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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Dr Michael W. Hankins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#Podcast – The F-15 and F-16: Fighter Pilot Culture and Technology: An Interview with Dr Michael Hankins

#Podcast – The F-15 and F-16: Fighter Pilot Culture and Technology: An Interview with Dr Michael Hankins

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

Our own co-host Michael Hankins discusses his new book, Flying Camelot: The F-15, the F-16, and the Weaponization of Fighter Pilot Nostalgia, from Cornell University Press. We look at the development process of the F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Fighting Falcon, talk about the elements of fighter pilot culture, and the ever-controversial Colonel John Boyd.

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

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

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books (November 2021)

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books (November 2021)

Editorial note: In this series, From Balloons to Drones highlights research resources available to researchers. Contributions range from discussions of research at various archival repositories to highlighting new publications. As part of this series, we are bringing you a monthly precis of recent articles and books published in air power history. This precis will not be exhaustive but will highlight new works published in the preceding month. Publication dates may vary around the globe and are based on those provided on the publisher’s websites. If you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here.

Articles

John Alexander, ‘The Worsted Manufacturer, Roderick Hill and ‘the most courageous decision of the War’: The Decision to Reorganise Britain’s Air Defence to Counter the V-1 Flying Bomb,’ RAF Air and Space Power Review 23, no. 1 (2021).

The first four V-1 flying bombs crossed the Channel in the early hours of 13 June 1944, exactly one week after D-Day; none were engaged and one reached Bethnal Green killing four people. When overnight 15/16 June the German Air Force launched 244 V-1s against London, the long-planned British counter V-1 defences, consisting of fighter, gun and balloon belts, brought down only thirty-three V-1s, including eleven shot-down by anti-aircraft (AA) guns, and seventy landed on London. This paper explores the decision to reorganise Britain’s Air Defence during this crucial stage of the War.

Orazio Coco, ‘The Italian Military Aviation in Nationalist China: General Roberto Lordi and the Italian Mission in Nanchang (1933–1937),’ The International History Review (2021). DOI: 10.1080/07075332.2021.1984277

On 7 September 1933, military officers of the Italian Air Force led by Colonel Roberto Lordi departed from Naples to reach China with the task, agreed upon by Italian fascist and Chinese nationalist governments, of building a factory assembling Italian-made aircraft and training pilots for the Republic of China. The mission was stationed at Nanchang, in today’s Jiangxi province. The initiative was developed in competition with a similar American mission, which had operated since 1932 in Hankou, in the Hubei province, at the time led by Colonel John H. Jouett. The Italian government won Chiang’s attention with the agreement to use the military airfield and Italian aircraft against the Communist resistance, which pleased the expectations of the Generalissimo. In April 1934, the headquarters of the Chinese military aviation finally moved to Nanchang. The mission’s commander, Roberto Lordi, was promoted Brigadier General of the Italian Royal Air Force and appointed Chief of Staff of the Chinese Air Force. This article presents, through extensive use of unpublished private and public archive documents, the controversial history of the Italian military mission and unveils the circumstances that changed the fortune of that successful story, as well as the career and personal life of its commander.

Steven Paget, ‘The ‘Eeles Memorandum’: A Timeless Study of Professional Military Education,’ RAF Air and Space Power Review 23, no. 1 (2021).

Examinations of historical examples are an important element of the professional military education debate and demonstrate the enduring nature of some of the necessary considerations. Air Commodore Henry Eeles, the Commandant of Royal Air Force (RAF) College Cranwell between August 1952 and April 1956 wrote a prescient report in 1955. The military, political and social changes that were occurring have some parallels to the contemporary context, including expectations about access to higher education and the introduction of new technology, which was viewed as leading to an era of so-called ‘push button warfare’. Eeles was also cognisant of issues such as balance, time and life-long learning that are just as pertinent today as in 1955. The context and content of the report has ensured that it has enduring relevance for the RAF.

Matthew Powell, ‘Royalties, Patents and Sub-Contracting: The Curious Case of the Hawker Hart,’ RAF Air and Space Power Review 23, no. 1 (2021). 

Aircraft procurement by the Air Ministry in the inter-war period was beset by various problems, with numerous solutions proposed in an attempt to resolve them. One such potential solution was the proposal to sub-contract the production to other aircraft manufacturers within the Air Ministry’s ring of firms who were allocated firm orders. This action by the Air Ministry, it was believed, would spread the technical knowledge of aircraft production to a wider base that could be built upon in a time of national emergency or war. This approach was also a way of ‘artificially’ keeping firms alive where they had been unsuccessful in being awarded contracts. Such a scheme would, from the industry’s perspective, however, lead to less orders for firms successful in aircraft design and allow the potential sharing of industry secrets amongst direct competitors.

Richard Worrall, “Bumps along “The Berlin Road”’: Bomber Command’s forgotten Battle of Hanover, September-October 1943,’ RAF Air and Space Power Review 23, no. 1 (2021).

The many accounts on RAF Bomber Command follow the usual chronology of the ‘Main Offensive’ against Germany throughout 1943/4, with a linear progression from the Battle of the Ruhr, to the Battle of Hamburg, to the Battle of Berlin. Yet adopting this approach is problematic. The Battle of Berlin was halted by Harris in mid-September only to be recommenced in mid-November, but it, therefore, begs the simple question: what was Bomber Command doing during the interim ten weeks? Harris’ force was far from inactive during this time, in which the centrepiece was the ‘Battle of Hanover’ that comprised four heavy-attacks in twenty-six days. This article identifies what happened during this period of the ‘Main Offensive’, to suggest why this ‘bomber battle’ has remained forgotten, highlighting how Bomber Command’s experiences over Hanover revealed its limitations at this critical stage of the bombing war.

Books

Tony Fairbairn, The Mosquito in the USAAF: De Havilland’s Wooden Wonder in American Service (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2021).

On 20 April 1941, a group of distinguished Americans headed by the US Ambassador to the United Kingdom, John Winant, and which included Major General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold, Chief of the US Army Air Corps, visited the de Havilland Aircraft Company’s airfield at Hatfield, England.

The party was there ostensibly to gain an insight into how various US aircraft supplied to Britain were performing, as well as to observe some of the latest British products being put through their paces. The eighteen types on display included both US and British bombers and fighters. But the star of the day was undoubtedly the de Havilland Mosquito.

Having first flown only a few months earlier, on 25 November 1940, the aircraft that was put through its paces was flown by none other than Geoffrey de Havilland. Striving to impress the trans-Atlantic visitors, de Havilland provided an outstanding display of speed and manoeuvrability. It was a routine that impressed the Americans and left them in no doubt as to the Mosquito’s abilities.

Though the visitors harboured doubts about an aircraft made of wood, they returned to the United States with full details of the design. The Mosquito had also caught the eye of Elliott Roosevelt, son of the US President and a serving officer in the USAAC. An early specialist in military aerial mapping and reconnaissance, ‘ER’ swiftly realized the value of the Mosquito in the reconnaissance role and began lobbying vigorously for its acquisition. The Air Ministry duly noted ‘ER’s’ interest and influence.

Following America’s entry into the war, formal requests for Mosquitoes began in earnest in 1942. Initial deliveries for evaluation purposes in the United States soon followed in June 1943, the aircraft initially being supplied by de Havilland Canada. From February 1944 a steady flow of the photographic reconnaissance version, from Hatfield, were provided to what would become the USAAF’s 25th Bomb Group at Watton, England. There they served with distinction in a variety of specialist roles, including day and night photography, weather reconnaissance, ‘chaff’ (Window) dropping, scouting for the bomber force, raid assessment, and filming of special weapons projects.

A number of these Mosquitoes, serving with the 492nd Bomb Group at Harrington, were involved in the so-called ‘Joan-Eleanor’ project, working with OSS secret agents on the Continent. Finally, in 1945, the USAAF received much-anticipated night fighter Mosquitoes which enjoyed combat success with the 416th Night Fighter Squadron in Italy.

In this highly illustrated work, the author explores the full story of why the Americans wanted Mosquitoes, how they went about obtaining them, and their noted success and popularity with USAAF units.

Michael Hankins, Flying Camelot: The F-15, the F-16, and the Weaponization of Fighter Pilot Nostalgia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2021).

Flying Camelot brings us back to the post-Vietnam era, when the US Air Force launched two new, state-of-the art fighter aircraft: the F-15 Eagle and the F-16 Fighting Falcon. It was an era when debates about aircraft superiority went public—and these were not uncontested discussions. Michael W. Hankins delves deep into the fighter pilot culture that gave rise to both designs, showing how a small but vocal group of pilots, engineers, and analysts in the Department of Defense weaponized their own culture to affect technological development and larger political change.

The design and advancement of the F-15 and F-16 reflected this group’s nostalgic desire to recapture the best of World War I air combat. Known as the “Fighter Mafia,” and later growing into the media savvy political powerhouse “Reform Movement,” it believed that American weapons systems were too complicated and expensive, and thus vulnerable. The group’s leader was Colonel John Boyd, a contentious former fighter pilot heralded as a messianic figure by many in its ranks. He and his group advocated for a shift in focus from the multi-role interceptors the Air Force had designed in the early Cold War towards specialized air-to-air combat dogfighters. Their influence stretched beyond design and into larger politicized debates about US national security, debates that still resonate today.

A biography of fighter pilot culture and the nostalgia that drove decision-making, Flying Camelot deftly engages both popular culture and archives to animate the movement that shook the foundations of the Pentagon and Congress.

Norman Ridley, The Role of Intelligence in the Battle of Britain (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2021).

The Battle of Britain was fought between two airborne military elites and was a classic example of pure attack against pure defence. Though it was essentially a ‘war of attrition’, it was an engagement in which the gathering, assessment and reaction to intelligence played a significant role on both sides.

In some respects, both the RAF and the Luftwaffe were hamstrung in their endeavours during the Battle of Britain by poor intelligence. The most egregious Luftwaffe blunder was its failure to appreciate the true nature of Fighter Command’s operational systems and consequently it made fundamental strategic errors when evaluating its plans to degrade them. This was compounded by the Luftwaffe’s Intelligence chief, Major Josef ‘Beppo’ Schmid, whose consistent underestimation of Fighter Command’s capabilities had a huge negative impact upon Reichsmarschall Göring’s decision-making at all stages of the conflict.

Both the Luftwaffe and the RAF lacked detailed information about each other’s war production capacity. While the Luftwaffe did have the benefit of pre-war aerial surveillance data it had been unable to update it significantly since the declaration of war in September 1939. Fighter Command did have an distinct advantage through its radar surveillance systems, but this was, in the early stages of the conflict at least, less than totally reliable and it was often difficult to interpret the data coming through due to the inexperience of many of its operators. Another promising source of intelligence was the interception of Luftwaffe communications.

It is clear that the Luftwaffe was unable to use intelligence as a ‘force multiplier’, by concentrating resources effectively, and actually fell into a negative spiral where poor intelligence acted as a ‘force diluter’, thus wasting resources in strategically questionable areas. The British, despite being essentially unable to predict enemy intentions, did have the means, however imperfect, to respond quickly and effectively to each new strategic initiative rolled out by the Luftwaffe.

The result of three years intensive research, in this book the author analyses the way in which both the British and German Intelligence services played a part in the Battle of Britain, thereby attempting to throw light on an aspect of the battle that has been hitherto underexposed to scrutiny.

Stephen Wynn, Hitler’s Air Defences (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2021).

The first Allied bombing raid on Berlin during the course of the Second World War, took place on 7 June 1940, when a French naval aircraft dropped 8 bombs on the German capital, but the first British raid on German soil took place on the night of 10/11 May 1940, when RAF aircraft attacked Dortmund.

Initially, Nazi Germany hadn’t given much thought about its aerial defences. being attacked in its ‘own back yard’ wasn’t something that was anticipated to be an issue. Germany had been on the offensive from the beginning of the war and Hitler believed that the Luftwaffe was the much stronger air force.

In addition, from 1939-1942, the Allied policy of aerial attacks on German soil was to hit targets with a distinct military purpose, such as munitions factories, airfields etc. This meant that the Germany military could focus where they placed their anti-aircraft batteries and had a very good idea of how many they would need.

However, Germany’s defensive capabilities were forced to improve as Allied raids on towns and cities increased in size and frequency. Fighter aircraft were included as part of anti-aircraft defences and flak units mastered the art of keeping attacking Allied aircraft at a specific height. This made it more difficult for them to identify their specific targets, and easier for German fighter aircraft to shoot them down before they could jettison their bomb loads.

With the Allied tactic of ‘area bombing’, Germany’s anti-aircraft capabilities became harder to maintain as demand increased. The longer the war went on, along with the increased Allied bombing raids, sometimes involving more than 1,000 bomber aircraft, so the worth and effectiveness of German air-defences dwindled.

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

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

By Dr Michael W. Hankins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#AirWarBooks – Dr Michael Hankins

#AirWarBooks – Dr Michael Hankins

Editorial Note: In the next instalment of our Air War Books series, our Podcast Editor, Dr Michael Hankins, discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped his writing as an air power historian.

Before I became a historian, I was a professional musician, and one of the most fun things that musicians do is sit around and talk about their influences. What did you listen to over the years that made you play the way that you play and compose music the way you do? The #AirWarBooks series here is a similar opportunity for us air power historians to talk about what books influenced us most. But, of course, the way any historian interrogates the past is rooted in many things, not just what books they read, but also their values, beliefs, background, and maybe even what kind of music they like.

That said, here are ten books that influenced my approach to studying and writing about air power history and technology. Not all of them are about aviation, but they shaped my approach to history in key ways. I’ll discuss the non-aviation books first:

soldiers-and-ghosts

J.E. Lendon, Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006). So why is a book about Greco-Roman Warfare on my list of military aviation books? Because Lendon’s amazing work links culture and memory to the practice of warfare in specific and compelling ways. He argues that the Greeks and the Romans looked to the past – a culturally constructed, imagined past—to inform what they thought warfare should look like. I noticed some similar trends when I studied fighter pilot culture and began working on my first book, Flying Camelot. I don’t think I could have written that book without Lendon’s influence.

David Nye, America as Second Creation: Technology and Narratives of New Beginnings (Boston, MS: MIT Press, 2003). This book is not about aircraft specifically, but it is about the cultural power of technology. I’ve been deeply influenced by Nye’s examination of how specific technologies came to symbolize cultural narratives about the origins and evolution of the United States. The idea that a piece of technology could be a symbol that tells a specific story to a specific culture, almost defining their sense of identity in a way, is an idea that continues to define my own work.

Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Vintage, 1998). There may not have been any aircraft in King Phillip’s War, but what I found so compelling about Lepore’s work here is the power of how people talk about the past. This book is less about the war and more about how it came to be remembered by the opposing sides, and how the language used to describe the past can create whole systems of meaning that shape the future. This idea, so powerfully explored here, has shaped my approach to studying later conflicts from the Korean and Vietnam Wars to the Gulf War and beyond.

1799111

Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York: Free Press, 1989). Finally, some aeroplanes! There is a rich literature about air power in the Vietnam War, but I still think Clodfelter’s classic holds up as one of the most important. Even over 30 years later, his argument is still controversial: that strategic bombing in Vietnam was not effective, that air power, although very important, has limits. Nevertheless, his explanation and comparison of the different goals, limits, and methods of the Johnson and Nixon administrations’ approaches to bombing is still useful and insightful. Even for those who disagree with it, this book remains a giant in the field for a reason.

John Flanagan, Vietnam Above the Treetops: A Forward Air Controller Reports (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1992). There are a lot of pilot and aircrew memoirs from Vietnam, and many of them are very good. But, for some reason, Flanagan’s tale of flying O-1 Bird Dogs on the incredibly dangerous low-and-slow FAC missions in Southeast Asia has stuck with me much more than any other pilot memoirs I’ve read. Starting at the USAF Academy, Flanagan was a deeply principled man who was surprised at how the military handled itself in Vietnam. His story includes the way he wrestled with himself about the war and described in detail the brutal missions and the horrific things he saw. His story also includes a detailed look at how the US brought South Korean troops into the war – something not covered much in other works. There are many great memoirs to read, but if you can only read one, this would be my pick.

Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas about Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004). Of all the books on bombing in the Second World War (and there are seemingly too many to count), Biddle’s work is one of the best. She highlights one of major themes in air power history: the disconnect between the promises of air power and its actual results on the battlefield. This work is a wonderful look at the evolution of an idea – how strategic bombing theory grew and changed over time, and how that idea and the assumptions that grew to accompany it influenced air power leaders on both sides of the Atlantic to interpret the air war in particular ways. This mode of analysing not only what happened, but what people thought about what happened, is something I’ve tried to carry through in my own work.

Steven Fino, Tiger Check: Automating the US Air Force Fighter Pilot in Air-to-Air Combat, 1950–1980 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). Fino’s study of the evolution of fighter pilot cockpits, detailing the F-86 Sabre, F-4 Phantom, and F-15 Eagle, is still one of my favourite histories of technology. That’s not just because it’s about three of my favourite aircraft, but because of how deftly Fino – himself a former Eagle driver – connects that technology to the people using it. He illustrates the complex interactions between human and machine in the high-stress combat situation of flying fighters, and how the culture of fighter pilots evolved along with the technology. I’ve also never seen another book be so technically detailed while remaining so accessible.

Linda Robertson, The Dream of Civilized Warfare: World War I Flying Aces and the American Imagination (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2005). As a Professor of Media as opposed to a historian, Robertson comes at this study of First World War pilots with a fresh perspective. She examines how the image of the knights of the air (inaccurate as it is) was constructed and took such a grip on the public and the flyers themselves. It’s a study of the public perception of the war and of flying and expands the literature on the First World War in interesting ways.

Beyond

Stephen Bourque, Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018). Books about bombing during the Second World War are plenty, but few of them critique the allied effort in quite the way that Bourque does here. By travelling across France and consulting local archives, then comparing them to the official USAAF records, Bourque demonstrates the horrific true costs of the allied bombing campaign for French civilians. Almost as a companion piece to Tami Davis Biddle’s work, Bourque shows the human, emotional, and deeply personal costs of inaccurate bombing attacks, which wreaked destruction over France, killing tens of thousands of civilians. I read many books about bombing theory and doctrine, but this book makes those things real on a human level and made me look in a new way at a historical event that I thought I understood.

C.R. Anderegg, Sierra Hotel: Flying Air Force Fighters in the Decade After Vietnam (Washington DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2001). I’m not sure what it is about this book that keeps drawing me back. It’s a short volume about the transition from the Vietnam-era fighters like the F-4 Phantom, to the more advanced F-15 Eagle fighters of the 70s and 80s, and the suite of other changes that accompanied that shift, from more advanced air-to-air missiles like the AIM-9L to the changing nature of pilot culture, tactics, and training practices. Nevertheless, Anderegg’s approach – part history, part memoir – makes for very compelling, engaging reading about a fascinating topic. Maybe it’s that the subject matter is what my work focuses on, or maybe it’s the engaging writing style and interesting anecdotes, but I keep finding myself returning to this one again and again.

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

Header image: A US Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft assigned to the 18th Aggressor Squadron takes off during Red Flag-Alaska 12-3 at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, 6 August 2012. Red Flag-Alaska is a series of Pacific Air Forces commander-directed field training exercises for US and partner nation forces, providing combined offensive counter-air, interdiction, close air support, and large force employment training in a simulated combat environment. (Source: Wikimedia)

From Balloons to Drones – 5 Years On

From Balloons to Drones – 5 Years On

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Five years ago, on 15 June 2016, From Balloons to Drones was launched. From Balloons to Drones was established with the simple vision of providing an open access online platform for the analysis and debate of air power history, theory, and contemporary operations in their broadest sense, including space and cyber power. Since establishing From Balloons to Drones, we have published 195 posts of various types ranging from articles to book reviews. More recently, in 2019, we started producing a popular podcast series with interviews with leading air power specialists. Overall, the site has received over 130,000 hits since 2016.

None of the above would have been achieved without the support of our editors, contributors, and readers. Personally, I am grateful to all the members of the From Balloons to Drones editorial team for their continuing hard work, especially as it is all done voluntarily. Indeed, when the site was established, it was run by one person, our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney. However, over time, the editorial team has grown and evolved. In 2018, long-time contributors Dr Brian Laslie, Dr Michael Hankins, and Alex Fitzgerald-Black came onboard as editors. While Alex has moved on, we have continued to build and strengthen the editorial team with the addition of Victoria Taylor and Dr Luke Truxal to the team. As we look forward to the next five years of From Balloons to Drones, I am pleased to announce the addition of two new editors to the team: Dr Maria Burczynska and Ashleigh Brown. Maria is a Lecturer in Air Power Studies at the University of Wolverhampton in the UK, while Ashleigh, a PhD student at UNSW Canberra, is a researcher for the Official History of Australian Operations in Iraq & Afghanistan and Australian Peacekeeping Operations in East Timor. The addition of Maria and Ashleigh will help strengthen the team in several areas, and we are looking forward to what the future holds with them.

I am also grateful to all our contributors and readers. Without our contributors, there would be nothing to publish and, as such, no website. However, we are always on the lookout for new contributions either from established authors or from new and emerging scholars within the air power studies community. If you are interested in contributing, then visit our submissions page to find out how to contribute.

So, what about the future? More of the same but better. We still hold true to our original vision of providing an avenue for debate and discussion about air power. We will aim to continue to refine what we offer in terms of content and build on the success of the past five years. We have more articles, book reviews and podcasts in the pipeline. However, we are always keen to hear your views on what we publish. If there is an area of research that needs to be given more coverage, please let us know.

Finally, as a bit of fun to celebrate our fifth birthday, here are the top five most-read posts since our launch in 2016:

  1. Michael Hankins, ‘Inventing the Enemy: Colonel Toon and the Memory of Fighter Combat in Vietnam’
  2. Michael Hankins, ‘A Discourse on John Boyd: A Brief Summary of the US Air Force’s Most Controversial Pilot and Thinker’
  3. Liam Barnsdale, ‘Royal Air Force ‘wings’ Brevets in Second World War Propaganda’
  4. Justin Pyke, ‘Blinded by the Rising Sun? American Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1920-41: Part 1 – The 1920s’
  5. Jeff Schultz, ‘Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 1: Training’

Header image: Pilatus PC-21A aircraft from No 4 Squadron based at RAAF Base Williamtown fly in formation on return from Sydney in support of an Air Force 2021 commemorative service held at the Anzac Memorial in Hyde Park. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

#Podcast – The Bomber Mafia: An Interview with Dr Micheal Hankins, Dr Brian Laslie, and Dr Luxe Truxal

#Podcast – The Bomber Mafia: An Interview with Dr Micheal Hankins, Dr Brian Laslie, and Dr Luxe Truxal

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

The recent publication of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Bomber Mafia has generated much interest in the topic of strategic bombing during the Second World War. In our latest podcast episode, three of the editors at From Balloons to Drones, Dr Mike Hankins, Dr Brian Laslie, and Dr Luke Truxal, discuss the book and go beyond it to talk about various issues related to bombing during the Second World War.

Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator of US Air Force History at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the U.S. 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.

Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Command Historian at the USAF Academy. 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 three books with his most recent being Air Power’s Lost Cause: The American Air Wars of Vietnam (2021). His first book, The Air Force Way of War (2015) 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.

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

Header image: Boeing B-29 Superfortresses drop bombs over Rangoon, Burma in 1945. The nearest aircraft is a B-29-25-BA of the 871st Bomb Squadron, 497th Bomb Group, 20th Air Force. (Source: Wikimedia)

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

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

By Dr Michael Hankins

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

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

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

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

What went wrong in Vietnam

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

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

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

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

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

Train How We Fight

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

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

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

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

We Have the Technology

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

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

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

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

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

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

Know Your Enemy

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#BookReview – Stealth: The Secret Contest to Invent Invisible Aircraft

#BookReview – Stealth: The Secret Contest to Invent Invisible Aircraft

Reviewed by Dr Mike Hankins

Peter Westwick, Stealth: The Secret Contest to Invent Invisible Aircraft. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Illustrations. Glossary. Notes. Index. Hbk. 251 pp.

The advent of stealth technology – making aircraft nearly invisible to radar detection – in the 1970s was one of those rare moments in the history of military aircraft technology that seemed to shape much of the development that followed it. Over 40 years later, most new aircraft designed around the world incorporate stealth characteristics in some way or another. Taking a sweeping look at the advent and early development of stealth aircraft within a broad context is the aim of Stealth: The Secret Contest to Invent Invisible Aircraft by Peter Westwick, director of the University of Southern California’s Aerospace History Project. The book is a fascinating look at two companies, Lockheed, and Northrop, that continually competed for stealth projects – each coming at the technology from very different perspectives and methodologies. With this comparative lens, Westwick explores the ways that culture shaped each company’s differing solutions to similar technological problems.

The most significant limitation for any book about stealth is the lack of unclassified sources, and this book is no exception. While much of the material here will be familiar to stealth aficionados, Westwick has conducted a large number of new interviews that shed new light on some familiar events, and reveal new, fresh stories, many that speak to the unique personal experiences of those involved in stealth development.

The Northrop B-2 Spirit stealth bomber on its first flight in 1989. (Source: US Air Force)

Westwick emphasises that Lockheed’s approach to stealth relied extensively on computer modelling, which was a significant shift for the firm at the time. For decades, successful designs from Lockheed, including the A-12 and SR-71 Blackbird, which each incorporated stealth characteristics, had been grounded in Chief Executive Officer, Clarence ‘Kelly’ Johnson’s adage that planes that look beautiful fly beautiful. When Johnson retired, his replacement Ben Rich allowed radar experts to have a more significant say in the design process. Their creation of powerful computer programs that could calculate radar returns from a variety of shapes fueled their design process. Nevertheless, the limitations of the program influenced the team to rely on flat, faceted surfaces – an approach that was quite successful, winning the company that contract for the aircraft that became the F-117 Nighthawk.

Lockheed’s programs made use of Soviet research that, ironically, had been requested for translation by engineers at Northrop. Although Northrop also incorporated this research and made similar computer modelling programs, their engineers combined them with a more intuitive approach. Northrop designers used their extensive knowledge of radar theory in a more hands-on way, often literally through iterative modelling and moulding. One of the more dramatic moments of Westwick’s narrative involves Northrop engineer Fred Oshiro visiting Disneyland and sitting outside the Tea Cup ride playing with a lump of modelling clay – a common practice at Northrop – until he intuitively developed the idea of using complex curves to minimize radar returns. The Tea Party ride had been designed by Lockheed engineer and stealth pioneer Richard Sherrer.

The Lockheed Have Blue prototype that eventually led to the F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter. (Source: US Air Force)

This tale of two engineering houses, each with different cultural approaches to designing stealth, forms the backbone of the story, which traces the development of the Have Blue, F-117, Tacit Blue, and B-2 programs. Along the way, Westwick dispels some prevalent misconceptions that frequently crop up in discussions of stealth. For example, some readers might assume that Northrop’s B-2 design was a ‘flying wing’ conception because the company was founded by Jack Northrop, who was obsessed with flying wings and designed several himself. However, Westwick reveals the company had completely abandoned the idea for decades, and only adopted it after Lockheed had submitted their flying wing bomber concept. Another of the more dramatic moments in the book involves the aging Jack Northrop’s heartwarming response to seeing the B-2 designs, which I will not spoil in this review.

Westwick goes beyond the analysis of these companies and attempts to place the development of stealth in a larger context in terms of culture, strategy, and Cold War geopolitics. This includes implying that the inherent creativity around the ‘[i]magineering’ culture of Disney that pervaded California in the 1960s and 70s was a contributing factor to stealth development. On a broader scale, Westwick goes as far as to say that stealth provided an alternative to nuclear deterrence, in some ways making nuclear weapons obsolete. He argues that stealth delivered what President Ronald Reagan’s fanciful Strategic Defense Initiative could only promise. With the ability to essentially defeat the Soviet Union’s massive investment into radar-based air defence networks, stealth broke the foundation of Cold War deterrence theory, and, according to Westwick, pressed the Soviet Union into an unsustainable increase in defence spending that contributed to the nation’s collapse. These ideas are interesting and worthy of consideration, but Westwick’s presentation of them is far too brief; these ideas are not nearly as fully developed as they could be. That does not take anything away from the book as it is. To really make these larger points hit home would probably require a different type of book with a different focus. However, this type of overarching analysis is welcome and thought-provoking, perhaps pointing to further research directions on how stealth technology contributed to the end of the Cold War in specific ways.

Overall, the book is an excellent addition to any air power or history bookshelf. This book manages to be the best starting point for those new to the topic of stealth while also providing new insights and details for the already initiated. Even more impressive, Westwick delivers these contributions while writing in an engaging and personal style that is great to read and sure to be enjoyed by scholars and still easily accessible for enthusiasts and general readers.

Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator of US Air Force History at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the U.S. 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: The Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter flying over Nellis Air Force Base in 2002. (Source: US Air Force)

 

#AirWarVietnam – Making a MiG-Killer: Technology and Signals Intelligence for Air-to-Air Combat in Vietnam

#AirWarVietnam – Making a MiG-Killer: Technology and Signals Intelligence for Air-to-Air Combat in Vietnam

By Dr Mike Hankins

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 Mike Hankins discusses the use of signals intelligence via Project Teaball that helped to improve the air-to-air combat ratios of the United States Air Force during 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.

Air-to-air combat in the Vietnam War has long been a sore subject for some observers.[1] Sources vary, but U.S. forces overall killed approximately 200 MiGs while losing about 90 planes to them, for a ratio of about 2.2:1.[2] Robert Wilcox, in his history of the Top Gun program, calls this ‘embarrassingly low.’[3] Looking just at 1968, the picture is even bleaker. The US Navy was disappointed with its 3:1 ratio and the US Air Force (USAF) traded McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms for MiGs at nearly a 1:1 rate. During the bombing halt between 1968 and 1972, both services sought to upgrade their technology and training, including the creation of the US Navy Fighter Weapons School, also known as ‘Top Gun.’ In 1972 when the LINEBACKER bombing campaign began, the US Navy’s air-to-air record jumped to 6:1. The USAF struggled in the early months of LINEBACKER, earning a negative kill ratio for the first time in the war and perhaps in its existence.[4]

The US Navy is often praised for their changes to training procedures (even though Top Gun initially had little support from US Navy leaders) while the USAF is often criticised for over-reliance on technological solutions.[5] However, the most significant improvement in air-to-air combat for the USAF was the result of a technological system: Project Teaball – a Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) system that allowed analysts on the ground to track enemy planes in real-time and communicate that information to pilots in the air.

‘Teaball’ was just as critical to the USAF’s air combat success during the LINEBACKER campaigns as Top Gun was for the US Navy. It demonstrated that the USAF was open to change and adapted its technological culture to meet new challenges. This is not to take away from the undeniable success of the Top Gun program, nor to diminish the importance the USAF’s effective RED FLAG program that began shortly afterwards. In the last throes of the Vietnam War, both technology and training worked in tandem.

Web of Confusion

North Vietnamese pilots had long relied on GCI to direct their movements – ground controllers used their extensive radar coverage of the area to track aircraft and give detailed second-by-second instructions to MiG pilots.[6] American forces were different. They tended to rely more on the initiative and skill of individual pilots, but they also had far less radar coverage of the areas they flew over in North Vietnam. Complicating, this was the fact that US radar stations were not well integrated, creating a confusing web of systems competing for pilots’ attention.

NVAF MiG-19 pilots of the 925th fighter squadron discussing tactics in 1971
North Vietnamese MiG-19 pilots discuss air-to-air combat tactics (Source: US Air Force)

The USAF operated a ground radar covering the southeast at Da Nang. Another radar further north at Dong Ha known as ‘Waterboy’ covered the lowest reaches of North Vietnam, although few air-to-air engagements occurred there. For further coverage, USAF flew a Lockheed EC-121 known as ‘College Eye,’ which was excellent over water but was less accurate over land. Other radar stations existed in Thailand, including ‘Brigham,’ at Udorn, and ‘Invert,’ at Nakon Phanom. These stations contributed ground control and navigational assistance, although their short-range provided almost no coverage of North Vietnam itself.

Hankins Radar Map
This map shows the radar coverage of systems prior to Project Teaball. Note that coverage above the 20th parallel, where air combat was much more likely, was almost nonexistent.

The US Navy used a system called ‘Red Crown,’ a ship-based radar located in the Gulf of Tonkin, to provide early warning of approaching MiGs. There was some limited cooperation between ‘Red Crown’ and ‘College Eye’ during Operation ROLLING THUNDER. The bottom line for all these radar systems was that none of them was effective for strikes further North than the 19th parallel, where air combat was more likely, and some of these systems, such as ‘Red Crown,’ could not effectively track planes below 10,000 feet, where MiGs often flew.[7]

However, radar was only one way to gain situational awareness of enemy MiGs. Communications surveillance, or signals intelligence (SIGINT), could track enemy movements and plans. In 1967, the USAF brought in new EC-121s known as ‘Rivet Top; to do just that: Intercept North Vietnamese communications and pass on vital information to American pilots. ‘Rivet Top’ was a success. In its limited time of employment, American forces claimed 20 MiG kills, 13 of which received direct contributions from ‘Rivet Top.’[8] However, the ROLLING THUNDER campaign ended before they could make a more significant contribution. At the beginning of the LINEBACKER Campaign, the US Navy’s ‘Red Crown’ ship returned, and the USAF instituted a system known as ‘Disco,’ essentially a slightly upgraded version of ‘College Eye.’ Under ‘Disco,’ multiple EC-121s provided a larger area of radar coverage and continued the SIGINT role provided by the ‘Rivet Top’ equipment, although the system suffered many of the same problems that plagued the ‘College Eye’ system, such as a limited range, limited crew and equipment capacity, and the need to stay in slow, controlled orbits.[9]

Both sides found that GCI was key to air-to-air victory. General John Vogt, Director of the Joint Staff and later commander of the Seventh Air Force, argued that MiG successes were attributable entirely to how their radar systems connected to their command and control practices.[10] USAF Ace fighter pilot Richard ‘Steve’ Ritchie went so far as to state that flying a protective escort without GCI warning of incoming MiGs was ‘useless,’ and that employment of US GCI ‘was one of the primary reasons that we were able to engage MiGs and effect kills.’[11] Yet the limited range, communications problems, and frequent technical failures limited US GCI efforts.

Ritche
The F-4D flown by Captains Richard S. Ritchie and Charles B. DeBellevue at Udorn AFB in 1972. This aircraft is currently on display at the Air Force Academy. (Source: US Air Force)

Green Door Syndrome

An equally serious bureaucratic problem aggravated these technological difficulties. Unknown to most fighter pilots, the National Security Agency (NSA) frequently intercepted North Vietnamese communications – including information about MiG flights. Some NSA analysts, such as Delmar Lang, had previously advocated combining these intercepts with GCI to provide a more accurate picture of enemy locations and movements. Lang had developed such a system in the Korean War, contributing to the success of North American F-86 Sabre pilots. Lang had offered to create a similar program in Vietnam, but both NSA and USAF leaders, particularly Major General George Keegan, Director of Air Force Intelligence, repeatedly turned him down.[12] Interception of North Vietnamese transmissions was classified, and American pilots did not have proper security clearance. This policy was not unfounded. Using these intercepts could undoubtedly aid American pilots but using them too frequently risked alerting the North Vietnamese that the US was intercepting their signals.[13]

This was a dilemma for American planners who needed to balance using the data with keeping its existence secret. However, USAF leaders such as Keegan simply refused to pass on any information to American pilots in combat. This created a sense of ill will between pilots and intelligence agents. As former USAF intelligence officer, Gilles Van Nederveen noted, ‘US pilots, already frustrated by the small amount of data provided to them, felt betrayed when they learned that some losses over Vietnam could have been prevented if intelligence data had been shared with them.’ This animosity grew so prevalent that it received a name: ‘green door syndrome,’ so labelled because, in many combat wing bases in the theatre, classified information was kept in vaults usually behind a green door.[14]

LINEBACKER and Project Teaball

When bombing (and air-to-air combat) resumed in earnest with the LINEBACKER campaign in May 1972, the US, particularly the USAF, received what Colonel Russ Everts, an F-4 Pilot, generously called ‘an old fashioned butt kicking, pure and simple.’[15] After some initial successes that May, in June and July, USAF F-4 Phantoms claimed 8 MiGs, with the US Navy shooting down only 3. While the US Navy only lost one F-4, USAF lost 13.[16] The US Navy could still claim their previous 3:1 ratio; the USAF had sunk to its lowest ratio during the war, 0.6:1. For the first time in the war, the kill ratios favoured the North Vietnamese.

These reversals rippled through USAF quickly, prompting investigations into the quality of fighter pilots. General William Momyer, then commander of Tactical Air Command (TAC), who had previously resisted any alterations to training procedures, changed his mind and recommended the creation of an ‘Aggressor’ squadron to simulate MiGs in air combat training (building on a program at Nellis run by Major Roger Wells). Although Chief of Staff of the Air Force General John Ryan approved the Aggressor concept at that time, the program did not begin until after the war was over and thus it had no effect on air combat in Vietnam.[17]

However, one element the USAF could fix in time to make a difference was their GCI system. The summer’s heavy losses, increasing concern from Vogt about the shortcomings of American GCI, and pressure from eager NSA analysts and USAF pilots all overrode earlier concerns with sharing classified intelligence and pushed the issue higher up the chain of command. Ryan directly contacted the head of the NSA, Admiral Noel Gayler – himself a former US Navy aviator – and requested the creation of an improved early warning system to alert pilots to approaching MiGs. With Ryan and Gayler’s approval, General Vogt worked with Delmar Lang and Lieutenant Colonel William Kirk to establish Project Teaball at Nakhom Phanom Air Force Base in Thailand in August 1972.[18]

Teaball 1
The flow of information from various radar and SIGINT sources, to the Teaball center that was eventually disseminated to pilots. (Source: Nederveen, ‘Wizardry’)

‘Teaball’ took the classified NSA intercepts and combined them with other US radar sources. These included the radio calls sent from North Vietnamese pilots to their ground controllers and vice versa, revealing precise locations and vectors for their MiGs. This information was fed into a computer known as ‘Iron Horse’ that took data from these sources and quickly synthesised it into a composite display showing a near real-time picture of the location of all friendly and enemy aircraft over North Vietnam.[19] ‘Teaball’ operators then sent this information directly to pilots via Ultra-High Frequency (UHF) radio signals relayed through a Boeing KC-135 aircraft code-named ‘Luzon.’

There was still tension between some pilots and the intelligence community. Kirk worked to build trust between the two groups and overcome ‘green door syndrome’ by personally visiting every single wing in the theatre to brief them on ‘Teaball’s’ capabilities, the accuracy of its data, and the methods he used to contact pilots directly.[20] Finally, US pilots could have situational awareness of the aerial battlefield and early warning of MiG threats. However, ‘Teaball’s’ implementation differed from the authoritarian North Vietnamese GCI system and simply provided information to pilots. The American ground controllers often suggested courses of action, but individual pilots handled threats at their discretion.

The Best Show We’ve Had

‘Teaball’ was only active from August 1972 until the end of LINEBACKER operations in October. In that time, USAF F-4’s shot down 21 MiGs with only six losses. Of those kills, 13 were a direct result of vectoring from ‘Teaball.’[21] Of those losses, five of the six occurred when ‘Teaball’ was down due to technical failure, demonstrating just how critical the system was to the USAF effort. When examining only MiGCAP flights, USAF F-4s claimed 18 kills with five losses, a nearly 6:1 ratio.[22] During that same timespan, the US Navy got two kills but lost two Phantoms.[23] General Vogt extolled the program’s success:

This is the most effective show we’ve had during the entire war with the battle against the MiGs […] This proved one thing – if you can show the American fighter pilot where [the enemy] is in sufficient time, he’ll shoot him down.[24]

Vogt went on to say:

Same airplane, same environment, same situation, same tactics; largely [the] difference [was] Teaball. It was one of the most impressive developments we’ve had out here.[25]

Pilots praised ‘Teaball’ as well. One mission report stated: ‘A good GCI capability made the difference, and will in the future.’ Another echoed: ‘Computerized real-time intelligence will get more kills than all the fighter sweeps we can put together.’[26]

No matter how well-trained a pilot is, if they do not realise they’re under attack, they cannot use their training. ‘Teaball’ gave them that warning, preventing further losses. ‘Teaball’ also provided more accurate visual recording of encounters than the memory of pilots could provide, enabling both a better study of enemy tactics and a useful training tool. It was also invaluable for search and rescue efforts, as ‘Teaball’ data could pinpoint the location of downed aircrews, enabling rescue craft to arrive quickly.[27]

However, the program, literally operating out of the back of a van, was not without problems.[28] The ‘Iron Horse’ computer was powerful for its time, but processing the data of all the SIGINT and radar inputs took an average of two minutes – an eternity in a dogfight. For this reason, ‘Teaball’s’ role was limited to providing early warning only. Once combat began, most pilots relied on more timely information from ‘Disco’ or ‘Red Crown’ if in range.[29] Also, the UHF radio relays in F-4 cockpits were old and broke down frequently.[30]

Increased American success forced the North Vietnamese Air Force to scale back its operations, flying fewer missions and attempting to counter ‘Teaball’s’ tracking ability by turning off their IFF (Identify-Friend-or-Foe) signals. However, that separated North Vietnamese pilots from their GCI, their chief advantage to this point. They could run with radio silence, but that risked making them vulnerable to their surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). ‘Teaball’ operators could spot them as soon as they tried to alert their missile sites. The more common technique the North Vietnamese used to get around ‘Teaball’ was deception. Ground controllers sent messages pretending to be pilots, essentially creating ‘ghost MiGs.’ However, ‘Teaball’s’ operators could easily distinguish between these fake calls and authentic ones due to differences in the signal itself.[31]

When LINEBACKER ended, so did most air-to-air combat, but ‘Teaball’ stood ready when LINEBACKER II commenced on 18 December 1972. Lieutenant General Horace Wade, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force, was impressed enough with ‘Teaball’ to move it into a permanent facility at Nakom Phenom.[32] However, MiGs barely flew during the operation – only 26 were even sighted. USAF Phantoms took down four, the US Navy got one more, and B-52 gunners shot down two. USAF lost two Phantoms to MiGs. North Vietnamese sources claim that MiGs shot down two B-52s as well, but this is unconfirmed by the U.S.[33] This 3.5:1 is above average for the war, if not as impressive as when ‘Teaball’ was most active in LINEBACKER. However, the sample size for LINEBACKER II is incredibly small, and the operation was unique. In any case, although SAMs wreaked havoc on the B-52 fleet, MiGs did not pose a significant threat. By 28 December 1972, North Vietnam had exhausted its SAM supply and was incapable of defending itself from the B-52 raids. When Hanoi expressed its desire to renew serious negotiations, President Nixon halted all bombing north of the 20th parallel. With the signing of final settlements on 23 January 1973, air-to-air combat in the Vietnam War ended.[34]

Conclusion

The typical, perhaps romanticised narrative of air combat in Vietnam is that the US Navy used the ‘correct’ approach when creating the Top Gun program and that the USAF deserves criticism for its failure to produce a similar program and its adherence to technological chimeras. However, this story ignores that the US Navy also used technological improvements, including upgrades to their missiles and the jamming of enemy communications. It fails to note that the US Navy engaged fewer MiGs during the LINEBACKER period, with little contact with the more advanced MiG-21 Fishbed, so perhaps a direct comparison of each service’s kill counts is misleading.

Furthermore, this narrative fails to recognise that the USAF saw a more significant improvement in its effectiveness than did the US Navy in the same period owing to the systems-based, technological approach of Project Teaball. Top Gun worked, but ‘Teaball’ worked better. The role performed by ‘Teaball’ laid the foundation for the later role of Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) that has become an essential element of American air power strategy. In the final phase of the Vietnam War, the USAF demonstrated that technological solutions could be effective.

Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator of US Air Force History at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the U.S. 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: A U.S. Air Force Lockheed EC-121K ‘Rivet Top’ of the 552nd Airborne Early Warning & Control Wing, based at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, in 1967-68. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] This article is adapted from Michael Hankins, ‘The Teaball Solution: The Evolution of Air Combat Technology in Vietnam, 1968-1972,’ Air Power History, 63:3 (2016), pp. 7-24.

[2] John Correll, The Air Force in the Vietnam War, The Air Force Association (Arlington, VA: Aerospace Education Foundation, 2004), p. 17. See also Robert Futrell, et al., Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1965-1973 (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Albert F. Simpson Historical Research Center, Air University, 1976); Chris Hobson, Vietnam Air Losses: United States Air Force Navy and Marine Corps Fixed-Wing Aircraft Losses in Southeast Asia 1961-1973 (England: Midland, 2001); and the Red Baron Reports, Volumes I, II, and III, Institute for Defense Analyses Systems Evaluation Division.

[3] Roger K. Wilcox, Scream of Eagles: The Dramatic Account of the US Navy’s Top Gun Fighter Pilots: How they Took Back the Skies over Vietnam (New York, NY: Pocket Books, 1992), p. xii.

[4] Red Baron II Vol. I, C-1–E-2, USAF Fighter Weapons Center, 1973; and Red Baron III, Vol. I, C-1–D-6, USAF Fighter Weapons Center, 1974.

[5] Wilcox, Scream of Eagles, 214-215; See for example Steven A. Fino, ‘Breaking the Trance: The Perils of Technological Exuberance in the US Air Force Entering Vietnam,’ Journal of Military History, 77:2 (2013), pp. 625-55.

[6] United States Air Force Oral History Program, Interview #K239.0512-630, Captain Richard S. Ritchie, 11 Oct 72 and 30 Oct 72, 1, pp. 74-5.

[7] William Momyer, Air Power in Three Wars (Washington D.C.: Office of Air Force History, 1978), pp. 150-5.

[8] Marshall Michel, Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam, 1965-1972 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997), p. 114.

[9] Futrell, Aces, p. 14; Momyer, Air Power, p. 155; Michel, Clashes, p. 226.

[10] M. F. Porter, ‘Linebacker: Overview of the First 120 Days,’ Project CHECO Report, 27 Sept 1973, p. 48.

[11] Ritchie Interview, 37, 8.

[12] Thomas R. Johnson, American Cryptology During the Cold War, 1945-1989, Book II: Centralization Wins, 1960-1972 (Fort Meade, MD: Center for Cryptologic History, National Security Agency, 1995), p. 580.

[13] Michel, Clashes, p. 115; See also Walter J. Boyne, ‘The Teaball Tactic,’ Air Force Magazine (July 2008), p. 68; and Gilles Van Nederveen, ‘Wizardry for Air Campaigns: Signals Intelligence Support to the Cockpit’ (Research paper for the College of Aerospace Doctrine, Research, and Education, Airpower Research Institute, Maxwell: 2001), pp. 2-3.

[14] Nederveen, ‘Wizardry,’ 24.

[15] Quoted in Marshall Michel III, “The Revolt of the Majors: How the Air Force Changed After Vietnam” (PhD Thesis, Auburn University, 2006), p. 145.

[16] Red Baron III, C-1–D-6.

[17] Michel, ‘The Revolt,’ 146-52. See also, Brian D. Laslie, The Air Force Way of War: US Tactics and Training after Vietnam (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2015).

[18] Johnson, American Cryptology; Boyne, ‘The Teaball Tactic,’ p. 69; Nederveen, ‘Wizardry,’ p. 25. See also Calvin R. Johnson, ‘Linebacker Operations: September – December 1972,’ Project CHECO Report, 31 December 1978, p. 50.

[19] Author redacted, ‘TEABALL: Some Personal Observations of SIGINT at War,’ Cryptologic Quarterly, 9 (Winter 1991), p. 92.

[20] Quoted in Boyne, ‘The Teaball Tactic,’ pp. 69-70. See also Nederveen, ‘Wizardry,’ p. 25-6.

[21] Johnson, American Cryptology, p. 580. See also Johnson, ‘Linebacker Operations,’ p. 52.

[22] William Sayers, ‘The Red Baron Reports: What They Really Said,’ Air Power History, 52:3 (2005), p. 12, 39. See also Johnson, ‘Linebacker Operations,’ p. 52.

[23] Red Baron III, Vol. 1, C-1–D-6.

[24] Quoted in Porter, ‘Linebacker: Overview of the First 120 Days,’ pp. 46-7.

[25] Quoted in Johnson, ‘Linebacker Operations,’ pp. 52-4.

[26] Red Baron III, vol. III, C-29.

[27] Nederveen, ‘Wizardry,’ pp. 28-9.

[28] Johnson, American Cryptology, p. 579.

[29] Ibid., p. 31.

[30] Ibid., pp. 28-9; Ritchie Interview, p. 8.

[31] Author redacted, ‘TEABALL: Some Personal Observations,’ 94-5.

[32] Ibid., p. 95.

[33] Red Baron III, C-1–D-6. Roger Boniface, MiGs Over North Vietnam: The Vietnam People’s Air Force in Combat (Mechanicsburg, VA: Stackpole Books, 2010), p. 141, 145. See also, István Toperczer, Mig-21 Units of the Vietnam War and MiG-17 and MiG-19 Units of the Vietnam War, both from Osprey Press. Toperczer and Boniface each claimed to have examined North Vietnamese records, but make no mention or citation of specific documents, and their work has not been peer reviewed. Naturally their claims for NVAF victories are significantly higher that official US records. While their claims may have merit, this article has chosen to rely on official US records where possible, admitting that these are also not perfect.

[34] Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (New York: The Free Press, 1989), pp. 188-9, 198-200.