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

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

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

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

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

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

#Podcast – 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.

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

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

By Mike Hankins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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