in the fuselage to absorb any escaping radiation.[4]

In the meantime, the USAF was firming up its requirements. In March 1955, General Operational Requirement (GOR) No. 81 was issued seeking a nuclear-powered weapon system, WS-125A. Aspirations included a range of about 10,000nm, an operating altitude of 60,000-75,000ft and an endurance of perhaps more than a week airborne.[5]  WS-125A was to have a cruise speed of at least Mach 0.9, desirably offer supersonic dash in the target area and enter service with operational units in 1963.[6]  Realising such high ambitions was to prove problematic.

In July 1955, the NB-36H began flight test with the reactor going critical in flight for the first time in September. The reactor did not power the aircraft, instead of being tested to verify the feasibility of a safe, sustained nuclear reaction on a moving platform. For each NB-36 flight, the one-megawatt reactor was winched up into the bomb bay at a dedicated pit at Convair’s Fort Worth plant and then removed again after landing.[7] When in flight, the aircraft was accompanied by a radiation-monitoring B-50 (a slightly updated B-29) and a C-119 transport aircraft carrying paratroopers able to be dropped to secure any crash site and limit bystander exposure to radiation.[8] In total, the NB-36H made 47 flights, ceasing flying in March 1957.

The results of the nuclear propulsion tests and the NB-36H were mixed. HTRE-3 had proven nuclear-power turbojet feasible and that a flyable propulsion unit could be built albeit technical challenges remained. The major problem was that it was hard to build a nuclear reactor small enough to fit into aircraft, but which produced the operationally significant energy output required. It seemed that using contemporary technology would mean nuclear-powered aircraft were relatively slow. For a time, concepts of ‘nuclear cruise, chemical dash’ were investigated; supplemental aviation fuel would allow supersonic dash in the target area.[9]

Moreover, the NB-36H flight programme highlighted the hazards associated with operating such nuclear-powered aircraft. While well-shielded aircraft would not normally pose radiation dangers to air or ground crew, there were worries that accidents and crashes might release fission products from the reactors, and about the dosage from prolonged human exposure to leakage radioactivity.[10] In this, the test flights mainly served to draw attention to the real difficulties that would arise in working with nuclear fuel in operational service conditions.[11]

WS-125A was accordingly cancelled in early 1957. However, there remained occasional flickers of renewed interest in nuclear-powered aircraft into the early 1960s. The Continuously Airborne Missile Air Launcher (CAMAL) concept called for a nuclear-powered strike aircraft able to stay aloft on airborne alert for 2-5 days. This led into Dromedary, a turboprop design capable of an airborne alert for 70-100 hours and able to stand-off outside hostile territory and launch the 600-1000nm Skybolt ballistic missile.[12] These ideas meant research into aircraft nuclear propulsion continued although in only a fairly desultory fashion. This finally ended in 1961 when the new Kennedy administration reallocated funding.

The US Navy had also occasionally expressed interest in nuclear-powered turboprop flying boats. In April 1955, Operational Requirement CA-01503 sought a nuclear-powered seaplane capable of high subsonic speeds primarily for the attack of ports and warships using conventional and nuclear weapons with the secondary roles of mining and reconnaissance. The USN desired to have a prototype available for its evaluation no later than 1961. By mid-1956 the Navy had decided a solely-USN power plant was unjustifiable and that the Navy’s aircraft would use the USAF’s WS-125A power plant. The cancellation of the WS-125A thus terminated the USN’s plans as well.[13]  At one stage, it seemed the UK might sell three mothballed Princess-class flying boats to the USN for nuclear-power trials, but funding oscillated and eventually was not forthcoming.[14]

Further afield, the USSR was also busy. In the late 1950s Tupolev designed but did not build two nuclear-powered bombers: the subsonic Tu-119 and supersonic Tu-120. The Soviet leadership thought the projected payloads and speed were inadequate for the costs involved. Tupolev was though authorised to continue research on nuclear aircraft.[15] Accordingly, a Tu-95 turboprop bomber was modified at a nuclear complex near Semipalatinsk in Kazakhstan to allow flying a nuclear reactor, becoming the Tu-95LAL (Letayushchaya atomnaya laboratorya – flying atomic laboratory).[16] Mirroring the NB-36H trails, some 34 Tu-95LAL flights were undertaken in 1961 with the reactor on board but without providing propulsion. The tests similarly revealed that a nuclear-powered aircraft was impractical with the technology of the time. The gain in performance from not carrying chemical fuel was consumed by the heavy reactor and shields and so Soviet interest in nuclear-powered aircraft declined.[17]

Tu119side
The Tu-95LAL test aircraft. The bulge in the fuselage aft of the wing covers the reactor.(Source: Wikimedia)

In the end, a better technological solution won out. For both the US and the USSR, the ICBM fitted with lightweight thermonuclear warheads offered a much better answer to the problem of a long-range, highly survivable nuclear strike. The considerable effort and funds expended in investigating nuclear-powered manned aircraft yielded much technical information and engineering expertise but ultimately little else. This was not for lack of interest in the defence aerospace industry. At the time, Kelly Johnson of Lockheed’s Skunk Works fame wrote:

After a half century of striving to make aircraft carry reasonable loads farther and farther, the advent of a [nuclear] power plant that will solve the range problem is of the utmost importance […] this unique characteristic is one to be greeted enthusiastically.[18]

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

Header Image: An NB-36H producing contrails in flight. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] This post partly draws on the author’s Chapter in Michael Spencer (ed.), Nuclear Engine Air Power (Canberra: Air Power Development Centre, 2019). This book discusses contemporary nuclear-powered propulsion systems for aircraft and missiles.

[2].  Jay Miller, The X-Planes: X-1 to X-31 (Arlington: Aerofax, 1988), pp. 69-73.

[3].  F.C. Linn, Heat Transfer Reactor Experiment No.3: Comprehensive Technical report, General Electric Direct-Air Cycle Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program (Cincinnati: General Electric Company, 1962), pp. 15-18.

[4].  Raul Colon, Flying on Nuclear: The American Effort to Built a Nuclear Powered Bomber.

[5].  Theo Farrell, ‘Waste in weapons acquisition: How the Americans do it all wrong,’ Contemporary Security Policy, 16:2 (1995), p. 194; ‘Thoughts on WS-110A,’ Flight, 10 January 1958, p. 44.

[6].  Comptroller General of the United States, Review of the Manned Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program of the Atomic Energy Commission and the Department of Defense, B-146749, 28 February 1963, p. 133

[7].  Colon, Flying on Nuclear.

[8].  Miller, The X-Planes., p. 210.

[9]Ibid., p. 73.

[10].  Brian D. Bikowicz, The Decay of the Atomic Powered Aircraft Program, 12 Nov 1992.

[11].  Bruce Astridge, ‘Propulsion,’ in Phillip Jarrett (ed.), Faster, further, higher: leading-edge aviation technology since 194 (London: Putnam, 2002), p. 134.

[12].  Peter J. Roman, ‘Strategic bombers over the missile horizon, 1957–1963,’ Journal of Strategic Studies, 18:1 (1995), pp. 208-13.

[13].  Comptroller General, Review of the Manned Aircraft Nuclear Propulsion Program, pp. 134-40.

[14].  Raymond L. Garthoff, ‘The Swallow and Caspian Sea Monster vs. the Princess and the Camel: The Cold War Contest for a Nuclear-Powered Aircraft,’ Studies in Intelligence, 60:2 (2016), p. 3.

[15].  Arthur J. Alexander, ‘Decision-Making in Soviet Weapons Procurement,’ Adelphi Papers, 18:147-148, (1978), p.32.

[16].  Garthoff, ‘The Swallow and Caspian Sea Monster vs. the Princess and the Camel,’ p. 2.

[17].  Piotr Butowski, ‘Steps Towards Blackjack,’ Air Enthusiast, 73 (1998), p. 40.

[18].  F.A. Cleveland and Clarence L. Johnson, ‘Design of Air Frames for Nuclear Power’, quoted in Bikowicz, Decay.

#BookReview – John Houbolt: The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings

#BookReview – John Houbolt:  The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings

Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie

William F. Causey, John Houbolt:  The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings. West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 2020. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 347 pp.

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There has been no cooling in the publication of space-related material in the aftermath of the Apollo 11 50th Anniversary. Partially in response to NASA’s returning astronauts to space from American soil this year and partially in response to an undeniable zeitgeist, NASA is enjoying renewed popular support. This provides an excellent opportunity for the publication of further scholarship about the history of the organisation. Academic presses (Florida, Nebraska, and Purdue) have been working hard to expand, and further our understanding of not only crewed exploration of the cosmos, but also the choices made in advance of rockets leaving the launch pad. To that end, Purdue University has recently published John Houbolt:  The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings by William F. Causey. Causey’s Houbolt examines NASA’s decision-making process through the lens of an individual. This approach places emphasis on the members of NASA–this is their story and not the story of the astronauts riding rockets. That being said, Causey’s book is no less amazing than the stories of the astronauts themselves and by pulling back the curtain, Causey deftly reveals the backstory and offers a fresh look at how NASA ultimately decided the method that would lead to footprints on the moon.

My introduction to the mind of John Houbolt, and I would wager some our readers as well, came in the form of the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon (based in part off the book A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts by Andrew Chaikin). In the episode ‘Spider,’ Houbolt is shown as the ‘voice in the wilderness’ who bravely stood against senior NASA leaders to preach the gospel of Lunar Orbit Rendezvous (LOR) as the preferred method of sending astronauts to the moon.

Causey’s work demonstrates that the history of LOR is richer than just Houbolt’s contributions and the entire work is as much a history of NASA’s early years and its decision-making process as it is about Houbolt himself. This is a book about how we got to the moon, or rather, about how NASA decided how we would get to the moon. Causey’s work covers the period from roughly 1957 to 1963 and represents a comprehensive and readable history of NASA’s early years, but one that still brings a fresh and nuanced perspective to a familiar story.

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On 24 July 1962, Dr John Houbolt explained his lunar orbit rendezvous concept for landing on the Moon. His approach called for a separate lander which saved weight from the ‘direct ascent’ design in which the entire spacecraft landed on the lunar surface. (Source: NASA)

This is a vital book as it refocuses attention on the thousands of people who aided our ascension to deep space for the first time. While the written record has generally favoured the importance of the astronauts themselves in numerous books, biographies, and autobiographies, the recent trend in focus on the individuals behind the scenes has improved our understanding of the golden age of NASA and crewed spaceflight. Causey’s biography of Houbolt now sits alongside other recent publications including Sonny Tsiao’s Piercing the Horizon: The Story of Visionary NASA Chief Tom Paine, Richard Jurek’s The Ultimate Engineer: The Remarkable Life of NASA’s Visionary Leader George M. Low and Rick Houston and Milt Heflin’s Go, Flight! The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control, 1965-1992. This is important for several reasons, but perhaps most of all because these books continue to expand our understanding of NASA as an organisation composed of thousands and not as one whose principal employees are those at the end of propellant-fueled rockets.

Causey writes with a deftness and a flair that keeps the narrative moving forward even when the subject matter is the Space Task Group, the Goett Committee, the New Projects Panel or any number of other bureaucratic organisations in the NASA hierarchy. This work never feels like you are reading the history of an organisational board meeting, but adroitly describes how the workers at the various levels of NASA made the important decisions necessary that made the entire Apollo program possible. If you are picking up this work, there stands a good chance you have more than a passing understanding of NASA’s history and organisation, and while you might be familiar with the LOR story, Causey’s telling through the lens of Houbolt is worth a read even if you think you have read it all already and neither the scholar nor the buff will be disappointed. This is an essential and much-needed addition to the history of the Apollo Program. Causey’s John Houbolt:  The Unsung Hero of the Apollo Moon Landings is a critical and stimulating look at the individual of John Houbolt, but also at NASA writ large.

Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. He is also the author of Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force.  He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found online at www.BrianLaslie.com

Header Image: A view of the Apollo 11 lunar module Eagle as it returned from the surface of the moon to dock with the command module Columbia. A smooth mare area is visible on the Moon below and a half-illuminated Earth hangs over the horizon. The lunar module ascent stage was about 4 meters across. (Source: NASA)

#Podcast – Interview with Dr Tyler Morton

#Podcast – Interview with Dr Tyler Morton

Editorial Note: From Balloons to Drones is pleased to announce our new podcast series. Led by Assistant Editor Dr Mike Hankins, the series builds on the success of From Balloons to Drones, and it 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.

In our latest podcast, we interview Dr Tyler Morton to discuss his new book From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance. Not only do we get some incredible stories about aerial surveillance (especially from the WW2-era), but we have a blast talking about our biggest “nerd moments” from the archives, and why that type of work is so powerful and exciting!

You can find a review of Tyler’s new book here.

811-jEbGabLDr Tyler Morton is currently a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He is an active duty US Air Force officer who holds a PhD in Military Strategy from the Air University. He is the author of From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance (2019). He can be found on Twitter at @ty_morto.

Header Image: A U-2C painted in a gray camouflage pattern called the ‘Sabre’ scheme in 1975. The camouflage replaced the usual black finish to ease British concerns about ‘spy planes’ operating from the UK. In Europe, this U-2 tested equipment to locate and suppress enemy surface-to-air missiles. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

A Unified Framework for Air Power Studies

A Unified Framework for Air Power Studies

By Major Jaylan Haley

What is air power? How do we study it? How do we use it? Do previous characterisations sufficiently capture the concept? Perhaps. This article contends that prior attempts to put meat on the bone towards a framework to study air power scholarship are insufficient.

Moreover, we must appreciate the richness of our inquiries if we – scholars and professionals, such as political scientists, historians, policymakers, practitioners and users – want to understand better the concept of air power to help answer important questions. These questions may be:  how do civilian airline pilots and training schools contribute to a nation’s ‘air power?’ Can peacetime control of airspace access constitute a form of air power? To what extent does air information, such as weather, the electromagnetic environment, knowledge of space weather, constitute a form of air power? Furthermore, more, importantly, how do these questions and related concepts orient to each other.  As such, this article argues that air power is the domain-agnostic admixture of personalities, outcomes, organisations, technologies, ideas and events to do or, that do, something in or for, the air.[1]

This definition is unique in that it explicitly and parsimoniously joins together the breadth of military and civilian endeavours. It highlights the ‘stickiness’ of related topics and contends that air power is not an inherently military pursuit, though its application almost always manifests as such. The definition provides more form to the general, varied ideas of military thinkers about essential elements of air power.[2] This article begins the discussion on the topic of how we structure air power studies across various academic fields and cordons a more robust dissection of the topic in future publications. Furthermore, this article details the constituent components of air power to clarify meaning. Then, it uses this perception of air power to explain its evolution throughout history. Finally, briefly, it discusses our current air power disposition to make sense of what component will drive innovation in the coming decades — organisations.  So, how have we come to envisage this elusive thing we call air power?

Definition and Components of Air Power

In the Age of Airpower, Martin Van Creveld explored about 250 years of the concept. Among others, he highlighted the work of people with simple, yet elegant definitions of air power, such as that of Brigadier General William ‘Billy’ Mitchell who viewed it as doing ‘something in the air.’[3] Other writers such as Mark Clodfelter provided more angles: breaking the concept of air power into direct and indirect applications.[4]  For Clodfelter, direct air power generally involves kinetic outcomes such as bombing and indirect presumes more non-kinetic capabilities, such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

Billy_Mitchell_at_his_court-martial
A scene from William ‘Billy’ Mitchell’s court-martial in 1925. (Wikimedia)

Meanwhile, organisations such as the US Air Force (USAF) define air power based on its organisational experience and conceptual refinement. The latest iteration of USAF Basic Doctrine defines the concept as ‘the ability to project military power or influence through the control and exploitation of air, space, and cyberspace to achieve strategic, operational, or tactical objectives.’[5] So, how do we break air power down for study?

While Mitchell’s definition is more parsimonious, adding a little complexity provides the explanatory muscle to how we think about air power and thus how we can consider the concept’s change over time. Foundationally, one should recognise that to do something in the air does not necessarily mean that the activity must originate in or from the air.[6] For instance, a ballistic missile launch originates from the land, traverses through the air and maybe space, and then strikes somewhere on land. This example demonstrates the potential of the agnosticism of the air domain. Furthermore, a more robust definition allows for careful, coordinated forecasting of future air power applications using clear and structured links within and across the subject’s elements.  For instance, air power researchers studying C-17 humanitarian assistance capabilities may be linked to those studying procedurally based command and control organisations as well as those studying the political effects of humanitarian assistance to optimise future disaster response towards national priorities.

Conceiving of air power as an admixture of component concepts: each noteworthy, though not equal, in characterising the ability to do something in the air is vital for several reasons. One benefit is to have more structured research programs that allow thinkers to situate their contribution to the subject area. Another is to generalise debates on air power concepts that link military and civilian theory and application. A generalisation can help guard against what seems to be a tendency to overly militarise air power thought, evoking the coercive and persuasive elements of the concept. The benefits are similar to those of academic fields like history or political science though air power studies can best be described as an interdisciplinary subfield or topical field.

Importantly, to be useful, the components must be defined. First, personalities may be individuals or groups that have a profound impact on the development of the notion. For instance, Mitchell vocally and publicly advanced the idea of a separate US military service despite the misgivings of more senior leaders, including President Calvin Coolidge.[7] In part, the general’s 1925 court-martial resulted from agitation for a separate US air service. However, the spectacle thrust air power into America’s national dialogue. He challenged the US Army – then overseeing land-based air forces – stating that their leaders were negligent for not building an air service capable of national defence. Mitchell is credited by many as being the original maverick in pursuing an idea of independent military air power that was largely sidelined at the time.  Mitchell’s persona, in part, catalysed the existence of organisations critical to the development of air power.

Mitchell’s calls for an independent air service bring us to the second component — organisations, which are administrative and operational systems that foster ideas, leverage people and exploit technologies towards some outcome. An exemplar is the USAF’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) under Major-General Curtis LeMay’s tutelage. SAC pursued the idea of ‘strategic’ air power, discussed later, towards its outcome of long-range conventional and nuclear bombing. SAC oversaw most of the US nuclear deterrent and development of bomber capabilities for the USAF. The organisation came to personify air power in the US and for much of the world during the Cold War.[8] Albeit an unfair approximation, civilians and military personnel alike were lent the idea of air power’s ability to render an outcome of total enemy devastation embodied by SAC’s long-range bombers and, later, ballistic missiles.[9]

In our context, outcomes are the effects, assessments and results by which military and civilian leaders come to associate air power. For instance, after the Second World War, both military and civilian leaders came to associate air power with the unconditional surrender of the enemy evoked by the use of nuclear weapons.[10] This idea created problems during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, where expectations outpaced the new reality of limited, non-nuclear warfare.[11]  Limited warfare lends itself to more technical means — leaving technology to be the more tangible, driving component of air power.

As a component, technology includes all the capabilities, research, design, development and testing that allow practitioners to do things in the air. For instance, a significant component of the US’ advancements in stealth technology originated with the Skunk Works team under Kelly Johnson’s orchestration, among others.[12] The team’s research and design techniques led to advances like the SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 Nighthawk.[13] These technologies, along with other capabilities-related advances, influenced expectations such as those discussed above: enabling the limited, non-nuclear warfare that became characteristic of vast swaths of America’s recent history.[14] However, while technology is sometimes the easiest to translate as an air power component, though not always easy to grasp, it is ideas that sometimes generate change.

SR-71_taxi_on_ramp_with_engines_powered_up
An SR-71 taxing on the ramp with engines powered up, c. 1995. (Source: Wikimedia)

Doctrine, strategy, theories, policies and politics combine to form air power’s conceptual component. These ideas embody how personalities can use other components. Reciprocally, all the other components can help thinkers conceive of new ways to conceptualise air power. To demonstrate, during Operation EL DORADO CANYON, President Reagan and his national security team viewed air power as a punitive instrument of national security policy.[15] Existent technologies in the 1980s allowed Reagan’s response to state-sponsored terrorism with a long-range, airstrike on targets tailored to the perceived offence.[16] Reagan’s team shepherded the technology component in a way that had not yet been explored to its fullest. They updated strategic attack doctrine; tested theories of international relations; set new international policies; and ignited the politics of air-driven limited, military interventions.

Events like Op EL DORADO CANYON also constitutes the last element of air power. Our understanding of past campaigns, battles and historical milestones enables a fuller appreciation of air power and the possibility of modifying its future use. Unfortunately, these so-called understandings can sometimes lead to misapplications of history and, ultimately, to disaster.[17] For instance, the counterinsurgency in Iraq that began almost immediately after the invasion in 2003 required a different application of air power than previously practised, but it would take multiple Secretaries of Defense to enforce this understanding upon the military, as evidenced by the explosion of unmanned technologies among others.[18]  The components of air power – personalities, organisations, outcomes, technologies, ideas and events – provide the critical infrastructure for the study of air power.  We can use this infrastructure to help us understand various aspects of the topic, like what elements may be more important at various times in history.  This understanding can help us orient ourselves in history relative to the seemingly dominant feature of our time so that those who study, and practice air power can best allocate resources, whether academically or practically.

Epochs of Air Power

In this section, this article now considers the prominence of the above elements as determinants of historical periods in air power’s evolution.  A short walkthrough of air power’s epochal changes rooted in the above-defined elements illuminates current and the future application of air power. Geoffrey Barraclough, in An Introduction to Contemporary History, provided an idea about ‘spots and jumps’ that define historical periods and transitions.[19] He used the timeframe 1880-1960 to discuss the shift between modern and contemporary history based primarily on economic and geopolitical factors.[20] Using a similar conception of eras punctuated by ‘spots and jumps,’ rooted in the components of air power to characterise the shifts, this section divides the evolution of air power into five timeframes. Importantly, during shifts between the timeframes, changes in predominant component concepts of air power led to changes in our concept of air power.

Before 1783 – The Age of Imagination

Air power before 1783 can be viewed as an ‘Age of Imagination’ or ideas. There were no bounds except those imposed by humanity’s evolving understanding of terrestrial physics. Some of the earliest human records depict mystical flying or lobbing objects through the air as weapons. In their way, our ancestors from around the world gave us our first concept of air power. They conceived of divinity by drawing and storytelling of gods that could defy gravity unassisted, a fruitless pursuit for mere mortals that dates to Greek, Roman and Chinese mythology. While ancient and pre-industrial humans did not themselves defy gravity, humankind created things to help defend themselves, such as arrows and trebuchet missiles. These weapons are essential to the study of air power because the idea of projectiles travelling large distances to destroy an enemy finds its roots here.  These weapons emerged over thousands of years, sometimes a crowning achievement of empires such as Persia and the Mongols. Nonetheless, the wild-eyed dreams of fantasy came to a relatively abrupt end in 1783 when the Montgolfiers floated their first balloon. The brothers’ flights began the period of the ‘Origins of Air Power.’

1783 to 1903 – The Origins of Air Power

Between 1783 and 1903, changes in the concept of air power resulted from slow changes in technologies. For instance, a new class of ‘aeronauts’ proliferated workable ballooning technologies that ended up in the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte, though his use is not the first use on the battlefield. He used available technologies when and where he could to enhance reconnaissance and direct artillery strikes. In 1798 Bonaparte used balloons to try to overawe the Egyptians in a campaign to subdue the Middle East and North Africa.  After an unsuccessful display, Napoleon ordered the balloon unit’s disbandment. Undoubtedly a balloon would have come in handy in 1815 when Napoleon looked for Grouchy to spot and crush Blucher’s flanking movement at Waterloo.[21] Nearly a half-century later, professionals continued to struggle with the concept of air power: conceiving of it as an unproven, unpredictable and unusable conglomeration of technologies and techniques, such as gas-producing machines for balloons, telegraphs and airborne mapmaking. Such was Thaddeus Lowe’s disposition in bringing air power to fruition during the American Civil War.[22]  Thus, it would be until the turn of the twentieth century.

1903 to 1945 – The Douhetian Epoch

From 1903 to 1945, ‘strategic’ air power and its offshoots was the idea that drove changes in the conception of air power as something more than an observational or auxiliary tool for ground forces. The idea of independent air power came to full fruition in August 1945 with the dropping of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan. To begin, in December 1903 the Wright Brothers brought heavier-than-air flight to reality. Driving the science of aeronautics were ideas like those refined by Giulio Douhet in the early part of the 20th century. Theorists like Douhet opined that wars could be won by striking at city centres from the air to break the will of a people, forcing them to surrender.[23] Douhet’s original Italian publication in 1921 would not get immediately translated into English; however, people like Hugh Trenchard, the first Royal Air Force commander, articulated similar thoughts and organised, trained and equipped his military forces towards those ends.[24] Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris would make use of Trenchard’s advancements during the Second World War over German cities such as Hamburg, Dresden and Berlin.[25] Though it would take the American military time to adopt the British model of indiscriminate bombing, this idea came to epitomise air power for the period.

Importantly, this was also the timeframe during which commercial air travel in lighter- and heavier-than-air vessels took root. Though the ‘golden’ age of commercial air travel would come later, concepts like air routes, navigating via beacons, airports and other ideas began to solidify. These concepts had both military and civilian applications and technologies that enabled further development of the idea of air assets used over long distances. However, the military would continue to dominate ideas about air power as a ‘strategic’ concept even as these ideas came into contact with a significant theoretical challenge:  limited warfare in an age of potentially unlimited destruction from thermonuclear weapons.

F-80Cs_8th_FBS_over_Korea_c1950
US Air Force Lockheed F-80C Shooting Star fighter-bombers from the 8th Fighter-Bomber Squadron during the Korean War in 1950-51. The aircraft are equipped with ‘Misawa’ long-range tanks. (Wikimedia)

1945 to 2001 – The Era of Immaculate Effects

The next era, roughly spanning 1945 to 2001 is the maturation of strategic bombing extremes enabled by high technology. Militarily, the era is marked by the rise of a more immaculate, precise warfare with limited aims to mitigate aircrew losses, fulfil more specific international obligations and for operational efficiency among other goals. There was a change in the concept of air power because of what it was perceived to have achieved during the Second World War and the idea that the same outcome could be realised even in the face of more limited warfare.[26] By the beginning of this timeframe, the USAF sidelined more tactically-minded airmen like Pete Quesada to ensure adoption of strategic bombing as a vehicle to solidify the association with air power.[27] In part because of his prestige as a tactical aviation adherent, the ‘bomber generals’ defanged Quesada and the organisation he led, Tactical Air Command, after WWII.[28] There was no room for anyone but true believers in the strategic attack mindset, but this would change after the experiences of Korea and Vietnam in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Only later in the period would Quesada’s tactical aviation and more precise attack legacy permeate military circles.[29]

 

In civilian aviation, technology-fueled huge leaps in air power. National airspace, global navigation capabilities and air-containerised freight were concepts that would hold vast military and civilian applications. It is during this time that military and civilian aircraft started to compete for airspace for things like training, exercises and navigating various corridors. Another critical advance was the widespread implementation of the instrument landing system that allowed commercial aircraft to land in increasing levels of degraded atmospheric conditions. Again, precision enabled by technology characterised this era.

2000 and Beyond – Flexible Niche

The most recent period begins at around the turn of the millennium. This is the epoch as ‘Flexible Niche’ because it involved the use of existing or new technologies for a variety of activities dependent on how organisations are positioned to leverage them. Beginning in the late 1980s, formalisation of the contemporary Air Operations Center (AOC) is an early indicator of the present epoch. This organisation enabled the focused air campaign during Operations INSTANT THUNDER and DESERT STORM that, in part, led to ultimate victory for coalition forces in 1991. It was no longer enough to think of air power as just a capability or bringing about the strategic defeat of an enemy via the limits of destructive power or achieving national objectives with as few civilian casualties as possible. The organisation became the template for how to leverage air power across a wide area and from multiple sources. A contemporary view of air power considers the construct of how and which organisations best leverage technologies, ideas and people towards a given outcome, which may be a military one. There are a variety of concepts that the United States military is exploring, including the Multi-Domain Operations Center and Defense Innovation Unit, in addition to the standup of a Space Force among other initiatives.

Civil aviation is undergoing a similar bout with organisations, especially in the United States, as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grapples with how best to control airspace with the rise of unmanned technologies, especially in congested metropolitan areas.  Should the FAA continue to hold all the cards or is the organisation in need of decentralisation of authorities to states and localities?  Technologies may forestall the organisational decision, but this era’s solutions seem to be organisationally related rather than technically.

For the new century and beyond, it will not necessarily be which countries and industries have the best technologies or smartest people or best ideas that define the development of air power: it will be the organisations that can best leverage the other components that will determine how we conceive of air power.  To summarise, again, air power is the domain-agnostic ability to do something in the air resulting from an admixture of personalities, outcomes, organisations, technologies, ideas and events. These components, at various times, represent reasons why our concept of air power changes over time.

Conclusion

The use of epochs allows us to generally discuss how components of air power drive thinking and successful pursuits of the concept over time, which is why it is useful to develop a unified framework for their study. Moreover, as opposed to the more traditional commentary of air power, linking military and civilian advancements in the same epoch demonstrates that air power is not an inherently military concept. This article serves as an overview of the start of a more robust discussion about the development of air power and a characterisation of what will likely temper that development for the 21st century — organisations. Future topics will involve civilian efforts to deal with drones and swarms, the importance of civil aviation and commercial space efforts in air power development, and the exploration of the idea that organisations will be the defining issue of this era.

Given all of this, air power is the domain-agnostic admixture of personalities, outcomes, organisations, technologies, ideas and events to do or, that do, something in or for, the air. Moreover, these components at various times have influenced significant shifts in our conception of air power over at least five critical epochs. Scholars and professionals must acknowledge the military and civilian dimensions of air power to live up to the concept’s full potential. Hence, to conclude, there is a need for a unified framework for the study of air power to promote the integration of military and civilian issues with the field.

Major Jaylan M. Haley is a career USAF Intelligence Officer. Currently, he is a student at the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Power Studies at Air University. Over 14 years, he served in a variety of intelligence-related positions from the strategic to the tactical levels.  During Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and INHERENT RESOLVE, he served as an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Liaison Officer to multiple US Army Divisions and US Marine Expeditionary Forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Most recently he was an Air University Fellow, serving as an Instructor in the Department of International Security at the USAF Air Command and Staff College. He is a PhD Candidate in the Kansas State University Security Studies program with research focused on leverage air power as a tool of national policy.

Header Image: A US Navy Grumman F-14A Tomcat intercepts a Soviet Tupolev Tu-95 ‘Bear D’ reconnaissance-bomber over the Pacific Ocean on 21 November 1984. The F-14 was assigned to fighter squadron VF-51 aboard the USS Carl Vinson and was deployed to the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean from 18 October 1984 to 24 May 1985. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Domains include air, space, cyberspace (or electromagnetic), land and sea. Domain agnosticism disregards a specific domain towards the application of a specific concept. For instance, intelligence collection is domain agnostic. This means that intelligence collection can come from any of the domains-air, space, cyberspace, land or sea.

[2] ‘Strategic Implications for the Aerospace Nation’ in Philip Meilinger (ed.), Air War: Essays on Its Theory and Practice (Abingdon: Franck Cass, 2003), pp. 217-30.

[3] Martin Van Creveld, Martin, The Age of Airpower (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011), p. 71; William Mitchell, Winged Defense: The Development and Possibilities of Modern Air Power (New York: Dover Publications, 1988), p. xii.

[4] Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 213.

[5] United States Air Force, Core Doctrine, Volume 1 – Basic Doctrine (Maxwell AFB, LeMay Doctrine Center, 2015).

[6] Robert Smith, ‘Maneuver at Lightspeed: Electromagnetic Spectrum as a Domain,’ Over the Horizon: Multi-Domain Operations & Strategy, 5 November 2018. Importantly, the so-called warfighting domains of air, space, land, navy and now cyber – or perhaps more aptly electromagnetic – all interface with the air domain and provide a medium through which something can happen in the air.

[7] Douglas Waller, A Question of Loyalty (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004), pp. 21-2.

[8] Donald Mrozek, Air Power & the Ground War in Vietnam (Virginia, VA: Pergamon-Brassey’s International Defense Publishers, 1989), pp. 14-5.

[9] Conrad Crane, American Airpower Strategy in Korea: 1950-1953 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000), pp. 16-22.

[10] Ibid, p. 23, 27.

[11] Ibid, pp. 175-9.

[12] Ben Rick and Leo Janos, Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed (Boston, MS: Little, Brown and Company, 1994), p. 7, 39.

[13] David Robarge, Archangel: CIA’s Supersonic A-12 Reconnaissance Aircraft (Washington, D.C., Center for the Study of Intelligence, 2012), p. 1.

[14] Reuben Brigety II, Ethics, Technology and the American Way of War (London: Routledge, 2007).

[15] Joseph Stanik, El Dorado Canyon: Reagan’s Undeclared War with Qaddafi (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2003), p. ix.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (New York: The Free Press, 1986), p. xv, 233-4.

[18] Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2014), pp. 128-9; Donald Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown: A Memoir (New York, Penguin Group, 2011), p. 648.

[19] Barraclough’s ideas about history are not universally accepted in the field of history.

[20] Geoffrey Barraclough, An Introduction to Contemporary History (Baltimore, Penguin Books, 1964), p. 11.

[21] Van Creveld, The Age of Airpower, p. 6.

[22] Stephen Poleski, The Balloonist: The Story of T.S.C. Lowe: Inventor, Scientist, Magician and Father of the U.S. Air Force, (Savannah, GA: Frederic Beil, 2007).

[23] Guido Douhet, Command of the Air (Pickle Partners Publishing, 2014), p. 21.

[24] Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas About Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), pp. 73-4, 79.

[25] Richard Overy, The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe, 1940-1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2013), 58.

[26] Crane, American Airpower Strategy in Korea, p. 184.

[27] Brian Laslie, The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training After Vietnam (Lexington, KY:, The University Press of Kentucky, 2015), p. 34.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., p. 131.

#BookReview – To Fly Among The Stars: The Hidden Story of the Fight for Women Astronauts

#BookReview – To Fly Among The Stars: The Hidden Story of the Fight for Women Astronauts

Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie

Rebecca Siegal, To Fly Among The Stars: The Hidden Story of the Fight for Women Astronauts. New York, NY: Scholastic Focus, 2020. Bibliography. Hbk. 340 pp.

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Academic book reviews, at least those found in the back two-thirds of academic journals, tend to follow a predictable pattern. The good: ‘The author deftly demonstrates…’ Followed by the not so good: ‘What the author misses though is…’ Finally, the wrap up: ‘In the end, this work…’ It is, to a certain degree, the nature of the ‘business’ of academia, the manner in which one professional must praise and critique the work of a peer to the wider audience of colleagues. Removed from this predictable outline of reviews are more personal opinions. One will likely not find the phrase, ‘I enjoyed….’ I have often lamented to friends that nothing will ruin your love of history like the professional study of it. So, it is with great pleasure that every so often a book lands on my desk that is at the same time a well-written history and a thoroughly enjoyable book. Rebecca Siegel’s To Fly Among the Stars: The Hidden Story of the Fight for Women Astronauts is just such a book. For something a bit different here at From Balloons to Drones, I will follow the predictable pattern not so often found on blog posts.

The Good. The author deftly demonstrates that the search (and desire) for women astronauts has been almost entirely overlooked. In this book, written for the upper Middle Grade to Young Adult audience, Siegel weaves the well-known story of the Mercury 7 alongside the contemporaneous story of the virtually unknown ‘Mercury 13’ – the moniker was never official and added much later. This is not to say that the study of these pioneers has been entirely overlooked, and I would encourage our readers to get their hands on the following works: Martha Ackmann’s The Mercury 13: The True Story of Thirteen Women and the Dream of Space Flight and Margaret A. Weitkamp’s Right Stuff, Wrong Sex: America’s First Women in Space Program. Do not allow the fact that this is a book written for a younger audience, dissuade you from its importance and what will surely be great impact. For starters, this is a good book. Even scholars of the field will likely find something new – and dare I say something to enjoy – in these pages. Siegel has not only done her homework, but she provides avenues for a new generation to do theirs: her bibliography, the place where the next generation scholars and scientists will turn, is diverse and exhaustive. Considering, the age group this book is intended for, the bibliography is the equal of scholarship on the subject.

The not so good. What the author misses though is…not much. Weaving the familiar with the lesser-known demonstrates the state of cultural and gender backwardness that was accepted as normal practice in the latter half of the 20th Century. Siegel presents a refreshing take on a familiar space story. Most female pilots struggled to find work and acceptance in the air, but for a select few being a pilot was not enough. While the names Shepard, Grissom, Glenn, Carpenter, Cooper, Slayton, Schirra remain (more or less) recognisable, the names Cobb, Dietrich, Steadman, Sloan, Funk and others are not. Siegel’s timely work coincides not only with the 50th anniversaries of the Apollo flights but with a modern NASA seeking to inspire an American public as it sets its sights once again on deep space travel. It was only 37 years ago that the first American female astronaut launched into space, the first female shuttle pilot 25 years ago, and the first female shuttle commander 21 years ago. In the 60+ year history of crewed American spaceflight, these exploits and successes were built upon lesser-known figures whom Siegel brings to light for a younger audience.

In the end, this work will appeal to a wide audience: across specialties, across interests, across genders and across generations. To steal from another space-themed genre, this work will be the spark that lights the fire in the next generation of space explorers. We are all better for this book having been written.

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

Header Image: Exuberant and thrilled to be at the Kennedy Space Center, seven women who once aspired to fly into space stand outside Launch Pad 39B neat the Space Shuttle Discovery, poised for liftoff on the first flight of 1995. They are members of the First Lady Astronaut Trainees (FLATs, also known as the ‘Mercury 13’), a group of women who trained to become astronauts for Americas first human spaceflight program back in the early 1960s. Although this FLATs effort was never an official NASA program, their commitment helped pave the way for the milestone Eileen Collins set: becoming the first female Shuttle pilot. Visiting the space center as invited guests of STS-63 Pilot Eileen Collins are (from left): Gene Nora Jessen, Wally Funk, Jerrie Cobb, Jerri Truhill, Sarah Rutley, Myrtle Cagle and Bernice Steadman. (Source: Wikimedia)

#BookReview – From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance

#BookReview – From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance

Reviewed by Wing Commander Travis Hallen

Tyler Morton, From Kites to Cold War: The Evolution of Manned Airborne Reconnaissance. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2019. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 328 pp.

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Hindsight tends to make the contingent seem predestined. This is why reading history is essential for those responsible for planning for the future. When military professionals engage with history to try and understand how decisions, events, and circumstances – many of which lie beyond their control – shaped the present, they better appreciate that future planning is not about prediction; it is about preparing for adaptation. This is the lesson I took from Lieutenant Colonel Dr Tyler Morton’s book From Kites to Cold War, published by the United States Naval Institute Press in 2019.

This may not have been the insight that Morton intended for his readers. The book is the published version of Morton’s 2016 USAF Air University PhD thesis, which aimed to educate airmen on how airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) evolved rapidly from novelty to necessity. Although Morton claimed that the book ‘is a unique account spanning two millennia of manned airborne reconnaissance history’ (p. 9), the book’s six chapters cover less than 200 years: from the Montgolfier brothers’ hot-air-balloon demonstration in 1783 to the Linebacker air campaign over North Vietnam in 1972. This is not a criticism of Morton; his treatment of those 200 years is detailed and engaging and lives up to the promise of providing a unique insight into the development of a capability that is now a cornerstone of modern military operations. Morton’s 200-year story of airborne reconnaissance is one of vision, innovation, hype, misstep, and adaptation. This is a story whose beginning and early evolution has interesting parallels to what is occurring today with a range of emerging technologies.

Most histories of air power begin at the turn of the 20th century with the development of dirigibles and heavier-than-air flight. Those seeking to establish a longer pedigree for military aviation may refer to the French use of balloons at the Battle of Fleurus in 1794. Morton’s first chapter covering the Montgolfier’s 1783 balloon demonstration through to the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898, therefore, fills a gap in air power’s historical narrative.

As Morton describes it, the 19th century was a period of civilian-led experimentation that enjoyed ambivalent support from militaries in Europe and the United States. Though contemporary militaries saw the potential for balloons to contribute to their armies’ situational awareness, many believed resources were better spent on more established capabilities. Using examples from the French Revolutionary period and the American Civil War, Morton shows how the tension between inventors, scientists, and entrepreneurs who demonstrated, but also oversold, the possibilities of airborne reconnaissance, and military leaders who needed to balance innovation with operational necessities shaped initial development efforts. The opportunity cost of an experimental technology versus tried-and-tested during a time of war hindered the military employment of balloons until the end of the 19th century.

It was during the first 15 years of the 20th century, the focus of chapter two, that the perceived benefits of military air power began to exceed the cost. Practical and operational demonstrations of airships and heavier-than-air machines sparked interest in militaries in Europe and the United States, leading to a growing acceptance of aviation’s future military role. Morton’s analysis of this period draws attention to the increasingly important role of empowered officers who drove progress in airborne reconnaissance. Officers such as then-Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois who envisaged the development of airborne reconnaissance as a system requiring the development of new technology and skill-sets beyond those associated with the aircraft itself, and who were empowered to drive the capability forward. Foulois’ career – on operations, as a member of the critical aeronautical boards before and after the First World War, and as Chief of the Air Corps – provided him with the opportunities within the military establishment to translate his vision into reality. His demonstrations of air-to-ground communications and aerial photography in support of US operations during the Mexican Revolution established the utility of airborne reconnaissance for key US Army leadership. In Foulois’ own words (p. 67), the Mexican operations ‘had proven beyond dispute […] that aviation was no longer experimental or freakish.’

Growing awareness in Europe and the United States of the military utility of airborne reconnaissance opened the door for the capability advocates when war came. It would not take long for the capability to prove its worth. Airborne reconnaissance enabled operational success on both sides of the First World War from the earliest stages of the war. It provided Allied commanders with intelligence on German manoeuvres that enabled the so-called ‘Miracle of the Marne.’ On the Eastern Front, German air reconnaissance of Russian force dispositions played a vital role in the German victory at Tannenberg; according to Field Marshal Hindenburg (p. 85): ‘Without the airplane there is no Tannenberg.’ Morton’s discussion of developments during the war in chapter three provides the reader with an appreciation of how the capability developed as a system comprising the air platform, cameras, communications, and the processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) of information. This was a logical progression of the pre-war developments, but, as Morton highlights, it was the character of First World War trench warfare (p. 86) that ‘gave aviation the chance it needed to solidify further its value as a force enhancer.’ The reduced mobility of ground forces created an intelligence gap which air power advocates and innovators ably filled. It was the development under real-world operational conditions that made airborne reconnaissance effective as it ensured the system evolved to meet requirements. This also had the effect of removing any lingering doubt about whether the capability had a place in future force structure. With its future assured, the next challenge was determining the exact form and function of that future capability. As the final three chapters highlight, this was not easy.

In chapter four, Morton covers the interwar period and the Second World War – a 26-year period during which there were significant advances in technology, concepts, and operational experience – in one page more than he covers the five years of the First World War. Surprisingly, this does not reduce the quality of the insights he provides. Morton focuses on two main areas during this period: the relative neglect of airborne reconnaissance into the 1930s as air power’s advocates struggled to define its role; and the wartime expansion of the reconnaissance role from imagery intelligence (IMINT) into signals intelligence (SIGINT). Opportunity cost remerged as a significant factor driving air power development during the interwar period. Ironically, as militaries and air power advocates struggled to clarify the role of air power, the tried-and-tested capability of airborne reconnaissance was neglected as investment flowed into more experimental and conceptual areas such as strategic bombing, a reversal of situation Morton describes in chapter one. However, new technologies and the character of operations during the Second World War created opportunities for innovative airmen and their adaptable organisations to consolidate and expand the role of airborne reconnaissance. The ubiquity of radar and radios increased the opportunities and requirement for collection against new sources; Morton does an excellent job describing the resulting emergence of SIGINT across all theatres. By 1945 the major disciplines of modern airborne reconnaissance were firmly established, but the challenge of prioritisation would continue to shape its development well into the Cold War.

Morton takes a different approach to deal with the Cold War. Rather than dividing the period arbitrarily into different time periods, he opts for a thematic approach. Chapter five explores ‘airborne reconnaissance as a strategic political instrument’. While chapter six, the book’s final chapter, examines airborne reconnaissance in the ‘hot wars’ in Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam. Of note, unlike previous chapters that have examined the developments internationally, the final two chapters focus solely on airborne reconnaissance in the United States. The unstated premise is that whereas previously the ideas and experiences of the other great powers had exerted an influence on the evolution of the capability this ceased to be the case after the end of the Second World War. Whether or not this is true is open for debate, but Morton’s discussion of the period does make a compelling, though implied, case.

In chapter five, Morton describes a period of consistent investment in and development of ‘strategic aerial reconnaissance’. The need to maintain awareness of Soviet capabilities to strike the United States and develop intelligence for targeting of US strategic strikes against the Soviet Union drove these developments. Soviet responses also played a role. As superpower competition grew and the Soviet’s began actively targeting US collection assets, political concerns began to impact the requirement for US reconnaissance capabilities directly. Morton describes how this interplay between collection requirements and political considerations drove improvements to sensor capabilities, giving rise to the Big Safari program, and the survivability of the collection platforms, leading to the A-12 Oxcart/SR-71 Blackbird, and the U-2. These were strategically significant capability improvements that were vital to the success of the US deterrence strategy.

While the United States focused its reconnaissance efforts on strategic requirements, the ability to meet tactical the demands for reconnaissance was neglected. In the book’s final chapter Morton describes how the United States adapted its strategic reconnaissance capabilities, and rapidly developed and implemented new tactical systems to meet the requirements of Korea, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the Vietnam War. The most interesting aspect of this final chapter is not the technology, but the processes that were developed. In Korea, Colonel Karl Polifka implemented a tactical reconnaissance management system that deconflicted the multitude of requests coming into the 5th Air Force and tracked the status of the product; a process that sounds remarkably similar to today’s collection management process. During Vietnam, the integration of technology and process as part of the Teaball project – a system that enabled highly-classified SIGINT to provide near-real-time intelligence into USAF fighter cockpits over North Vietnam – contributed to an increase in the USAF’s kill ratio from 0.47:1 to 4:1. In the words of General John Vogt, then-Commander of the 7th Air Force (p. 204):

During Linebacker we were shooting down the enemy at a rate of four to one […] Same airplane, same environment, same tactics; largely [the] difference [was] Teaball.

Teaball is an appropriate way for Morton to end his history of airborne reconnaissance. The progress made technologically, organizationally, and procedurally from 1783 to 1972 is impressive; when you shift timescale from 1914 to 1972, that progress is even more spectacular. As Morton reflects when discussing the 1965 introduction of the communication-intelligence-equipped EC-121D Warning Star into the Vietnam conflict (p. 200):

In scarcely fifty years, airmen went from using smoke signals and dropped messages to a fully integrated communications capability delivering near-real-time SIGINT data directly to air and ground warfighters.

This progress was not smooth, nor was it predestined, it was the result of the creativity, vision, and perseverance of inventors, engineers, airmen, and military commanders who were able to adapt emerging capabilities to meet operational and strategic requirements.

From Kites to Cold War is an essential read for anyone involved in the present or future of airborne ISR. Morton’s well-written history of the first 200 years of airborne reconnaissance provides an appreciation of how the capability evolved into its modern form, particularly how the vision and adaptability of airborne reconnaissance advocates were crucial to progress. For the same reason, this book is also a useful read for those in the innovation game or involved in future force design. Although Morton’s aim was not to write a book on military innovation, this is essentially what it is. It is an instructive tale of vision, hype, experimentation, and adaptation that provides useful points of discussion and debate for those charged with integrating experimental technologies and ideas into future force structure.

Wing Commander Travis Hallen is a Royal Australian Air Force officer with a background in maritime patrol operations, and a co-editor of The Central Blue. He has had a long-term interest in the development and improvement of airborne ISR having conducted multiple operational deployments in that role. He is a graduate of the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. Wing Commander Hallen is currently in Washington, DC.

Header Image: After Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union during a CIA spy flight on May 1. 1960, NASA issued a press release with a cover story about a U-2 conducting weather research that may have strayed off course after the pilot reported difficulties with his oxygen equipment. To bolster the cover-up, a U-2 was quickly painted in NASA markings, with a fictitious NASA serial number, and put on display for the news media at the NASA Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base on May 6, 1960. The U-2 cover story in 1956 was that it was a NASA plane to conduct high-altitude weather research. But various observers doubted this story from the beginning. Certainly the Soviets did not believe it once the aircraft began overflying their territory. The NASA cover story quickly blew up in the agency’s face when both Gary Powers and aircraft wreckage were displayed by the Soviet Union, proving that it was a reconnaissance aircraft. This caused embarrassment for several top NASA officials. (Source: Wikimedia)

#BookReview – Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind

#BookReview – Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind

Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie

James R. Hansen, Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2019. Appendix. Notes. Hbk. 400 pp.

Neil Armstrong

Twenty-nineteen represented, for me, a golden age of space nostalgia. Twenty-eighteen through to 2022 represents the fiftieth anniversaries of the 11 human-crewed Apollo flights. Everywhere you turn you see someone in some NASA paraphernalia. Books on the Apollo program and NASA writ large are taking over the Science sections at local bookstores and larger chain stores. The government organisation is enjoying an undeniable resurgence and moment of ‘coolness,’ though I ponder whether anyone under the age of 40 uses that term. Perhaps no single individual enjoyed a greater resurgence in this regard over the last two years than the first man on the moon, Neil A. Armstrong. Twenty-eighteen saw the release of the film First Man, based on the authorised biography of the same name by James R. Hansen. The fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission witnessed the release of CNN Film’s Apollo 11 documentary and those in Washington DC were even able to witness the Saturn V launch from the Washington Memorial.

Hansen returns to his topic with the release of Dear Neil Armstrong: Letters to the First Man from All Mankind. At its core, the book is simply a collection of letters, a representative sample of the hundreds of thousands of letters that were sent to Armstrong before, during, and after his mission; a series of letters that lasted until his death in 2012. This correspondence is now held in the Purdue University Archives as part of Armstrong’s papers. Hansen indicated that this book is the first of at least two books covering the trove of correspondence now housed at Purdue University.

Hansen’s preface included the words given to Armstrong and Lunar Module Pilot Edwin Aldrin printed on a small silicon-disc and left on the surface of the moon. Much like the rest of the book, Hansen only included samples. From Félix Houphouët-Boigny, President of the Ivory Coast (p. xiv), ‘I especially wish that he would turn towards our planet Earth and cry out how insignificant the problems which torture men are when viewed from up there.’ John Gorton, Prime Minister of Australia (p. xv), chose to quote Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses ‘to strive, to seek, and to find, and not to yield.’ The disc remains at the foot of the Lunar Module Descent Stage where Aldrin dropped it while climbing back into the Module.

Apollo_11_ticker_tape_parade_1
A ticker tape parade for the Apollo 11 astronauts in Manhattan, New York City on the section of Broadway known as the ‘Canyon of Heroes.’ Pictured in the lead car, from the right, are astronauts Neil A. Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr. (Source: Wikimedia)

The book is divided into thematic chapters: ‘First Word,’ presents correspondence that poured in during the weeks leading up to the launch of Apollo 11 and deals with letters giving Armstrong advice on what to say. ‘Congratulations and Welcome Home’ samples some of the hundreds-of-thousands cards and messages that poured into Armstrong’s inbox in the immediate aftermath of the mission from military service secretaries, general officers, old friends, and civic leaders. Chapter three entitled ‘The Soviets,’ contains selections from the letters that came in from behind the Iron Curtin including from leaders and citizens of Poland, Serbia, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, and Hungary. Congratulations from behind the wall also came from fellow Soviet Cosmonauts. Perhaps no better chapter demonstrates how the Apollo 11 mission was viewed as a globally unifying event. ‘For all Mankind’ contains the letters coming in from women, men, and children of all ages all around the globe.

The final three chapters go especially well together: Many Americans wanted a piece of what they considered to be their man on the moon and these letters are found in the chapters ‘From all America,’ ‘Reluctantly Famous,’ and ‘The Principled Citizen.’ Many of the appeals were harmless requests for autographs and at higher levels requests for appearances, but some requests were outright bizarre. For example, one letter requested an impression of Armstrong’s foot in clay (p. 161).  Hansen has done a superb job of providing the breadth of requests made to Armstrong in the years following his return to Earth. The simple fact remains that too many of us asked for too much of this man who simply could not respond and give of all he was asked to do.

It would be remiss if I did not ponder what this book tells us about air and space power? As I poured through the selected letters and pondered the many thousands more that Hansen could not include, it became clear that there was and remains to this day something ephemeral and special about crewed spaceflight. The book brought to mind the importance of Joseph Corn’s The Winged Gospel: America’s Romance with Aviation (1983); however, it also demonstrated that the romance with crewed spaceflight is not unique to America at all. In America and around the world, the love and excitement for space exploration were undoubtedly not monolithic, but Armstrong became the embodiment for those who recognised the crewed Apollo missions as something significant and special in the history of mankind.

Dear Neil Armstrong will appeal to those seeking a deeper understanding of what the Apollo program meant, much like Roger D. Launius’ magnificent Apollo’s Legacy, but Hansen’s reaches us on a deeper personal level here. Hansen’s First Man is and will remain, the definitive biography of Armstrong, but the collection Hansen has put together is a must-have for those seeking to understand the more profound social and cultural meaning of Apollo, namely how the world viewed this particular man and what it desired of him in return. As Hansen more eloquently reflected (p. xxiii), ‘[c]ertainly it is my own conclusion that the letters ultimately tell us more about ourselves than they do about Neil.’

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

Header Image: Neil Armstrong is seen here next to the X-15 ship #1 after a research flight. Armstrong made his first X-15 flight on November 30, 1960, in the #1 X-15. He made his second flight on December 9, 1960, in the same aircraft. This was the first X-15 flight to use the ball nose, which provided accurate measurement of airspeed and flow angle at supersonic and hypersonic speeds. The servo-actuated ball nose can be seen in this photo in front of Armstrong’s right hand. The X-15 employed a non-standard landing gear. It had a nose gear with a wheel and tire, but the main landing consisted of skids mounted at the rear of the vehicle. In the photo, the left skid is visible, as are marks on the lakebed from both skids. Because of the skids, the rocket-powered aircraft could only land on a dry lakebed, not on a concrete runway.

#AirWarVietnam #BookReview – Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam

#AirWarVietnam #BookReview – Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam

Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie

Gaillard R. Peck, Jr, Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2019. Appendices. Glossary. Illustrations. Plates. Hbk, 304 pp.

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In the 1990s there was a plethora of published material on D-Day and the Second World War writ large. For example, Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers was published in 1992. The service members who served during that conflict were in their 70s and sought to tell their stories. Comparatively speaking, the veterans of the Vietnam War were in their 40s at the time; however, time marches on. In 2019, we are where we were in the 1990s, but this time it is the veterans of the Vietnam War who are now in the 70s, and a fresh new wave of scholarship and memoirs are being published on that most confusing of conflicts.

Into the mix comes, Gaillard R. Peck, Jr.’s Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam. Peck admitted early on that his mission here is not to rehash politics or make sweeping judgments, ‘It is not my intent to go into details as to how the war was fought. Nor will I delve into policy.’ This book is simply, and excellently presented. It provides one pilot’s perspective, through his own window on the world about his time flying during the Vietnam War. Peck’s work joins other recent accounts including David R. Honodel’s The Phantom Vietnam War (2018) and Terry L. Thorsen’s Phantom in the Sky (2019), as well as Dan Pederson’s TOP GUN: An American Story (2019).

Readers might recognise Peck’s name as he was also one of the commanders of the famed MiG-flying Red Eagles squadron and author of America’s Secret MiG Squadron: The Red Eagles of Project CONSTANT PEG (2012) that was also published by Osprey. Peck now turns his attention to his time as a young pilot flying and fighting in the F-4 Phantom II in 1968-1969. ‘Evil’ as he has been known to generations of fighter-pilots at Nellis Air Force Base has decided to add prolific writer to an already fantastic resume. Peck is something of a legend in the US Air Force’s Fighter community, as he has been a staple at the F-15 and F-22 Weapon’s School for decades.

Former US MiG pilot retells 4477th TES experience
Colonel Gail Peck in front of a Soviet MiG-21 he flew as commander of the Red Eagles in Operation Constant Peg, Nellis AFB, Nevada.(Source: Smithsonian Institution)

Sherman Lead is ostensibly about flying the F-4 in combat, but this work is much richer than just that. Peck included the social side of life for American aircrews flying out of Thailand, something missing in other works. Peck also deftly included aspects of flying left out of so many books. This included the process and importance of mid-air refuelling, a nice tip of the hat to the tanker community.

The book generally follows his training progression, from learning to not only flying fighters but also how to employ them. Peck also deftly demonstrated how the training at an air-to-ground gunnery range was accomplished as well as the physics and geometry of putting bombs on a target. By using both the training environment as well as his experiences employing munitions in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the reader gets the sense that there is a genuine difference between precision-guided munitions and the precision-employment of munitions. Peck adroitly described all of these without being overly technical; thus the book can be enjoyed by the professional and the enthusiast alike.

Of course, the real effort of the book is to be found in his operations flying out of Ubon Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand and his missions over North Vietnam as part of Operation ROLLING THUNDER or over Laos as part of Operation STEEL TIGER. Perhaps the most significant contribution Peck has made to our understanding of the Vietnam War is that this is a dual ‘biography’ in that it is a memoir of himself, but it is also the biography of the F-4 Phantom II. This book is as much about how the war changed man as it is about how the war changed the machine.

Sherman Lead is destined to join the other classic memoirs on air power in Vietnam, including Jack Broughton’s Thud Ridge (1969) and Rick Newman and Don Shepperd’s Bury Us Upside Down (2006). Historians of air power and the history of the US Air Force will especially enjoy this book, but it will also find a wider audience in those seeking to understand individual and unique perspectives on America’s participation in the war in Vietnam.

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

Header Image: An image of an F-4 Phantom II being refuelled during Operation ROLLING THUNDER. Aerial refuelling permitted tactical aircraft to operate in the northern part of North Vietnam, something noted in Peck’s memoir. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

#Podcast – Interview with Dr Melvin Deaile

#Podcast – Interview with Dr Melvin Deaile

Editorial Note: From Balloons to Drones is pleased to announce our new podcast series. Led by Assistant Editor Dr Mike Hankins, this series aims to build on the success of From Balloons to Drones and provide an outlet for the presentation and evaluation of air power scholarship, the exploration of historical topics and ideas, and a way to reach out to both new scholars and the general public. You can find our Soundcloud channel here.

Always

In our latest podcast, we interview Dr Melvin Deaile of the US Air Force Air Command and Staff College. In this episode we discuss Deaile’s recent book Always at War. We discuss the early days of USAF’s Strategic Air Command and its culture, as well as the controversies surrounding General Curtis LeMay.

Dr Melvin Deaile is Director of the School of Advanced Nuclear Deterrence Studies at the USAF Air Command and Staff College. His book, Always at War: Organizational Culture in Strategic Air Command, 1946-62 was published by Naval Institute Press in 2018. Deaile is a retired USAF Colonel, with a PhD in American History from UNC-Chapel Hill, who flew the B-52 Stratofortress and the B-2 Spirit. He has flown combat operations as part of Operations Desert Storm and Enduring Freedom, including a record-setting 44.3-hour combat mission. Deaile is the recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross and is a distinguished graduate of the USAF Weapon School.

Header Image: Boeing B-47 Stratojet bombers of the USAF’s Strategic Air Command, c. the 1950s. The B-47 was the world’s first swept-wing bomber. The B-47 normally carried a crew of three; pilot, copilot (who operated the tail turret by remote control), and an observer who also served as navigator, bombardier and radar operator. (Source: Wikimedia)

#AirWarVietnam – Weaponised Helicopters and Counterinsurgency: An Exploration of the Different Approaches Advocated in Vietnam by the US Army and the US Marine Corps

#AirWarVietnam – Weaponised Helicopters and Counterinsurgency: An Exploration of the Different Approaches Advocated in Vietnam by the US Army and the US Marine Corps

By Dr Robert J. Kodosky

Editorial Note: During 2019, From Balloons to Drones is running a series of articles looking at various aspects of the air war over Vietnam from the French-Indochina War through to the end of the Vietnam War. In this article, Dr Robert Kodosky discusses the differing attitudes towards armed helicopters between the US Army and US Marine Corps as they entered the Vietnam War. If you would like to contribute to the series, then please email our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here. The official call for papers is here.

In Vietnam, the US Army utilised helicopters according to its thinking about conventional warfare during the previous decade. Without the ‘helicopter in Vietnam,’ US Army officials concluded that America and its allies in Vietnam ‘would not have been able to outmanoeuvre the enemy nor exercise their superior firepower.’[1] While accurate, this observation adhered to the assumption that these tactics aligned to an effective counterinsurgency strategy. As one wartime study commissioned by the Department of Defense contended, ‘the crude use of overwhelming firepower seems more appropriate to total war.’[2]

The US Army appropriated helicopters to fight the war it wanted in Vietnam, one of attrition. In comparison, Marines employed rotary craft to fight the war they got. The US Marine Corps (USMC) weaponised helicopters to align with counterinsurgency goals and remained cautious about the firepower they delivered. In July 1967, for example, the commander of Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific, General Charles Krulak noted that armed helicopters carried out two-thirds of all USMC UH-1E flights in Vietnam during the previous year. He found this unacceptable. More arms, Krulak observed, denied the USMC ‘the eyes which are so urgently needed over the jungle environment.’ He suggested that the USMC had erred in putting ‘too many rocket pods’ on UH-1Es and had ‘unconsciously encouraged their misuse.’[3]

UH-1E_Helicopters_at_Fire_Support_Base_Cunningham,_1969_(11950756174)
USMC UH-1E helicopters touch down with their loads at Fire Support Base Cunningham. Artillerymen of the 12th Marines at Cunningham are supporting elements of the 9th Marines conducting search and clear operations, c. 1969. (Source: Wikimedia)

This example, set by the USMC in Vietnam, remains vital today. Despite ‘deliberate application of COIN [counterinsurgency] practices in Iraq and Afghanistan,’ some aviators have remained ‘focused on killing insurgents.’ One AH-64 Apache battalion commander deployed to Iraq cited ‘winning hearts and minds’ as ‘ground-guy stuff.’[4]

As such, this article explores foundational thinking surrounding the decision to weaponise helicopters in both the US Army and the USMC. Each initially conceptualised weaponising helicopters to wage a conventional war, whether as weapons platforms to combat tanks or to facilitate amphibious landings. This resulted in experimentation in ways to arm helicopters to deliver indiscriminate firepower. While the US Army remained on this path, the USMC deviated from it, based on their observations of the French effort to quell insurgents in Algeria and their own early experience in Vietnam. The USMC then decided to weaponise helicopters in Vietnam because they perceived them better able to deliver discriminate firepower than fixed-wing craft.

Blitzkrieg from Above

Contemporary observers largely concurred that the Vietnam War provided the ‘crucible for the helicopter.’[5] Military officials reaffirmed this view afterwards, citing helicopters as counterinsurgency tools essential for ‘mobility, rapid deployment of troops and logistics support.’[6] The US Army declared that helicopters ‘represented the most revolutionary change in warfare since the blitzkrieg.’[7]

This view found widespread acceptance. According to US Army General William C. Westmoreland, commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam between 1964 and 1968, America ‘achieved the ability to use the helicopter and employ the tactics of air mobility.’ This reflected the US Army’s view that its efforts during the Korean War suffered from doctrinal and technological limitations that prohibited employing rotorcraft to gain the initiative by enabling mobility. In Korea, this resulted in a deadlock. Westmoreland observed that the Vietnam War readied America’s use of helicopters to ‘take off.’ This ‘is not the end,’ he advised, it ‘is only the beginning.’[8]

This proved prescient. In 2004, the US Army alone deployed more than 500 helicopters to Afghanistan and Iraq. In counterinsurgency missions especially, the helicopter played ‘a key role.’ It continues to do so. There exists an ‘intensive use of rotary wing aircraft,’ rendering the helicopter as ‘omnipresent across a large spectrum of defense missions.’[9]

There exists good cause, however, to explore the centrality of helicopters critically in the execution of counterinsurgency operations. A recent study concerned with American involvement in Vietnam, Soviet engagement in Afghanistan and French participation in Algeria argues that helicopters proved ‘indecisive or bad at enabling legitimacy, population control, and isolation, key tenets of successful COIN.’[10]

This view is reflected by commentary offered by a counterinsurgency veteran to the Armed Forces Journal. It cited the proclivity of AH-64 Apache and OH-58D operators for flying low to the ground. While this proved ‘occasionally fruitful in detecting enemy activity,’ it observed that helicopters ‘can only scatter a farmer’s sheep so many times before he sees coalition forces as an annoyance rather than an ally.’[11]

Such criticism is not new. Sir Robert Thompson, who directed the British Advisory Mission to the Republic of Vietnam between 1961-1965, became an outspoken critic of America’s strategy in Vietnam. Thompson was a widely respected expert on counterinsurgency based on his experience in Malaya. Thompson labelled attrition, using the number of Vietnamese communists killed as a metric of success, as an ‘error.’ The ‘main contributing factor to this,’ he contended, ‘was the helicopter.’[12]

The Army Way – Cavalry Without Horses

The development of the US Army’s thinking about the use of helicopters as air cavalry capable of aerial assault originated during the Korean War. In July 1952, the US Army’s 6th Transportation Company (Helicopter) received the H-19 Chickasaw. Capable of faster and farther travel than the H-13, the Chickasaw constituted the US Army’s first true cargo and transport helicopter. While used to assist medical evacuation and resupply efforts, the H-19 executed the US Army’s first air assault combat missions, shaping Army thinking about helicopters after the war.

Korean_War_HA-SN-98-07085
Troops boarding a US Army H-19 Chicksaw of the 6th Transportation Company in Korea, c. 1953. (Source: Wikimedia)

In 1955, Redstone Rocket likened helicopter performance favourably in Korea to fixed-wing operations during the Second World War. It framed the helicopter’s potential within conventional missions such as ‘smoke laying’ and ‘armor column control.’ It observed that helicopters took with them ‘two American military traditions: To get there ‘fustest with the mostest’ and to ‘hit ‘em where they ain’t.’”[13]

James M. Gavin, a veteran of the Second World War and later a Lieutenant-General in the US Army of the 1950s, introduced his concept of airborne armoured cavalry in ‘The Future of Armor,’ an article that appeared in the US Army’s Infantry Journal in 1948. He argued that ‘striking at high speed by air’ and ‘entering ground combat’ enabled ‘mobility and the retention of the initiative.’ Armoured cavalry offered this potential, Gavin contended, rendering it uniquely able to ‘play the decisive role in future airborne combat.’[14]

Gavin expanded on his idea over the next 15 years, including in an article for Harper’s Magazine, published in 1954. In ‘Cavalry, and I Don’t Mean Horses,’ Gavin suggested that the US 8th Army in Korea suffered from a lack of airmobile cavalry. He pressed for the return of a ‘mobility differential,’ one that could make a difference for American commanders in Korean-style conflicts and any war waged directly against the Soviet Union.

Mobility comprised more than speed, Gavin clarified, it included the capability to deliver superior firepower.[15] The Second World War informed Gavin’s thinking and influenced the US Army’s development of its air assault concept. During the Second World War, in addition to its functions of target acquisition and artillery fire observation, organic US Army aviation ‘provided highly responsive capabilities.’[16]

Gavin served in President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration as Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations (G-3) and was a critic of the President’s ‘New Look’ national security policy that prioritised massive nuclear retaliation. Gavin advocated the need for force readiness, ‘based on his concepts of mobility, firepower and control derived from his experience in World War II.’ He cited helicopters as able to ‘provide the mobility advantage that U.S. forces needed.’ These fulfilled the traditional cavalry missions of ‘reconnaissance, screening and exploitation.’[17]

Gavin’s notions about air mobility became those of the US Army. General Hamilton Howze, appointed by Gavin as the first Director of Army Aviation in 1955, instituted them. In this capacity, Howze ‘saw to it that every imaginable weapon was strapped onto a US-1 (Huey).’[18] Also a veteran of the Second World War, Howze envisioned the utility of air mobility within conventional thinking about linear warfare against a mechanised adversary.

By the winter of 1961, with ‘the Army’s aviation resources suddenly in high demand’ due to America’s increasing commitment in Vietnam, Secretary of Defense for the President John F. Kennedy’s administration, Robert S. McNamara, grew ‘sharply critical of the Army’s conservative approach’ to improve air mobility.

Kennedy had shifted national defence from the massive retaliation endorsed by Eisenhower’s New Look. He called for ‘Flexible Response.’ This aimed to counter Soviet aggression using proxies throughout the world. It emphasised a rebuilt conventional force with the capacity to deploy quickly. McNamara pressed the military for ‘maximum mobility.’ He tasked the US Army with figuring out how to achieve this, within ‘an atmosphere divorced from traditional viewpoints and past policies.’[19] Howze, McNamara suggested, stood capable of creating such a climate.

The Howze Board

The US Army’s Tactical Mobility Requirements Board convened under Howze’s direction in May 1962. Its membership included 200 officers and 41 enlisted personnel from the Army, along with 53 civilians. The US Air Force (USAF) observed the Board’s work, carried out from May until the end of July. Testing utilised 125 helicopters and 25 fixed-wing aircraft to log over 11,000 hours of flight time. Conditions simulated a variety of scenarios, from Lieutenant-General Walton Walker’s withdrawal to Pusan in 1950 to counter-guerrilla exercises.

It all constituted ‘tactical experimentation’ with considerable attention provided to wargaming against the Soviet Union and an emphasis on the potential to deliver ‘heavy firepower.’ One ‘suggestive scenario’ featured in the Board’s final report, for example, simulated a Soviet incursion in Iran through the Zagros mountains.[20]

Howze briefed the Pentagon in 1957 about the potential of air mobility to defend against a Soviet attack. Only the terrain shifted between then and 1962 as the earlier simulation situated the campaign in Bavaria. The interest in maximising the firepower of helicopters remained unabated.

As Director of Army Aviation, Howze worked ‘to prove that the helicopter’ constituted a ‘superior weapons platform.’[21] In 1958 the US Army successfully tested an H-34 loaded with 40 2.75- and 2.5-inch rockets, nine machine guns and two 20mm cannon.[22]

For McNamara, the Howze Board staged a full field demonstration which featured four gunship helicopters attacking fortifications with machine guns and 2.75-inch rockets. It all climaxed with 30 Hueys ‘flying low, from behind the grandstands, at 110 miles per hour.’ Loaded with infantry, the helicopters landed in the smoke where soldiers dismounted and attacked. It all took two minutes.[23]

The Howze Board sought out information about Southeast Asia by dispatching a team to visit Military Advisory Assistance Groups in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Marine Task Force 116 Headquarters at Udorn, Thailand. Since the middle of 1962, a UH-1 Tactical Transport Helicopter Company armed with machine guns and 2.75-inch rockets operated in Vietnam to escort CH-21 helicopters. Nevertheless, the visiting Board members reported back that there existed resistance to arming helicopters from the USAF.

OV-1_Mohawk_of_73rd_Aviation_Company_in_Vietnam_c1966
US Army pilot, crew, and ground crew with a Grumman OV-1 Mohawk in Vietnam. (Source: Wikimedia)

This only intensified with the Board’s recommendation for US Army air mobility, to include weaponised helicopters. A USAF Board headed by Lieutenant-General Gabriel Disosway issued a four-volume rebuttal to the Howze findings. It criticised weaponising helicopters, utilising an OV-1 Mohawk as a close-support aircraft and argued that USAF fighter-bombers provided better support.

This resulted in the decision to further test the airmobile concept by activating the 11th Air Assault Division (Test) at Fort Benning in 1963. Eighteen months of tests and exercises brought approval from all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff except USAF General John McConnell who maintained his services’ opposition. For the USAF, the fundamental issue remained ‘centralised versus decentralised aircraft management and command.[24]

Ultimately, the USAF won the battle, but it lost the war. The US Army relinquished the 24-armed Mohawks recommended by Howze. It activated the 1st Cavalry Division, however, in July 1965. By the 3 October 1965, the entire division reached its base area at An Khe in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Its orders to seek out and destroy a North Vietnamese force building up in the area culminated in the Battle of Ia Drang in November.

Bruce_Crandall's_UH-1D
Operations during the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965. Major Bruce Crandall’s UH-1D helicopter climbs skyward after discharging a load of infantrymen on a search and destroy mission. (Source: Wikimedia)

The US Marine Corps Mantra – Tolerance, Sympathy and Kindness,

The USMC had long expressed interest in the idea of weaponising helicopters. As far back as 1949 they ‘envisioned that the supporting tactics’ of helicopters ‘might include the use of covering artillery fire’ to ‘neutralize anti-aircraft weapons’ and tanks.[25] The limited lift capability and the instability of helicopters at the time rendered it unworkable. The idea remained, however, and the war in Vietnam reinvigorated it.

Lieutenant Colonel Victor J. Croizat served as the first USMC advisor to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). An authority on French military matters, Croizat visited Algeria where the French faced an insurgency. Accompanied by Major David Riley, Croizat reported their observations to Washington in July 1957.

The French employed helicopters judiciously, in support of ground elements, only until these became ‘capable of self-support with organic weapons.’ While obsolete helicopters ‘hampered’ French efforts, Croizat recommended that the USMC remain ‘abreast of the French experiences.’ As the USMC did that, the Division of Aviation cited that ‘the basic problem [still remaining] is that of determining whether or not Marine Corps Helicopters should be armed.’[26]

There existed a few reasons for opposing armed helicopters in the USMC. These included the inadequacy of rotary-wing aircraft to serve as weapons platforms and the perceived inferiority of helicopter pilots. The most substantial objection, however, stemmed from fears of helicopters replacing fixed-wing to protect helicopter transports.

This necessitated a ‘major change of concept’ while threatening the identity of the USMC. According to Major General Norman J. Anderson, planners foresaw that ‘sacrificing fixed wing capabilities to helicopters’ risked the USMC losing its primary distinction from the US Army; ‘its combination of ground and air combat power.’[27]

By April 1962, a USMC medium helicopter squadron had deployed to Vietnam. Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 362 (HMM-362) constituted the second element of task unit SHUFLY which occupied an old Japanese landing strip near Soc Trang, 85 miles south of Saigon. It operated in support of ARVN forces throughout southern Vietnam.

Unlike US Army helicopters already operating in other parts of South Vietnam, the USMC HUS-ls remained unarmed. USMC commanders reasoned that weapons mounted in the cargo hatch mitigated against efficient loading and unloading in landing zones. Moreover, armed aircraft presented hostile appearance to Vietnamese civilians. They acknowledged this as counterproductive to counterinsurgency by providing fodder for insurgent propaganda.[28]

HUS-1_HMM-362_Vietnam_1962
US Marine Corps Sikorsky HUS-1 (UH-34D) Seahorse helicopters of Marine medium helicopter transport squadron HMM-362 in Vietnam, 1962.

The USMC began devising counterinsurgency-specific roles for helicopters. For example, they soon observed that during large engagements, small numbers of insurgents peeled away to escape into covered areas. The USMC instituted ‘Eagle Flights’ aimed to thwart such escapes in which four helicopters loaded with ARVN troops circled over contested areas and timed landing to cut off any attempted escapes.

The USMC quickly deduced the ‘unique links’ between the ‘political and military aspects of the struggle in Vietnam.’[29] By August 1962, the US marines at Soc Trang began arming their helicopters by mounting M-60 machine guns inside the cargo hatch. While this constituted a radical change, one that realised fears of surrendering fixed-wing capabilities to rotary craft, the USMC adopted it as a defensive tactic, one compliant with the counterinsurgency they sought to execute. The M-60s served as protection for landing and only fired at clearly identified enemies. The USMC refrained from their use in the Mekong Delta’s heavily populated areas.[30]

The US marines who served at Soc Trang became the most vocal advocates of weaponising helicopters. Their argument, however, derived from their conviction, gained from experience. That argument was that counterinsurgency success hinged on a discriminate application of firepower. The early operational experience gained by the US marines that served at Soc Tran convinced them that helicopters could operate with restraint better than fixed-wing aircraft. They sought to explain that in the densely populated areas where helicopter assaults transpired, the application of firepower required ‘almost surgical precision.’

While 500-pound bombs delivered by fixed-wing aircraft ‘might indeed suppress fire,’ this would ‘hardly win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the frightened or uncommitted residents.’[31] According to Colonel Noah C. New, the USMC ‘learned early’ the incompatibility of helicopters and jets in Vietnam. Because there ‘were so few Marines involved, at Soc Trang’ however, making a ‘convincing argument’ to others that the war in Southeast Asia required ‘new approaches’ proved difficult.[32]

General Wallace M. Greene, Commandant of the USMC between 1964 and 1967, grasped the problem. In May 1965, six-armed Marine UH-1Es arrived at Da Nang. Greene explained this to the press, attributing the development to the ‘peculiar circumstances’ that the USMC confronted. He rationalised it as a counterinsurgency imperative, noting that ‘tactical fixed wing aircraft have not been available because of political considerations.’ The armed helicopter, Greene insisted, represented an appropriate tool for the USMC ‘in the environment of political-military artificialities which exist in the Republic of Vietnam.’[33]

Bell_UH-1E_Huey_takes_off_from_USS_Topeka_(CLG-8)_off_Vietnam,_in_1966
An armed US Marine Corps Bell UH-1E Huey takes off from guided missile cruiser USS Topeka (CLG-8) off Vietnam, in 1966. (Source: Wikimedia)

The decision by the USMC to weaponise helicopters exhibited recognition of the Vietnam War’s nature. It derived from the early experience at Soc Trang but also profited from the USMC’s experience in waging America’s ‘small wars’ in the early twentieth century.[34] This is evident through the efforts initiated by USMC General Lew Walt. He commanded Marine Amphibious Force III that operated in I Corps, the tactical zone that included South Vietnam’s five northernmost provinces.

Walt, a veteran of both the Second World War and the Korean War, identified the conflict in Vietnam as something different. It resembled the kinds of engagements he heard about as a young officer ‘from men who fought Sandino in Nicaragua or Charlemagne in Haiti.’ Walt understood the USMC mission in Vietnam as framed by ‘sympathy, understanding, regard for the people.’[35] This echoed advice from the Small Wars Manual of 1940 that noted that ‘tolerance, sympathy and kindness should be the keynote of our relationship with the mass of the population.’[36] That insight informed the decision made by the Marines to weaponise helicopters in Vietnam.

Conclusion

In contrast to the US Army, the USMC sought to apply firepower discriminately. They also recognised the value of helicopters to provide reconnaissance, a critical task of counterinsurgency as ‘the enemy relies on stealth instead of mass.’[37] According to Major General William Gayler, commander of the US Army’s Aviation Center of Excellence, ‘the most critical gap for the Army is a light armed reconnaissance helicopter.’ One with the ability ‘to fight for information about terrain and enemy, that enables ground force commanders, that gives decision space, manoeuvre room and reaction time.’[38] Superior eyesight is sometimes more important than superior firepower. In Vietnam, the USMC understood this well. As military officials contemplate the use of helicopters in contemporary counterinsurgencies, ones where ‘hearts and minds’ remain as vital to secure as they did in Vietnam, the history of thinking within both the USMC and the US Army about weaponising helicopters for use in Vietnam offers valuable lessons.

Dr Robert J. Kodosky chairs the history department at West Chester University and advises the Student Veteran Group. He is the author of Psychological Operations American Style (2007), numerous articles about the Vietnam War and the forthcoming Tuskegee in Philadelphia: Rising to the Challenge (2020).

Header Image: An AH-1G Cobra gunship helicopter of the 334th Helicopter Company, 145th Aviation Battalion over Vietnam in 1969. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Lieutenant General John H. Hay, Jr., Vietnam Studies: Tactical and Materiel Innovations (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1974), p. 6.

[2] Raymond D. Gastil, Toward the Development of More Acceptable Limits for Counterinsurgency (New York: Hudson Institute, 1967), pp. IV-15.

[3] Lieutenant Colonel William R. Fails, Marines and Helicopters, 1962-1973 (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, US Marine Corps, 1978), p. 111.

[4] ‘COIN in the Air: Army Attack Aviation Must Embrace Irregular Warfare,’ Armed Forces Journal, 1 April 2013.

[5] The Virtual Vietnam Archive, Texas Tech University (VVA-TTU), John T. Wheeler, ‘Copter Warfare: How it Evolved,’ Associated Press, 9 March 1969, Associated Press.

[6] Colonel Achid Muchlas, ‘The Role of Airpower in Counterinsurgency Operations’ (USAF Air War College Report, 1988).

[7] Hay, Vietnam Studies, p. 179.

[8] ‘Lessons U.S. Has Learned in the Helicopter War,’ US News and World Report, 23 November 1970, p. 50.

[9] Etienne de Durand, BenoÎt Michel and Elie Tenenbaum, Helicopter Warfare: The Future of Airmobility and Rotary Wing Combat (Paris: Laboratoire de Recherche sur la Défense, 2012), p. 32.

[10] Major Beau G. Rollie, ‘Helicopters in Irregular Warfare: Algeria, Vietnam and Afghanistan’ (MA Thesis, US Army Command and General Staff College, 2013), p. ii.

[11] ‘COIN in the Air: Army Attack Aviation Must Embrace Irregular Warfare.’

[12] Robert Thompson, No Exit from Vietnam, updated edition (New York: David McKay Company, 1970), p. 136.

[13] Kaylene Hughes, ‘Army Helicopters in Korea, 1950-53,’ 28 October 2016.

[14] James M. Gavin, ‘The Future of Armor,’ Infantry Journal, 62:1 (1948), p. 7.

[15] James M. Gavin, ‘Cavalry, and I Don’t Mean Horses,’ Harper’s Magazine, April 1954, p. 58.

[16] J.A. Stockfish, The 1962 Howze Board and Army Combat Developments (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1994), p. 30.

[17] Major Edward P. Gavin, ‘LTG James M. Gavin: Theory and Influence’ (MA Thesis, US Army Command and General Staff College, 2012), p. 27.

[18] Glen Birdwell, ‘Tactical Air Mobility: Birth of the Air Cav,’ Warfare History Network, 18 November 2018.

[19] VVA-TTU, Douglas Pike Collection, Unit 01 – Assessment and Strategy, Proposed Army Aviation Program Subjected to Thorough and Critical Examination by McNamara’s Staff, 1962.

[20] Stockfish, The 1962 Howze Board, p. 17.

[21] Birdwell, ‘Tactical Air Mobility.’

[22] Fails, Marines and Helicopters, p. 86.

[23] Birdwell, ‘Tactical Air Mobility.’

[24] Stockfish, The 1962 Howze Board, p. 25.

[25] Fails., Marines and Helicopters, p. 85.

[26] Ibid., p. 85.

[27] Ibid., p. 86.

[28] Captain Robert H. Whitlow, U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Advisory and Combat Assistance Era, 1954-1964 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1977), p. 65.

[29] Ibid., p. 70.

[30] Ibid., p. 73.

[31] Fails, Marines and Helicopters, p. 86.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] On the use of USMC aviation in the small wars between the First and Second World War, see: Wray Johnson, Biplanes at War: US Marine Corps Aviation in the Small Wars Era, 1915-1934 (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2019).

[35] Fails, Marines and Helicopters, p. 132.

[36] FMFRP 12-15 – Small Wars Manual (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 1940), p. 39.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Jen Judson, ‘Armed Reconnaissance Still biggest Gap in Army Aviation,’ Defense News, 28 April 2017.