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

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

By Dr Michael Hankins

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

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

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

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

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

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

Telling the Tale

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

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

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

Busting Myths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[8] Ibid, pp. 207-8.

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

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

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

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

[13] ‘On Watch,’ pp. 58-9.

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

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

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

NORAD at 60

NORAD at 60

By Dr Brian Laslie

NTS
NORAD tracks Santa (Source: Author)

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

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

DF-ST-82-08601
Four US Air Force Convair F-106A Delta Dart fighters from the 5th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, Minot AFB, fly over Mount Rushmore, on 27 July 1981. (Source: Wikimedia)

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

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

NORAD Map 1960s

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

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

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

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

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

canyon-1
NORAD Commanders have even turned up in the funny pages! Here the NORAD commander, who bore a striking resemblance to actual NORAD commander General Laurence Kuter, briefs Steve Canyon (Source: Author)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

norad

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

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

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

If you would like to contribute to From Balloons to Drones, then visit our submissions page here to find out how.

#HistoricBookReview – Sierra Hotel: Flying Fighters in the Decade After Vietnam

#HistoricBookReview – Sierra Hotel: Flying Fighters in the Decade After Vietnam

By Lieutenant Colonel Tyson Wetzel

C.R. Anderegg, Sierra Hotel: Flying Fighters in the Decade After Vietnam. Washington DC: US Air Force History and Museums Program, 2001. Notes. Illustrations. Appendices. Glossary. Bibliographic Notes. Index. xvii + 210 pp.

Sierra Hotel

When From Balloons to Drones put out a call for reviews of historic air power books, I immediately thought of my favourite book on United States Air Force (USAF) history, Sierra Hotel: Flying Air Force Fighters in the Decade After Vietnam by C.R. Anderegg. I presented this book to each of my mentees that graduated from the USAF Weapons School with the same message; this book shows the power of a small group of dedicated and highly competent officers, and their ability to change the Air Force for the better fundamentally. The officers that receive top billing in Anderegg’s book are young combat veterans; virtually all of whom were Captains and Majors at the time. These men took the hard lessons of Vietnam and turned them into the ideas and concepts that revolutionised USAF training and employment and can be rightly given much of the credit from the phenomenally successful DESERT STORM air campaign.

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Gun camera photo showing a North Vietnamese fighter. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

The period between the end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of DESERT STORM is my favourite era of USAF history to study. The USAF was embarrassed by its lacklustre performance in Vietnam, and it embarked on an aggressive reform path that recapitalised the fighter force, procured revolutionary aircraft and weapons, developed new standards for tactical employment, and most importantly, revamped the way pilots were trained for combat. This period in USAF history has been studied and written about extensively. Notably, Brian Laslie’s The Air Force Way of War is the definitive text on the birth and growth of the RED FLAG exercise while Steve Davies’ Red Eagles is a key source on the clandestine MiG squadron flying out of Tonopah Test Range Airfield at the time. Ben Rich’s Skunk Works described the fascinating history of the origins of the F-117 and the stealth revolution, and most recently, Steven Fino’s Tiger Check detailed the development of the fighter pilot and fighter tactics during this period. Anderegg’s work focused on the people who were at the centre of the tactics and training revolution that had its epicentre at Nellis Air Force Base. According to Anderegg:

[t]his book is about the young officers, the line pilots, and weapons system operators (WSOs), whose innovation, devotion to duty, intelligence, flying skills, and sheer determination made indelible marks on combat capability. (p. xi)

Anderegg began Sierra Hotel by detailing the myriad of problems that plagued the USAF in Vietnam. There was a litany of reasons for the service’s poor performance, but Anderegg concluded (p. 71) that ‘the most important one was training. Air-to-air, or dogfight, training, though, was poor to nonexistent.’ Young combat veterans returned from Vietnam frustrated and angry at the lack of preparation they received before combat. They were determined to remake their service to ensure fighter pilots were never again so unprepared for aerial combat. A group of young, combat proven, pissed off, and supremely talented aviators set about remaking fighter tactics and training:

Fighter pilots returning from Vietnam to the peacetime Air Force did not come home with their tails between their legs […] They were proud of the effort they put forth under difficult circumstances […] They also knew that the things that were wrong needed repair, and that the things that had gone right probably would not work in the next war anyhow. For creative tacticians like John Jumper, Ron Keys, Joe Bob Phillips, and Earl Henderson there was only one direction to go – forward. (p. 181)

The revolution in tactics and training began from the ground up at Nellis, the ‘Home of the Fighter Pilot.’ An unwritten axiom in the USAF is that ‘as Nellis goes, so goes the Air Force.’ Sierra Hotel looks at the base at the height of its influence on the service. Anderegg also introduced the reader to a generation of officers who left a legacy on not their service, but truly the history of air combat.

In Sierra Hotel, Anderegg described the cultural influence of then-Major Larry Keith, a Vietnam veteran hand-picked to reform the F-4 Fighter Weapons School (FWS), which he did first as the Operations Officer, and then the Commander of the 414th Fighter Weapons Squadron. Keith, who retired as a Brigadier General, led a ‘murderers row’ of USAF legends to be who were instructors at the FWS in the mid-1970s. For example, Richard ‘Dick’ Myers went on to become the fifteenth Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, John Jumper would eventually serve as the seventeenth Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and Ronald ‘Ron’ Keys retired as the Commander of Air Combat Command. These men, though destined for greatness, were simply ‘Iron Majors’ at the time; pilots determined to improve the tactics and training of their service.

Anderegg detailed the role a young John Jumper played in the revolution in pilot training. Jumper wrote a series of watershed articles on fighter training, describing a ‘Building Block Approach’ to instruction that was revolutionary at the time but is used today to train not just fighter pilots, but every combat speciality at the USAF Weapons School, successor to the FWS. Anderegg recapped the fight Moody Suter had to convince USAF leaders to accept greater risk in aerial combat training in a large force employment exercise that became RED FLAG. Pilots who are lesser known today also play a major role in Sierra Hotel. Randy O’Neill, an early and passionate advocate for a squadron of dissimilar aircraft to be used as adversary training, a radical idea that was the genesis of the Aggressor squadrons of today, is mentioned. While Roger Wells, whose determination to pry open the doors of the intelligence community to release its treasure trove of data on Soviet pilots led to a ground-breaking brief on Soviet fighter pilots of the day, is also cited. These officers risked their careers pushing ideas that were not always embraced by USAF senior leaders. Anderegg described their courage in fighting for change:

[s]howing the same determination and heroism they had in the skies of Vietnam, the young fighter pilots pressed on, dismissing the risks to their careers to build a better Air Force. (p. 78)

Anderegg’s depiction of this period is made even more vivid since he was a peer with these men, a fellow instructor at the F-4 FWS.

Northrop F-5E
A formation of seven F-5E aggressors of the 57th Fighter Weapons Wing, 4 January 1985. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

As a bonus, Anderegg’s two appendices are required reading for any USAF member or aficionado and are a good enough reason to pick up the book. If you have ever gulped down a shot of Jeremiah Weed and asked yourself how this God-awful excuse for bourbon became a fighter pilot and USAF tradition, you can read the origin story in Appendix A, told by someone that was there. Or, if you have heard about Ron Keys’ original ‘Dear Boss’ resignation letter, in which he told the Commander of Tactical Air Command that he was sick of the USAF and was hanging it up because of the incompetence he saw throughout the Air Force, or have seen one of the many copycat letters in the four decades since, you can read the original in Appendix B and marvel at its applicability to today’s Service.

Anderegg’s book is an easy read and good fun. More importantly, however, it fills a critical role in describing the USAF’s post-Vietnam era. The ‘Iron Majors’ at Nellis drove the revolution in USAF tactics and training:

During those ten years, fighter pilots fundamentally changed the way they trained, how they employed weapons, even how they thought about themselves. Essentially, they built a new culture and the anvil upon which the success of Desert Storm would be forged another decade later. (p. xi)

There are clear parallels between the post-Vietnam era in USAF history and today. Frustrated combat veterans are convinced the service must improve rapidly if it is to win a future high-intensity conflict. Sierra Hotel provides a roadmap for institutional change; embrace the disruptive thinking of the ‘Iron Majors,’ those who have seen the errors made over the past 17-years of non-stop combat, those who can envision a better way of doing business. If the USAF is going to position itself to dominate air, space, and cyberspace in future conflicts, it must listen to those young and innovative thinkers who believe they do not have a voice and cannot affect service-wide change. War winning ideas are percolating in their minds, being printed in blogs, and being debated in the squadron bars over Jeremiah Weed shots. Anderegg’s lesson is that the service must listen to those voices, nurture those future leaders, and take some risk in implementing their ideas. Nothing less than the USAF’s ability to dominate future conflicts is at stake.

Tyson Wetzel is a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force, an intelligence officer, a graduate of the United States Air Force Weapons School where he was also an instructor, and the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College. Tyson has deployed multiple times in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM, NEW DAWN, and NOBLE EAGLE. He is currently assigned to the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. He tweets @gorillawetzel.

Header Image: A flight of Aggressor F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons fly in formation, 5 June 2008, over the Nevada Test and Training Ranges. The jets are assigned to the 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons at Nellis Air Force Base. (Source: US Department of Defense)

#highintensitywar and Alliances

#highintensitywar and Alliances

By Dr Alan Stephens

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Dr Alan Stephens considers the importance of alliances in supporting smaller powers involved in high-intensity conflicts.

It was the 19th century British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston who famously remarked that in international relations there are ‘no eternal allies […] only interests.’

Palmerston’s hard-headed worldview has particular relevance for small- and medium-nations that find themselves drawn into high-intensity warfare. The October 1973 war in the Middle East and the 1982 war in the Falklands illustrate the point.

The 1973 war began on 6 October when Egypt and Syria launched a sudden attack against Israel. Over-confident Israeli commanders were shocked when their previously dominant air force found itself unprepared for the quality and tactical disposition of the Arabs’ ground-based air defence system. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) started the war with about 290 frontline F-4 and A-4 strike/fighters, and within days some fifty had been shot-down. It was an unsustainable loss rate.

McDonnell_Douglas_A-4F_Skyhawk_Ayit_F_(468970264)
A Douglas A-4F Skyhawk of the Israali Air Force. (Source: Wikimedia)

A week later, as the war in the air began to turn and the Israelis started to assert their expected dominance, it was the Arabs’ turn to experience unsustainable losses.

Now, both protagonists faced the same urgent problem: neither had the reserves nor the local capacity to rapidly reinforce their fighting units.

There is a limit to how much a nation can spend on otherwise non-productive war industries and stockpiles. Governments have to make fine judgments regarding how many weapons – which represent stranded assets until they are used – they can afford to have parked on ramps or stored in warehouses against the possibility of a contingency that might never arise.

That economic imperative is especially pronounced in the war in the air, in which platforms and weapons are exceedingly expensive. Moreover, in high-intensity fighting, extreme loss and usage rates accompany extreme unit costs. Thus, during the nineteen days of the October War, the Israelis lost 102 strike/fighters and the Arabs 433, and the Arabs fired 9,000 surface-to-air missiles. Those numbers alone amounted to thirty aircraft and $560 million per day.

What that meant was that neither the Israelis nor the Arabs were capable of fighting a high-intensity air war for more than about a week without direct assistance from their American and Soviet sponsors. Moreover, that is precisely what happened. On 9 October, the Soviets started a massive airlift to resupply the Egyptians and Syrians with missiles, ammunition, SAM components, radars, and much more; shortly afterwards, the US did the same for Israel. The US also made good the IAF’s aircraft losses by flying-in about 100 F-4s, A-4s and C-130s, some of which arrived still carrying United States Air Force markings.

Without that resupply, Israel and the Arab states could not have sustained such a high-intensity conflict.

This point bears emphasis. Israel was far superior militarily to the Arab states, and its excellent indigenous industry enabled it to develop essential capabilities (such as electronic warfare counter-measures) during the conflict. Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to suggest that, had Egypt and Syria been resupplied and Israel had not, the war would have ended differently.

Sustainment in the form of aid from an external source was again crucial during the 1982 Falklands War between the United Kingdom and Argentina.

FKD 2100
A formation of Royal Navy FRS1 Sea Harriers from three of the Fleet Air Arm Squadrons that served in the Falklands War. Viewed from front to back are aircraft of No. 800 Naval Air Squadron, No. 801 Naval Air Squadron and No. 899 Naval Air Squadron. The aircraft at the front is equipped with a Sidewinder missile. (Source: © Crown copyright. IWM (FKD 2100))

The UK’s armed forces are among the world’s very best, and the nation is one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful. Argentina in 1982 was a dysfunctional, second-world nation led by an incompetent cabal of military dictators. According to both the key foreign affairs advisor to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Lord Charles Powell, and the US Assistant Secretary of Defense, Richard Perle, ‘Britain probably would have lost the war without American assistance.’ That assistance extended to providing vital intelligence, and to ‘stripping part of the frontline US air forces’ of the latest version of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile.

Argentina, by contrast, found itself the dismayed subject of Lord Palmerston’s unsentimental characterisation of alliances, when it was abandoned by two nations which, until the day the shooting started, it had believed were its friends. The first, the US, cut-off intelligence and diplomatic assistance; and the second, France, which had sold the Argentine Navy Super-Etendard strike fighters and Exocet missiles, withdrew the technical support needed to make that capability fully effective.

In the event, the Argentines managed to fire five Exocets, sinking two ships from the British war convoy and severely damaging a third. It is feasible that, with better targeting information and only a half-dozen more operational missiles, the Argentines might have inflicted sufficient damage on the convoy to have compelled it to turn back before it got within 100 kilometres of the Falklands.

Should Australia become involved in a high-intensity conflict in the next ten years, we can confidently expect that our air power would be well-trained and well-equipped. Those attributes would be insufficient in themselves, however, if they were not underwritten by a strong and reliable alliance.

N.B. This article was first published in the April 2018 issue of Australian Aviation.

Dr Alan Stephens is a Fellow of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation. He has been a senior lecturer at UNSW Canberra; a visiting fellow at ANU; a visiting fellow at UNSW Canberra; the RAAF historian; an advisor in federal parliament on foreign affairs and defence; and a pilot in the RAAF, where his experience included the command of an operational squadron and a tour in Vietnam. He has lectured internationally, and his publications have been translated into some twenty languages. He is a graduate of the University of New South Wales, the Australian National University, and the University of New England. Stephens was awarded an OAM in 2008 for his contribution to Australian military history.

Header Image: Flight deck operations on board HMS Hermes during the Falklands War, c. 1982. A Sea Harrier takes off from the ski-jump while various missiles, helicopters and vehicles crowd the flight deck of the carrier. The arms front to back include 1000lb GP bombs with type 114 ‘Slick’ tails, 1000lb GP Bombs with Type 117 parachute ‘retarded’ tails, Sidewinder air-to-air missiles and Sea Skua air-to-surface missiles. (Source: © Crown copyright. IWM (FKD 127))

The Air Defence of the UK: Defence on a Shoestring in an Age of Uncertainty

The Air Defence of the UK: Defence on a Shoestring in an Age of Uncertainty

By Dr Kenton White

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Dr Kenton White examines Britain’s defence policy with regards to the air defence of the United Kingdom. He compares Britain’s commitment to air defence during the Cold War period with that of the present. With regards to the present, White concludes that given certain factors, the Royal Air Force (RAF) will struggle to regenerate if faced with a high-intensity conflict with a near-peer enemy.

Preamble

This article talks broadly about strategy, planning and its practice. It uses examples from Britain’s defence policy, and hard numbers from the Cold War experience, to illustrate some of the problems the RAF faces today. It looks at Britain’s commitment to the air defence of its islands during the Cold War – an age of certainty – and compares it directly to the current defence policy and practice in the age of uncertainty.

A historically pessimistic view of international relations and strategy is taken. The reason for this pessimism is based on historical precedent. In 1914, Europe went from peace to war in less than two months. In the 1930s Britain’s rearmament began in mid-decade to replace bi-planes and other equipment, but the RAF still went to war in 1939 with obsolescent, vulnerable equipment, and suffered severe losses of personnel and machinery.

RAF-T 2151
A Gloster Javelin FAW.9R of No, 23 Squadron banking away from the camera clearly showing the missile complement of De Havilland Firestreak infra-red homing air-to-air missiles. (Source: © IWM (RAF-T 2151))

Introduction

I take it someone has worked out whether we can defend ourselves.

Jim Callaghan, Labour Prime Minister, 1978

This comment is written on the front page of a Joint Intelligence Committee report on the ability of the Soviet air force to attack targets in Britain.[1] The report showed Britain was poorly prepared to defend itself in times of war, despite the apparent threat from the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact.

Questions relating to Britain’s air defence capability are as relevant now as they were then; however, the circumstances are very different. The familiar bipolarity of the Cold War is missing, and the range of threats to the UK is much broader, including both state and non-state actors.

Deterrence

A vital role of the RAF is to deter attack, and ultimately the defence of UK airspace if that deterrent fails. Deterrent plans are aimed at a perceived threat: planning for the manifestation of that threat. These plans relate intimately to national strategy. The nation must appear to have a capable air force if it is to act as a deterrent. However, deterrence also requires the ability to sustain operations. Britain’s air defences protect around 1 million square miles of airspace, reaching out into the North Atlantic. This indicates how vital airborne maritime reconnaissance is in defence of the islands.

The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review read:

The Government’s most important duty is the defence of the UK and Overseas Territories, and protection of our people and sovereignty.[2]

In written testimony to the House of Commons Defence Committee (HCDC) in 2013, Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield told the committee that, in an ideal world, air defence of the UK should be the priority of UK defence policy.[3] The 2015 SDSR states ‘[T]he Royal Air Force protects our airspace and is ready at all times to intercept rogue aircraft.’[4] Concerted attack from the air by a peer adversary is not perceived as an imminent threat.

Threat Analysis

The conventional threat during the period of ‘Flexible Response,’ as the NATO Cold War strategy was called, was clear – direct attack from bombers equipped with gravity bombs or stand-off missiles aimed at denying the vital infrastructure needed for the reinforcement of Europe by UK and US forces. The UK was responsible for the air defence of the Eastern Atlantic and the UK itself, and the airspace over the UK was an Air Defence Region in its own right. However, the defensive response to the threat was never completely put into place, leaving UK airspace extremely vulnerable, and Britain’s ability to continue a fight very doubtful.

What is the threat analysis today? The HCDC identified several distant threats to the national interest, and while qualifying the analysis heavily, identified the Russian/Middle Eastern threat as being the greatest to the UK itself.[5] In 2015, the HCDC commented that:

[t]he resurgence of an expansionist Russia represents a significant change in the threat picture […] and has implications not only for the UK but also for our allies as well.[6]

The ability of the Russians to interfere with the sea and air communications into the UK is seen as a considerable problem, and the capability to use cyber-attacks to cripple the country has been recently in the news thanks to the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson.[7] Unofficially at least in public, there is also the fear of the break-up of NATO, and the need for Britain to be able to defend itself alone, as in 1940.

What is being defended?

For us to understand the demands of the air defence of the UK, we must understand what is being defended. The knee-jerk response to this may be that the population is being defended. However, the official documents indicate otherwise. During the early Cold War, the first thing being defended against attack in the UK was the nuclear deterrent. Other targets such as other military installations, ports and airports were next on the list for air defence, with civilian installations such as power generating stations as poor runners-up.

TR 27162
A Royal Air Force Bristol Bloodhound Mark II surface to air guided missile. The missile was used as Britain’s main air defence weapon from 1958 – 1991. It initally protected Britain’s V bomber force but was later deployed in Germany and at RAF Seletar, Singapore. The Bloodhound Mk II was introduced in 1964. It used continuous wave radar guidance and had a capability against aircraft flying at normal operational heights. (Source: © Crown copyright: IWM (TR 27162))

Once the nuclear deterrent took to sea in submarine-launched missiles, the priority of defence changed. There is no longer the clear military imperative to defend the nuclear deterrent if it functions correctly with one boat always at sea, but neither is there the capability, nor the political will, to defend the vital military and civil installations in the country from attack from the air. Security documents speak in vague terms about ‘defence of the UK’.[8]

Self-defence of the RAF, in other words maintaining the RAF air defence and surveillance capability, seems the obvious next choice given that the resources available to the RAF are insufficient to defend the national infrastructure.

What are the vulnerabilities?

Internal Vulnerability

The ‘internal’ vulnerability comes from Government cuts and a drive for greater ‘efficiency’. This results in a lack of equipment, weapons, supplies and trained personnel. There are many examples of short-sighted ‘cost-savings’ which resulted in reduced air defence capability.[9] To many in the RAF and the other armed services, the greatest enemy is the Treasury.

Air defence of the UK suffered considerably during the early Cold War. Because the expectation was that any war would turn nuclear very quickly, the provision of expensive air defence systems was considered unnecessary.[10] The RAF finds itself in a comparable situation now, following a period of cuts, ‘refocusing’ or simple indifference by the government.

National air defence should be flexible and capable of responding to a multitude of threats. However, the historical lesson is that even in a period of certainty, the resources were not made available to the RAF to provide what it saw as the minimum level of defence for UK airspace. Flexibility comes at a cost. It relies on balance within the forces, and sufficient numbers to respond to different scenarios.[11]

There is a lack of a layered surface to air defence system. Other services rely on layered defence, while the RAF has been forced into a two-stage defence: overhead and arm’s length. Without the numbers, achieving flexibility becomes problematic. However, not all aircraft will be available all the time, so a simple count up of aircraft in service is misleading – battle damage, faults and maintenance will reduce the numbers available.

The armed forces are increasingly run by governments of all colours in the fashion of a business, with ‘outputs’ and ‘levels of cost-effectiveness’. The only real measure of an armed force is how it operates in its true environment, which is war. Which brings us to the second vulnerability.

Self-Delusion

This is primarily political self-delusion, but also some self-delusion within the Service. A strategic vulnerability has developed out of the policies which attributed success to the NATO strategies. However, lack of failure does not equal success.

This vision of success contributes to the self-delusion. According to the politicians of successive Governments, aircraft numbers could be cut, pilot training be restricted, and obsolete weapons retained, but the overall strategy was still successful. Behind this apparent success, the UK air defence capability had effectively been eviscerated.

This same self-delusion of success led to the cuts under the ‘Peace Dividend’ and led to very quickly forgetting how to face an adversary that has capable Air Power regarding credibility and numbers. To reinforce this misplaced belief, most recent RAF operations have been fought in more-or-less permissive air environments. They have not had to deter nor fight a peer state.

The political class, public, and even the other armed services have lost sight of the fact that ‘air superiority’ is not a given.  The memory of what it is like to have to operate against an adversary which has credible and numerically similar air power has been lost.  This extends to the protection of the supporting infrastructure, which in recent deployments has remained free from attack. The ground facilities suffer from vulnerability to air attack to blind the surveillance systems, which is why maritime reconnaissance, air surveillance and control systems and airborne warning and control systems are so very important. Indeed, a lack of maritime patrol aircraft has been an embarrassment to the British Government in the recent past.

Existential vulnerability

The third vulnerability is the physical existence of the RAF if it is faced with a peer enemy.

This vulnerability, a result of the combination of the first and second threats, is particularly applicable to Britain’s armed forces. If a relatively small force accomplishes military excellence, the effect of combat losses will be disproportionately devastating.[12] The RAF may be genuinely excellent, capable and agile in all its operations, but because of its reduced size, any combat losses, should it come to a peer-to-peer war, will be truly ruinous.

Difficulties, if not disasters, in the early stages of war, and the need for time to recover and re-arm, have been vital for the UK.  The British Expeditionary Force experienced this in the First World War, and nearly by the RAF in the Second World War. Had Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding not refused to send more fighters to defend France it was likely that the air defence of the home islands would not have been sufficient to survive the impending attack.

An ex-RAF officer commented that:

This threat poses the problem the RAF has faced for decades: condemning themselves to low capabilities for a while, and eventually getting better if they last long enough.

Conclusion

In this age of uncertainty, flexibility is the key to respond to threats from different areas. However, the RAF, along with the other armed forces, have been starved of the necessary resources for even the basic defence of the home nation.

It would appear that many of the limitations placed on UK air defence during a period of strategic certainty have continued into the current age of uncertainty.

Following the apparent success of the Cold War strategies, the idea the ‘teeth’ could be sharpened at the expense of the ‘tail’ persisted and has now grown to dangerous proportions. Pursuing the business model of ‘efficiency’, the Armed Forces have been cut to very low levels yet asked to do more. Moreover, with the increasing tensions in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific, the number of possible threats is increasing.

CT 68
The crew of a McDonnell Douglas Phantom FRG2 aircraft of No. 111 Squadron with their aircraft and weapons load at RAF Coningsby in 1975. The aircraft is fitted with tanks and Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles. Lying in front are four Sparrow radar guided missiles and a Gatling Pod. (Source: © Crown copyright. IWM (CT 68))

The overwhelming problem with a denuded air force is the time it will take to recover its capability if, and when, it is needed. Modern equipment is complicated to manufacture, and aircraft cannot be built in the numbers previously seen. Nor, frankly, is there the will to provide such facilities during peacetime for use in the event of war.

War has a habit of appearing without much announcement, and the diminished resources of the RAF would take years to bring up to the necessary levels to defend the UK against a determined enemy, and defending these islands is precisely what the RAF may be called upon to do, before too long.

Dr Kenton White is a Sessional Lecturer in Politics, International Relations and Strategic Studies at the University of Reading. He also works as a part-time Lecturer in Strategic Studies at Cranwell with the RAF. He has a PhD in Strategic Studies, researching British defence policy and practice during and after the Cold War. He studies military history and defence policy from the Napoleonic Wars to today. Before entering academia, he was the Managing Director of a computer animation company.

Header Image: A Russian Bear aircraft is escorted by a Royal Air Force Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) Typhoon during an intercept in September 2014. (Source: MoD Defence Imagery)

[1] The National Archives, PREM 16/1563, JIC (77)10, The Soviet Capability to Attack targets in the United Kingdom Base, 26th October 1977, ‘Defence against the Soviet Threat to the United Kingdom’, n.d.

[2] Cmd 9161, ‘National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom’ (The Cabinet Office, November 2015), chap. 4. Hereafter, SDSR 2015

[3] HC 197, ‘Towards the next Defence and Security Review: Part One’, (House of Commons, 7 January 2014), p. 58.

[4] ‘SDSR 2015’.

[5] ‘Memorandum submitted by the Strategy and Security Institute, University of Exeter,’ 7 October 2015.

[6] HC 493, ‘Flexible Response? An SDSR Checklist of Potential Threats and Vulnerabilities’ (House of Commons Defence Committee, 17 November 2015), para. 58.

[7] HC493, para. 50; Ben Farmer, ‘Russia says Britain’s Defence Secretary’s claim of attack threat ‘like something from Monty Python,” The Daily Telegraph, 26 January 2018.

[8] ‘SDSR 2015’, chap. 4.

[9] Kenton White, ‘“Effing” the Military: A Political Misunderstanding of Management’, Defence Studies, 17:4 (2017), pp. 346-58.

[10] A07783, Defence of the United Kingdom, DOP (78)12, Memorandum to the Prime Minister from John Hunt, 1st August 1978, ‘Defence against the Soviet Threat to the United Kingdom’, 2.

[11] Group Captain Paul O’Neill, ‘Developing a Flexible Royal Air Force for an Age of Uncertainty’, RAF Air Power Review, 18:1 (2015), pp. 46-65.

[12] Colin S. Gray, War, Peace, and Victory: Strategy and Statecraft for the Next Century (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), p. 171.

#BookReview – Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force

#BookReview – Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force

By Alexander Fitzgerald-Black

Brian D. Laslie, Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force. Lexington, KT: The University Press of Kentucky, 2017. Notes. Bibliography. Index. 21 b/w Photos. Hbk. 236 pp.

Architect of Air Power Cover

With Architect of Air Power Brian D. Laslie, Deputy Command Historian at NORAD and US Northern Command and an Adjunct Professor at the US Air Force Academy had two mutually supporting goals. The first is to offer readers a biography of General Laurence S. Kuter, one of the select few US Air Force (USAF) officers to serve the majority of his 35-year career as a general officer (the others were Generals Curtis LeMay, Lauris Norstad, and Hoyt Vandenberg). The second is to acknowledge that Kuter’s

[c]areer dovetailed with the rise of an adolescent air power and ended with a fully grown and mature air force capable of global monitoring and response. (p. xi)

In other words, Kuter was an architect of the USAF. Many of the modern USAF’s principles and methods owe their origins to his work.

The biography is organised chronologically, beginning with Kuter’s adolescence and time at West Point and ending with his service as a four-star general commanding the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) and North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), retirement, and passing. Laslie has assembled an impressive array of sources to discuss Kuter’s life and career. He draws on Kuter’s incomplete autobiography, collections at the USAF Academy library (including Kuter’s papers and those of several his contemporaries), oral histories, diaries, and letters. One highlight of the book is how Laslie captures Kuter’s relationship with his high school sweetheart and wife, Ethel Kuter (née Lyddon). Ethel’s diary was slowly overtaken by references to Kuter beginning in 1922, and the pair wrote over 1,000 letters to each other during his time at West Point.

Laslie takes his readers on a mission to understand why so little has been written about Kuter. One reason is that Kuter did not make a name for himself with flying exploits or by leading air formations into battle. Kuter did not join the US Army Air Corps because of romantic visions of flight. Instead, he joined to be a better artillery officer. Only later did he become fully immersed in exploring a new kind of warfare – mainly at the operational rather than tactical level. In August 1941, Kuter became one of the authors of AWPD-1, the first comprehensive plan for winning the war against Germany through aerial bombardment. In the early months of America’s Second World War, Brigadier General Kuter (one of the youngest general officers in the US Army) was a go-between for General George C. Marshall and Lieutenant General Henry H. Arnold. He also had a significant hand in setting up the latter’s Air Staff as the US Army Air Forces achieved autonomy. Kuter made a name for himself with his organisational skills rather than his combat command ability.

Recognising this, Arnold sent Kuter to Europe in late 1942 to gather command experience. Kuter commanded the Eighth Air Force’s 1st Bombardment Wing under Brigadier General Ira Eaker. One of Eaker’s assistants, James Parton, later claimed that Eaker had fired Kuter for declining to fly on combat missions. Laslie has proven these accusations to be unquestionably false. In fact, while Eaker gave Kuter the worst performance reviews of his career, he also tried to retain Kuter’s services. Laslie believes Eaker did this to provide Kuter with more time to prove himself; he had served under Eaker for only five weeks.

© IWM (CNA 408)
Senior Allied Air Commanders gathered at the Headquarters of the North African Tactical Air Force, Ain Beida, Algeria. Left to right: Air Marshal Sir Arthur “Mary” Coningham, Air Office Commanding, NATAF, Major General C A Spaatz, Commanding General, North-west African Air Forces, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Mediterranean Air Command, and Brigadier General L S Kuter, Deputy Commander, NATAF. (Source: © IWM (CNA 408))

This is another of the reasons for the lack of attention afforded Kuter. He never stayed in one place long enough to make a name for himself. Kuter’s next stop was North Africa. He would serve as the deputy to Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham, commander of the Northwest African Tactical Air Force. He served in this position for only four months, but he still made immense contributions to the war effort and the future of the US air power. Kuter’s brainchild was FLAX, a well-planned and executed operation to destroy the Axis air bridge between Sicily and Tunisia. He also learned how to implement a proper ground support system in the field. When he returned to Washington to work under Arnold his experiences in North Africa were codified in Field Manual 100-20. This document is considered both the air force’s ‘declaration of independence’ and the basis for the USAF’s tactical air power concepts to this day.

Kuter’s next command opportunity overseas was in the Pacific. Now a Major General, Kuter was quickly replaced in a reshuffling of officers following the defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945. He then moved to Air Transport Command, where he supported General Douglas MacArthur’s buildup in Japan following the island nation’s surrender. After less than a month, Kuter once again returned to Washington. As Laslie notes, ‘as soon as [Kuter] established and organized the flow of men and material, he was pulled from the theater.’ (p. 122)

Another reason Laslie offers us for Kuter’s relative obscurity is the man’s level-headedness. People want to write about innovators and controversial figures, not respectable architects. Laslie makes this observation early in the book: ‘If the famous early aviators – men like Curtis LeMay and Jimmy Doolittle – were cowboys, then Kuter represented the first-generation lawman who came to town to impose order.’ (p. 18) One of the arduous tasks Kuter had to handle while working under Arnold in 1942 were the requests from various theatre commanders for more and better aircraft and properly trained crews. At the time, there just were not enough aircraft to train crews in the United States and supply US Army Air Forces in Europe, North Africa, and the Pacific. President Roosevelt had also promised the Royal Air Force a share of American aircraft production. This added strain was worth it since many British Commonwealth pilots already had combat experience. Although the theatre commanders could be quite forceful in their requests, Kuter never let it get the better of him, and his level-headedness set him apart from many of his contemporaries. Perhaps, therefore, when Arnold could not attend the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Kuter attended in his place. In doing so, Kuter jumped the queue in front of three-star generals.

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Continental defense warning systems of the North America. (Source: Wikimedia)

Kuter’s Cold War career is equally fascinating. He never held or coveted the positions of Chief of Staff or Vice Chief of Staff of the USAF (perhaps another factor in his relative obscurity). His work establishing the USAF Academy and achieving accreditation for the Air University were architectural moves that produce new generations of air force officers that continue to mould the modern USAF. As a four-star general, Kuter commanded America’s aviation in the Pacific theatre, consolidating these forces under one command: PACAF. He also oversaw NORAD as it dealt with growing Soviet missile offensive capability in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

In his preface, Laslie notes the difficulty associated with writing biography suggesting that:

Historians must tread the perilous course of being objective while at the same time proclaiming why subject needs individual attention in the first place. (p. xi)

Laslie has played this balancing act marvellously. He pulls no punches, willingly calling out Kuter when his ideas or actions were wrong, especially his belief in strategic air bombardment as a war-winning approach. Laslie carefully provides the reader with enough context so that he or she may understand why Kuter made these errors. In fact, it is these very moments, so well captured by Laslie, that make Kuter and the history of the USAF such a fascinating subject.

Alexander Fitzgerald-Black has a Master of Arts in Military History from the University of New Brunswick and is a Master of Arts in Public History candidate at the University of Western Ontario. Alex’s first book, Eagles over Husky: The Allied Air Forces and the Sicilian Campaign, 14 May to 17 August 1943, will be published in early 2018. His research interests include air power in the Second World War, with a particular focus on the Mediterranean, and Canadian military history. He operates his blog at alexfitzblack.wordpress.com and can be reached on Twitter @AlexFitzBlack.

Header Image: Republic of Korea Air Force Lieutenant General Cho Won Kun flies with the 35th Fighter Squadron out of Kunsan Air Base, c. 2009. The 35th Fighter Squadron forms part of the 8th Operations Group of the 8th Fighter Wing. The 8th Fighter Wing is assigned to the Seventh Air Force, which reports to PACAF. (Source: Wikimedia)

#BookReview – Tiger Check: Automating the US Air Force Fighter Pilot in Air-to-Air Combat, 1950-1980

#BookReview – Tiger Check: Automating the US Air Force Fighter Pilot in Air-to-Air Combat, 1950-1980

By Mike Hankins

Steven A. Fino, Tiger Check: Automating the US Air Force Fighter Pilot in Air-to-Air Combat, 1950-1980. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017. Notes. Works Cited. Index. Hbk. 435 pp. 

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Works dealing with the history of military technology tend to fall into a few camps. Some will praise a single ‘genius inventor,’ some will chronicle a teleological, linear path of ‘advancement,’ some are content to merely unpack the ‘black boxes’ and describe a piece of technology in detail for its own sake. Rare is the work that discusses the social and cultural interchange between people and machines, digs deep in technical details, while at the same time being a well-written, gripping narrative history sure to excite any enthusiast. Steven Fino’s Tiger Check is all those things at their finest.

Fino examines the American fighter pilot experience in three specific aircraft: The F-86 Sabre, the F-4 Phantom II, and the F-15 Eagle. Each plane featured new technology that seemed to threaten the existing ‘knights of the air’ culture of fighter pilots. Fino argues that despite this series of cultural threats, that culture adapted. The image of pilots as ‘flying knights’ never changed, although they did have to modify themselves into ‘flying scientists.’ This did not replace the previous culture of fighter pilots but merely broadened and democratised it.

Fino begins the book by briefly exploring the ‘knights of the air’ mythology that dates to air-to-air combat in the First World War. As he defines it, the fighter pilot myth has three elements. First, air-to-air engagements as a form of honourable combat among gentleman warriors. Second, that success in air combat is due to the unique skill of the individual pilot. Finally, that the measure of greatness is the kill count—the number of enemy aircraft downed by a single pilot. It could be argued that there are more elements to this myth, and in his attempt to define these cultural factors as steady between the two World Wars, Fino glosses over the emphasis on bombing doctrine in the Second World War, and the battles between fighter culture and bomber culture during those years. That is a minor nitpick, however, as he does a wonderful job of defining the terms of his argument and how he intends to explore the evolution of the fighter pilot myth in the Cold War era.

The rest of the book is organised into three long chapters, each devoted to a particular aircraft. These chapters all follow a similar formula. First, Fino looks at how the pilots of a specific era still maintained and celebrated the three main elements of the ‘flying knights’ mythology. Fino then gives a detailed look at the new cockpit technologies of that era and how they seemed to threaten that myth. Finally, Fino chronicles how pilots adapted, slightly modifying their culture and practices in a way that allowed them to both masters the new technology while keeping the ‘knights of the air’ myth intact.

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Captain Joseph McConnell Jr. in the cockpit of his F-86, which shows his 16 kills as red stars. ‘Beauteous Butch’ referred to his nickname for his wife, Pearl. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

This pattern starts with the F-86 Sabre and the massive air-to-air battles over ‘MiG Alley’ during the Korean War. The main new piece of technology in the fighter cockpit was the A-1C(M) gunsight, relying on radar to help pilots aim their guns against the new generation of fast, agile jet fighters. The new gunsights, which required more technical knowledge and at least some understanding of radar theory, threatened the image of the lone fighter pilot using his skills, rather than relying on machines. Many pilots resisted the new gunsights and lobbied for their removal. Indeed, the first generation of sights was notoriously unreliable. However, after mid-1952, newer versions of the gunsight increased its reliability, and a younger generation of pilots adapted their culture to emphasise the combination of man and machine, rather than the earlier conception of man or machine. As Fino concludes:

Pilots had to move beyond the decades-old stereotype that had defined their profession. Detailed knowledge of their aircraft and its weapons systems wouldn’t necessarily dilute their tiger spirit […] It might actually render their tiger-like instincts that much more lethal for their opponent. (p. 109)

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Early F-4s in Southeast Asia were painted gray, but by 1966, they were camouflaged like the Phantom at the bottom of the photograph. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

The next section jumps to the Vietnam War and examines the next biggest ‘threat’ to the fighter pilot mythology: The F-4 Phantom. The threat came not only from a reliance on guided missiles rather than guns (as the Phantom did not carry a gun at all until the later ‘E’ model) but more so from the fact that the F-4 was a two-seater. No longer was the fighter pilot a lone wolf, but he had to work in tandem with a radar cooperator in the back seat (colloquially called the ‘GIB’ for ‘guy in back’) to help identify and track enemy aircraft as well as obtain weapons locks. It was no longer enough to use one’s skill to maneuver a fighter into position and pull the trigger aggressively—now a pilot needed to understand the intricacies of how their large radar worked, and how to operate a large array of knobs, buttons, and switches to find and track targets. These tasks, split between two people, seemed to destroy social conventions among fighter pilots. Most importantly, who got credit for a kill? Most pilots bristled at these changes, as Fino notes:

Many of those sitting in either seat in the Phantom would have preferred instead to be flying a single-seat fighter, even if it was an older, less sophisticated, more vulnerable aircraft. (p. 196)

Even this radical of a shift did not destroy the image of pilots as ‘flying knights.’ The definition of what a pilot was shifted, emphasising coordination between men and machines. As Fino surmises, the Phantom’s advanced technology:

[m]ight have been designed to simplify and democratize fighter aviation so that the nation would no longer have to rely solely on the skills of carefully screened and combat-seasoned ‘birdmen,’ but it quickly became apparent in the skies over Vietnam that skilled pilots were still needed, and that those necessary skills could often be developed only in combat. (p. 197)

The final shift in this narrative came with the arrival of the F-15 Eagle—which promised to be a return to ‘traditional’ fighter pilot conceptions, optimised for air-to-air combat as a true ‘fighter pilot’s fighter plane.’ Although the Eagle had a single-seat, it was also larger and much more complicated than the Phantom. Its radar and long-range missiles still required extensive knowledge and skill to operate, although a computer now performed most of the tasks formerly handled by the GIB. Still, Eagle pilots had to be, to some degree, ‘flying scientists,’ who could perform delicate, precise movements on their joysticks to manipulate their radars and make the most of their weapons systems.

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An F-15C Eagle breaks away from a KC-135R Stratotanker after in-flight refueling during Operation ALLIED FORCE on 4 April 1999. (Source: Wikimedia)

Fino does not examine the Eagle’s performance in actual warfare as much as simulated combat, specifically the AIMVAL/ACEVAL tests of 1976-1977. During and after these tests, F-15 pilots developed new tactics, including changing their formations, but more importantly developing the practice of ‘sorting’ targets. Fino examines this shift from a cultural perspective—lone fighter pilots duelling in the skies indeed became a thing of the past. Skilled individuals were still key, but now, pilots had to work together and pick targets, maximising the advantages of their weapons, ideally to end air-to-air engagements before they became dogfights. This seemed to threaten the ‘knights of the air’ image at first, but ultimately upheld it. Although the necessary skill set to be an effective Eagle pilot had drastically changed since the Korean War, pilot skill, aggression, and individual prowess were still crucial factors.

When describing the technical aspects of these systems, Fino goes into incredible detail. A close reading of this book would give the reader a thorough knowledge of the science behind radar technology and comes close to approaching an instruction manual for all three aircraft. These technical descriptions are never boring and never devolve to a case of opening ‘black boxes’ for their own sake. Fino continually ties the technical issues back to larger questions of cultural identity with an engaging style of writing. His sources are deep, and his notes thorough, proving ample opportunity for further research. If there is any flaw in the work, it tends to assume pilots are inherently antagonistic to engineers and aircraft designers. Many pilots likely shared this view. However, it might have been interesting to examine the culture and perspective of those designing and building this technology and how they viewed themselves as aiding pilots rather than threatening their culture. However, that would require another book’s worth of research and is not the type of work Fino set out to create here.

Ultimately, this work is one of the best works of air power (and technology) history that this reviewer has read in quite some time, and will likely become a standard of the field. It certainly sets a very high bar for other historians. For those interested in pilot culture and/or aircraft technology, this is required reading, while still pointing towards directions for future scholarship.

Mike Hankins is a doctoral candidate at Kansas State University, where he teaches World History, the History of Airpower, and the History of Comic Books, and he is currently working on his dissertation, ‘Sources of Innovation: The Cultural and Technological Origins of Fourth Generation Fighter Aircraft, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled ‘The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War. He has a web page and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: An F-22 Raptor, P-51 Mustang and F-15E Strike Eagle perform the historic heritage flight during an air show at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, 8 November 2008. (Source: Wikimedia)