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 Droneseditorial 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:
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)
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from the team at From Balloons to Drones. It has been an excellent year for the advancement and study of air power, and it has been a remarkable year for the website as well. We added three co-editors to the site and surpassed our 50,000-hit mark!
As we enter the holiday season, we know that our readers either have some time off coming up or are looking for some recommendations to add to their holiday shopping lists. So, we thought it would be a good idea to have our editors put together a short list of their favourite books from our year of reading and reviewing. However, before we get onto the list here are the top five articles published by From Balloons to Drones during 2018:
James Pugh, The Royal Flying Corps, the Western Front and the Control of the Air, 1914-1918 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017). I must admit it has been a slow year for me reading wise and the titles here will be reviewed in the new year. However, onto my list and first up we have James Pugh’s excellent study of the Royal Flying Corps in the First World War and its understanding of the concept of control of the air. Control of the air remains a central tenant of modern air power thinking; however, the ideas surrounding this concept go back much further. In this study, Pugh provides an excellent analysis of the development of British thinking about control of the air with specific reference to the RFC and the war over the Western Front. It is a much-needed addition to the literature and worth a read.
Stephen Renner, Broken Wings: The Hungarian Air Force, 1918-45 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2016). Ok, this one dates to 2016, but I have only just finished it after reading it on an off since it came out. However, this is an essential study for two reasons. First, small air forces tend to be overlooked in the literature concerning the early development of air power and secondly, there is little in English on-air forces from central and eastern Europe. As such, even for just these reasons, Renner’s book is a welcome addition to the literature. Furthermore, however, Renner provides an excellent study into the challenges faced by the Hungarians in this period, which makes for fascinating reading.
Adam Claasen, Fearless: The Extraordinary Untold Story of New Zealand’s Great War Airmen (Auckland: Massey University Press, 2017). The First World War centenary has seen many books published of which some are good and some not so good. Many of the works on air power have remained firmly camped in the ‘Knights of the Air’ trope that has become so common. Thankfully, however, we have also seen works such as Claasen’s work on New Zealand airmen appear. In this book, Claasen’s firmly places the experience of the around 850 New Zealanders who served in Britain’s air services within their imperial context. In this respect, Claasen’s follows on from the work of S.F. Wise on the Canadians and Michael Molkentin’s more recent work on Australia and is a welcome addition to our understanding of the imperial composition of Britain’s air services in the early twentieth century.
John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Routledge Handbook of Air Power (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018). I reviewed this one here, so I shall not say too much more apart from to reiterate that if you are looking for a good introductory overview about air power, then this is an excellent addition to the library. Olsen has, as usual, brought together an outstanding line-up of scholars to consider critical issues related to air power.
Graham Broad, One in A Thousand: The Life and Death of Captain Eddie McKay, Royal Flying Corps (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017). The First World War centenary is behind us, but it has left great historiographical additions for us to pour over. Graham Broad’s excellent microhistory of one of Canada’s first aces is three books in one. It is also a how-to book of best practices for historical research and analysis as well as an insightful commentary on the philosophy of history. You will enjoy the author’s engaging narrative as he traces Captain McKay’s life from the rugby pitch to the Wright Brothers School of Aviation, to his fleeting fame and eventual death in the contested and deadly skies above the Western Front. History teachers, especially at the senior undergraduate and graduate level, will also find the book an exceptional resource for training the minds of budding historians.
Stephen Bourque, Beyond the Beach: The Allied War Against France (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018). I picked up this book for two reasons. First, I was recently hired at the Juno Beach Centre, Canada’s Second World War Museum on the D-Day beaches. Second, with the upcoming 75th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, it was about time that we had a detailed English-language study of the cost suffered by the French people in that great invasion. Readers will appreciate Bourque’s approach in dealing with General Dwight Eisenhower and his air commanders’ lines of action (effort). These targets included everything from airfields and ports to French towns or cities and the bridges, marshalling yards, and factories therein. As we move into this anniversary, it is important to remember that while the Allies were on the right side of history, 60,000 French civilians paid a dear price for their country’s freedom.
Ian Gooderson, Air Power at the Battlefront: Allied Close Air Support in Europe, 1943-1945 (London: Frank Cass, 1998). This one is not recent, but I was thrilled to discover that my university library owns a copy. I was struck by just how comprehensive Gooderson’s analysis is, and I found some of his evidence and conclusions comfortably surprising. For instance, although the Allied air forces assumed armed reconnaissance to be safer than close air support, the opposite was true. At the same time, air support was probably of greater value beyond the battlefront (greater opportunity comes with greater danger). The book also impressed upon me the importance of timing air strikes carefully and air power’s psychological effects, for better or worse.
Robin Higham and Stephen J. Harris (eds.), Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat, Revised and Expanded Edition (Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2016). This was one of the first scholarly history books I ever read as a high school student. Its engaging chapters about how various air forces across the decades have failed to meet their objectives offer complex answers to a simple question: why did they fail? Although, as Randall Wakelam noted, he had hoped for more from the new edition, though newcomers will find the book a valuable addition to any aviation history library.
Dr Mike Hankins
Melvin Deaile, Always at War: Organizational Culture in Strategic Air Command, 1946-62 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018). This book is not only an excellent summary of the formative years of Strategic Air Command during the early Cold War, but Deaile gives us a close look at what it felt like to be there. What was the culture like? What was the daily life like for these pilots? What made SAC so unique and such a key component of American defence during the Cold War? Moreover, why is General Curtis LeMay such a big deal? This book gives excellent, substantive answers to all these questions.
Timothy P. Schultz, The Problem with Pilots: How Physicians, Engineers, and Airpower Enthusiasts Redefined Flight (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). Flying is hard–much harder than we give it credit for today. The capabilities of modern aircraft all came with difficult times of dangerous experimentation in the fields of medicine, engineering, and technology. The human body was not made to fly, and the limiting factor on advanced aircraft designs has always been humans. How we solved those problems and made complicated, advanced aircraft possible is the fascinating story of this book about integrating man and machine in increasingly sophisticated ways.
Steven A. Fino, Tiger Check: Automating the US Air Force Fighter Pilot in Air-To-Air Combat, 1950-1980 (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2017). Fighter pilots are a strange breed–they have a unique culture all their own. However, how does that culture evolve when it is faced with new technologies that threaten to automate tasks that fighter pilots hold dear? Former F-15 pilot Steve Fino explores just that in this incredible book. Examining the F-86 Sabre, the F-4 Phantom II, and the F-15 Eagle, Fino explores the evolving relationship between man and machine in the cockpit of jet-age fighter planes. You can find my review of this book here.
Peter Fey, Bloody Sixteen: The USS Oriskany and Air Wing 16 during the Vietnam War (Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, 2018). The USS Oriskany had the highest loss rates of any navy air unit in the Vietnam War. In addition to two massive fires, it was the boat from which Jim Stockdale and John McCain (among many others) became POWs for years. Peter Fey’s accessible, exciting narrative traces the Oriskany throughout its multiple tours and gives a palpable sense of what it was like to be on board and in the cockpit of the A-4 Skyhawks, F-8 Crusaders, and other planes the ship carried. The book is not perfect, but it is an engaging read especially aimed at a general audience.
Dr Brian Laslie
Craig Morris, The Origins of American Strategic Bombing Theory (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017). This book is ‘a twisting tale of individual efforts, organizational infighting, political priorities, and technological integration.’ It is also a book that places the development of American bombing theory firmly in the context of its time and rightly puts individuals into their proper place. Gone is the Billy Mitchell-centric view of air power development to be (rightly) replaced with an emphasis on Benjamin Foulois, Mason Patrick, William Sherman, Lord Tiverton, and others who worked tirelessly on the theories and doctrines of air power. In my opinion, the single best volume on American air power in the inter-war years.
Frank Ledwidge, Aerial Warfare: The Battle for the Skies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). I wrote about this book earlier in the year for The Strategy Bridge and called it ‘the single finest primer on air power covering every aspect from if you’ll excuse me, balloons to drones.’ I stand by that statement. This is the perfect primer for the history of air power. I cannot imagine someone interested in our profession not owning this book. I wish I had copies to serve as stocking stuffers…
David R. Honodel, The Phantom Vietnam War: An F-4 Pilot’s Combat over Laos (Denton, TX: University of North Texas Press, 2018). This is a ‘there I was’ and ‘shoot the watch’ book, but it is also an amazingly poignant and honest look about learning to survive in a war the American people were unaware was occurring. It is in the best of its class at conveying the transformation a person can take in the crucible of a forgotten war over the skies of Laos. ‘Buff’ Honodel passed away earlier this year, and as I count my blessings this year, one of them will be for a man like Buff.
Peter Dye, “The Man Who Took the Rap”: Sir Robert Brooke-Popham and the Fall of Singapore (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2018). This one landed on my desk rather late in the year but intrigued me almost immediately. As someone who has recently written a biography of a relatively unknown figure myself, I was excited to dive into this one, and it does not disappoint. As air power scholarship continues to expand, it has become an enjoyable pastime of mine to read about lesser-known, but equally important contributors to air power development. This book also fills a void for me in expanding my knowledge and understanding of other nation’s air power efforts.
As well as providing you with our Christmas reading list, we would like to recognise the various presses and our social media friends who have been hard at work this year publishing the books above and some not strictly related to air power, but would make great gifts such as Redefining the Modern Military, edited by Tyrell Mayfield and Nathan Finney, and The Colour of Time: A New History of the World, 1850-1960 by Marina Amaral.
Established in 2016, From Balloons to Drones is a scholarly online platform that provides analysis and debate about air power history, theory, and contemporary operations in their broadest sense including space and cyber power. Air power is to be understood broadly, encompassing not only the history of air warfare, including social and cultural aspects but also related fields such as archaeology, international relations, strategic studies, law and ethics.
Since its emergence, air power has increasingly become the preferred form of military power for many governments. However, the application and development of air power is controversial and often misunderstood. To remedy this, From Balloons to Drones seeks to provide analysis and debate about air power through the publication of articles, research notes, commentary, book reviews, and historic book reviews.
From Balloons to Drones welcomes and encourages potential submissions from postgraduates, academics, and practitioners involved in researching the subject of air power.
Submissions can take the following forms:
Articles – From Balloons to Drones publishes informative articles on air power that range from historical pieces to the analysis of contemporary challenges. These well-researched articles should attempt to bridge a gap between the specialist and the non-specialist They should be around c.2,000 words, though From Balloons to Drones will accept larger pieces and we reserve the right to publish them in parts.
Air War Books – From Balloons to Drones publishes a series of review articles that examine the top ten books that have influenced writers on air power.
Commentaries – From Balloons to Drones publishes opinion pieces on up-to-date news on either contemporary or historical subjects. These should be no longer than c.1,000 words.
Research Notes – From Balloons to Drones publishes research notes related to contributor’s current research projects. These take the form of more informal pieces and can be a discussion of a source or a note on a recent research theme. These should be c.500 to 1,000 words.
Book Reviews – From Balloons to Drones publishes occasional book reviews that aim to be an accessible collection of appraisals of recent publications about air power.
Historic Book Reviews – From Balloons to Drones publishes occasional historic book reviews that aim to be an accessible collection of open access appraisals of critical historic publications about air power history, theory, and practice.
Submissions should be submitted in Word format and emailed to the address below with ‘SUBMISSION’ in the subject line. Also, please include a 50-100-word biography with your submission. References can be used, and please be careful to explain any jargon. However, if you are not sure if your idea fits our requirements, then please email us with ‘POTENTIAL SUBMISSION’ in the subject line to discuss.
The other week I mentioned on Twitter that it had been two years since I had touted the idea of creating a group website dedicated to air power history, theory, and practice. While we might quibble about From Balloons to Dronesdate of birth, it was on 15 June 2016 that the first post announcing the creation of the site and calling for contributions was published. As such, it seems apropos to reflect on the past two years.
From Balloons to Drones started out with me as the only editor and we had a couple of dedicated contributors. I am pleased to say that three of those early dedicated contributors, Dr Brian Laslie, Dr Mike Hankins, and Alexander Fitzgerald-Black, have now come onboard as Assistant Editors. All our effort is, of course, done in addition to our other work away from the site. For example, recently, I moved to Australia from the UK and co-edited a special edition of the British Journal for Military History while Brian published his much-awaited book on General Laurence Kuter. Similarly, Alex published his first book on the air war over Sicily in 1943 while Mike completed his PhD on culture and technology in the United States Air Force (USAF) and has now moved to take up a position at the USAF Air Command and Staff College. Nonetheless, despite all these significant personnel and professional achievements, and with my Assistant Editors support, we continue to plan for the future and examine how we might grow the air power core community of interest.
As well as adding Brian, Mike, and Alex to the editorial team, From Balloons to Drones continues to grow regarding the number of contributors to the site; however, we are always looking to add new writers to the team. As such, if you are a postgraduate, academic, policymaker, member of the armed forces or a relevant professional involved in researching the subject of air power then take a moment and look at our submissions page to find out how you can get involved with the conversation.
What about statistics? Well, this is our ninety-fifth post, which, of course, means we are just five away from the magic century. Those 95 posts have consisted of articles, research notes, book reviews, commentaries, and the occasional editorial. We also started a new series of historic books reviews with the first one published here. All told, these posts, excluding this one, have totalled some 157,000 words, or roughly the equivalent of two monographs! We have published a wide variety of articles that have covered both historical and contemporary issues. The top five posts are:
We also worked on a great joint series of articles with our partners at The Central Blue. These articles supported a seminar that the Williams Foundation held in Canberra, Australia that looked at the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st century. This was a great partnership and something we are happy to explore again in the future.
Speaking of the future, there is, of course, the question of what comes next. Well, hopefully, more of the same. We are keen to build on the high-standards we believe that we have set for ourselves. However, we can only do that with your help. So, get in touch and contribute!
As noted, we have started a new series of historic book reviews, and this is an area that we are keen to develop. The series aims to be an accessible collection of appraisals of critical historic publications about air power history, theory, and practice. Many books hold a specific place in the study of air power because of the ideas they introduced or the insights they provided about the institutions responsible for delivering air power capabilities. The reviews will cover several different types of texts from those works that developed air power ideas to crucial memoirs.
Our essential development for the near future is that we are launching a series of podcasts with authors of new air power related titles. This is a project that Mike is working on for us, and we are excited about the prospect of offering something stimulating and hearing from those working in the field of air power studies. We will be realising more information about these podcasts once we have more details.
Overall, myself, Brian, Mike, and Alex have made a concerted effort to develop closer ties not just between ourselves but between those interested in the subject of air power. We think we have done that, but we are always happy to hear any ideas that our readers might have for future developments. Finally, it is to you, our readers, and our contributors that we owe our greatest thanks. Without you, we would not exist. If you do not come and read the material that we publish, then there is little point in this endeavour. That you do come and read our ramblings is appreciated, and we hope you continue to do so for many years to come.
Dr Ross Mahoney is the Editor of From Balloons to Drones. He is an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He blogs at Thoughts on Military History, and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.
Last week, From Balloons to Drones published the first in a new series of Historic Book Reviews. This new series seeks to publish occasional historic book reviews that aim to be an accessible collection of open access appraisals of critical historic publications about air power history, theory, and practice. Many books, such as, but not limited to, those by authors such as Giulio Douhet, William Mitchell, Sir John Slessor and John Warden, hold a specific place in the study of air power because of the ideas they introduced or the insights they provided about the institutions responsible for delivering air power capabilities. The reviews will cover several different types of texts from those works that developed air power ideas to crucial memoirs. The reviews also seek to engage with a broader audience interested in the subject matter.
Given these aims, From Balloons to Dronesis seeking contributions from postgraduates, academics, policymakers, service personnel and relevant professionals to this new exciting series.
A copy of the review guidelines can be downloaded here, and we are happy to discuss possible texts that you may wish to review. You can contact us via our ‘Contact’ page here.
Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article,Lieutenant Colonel Tyson Wetzel examines the enduring legacy of Operation Bolo, an operation during the Vietnam War that was designed as a response to the increasing loses being incurred on the United States Air Force (USAF) in the mid-1960s.
Deliberately planned fighter sweep went just as we hoped. The MiGs came up; the MiGs were aggressive. We tangled. They lost.
Colonel Robin Olds, 3 January 1967
By the end of 1966, USAF fighter pilots were incredibly frustrated by rising aircraft and aircrew losses, restrictive rules of engagement (ROE) and North Vietnam People’s Air Force’s (NPAF) ‘hit-and-run’ tactics. The pilots were looking for an opportunity to seize the initiative and strike the premier NPAF fighter, the MiG-21. The NPAF was extremely careful with their limited number of MiG-21s, launching them only when their air defence network determined slow and non-manoeuvrable fighter-bombers were conducting unescorted strikes in North Vietnam. Colonel Robin Olds, Commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing ‘Wolfpack,’ at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, devised a plan to dupe the NPAF into believing his F-4 Phantom IIs were a large formation of unescorted F-105 Thunderchiefs, which he believed would draw out the MiG-21s. On 2 January 1967, Olds and his Wolfpack executed Operation Bolo and destroyed seven NPAF MiG-21s with no friendly losses. The plan was elaborate, and successful execution relied on deception, predictive and actionable intelligence, and a well-integrated force package. These factors ensured Bolo was a triumphant success and have enduring applicability for air power theorists and air campaign planners preparing for future high-intensity conflict.
The Strategic Environment before Bolo
Two significant factors shaped the American prosecution of the air war over Vietnam in 1966. First, to reduce the risk of escalation, US ROEs at the time of Bolo did not allow strikes on critical North Vietnamese airfields. The result was that MiGs could not be destroyed on the ground; they had to be destroyed in the air. The second factor was the rapidly improving North Vietnamese air defence system, which included air defence artillery, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and MiG-17 and MiG-21 fighter aircraft. The combination of surface and airborne threats was taking a heavy toll on US aircraft. By the end of 1966, 455 US aircraft had been lost to enemy action, and USAF leaders wanted to take action to address the losses.
The airborne threat to US aircraft increased dramatically when the NPAF began receiving the MiG-21 in 1965. The MiG-21 retained the manoeuvrability of its predecessors the MiG-15/-17/-19, but it was capable of supersonic flight and was the first Soviet aircraft capable of carrying an infrared-guided air-to-air missile, the K-13 (NATO Designator: AA-2 ATOLL). Intelligence estimates at the time of Bolo put the NPAF MiG-21 inventory at only 16 airframes. To preserve these precious assets, the North Vietnamese only scrambled these aircraft to attack bomb-laden fighter-bombers such as the F-105. According to Walter Boyne, the MiG-21 tactics were very effective:
The MiG-21s’ rear attacks with Atoll missiles were achieving North Vietnamese goals by causing the F-105 formations to jettison their bombs before reaching their targets.
MiG-21 attacks on F-105s resulted in failed missions causing multiple strike packages to be sent to re-attack high-priority targets in a dense threat environment.
Olds was increasingly concerned with the MiG-21 attacks on the fighter-bombers, and the inability of the F-4 escorts to find and kill the MiG-21s in the air:
As we entered the winter of 1966, the MiGs began increased efforts to harass U.S. strike forces […] It became imperative for U.S. forces to bring counteraction to bear on the MiG fighter threat.
Unfortunately, Olds did not see any plan to deal with the threat at the tactical, individual fighter wings, or operational level, 7th Air Force. Olds expressed his frustration with the inaction in an oral history interview two years after the mission: ‘There was no concerted effort really to do anything about the MiGs.’ Olds decided to take the lead in developing a plan to take the fight to the MiG-21s.
Olds is often given credit as the sole mastermind behind Bolo, but others deserve credit for playing critical roles in the development and refinement of the plan. In early December 1966, Olds began discussing the MiG-21 problem with one of his most gifted fighter pilots, Captain J.B. Stone. Stone laid out the foundation for the plan that would eventually be adopted; using a ruse to make the North Vietnamese launch their MiG-21s against what they believed were fighter-bombers.
Olds enthusiastically embraced the plan and decided to take the plan to his boss, Lieutenant General William Momyer, Commander of 7th Air Force. Momyer also enthusiastically supported the plan and identified his Operations Officer, Brigadier General Don Smith, as his dedicated liaison for the plan. Momyer and Smith shepherded the plan from the start to ensure Olds and his planners were given all available resources and support. According to Olds, Bolo ‘wouldn’t have been possible’ without ‘Momyer’s courage in doing this, probably in spite of a lot of opposition.’ Olds is rightly given credit for a bold and brilliantly designed and executed plan, but the success of the mission would not have been possible without significant support from his subordinates and superiors.
On 2 January 1967, 56 F-4s launched in waves of eight aircraft into Northern Vietnam to execute Bolo. The mission worked as it was designed, despite heavy cloud cover in the target area that threatened to keep the MiGs on the ground. Believing they were engaging F-105s, the MiG-21s took the bait; the results were disastrous for them.
According to USAF records, Olds and his Wolfpack destroyed seven MiG-21s in less than 15 minutes with no damage to any US aircraft. Though the seven kills may not seem a significant number, it was nearly half of the NPAF inventory. Four days later, two more MiG-21s were destroyed when they attacked what they believed were unarmed reconnaissance aircraft, but in actuality were more of Olds’ F-4 pilots. The devastation wrought by Bolo, combined with two additional aircraft lost on 6 January led the NPAF to remove the MiG-21 from combat while they re-equipped, and evaluated the causes and their response to recent aircraft losses. Bolo played a significant role in the US re-acquiring air superiority during the beginning of 1967.
The Role of Deception in Bolo
Deception was central to the successful execution of the Bolo plan. The F-4s had to disguise themselves as lumbering F-105s to bait the MiG-21s into an aerial engagement. According to J. Alfred Phelps, the purpose of the deception plan was to create beneficial conditions for an aerial engagement:
The ultimate objective was to deceive and lure the MiG air defense force into a reactive posture and, once they were airborne, seek them out, engage, pursue, and destroy them.
To trick the North Vietnamese air defence system, the F-4s used F-105 callsigns, formations, speed, aerial refuelling tracks, mission routing, and electronic countermeasure (jamming) pods. The deception caused mass confusion among the NPAF MiG-21 pilots. Terry Mays explained the success of the ploy:
The North Vietnamese fell for the ruse and launched MiG-21 fighters to intercept what they thought were F-105s streaking along ‘Thud Ridge’ […] As the MiG-21 pilots maneuvered through the clouds and entered the open sky, expecting to attack F-105s, they found themselves in the midst of F-4s.
MiG-21 pilots had avoided the US’ premier air-to-air fighter, the F-4, so seeing a wall of Phantoms was a shock to the NPAF pilots and ground controllers.
Airborne intelligence collectors were able to capture the shock of the NPAF air defence force. In 2014, Joseph Trevithick analysed recently declassified intercepts from the mission, which showed the near-panic of North Vietnamese pilots upon realising they had been duped:
When Olds’ strike team started its attack, the C-130s picked up enemy pilots shocked to find that ‘the sky is full of F-4s,’ according to the declassified report. ‘Where are the F-105s? You briefed us to expect F-105s!’ ‘I’d like to come down now,’ another Vietnamese pilot reportedly declared.
The North Vietnamese were not prepared to face the F-4s, nor able to quickly react to the changing operational environment in time to save many of their MiG-21s.
The expert application of deception is one of the most important lessons to be learned from Bolo; aerial combat is not merely about the fastest jet, the missile with the longest range, or the best pilot. The use of deception can mitigate a tactical disadvantage or maximise a tactical advantage in the air. The use of deception is rarely a critical aspect of modern aerial combat plans, as US air planners often rely on overwhelming numerical or technological superiority. However, as nations like Russia and China develop and deploy large numbers of advanced fighters and air defence systems, the US cannot continue to rely on numerical or technological advantages. The use of a well-developed deception plan can once again tip the balance in aerial combat, as Olds and his Wolfpack proved in Bolo.
The Role of Intelligence in Planning and Execution of Bolo
Intelligence played a crucial role in both the planning and execution of Bolo. Olds knew that to develop a complete plan for the operation, he needed an accurate intelligence assessment of how the enemy would react to the ruse. According to Olds, ‘it was crucial to accurately predict the capabilities and possible reaction of the MiGs.’ The support of Momyer and Smith opened the doors to closely guarded intelligence, including signals intelligence (SIGINT) intercepts of NPAF fighter missions. This intelligence shaped the predictive assessment the intelligence analysts provided to Olds. He continued:
Intelligence gave us some highly probable MiG tactics. The MiGs were usually in the air anytime strike aircraft were in the area. Typically, they were airborne approximately ten to fifteen minutes prior to the strike, about the time the Thuds crossed the Black River.
Olds and Stone used the predictive assessments to determine the number and time spacing of the F-4 formations.
The mission also relied on timely and accurate intelligence during execution. Olds believed real-time relay of SIGINT collection was vital to the mission’s success:
Most critical to the success of BOLO, we had to have clear, real-time intelligence from USAF monitoring stations listening in to VPAF transmissions—no more of the bullshit of keeping essential knowledge secret from the strike force. VPAF transmissions had been monitored and translated but never shared down the line. It was sensitive, but it was imperative to have this intel for BOLO.
Olds and Stone ensured airborne and ground-based SIGINT collectors were included and integrated into the mission so that the force package would receive real-time intelligence updates. Trevithick used declassified Bolo reports to illuminate how important real-time SIGINT collection was to the mission:
Another key—and previously unknown—element of the top secret plan involved deploying signal-snooping aircraft to keep track of the MiGs. The special C-130B-IIs would listen in on enemy radio chatter and feed information straight to American pilots throughout the mission.
Two of these specially modified C-130s, known as SILVER DAWN aircraft, were airborne during the mission providing real-time collection to the force package. The use of predictive intelligence to help refine the plan and the use of real-time intelligence collect was nearly revolutionary because of the classification walls that prevented much intelligence, specifically SIGINT, from being shared with tactical operators. Such barriers have come down in the decades since Bolo, but air planners still struggle with the integration of intelligence into mission planning and execution.
The Role of Force Packaging in Bolo
Bolo included detailed planning and integration among a host of platforms, both airborne and on the ground. Each had a critical role to play to ensure the maximum lethality and survivability of the force. 48 F-4Cs were designated to conduct the aerial sweep mission to find and kill enemy MiGs. They were supported by 24 F-105F IRON HAND aircraft designed to suppress enemy air defences to protect the force package from SAMs. Eight F-104Cs were tasked with the protection of the fighters as they egressed the sweep area. Twenty-five KC-135 aerial refuelling tankers were needed to support the huge strike package. Combat support aircraft including the RC-121 BIG EYE battle management aircraft, EB-66 jamming aircraft, C-130 airborne command post and SILVER DAWN SIGINT platforms, combat search and rescue aircraft, ground control intercept sites, and the ground-based SIGINT stations all participated in the mission. Planning to integrate each of the platforms and its capabilities was complex, and Olds spent days travelling the theatre briefing operators on the plan.
The Bolo package foreshadowed the massive force packages that would become prevalent in Operation Desert Storm and all other air campaigns since. In addition to multiple fighter types executing various mission sets, combat support aircraft provided the updated air picture, collected real-time intelligence, executed command and control, jamming, and aerial refuelling. These aircraft were force multipliers in the mission, and the roles and importance of similar platforms have continued to expand over the past five decades. Bolo was an early and clear example of the effectiveness of a complete and fully integrated force package. This is one of the lessons of Bolo that air planners have absorbed, and force packaging is now a daily part of air operations.
Bolo was not only the highlight of the larger Rolling Thunder air campaign; it was the most successful US fighter operation of the war. Despite the mission being executed more than fifty years ago, there are critical lessons about mission planning and execution that can be used in the development of aerial missions and air campaigns today. Historian Jon Latimer summed up the primary takeaway from Bolo:
U.S. Air Force pilots demonstrated over Hanoi in 1967 that lure tactics can also work well in the higher reaches of technology. So it was that Operation BOLO, a small but unusually successful part of the ROLLING THUNDER bombing program, succeeded in claiming seven North Vietnamese MiGs within 15 minutes, without losing a single American aircraft.
The shrewd use of deception allowed the US fighters to engage their adversary at the time, place, and in the manner of their choosing.
Additionally, the use of intelligence before and during the mission was vital to the success of the operation. The utilisation of predictive intelligence in mission planning allowed the Bolo planners to optimise the F-4’s survivability and lethality against the MiG-21. The timely dissemination of SIGINT was unheard of at the time, but Bolo showed the importance of real-time intelligence updates to the operational environment. Finally, the integration and coordination of airborne and ground-based elements in a massive and diverse force package was a significant contributor to the overall success of the mission. Bolo made better use of deception, intelligence, both predictive and real-time updates, and force packaging than any air operation of the Vietnam War up to that point.
In this era of ‘near-peer’ threats, including the development and deployment of fifth-Generation aircraft, modern long-range SAMs, and advanced electronic warfare, the US and its allies cannot rely solely on numerical or even technological superiority to win future air conflicts. Air power theorists and operators need to think through problems, evaluating the operational environment and the adversary and build plans that leverage and maximise their comparative advantages while mitigating risk and minimising the adversary’s comparative advantages. Air planners and tacticians should study these aspects of Bolo and consider incorporating tactics similar to those of Olds and his Wolfpack in the planning and development of future air operations in a high-intensity conflict.
Tyson Wetzel is a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force, an intelligence officer, a graduate of the United States Air Force Weapons School where he was also an instructor, and the US Marine Corps Command and Staff College. Tyson has deployed multiple times in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM, NEW DAWN, and NOBLE EAGLE. He is currently assigned to the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. He tweets @gorillawetzel.
Header Image: Pictured here are revetments and F-4s of the 8th TFW at Ubon, Thailand. (Source: National Museum of the Unites States Air Force)
 Robin Olds, interview with Armed Forces Network, 3 January 1967. Clip shown on Dogfights: Air Ambush. History Channel, 10 November 2006.
 Walter J. Boyne, Beyond the Wild Blue: A History of the U.S. Air Force (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010), pp. 162.
 Jon Latimer, ‘Operation Bolo: Phantom ambush over North Vietnam,’ Vietnam, 15:3 (2002), pp. 38.
 Olds, Project Corona Harvest. Operation Bolo Briefing, pp. 68
 Frank F. Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob, and Charles A. Ravenstein. Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1965-1973 (Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, Headquarters US Air Force, 1976), p. 21.
 Olds, Project Corona Harvest. Operation Bolo Briefing, pp. 65.
 Terry M. Mays, ‘Gunfighting Over North Vietnam,’ Vietnam, 20:6 (2008), p. 47.
 J. Alfred Phelps, Chappie: America’s First Black Four-Star General: The Life and Times of Daniel James, Jr (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1992), pp. 225.
 Mays, ‘Gunfighting Over North Vietnam,’ p. 47.
 Joseph Trevithick, ‘Spies Helped the USAF Shoot Down a Third of North Vietnam’s MiG-21s,’ WarIsBoring.com, 30 Dec 2014.
The discussion and analysis that has occurred in the media in light of these growing tensions have raised public awareness of the potential costs of a modern state-on-state conflict. The West’s experience of conflict since the end of the Cold War has created unrealistic expectations within the general population as to the realities of modern conventional high-intensity warfare. This is not to trivialise the deaths that have occurred in these low-intensity conflicts, every death in war is a tragedy; however, the level of attrition that the West should expect from a modern state-on-state conflict in Europe, the Middle East, or Asia will likely be on a scale unseen since the Second World War. Concerning the prospect of war on the Korean peninsula, General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has remarked that:
Many people have talked about military options with words like ‘unimaginable’ […] I would probably shift that slightly and say it would be horrific, and it would be a loss of life unlike any we have experienced in our lifetimes, and I mean anyone who’s been alive since World War II has never seen the loss of life that could occur if there’s a conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
[t]he long-expected – by airmen at least – challenge has arrived to the air power supremacy we have enjoyed for the last couple of decades. We will now have to fight – and fight hard – to achieve and maintain control of the air and space.
The need for airmen to re-engage conceptually with the possibilities and requirements of high-intensity warfare has led the Sir Richard Williams Foundation to run a seminar on ‘The Requirements for High-Intensity Warfare’ on 22 March 2018 in Canberra, Australia. The seminar will draw together senior officers from around the world, as well as leading academics, to discuss the past, present, and future of high-intensity warfare. Although it is likely the presenters will raise more questions than they will answer, the presence of so many senior leaders at the podium and in the audience will hopefully give impetus to the intellectual, conceptual, and organisational changes that the possibility of high-intensity warfare requires.
Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to attend the seminar, and summaries can never fully capture the presentations or the follow-up discussions that occur during the breaks. Moreover, not every topic of interest can be covered in a single day. Accordingly, in the lead-up to the seminar, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones are publishing a series of articles that will bring the discussion of the requirements of high-intensity warfare to a broader audience. By running this as a collaborative series, we hope to engage a broader audience in this debate that must be had. However, more importantly, this collaboration has allowed us to diversify the perspectives that can be brought to bear on the issue. This diversity of perspective has been made possible by contributors from around the world and from different backgrounds putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards) to provide their views. Moreover, these views matter.
Although the seminar will bring together a number of high power individuals, they do not have the monopoly on ideas. High-intensity warfare is a complex challenge for militaries irrespective of their size and operational experience. By contributing to the discussions, the contributors to this series are an essential addition to the seminar.
Twice a week over the next six weeks (possibly more as more potential contributors become engaged in the discussion) The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones will simultaneously run posts that explore different aspects of the topic of high-intensity warfare. Topics will include:
Historical examples of high-intensity air warfare
The future of war
Training and education for a changing paradigm
Cultural change in light of a changing operational focus
Organisational requirements for high-intensity operations
Logistics support to high-intensity operations
Use of fiction to frame the future battlespace
As with the seminar itself, we expect that our contributors will raise more questions than they answer. However, unlike the seminar, it is the nature of our articles to encourage ongoing debate and discussion. As such, we ask our readers to be engaged, challenge our contributors, test their assumptions and take their arguments further. Through comments and additional contributions (seehere on how to contribute) it is the hope of the editors of both The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones that this series will support and encourage a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what high-intensity warfare will mean for modern military forces and how we can best prepare for its challenges.
To reinforce the relevance of the topic to which we now shift our focus, it is worth quoting from a recent (27 January 2018) special report from The Economist:
[p]owerful, long-term shifts in geopolitics and the proliferation of new technologies are eroding the extraordinary military dominance that America and its allies have enjoyed. Conflict on a scale and intensity not seen since the second world war is once again plausible. The world is not prepared.
Header Image: An RAF Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 during Exercise GRIFFIN STRIKE, c. 2016. (Source: UK MoD Defence Imagery)
Since the end of the Cold War, the West’s militaries have been engaged in a series of protracted and persistent low-intensity counterinsurgency campaigns. For air forces, this has broadly meant involvement in campaigns where there have been few serious challenges to control of the air and air dominance was assumed. However, as we move further into the twenty-first century, that scenario is likely to change with the likelihood of peer-on-peer high-intensity conflict increasing. In such conflicts, air dominance will have to be fought for, and maintained, to utilise the full spectrum of capabilities afforded by the exploitation of the air domain.
The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones seeks to commission a series of articles that examine critical themes related to the challenge of preparing modern air forces for the possibility of high-intensity conflict as they transform into 5th generation forces. As well as informing broader discussions on the future of conflict, these articles will provide the intellectual underpinnings for a Williams Foundation seminar on the subject of the requirement of high-intensity conflict to be held in Canberra, Australia in March 2018.
The editors seek contributions that provide a variety of perspectives on the following key themes:
Strategy and Theory | Future Roles | Emerging Threats | Air Force Culture
Force Structure | Technology and Capabilities | Ethical and Moral Challenges
Doctrinal Trends | Education | Training
Articles can range from historical discussions of the above themes through to contemporary perspectives. Perspectives can also come from a number of related disciplines including history, strategic studies, international relations, law, and ethics.
Articles framed around one of the above themes should be c. 2,000 words. Submissions should be submitted in Word format and emailed to the addresses below with ‘SUBMISSION – HIGH-INTENSITY WARFARE’ in the subject line. Also, please include a 50-100-word biography with your submission. Please be careful to explain any jargon. Publication will be entirely at the discretion of the editors. These articles will appear on the websites of The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones simultaneously. We will be publishing articles from the middle of February 2018 onwards.
Keen to write but need some guidance? Email us, and we can link you up with a mentor-editor who can assist you before formal submission.
As we come to the end of 2017, we also come to the end of the first full-year of operations for From Balloons to Drones. Established in the middle of 2016, From Balloons to Drones was created with the aim of providing a platform for the discussion of the air power history, theory, and contemporary operations in its broadest sense. In seeking to achieve this aim, in 2017, we have published around 30 articles ranging from a discussion of the contemporary challenges related the development of Ground-Based Air Defence and Integrated Air Defence Systems through to an analysis of the experience of aircrew as Prisoners of War during the Second World War. We are grateful to our group of contributors who have taken the time to write and publish via From Balloons to Drones.
The website has been visited around 18,000 times by 10,000 different visitors. While visitors from the US, UK, Canada, and Australia predominate, we have also had readers from around the globe including, for example, from South Korea, China and at least one from Tajikistan. We are grateful to those who take the time to read the articles and comment on them.
The ten most popular articles by visits for 2017 were:
We have some new and exciting plans for 2018 including a series of articles to be published simultaneously and in conjunction with The Central Blue. We will also be publishing more book reviews while a steady stream of new articles, commentaries and research notes will appear over the year. Remember we can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.
Finally, From Balloons to Drones is always seeking to publish new and exciting perspectives on the subject of air power and we encourage contributions from academics, postgraduate students, policymakers, service personnel and relevant professionals. To find out how to contribute then please visit this page.
Header Image: A8-126 performs the last dump and burn in history on the final day of flying the F-111 by the Royal Australian Air Force. (Source: Australian Government)
It has just been over a year since From Balloons to Drones was established as a platform for the discussion of air power broadly defined. Since our first post, we have published 40 pieces on a variety of subjects ranging from the historical to the contemporary. We have had articles dealing with issues related to the efficacy of air power, the topic of military education and the future of air power. We have also recently started a new series, Air War Books, that explores the books that have influenced air power writers. Contributors have come from around the globe including contributions from Finland and Australia. I am grateful to those who have contributed to the site. Without them, there would not be much here. However, most of all, we have received regular traffic from people interested in reading what we have written, and for that we are grateful.
Just as a bit of fun, here are the top five posts by views:
These are just a selection of the articles that have appeared over the past year, and we look forward to adding regular content as we continue to develop. To do this, we need to expand our list of contributors continually and if you are interested in writing about air power issues – both historical and contemporary – then you can find out how here. If you have any questions, then please leave a comment here or emails us at email@example.com.
Header Image: English Electric Lightnings of No. 56 Squadron RAF during an Armament Practice Camp at Akrotiri, c.1963. In the foreground, a technician is preparing a Firestreak missile for loading. (Source: Defence Imagery MoD)