#Podcast – What Nuclear War Looks Like: An Interview with Professor Sean M. Maloney

#Podcast – What Nuclear War Looks Like: An Interview with Professor Sean M. Maloney

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.

With the threat of nuclear war rising once again as tension among global powers increases, in our latest podcast, we talk to Professor Sean M. Maloney of the Royal Military College of Canada to look at what the nuclear war plans of the U.S. were during the early Cold War. We also discuss what a nuclear war might have looked like, and how it would have potentially been waged. 

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Dr Sean M. Maloney is a Professor of History at the Royal Military College and served as the Historical Advisor to the Chief of the Land Staff during the war in Afghanistan. He previously served as the historian for 4 Canadian Mechanized Brigade, the Canadian Army’s primary Cold War NATO commitment after the reunification of Germany and at the start of Canada’s long involvement in the Balkans. He is the author of numerous works, and his latest book is Emergency War Plan: The American Doomsday Machine, 1945–1960 (2021).

Header image: A Boeing B-47B undertaking a rocket-assisted take-off. The black smoke from engines indicates that water-methanol injection is in use. (Source: Wikimedia)

Looking Back at Iraqi Air Defences during Operation DESERT STORM

Looking Back at Iraqi Air Defences during Operation DESERT STORM

By Colonel Mandeep Singh

Iraqi forces stormed into Kuwait on 2 August 1990 and, after a seven-month occupation of its southern neighbour, was defeated by the United States-led coalition forces consisting of troops from 39 countries. A five-week air offensive preceded the ground offensive on 24 February 1991 to put down the Iraqi air defences and prepare the battlefield for a ground offensive. The air war during DESERT STORM is generally considered a resounding success, with the Iraqi air defences failing to offer any significant opposition. Thomas Withington’s recent insightful article ‘Electric Avenue: Electronic Warfare and the battle against Iraq’s air defences during Operation Desert Storm’ is similar but misses out on some crucial aspects.

This article aims to offer a counter view to Withington’s and put the performance of Iraqi air defences in perspective. It also must be noted that Iraq had the sixth largest air force globally, with about 915 aircraft.[1] However, it put up only minimal opposition, and only the ground-based air defences (GBAD) offered any real resistance to the coalition air forces. This article thus focuses mainly on GBAD and discusses three fundamental issues. First, were Iraqi air defences as lethal and effective as projected before the war? Second, how effective were the suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) operations conducted by the coalition air forces and did they achieve the stated goal(s)? Finally, how did the Iraqi air defences perform during the war?

The commonly held view is that the Iraqi air defences were lethal and ‘potentially ferocious.’[2] This was echoed in Withington’s article, who quoted the following from an official report by the US Department of Defence on DESERT STORM:

The multi-layered, redundant, computer-controlled air defence network around Baghdad was denser than that surrounding most Eastern European cities during the Cold War, and several orders of magnitude greater than that which had defended Hanoi during the later stages of the Vietnam War.

This claim about the lethality and ferocity of Iraqi air defences needs to be analysed to see if it has any merit. The Iraqi integrated air defence system (IADS) comprised a mix of Soviet and Western air defence systems. While the surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) were predominantly of Soviet origin, the heart of the IADS, called KARI, was built by the French defence contractor, Thomson-CSF. It was designed primarily to provide air defence against Israel and Iran and had a severe limitation: it could only manage 20 to 40 hostile aircraft. Iraq had over 500 radars located at about 100 sites, but the radar layout did not afford comprehensive coverage with a bias toward east and west. Most radars could not detect stealth aircraft barring the limited capability of the P-12 and P-18 radars and the six Chinese (Nanjing) low-frequency radars.[3]

Iraqi GBAD included SAM and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) guns. The missiles included the Soviet SA-2, SA-3, SA-6 and SA-8 and the Franco-German Roland I/II missiles. With a range limitation of about 40km, even SA-2s and SA-3s cannot be considered strategic air defence systems, while the SA-8s and the Rolands were purely tactical SAM systems. The SA-6 was used for the tactical role and to fill gaps in the strategic SAM layout. The 58 SAM batteries notwithstanding, Iraq had no strategic SAM system, and with the available SAM batteries, it was capable of limited and thin air defence cover over its strategic targets.

Sam Coverage
(Source: Barry Watts and Thomas Keaney ‘Effects and Effectiveness in Gulf War Air Power Survey – Volume II: Operations and Effects and Effectiveness (Washington DC: Department of the Air Force, 1993), p. 134.) 

With the country’s material assets widely dispersed; no attempt was made to defend all of them. Instead, the SAMs and AAA were concentrated on defending selected areas or sectors like Baghdad, Basra, the Scud-launching sites in western Iraq, and the northern oil fields only, with the defence of the capital given the foremost priority. With a concentration of the SAMs and AAA in select areas, Iraq had adopted a point defence system.

Fifty-eight SAM batteries, almost half the total 120 batteries, were deployed to defend Baghdad alone and 1,300 AA guns. The other areas with these missile systems were Basra with fifteen and Mosul/Kirkuk with sixteen batteries. In addition, the airfield complex of H-2/H-3 had 13 SAM batteries, and the Talil/Jalibah complex had three.[4]

Location SA-2 SA-3 SA-6 SA-8 Roland Total
Mosul/Kirkuk 1 12 0 1 2 16
H-2/H-3 1 0 6 0 6 13
Talil/Jalibah 1 0 0 0 2 3
Basrah 2 0 8 0 5 15
Baghdad 10 16 8 15 9 58

IR SAM
(Source: Williamson Murray, ‘Operations’ in Gulf War Air Power Survey – Volume II: Operations and Effects and Effectiveness (Washington DC: Department of the Air Force, 1993), p. 82.)

Even in Baghdad, the defence systems did not necessarily protect downtown Baghdad at a higher threat level than the rest of the overall metropolitan area, as the SAM sites were dispersed throughout the Baghdad area. The United States Air Force (USAF)’s claim that downtown Baghdad was where air defences are uniquely dense or severe was thus without merit.[5]

The SA-2s and SA-3s, being vintage missiles, were supplemented by the newer SA-6s with a battery deployed at essential sites. Although the presence of SA-6s at selected locations beefed up the air defences, it had an unintended effect that with the SA-6s moving back from the front-line units, the forward army units were left devoid of the most effective SAM in the inventory. The Iraqis captured several examples of the US HAWK missile system when they invaded Kuwait. The HAWK missile, with a comparable range, would have been an effective deterrent, but as the Iraqis did not have the technical expertise to operate it, it was never not used.[6] Another drawback of the Iraqi IADS was that the 8,000 or so anti-aircraft guns were reportedly not integrated with the overall air defence system and were designed to operate independently.[7]

KARI
(Source: Barry Watts and Thomas Keaney ‘Effects and Effectiveness’ in Gulf War Air Power Survey – Volume II: Operations and Effects and Effectiveness (Washington DC: Department of the Air Force, 1993), p. 132.)

The air defence network was thus far from lethal and was not designed to work against a massive air assault as it was subjected to during DESERT STORM. Instead, it had limited capabilities and was optimised only to take on threats from two axes. These were from Iran to the east or from Israel to the west and did not cater for any significant threat from the south or the north. Notably, only the overall assessment of the Iraqi IADS by the US Navy’s Strike Projection Evaluation and Anti-Air Research (SPEAR) Department was more realistic than other claims as it stated that:

[t]he command elements of the Iraqi air defence organisation (the interceptor force, the IADF [Iraqi Air defence Force], as well as Army air defence) are unlikely to function well under the stress of a concerted air campaign.[8]

The coalition forces launched DESERT STORM at 2:38 on 17 January 1991 when Task Force Normandy struck the two Iraqi radars codenamed Nebraska and Oklahoma, firing 27 Hellfire missiles, 100 rockets and 4,000 rounds of 30mm ammunition. A corridor 30 kilometres wide was now available for the follow-on missions. Next were the eight USAF F-15E Strike Eagles that targeted the local air defence command and control centre, further degrading the network and facilitating the strike by the F-117s preceded by three EF-111 Ravens. Seventeen F-117s were tasked to deliver 27 laser-guided bombs on 15 Iraqi air defence system-related targets. Contrary to initial claims related to the effectiveness of the F-117, only nine of the 15 targets were hit, and eight remained operational even after the air strikes.[9] One of the main targets, Baghdad’s central air defence operations centre was not damaged and remained operational.[10] The F/A-18 Hornets armed with AGM-88 high-speed anti-radar missiles (HARMs) fared not much better as about half of the 75 HARMs fired hit their targets.[11]

The performance of Iraq’s air defence system was effective on Day 1 as they shot down six aircraft: all except one by GBAD. The AAA shot down two aircraft (one F-15 and a Royal Air Force (RAF) Tornado GR.1) while the SAMs claimed three. An Iraqi MiG-25 shot down one F/A-18.[12] GBAD damaged a dozen more aircraft.

The Coalition air forces lost three aircraft to ground fire over 2,250 sorties on Day 2 as one aircraft each was claimed by AAA (a US Navy A-6) and SAM (a US Marine Corps OV-10), while the cause of loss of an Italian Tornado GR.1 could not be ascertained.[13] The next day, several missions were called off due to bad weather though the strikes against Scud launchers continued during the day. The Iraqi SAMs shot down two United States F-16s over Baghdad and another F-15. The RAF and Royal Saudi Air Force each lost two Tornadoes, while a USAF F-4 crashed after being hit by AAA. The air operations on 20 January were scaled down due to continued bad weather, and with losses mounting, especially to AAA, the USAF imposed a minimum altitude to reduce attrition. The Iraqi air defences, for their part, shot down two Coalition aircraft; a United States Navy F-14, downed by an SA-2 and an RAF Tornado, besides damaging three more. The RAF lost a Tornado to ground fire, with a USAF F-15 also being hit by a SAM.

On 23 January, coalition air forces claimed to have destroyed 19 Iraqi aircraft thus far and achieved air superiority over Iraq. The losses to Iraqi air defences were 15 aircraft, and AAA and hand-held SAMs’ unexpected intensity of ground fire forced Coalition aircraft to adopt higher-altitude delivery tactics. During the second week, the Iraqi air defences could not put up any concerted opposition. It was not until 28 January that they claimed their next kill when a SAM shot down a US Marine Corps AV-8B, although several Coalition aircraft was hit by AAA fire. KARI was badly fragmented by the end of week two, and only three of 16 Intercept Operations Centres (IOCs) were reported to be fully operational. Coalition losses during week three were again relatively low, with only three aircraft (an A-10, an AC-130 and an A-6E) lost to Iraqi air defences. The following week, Iraqi air defences shot down only three Coalition aircraft – two AV-8Bs and a Saudi F-5E.

The radar-guided SAMs had been targeted repeatedly, but the Iraqis sparingly continued to launch them. In one such instance, an SA-3 shot down an RAF Tornado GR.1 on 14 February. The Iraqis managed to shoot down five aircraft during week five, including two A-10s on the same day (15 February) by SA-13s. This forced the restricted use of A-10s in high-threat areas. As the war entered its final phase with the Coalition aircraft attacking from lower altitudes, the losses went up with Iraqi air defences shooting down eight aircraft during this last week of the war: three AV-8Bs, one OV-10, one OA-10, one A-10, and two F-16s.[14] This marked the second-highest weekly loss rate since the beginning of the war.

During the ground offensive, Iraqi air defences did not fight as they folded up tamely against the coalition air forces. During the whole campaign, a total of 38 coalition aircraft were lost to Iraqi air defences. At the same time, a further 48 aircraft were damaged in combat, totalling 86 combat casualties. Most losses were to infra-red guided SAMs, which claimed 13 aircraft and damaged 15 more, while the radar-guided SAMs shot down ten aircraft and damaged four. AAA caused the lowest losses at nine aircraft, although it damaged 24 more. The remaining losses were to accidents or technical reasons, including, for example, electrical malfunction. Considering the ‘lost’ and ‘damaged’ aircraft, the maximum casualties were due to AAA as it claimed 33 aircraft (38 per cent of the total losses), with the infra-red guided SAMs accounting for 28 aircraft (31 per cent). Only 16 per cent of the casualties were attributed to radar-guided SAMs.

The low kill rate by the radar SAMs is attributable to several factors, the primary one being the SEAD missions conducted by Coalition air forces which forced the radar SAMs to shut down most of the operations. In addition, all the radar SAMs held by Iraq were vintage Soviet-era missiles that had been used in combat earlier – there were no new weapons, like the SA-6s in the Yom Kippur War, which could have posed difficulties for the Coalition air forces.

DESERT STORM
A close-up view of a damaged section of an A-10A Thunderbolt II of the 23rd Tactical Fighter Wing. The aircraft sustained damaged when an SA-16 missile exploded near it during Operation DESERT STORM, 15 February 1991. (Sorce: Wikimedia)

There was a significantly higher daily casualty rate in the first five days of the war, during which 31 aircraft casualties occurred (36 per cent of the total and an average of 6.2 per day), compared to the following 38 days, with a total of 55 more casualties (an average of 1.45 per day). Losses to radar-guided SAMs fell to nearly zero after day five, accounting for 29 per cent (nine out of 31) of total casualties by then. They accounted for just nine per cent (five out of 55) of all aircraft casualties in the remainder of the war. It is apparent, therefore, that by the end of day five of the air campaign, radar SAMs had mainly been eliminated as an effective threat to coalition aircraft. Moreover, in the first three days of the war, some aircraft (B-52s, A-6Es, GR-1s, and F-111Fs) attacked at very low altitudes, where they were more vulnerable to low-altitude defences. After the imposition of a minimum attack level of about 12,000 feet, the losses reduced, resulting in much less accuracy with unguided weapons.

Iraq managed to maintain a fair degree of air defence capability throughout the war. The primary reason for this was KARI, which expanded the responsibilities of various nodes and developed local back-up air-defence networks using different communication networks over combat phone lines and wire between multiple stations. These back-up networks could control local air defences, even when the communication to the central network was down. These back-up systems used ground observers passing information over voice and data channels for information on Coalition aircraft. Radars associated with the Roland or SA-8 would be used to gain information about the altitude of inbound aircraft. The radars would be brought online for short 15-second bursts to ensure survivability in a hostile environment. The SAMs were sometimes fired without using the target-tracking radars to prevent being targeted by the anti-radar missiles. Optical tracking mode was also used while firing the SAMs.

At the war’s end, Iraq’s air defence was far from finished. According to Anthony Cordesman of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, Iraq retained at least 380 Soviet-made surface-to-air missile launchers, about 80 French-made Roland units and ‘large numbers’ of portable Soviet-made anti-aircraft systems, not counting the hundreds of AA guns.[15] After initially claiming almost the complete destruction of the Iraqi air defence network, the claims were revised as the operations progressed. As USAF Colonel David Deptula, one of the architects of the air campaign, put it in 1996, ‘We didn’t go in there to eviscerate the whole network. The aim was to suppress their defences.’[16]

The Soviet reaction to the Gulf War was significant as the entire Iraqi IADS consisted of Soviet SAMs. In an understatement, Marshal Dmitri Yazov, the Soviet Minister of Defence, admitted that Iraq’s air defences ‘failed in most cases.’[17] Commenting on the initial attack on the IADS, Lieutenant General V. Gorbachev, Dean of the faculty at the General Staff Academy, opined that:

‘The Iraqi air defence system was paralysed by powerful electronic warfare devices. Command and control of troops was overwhelmed in the first few minutes.’[18]

Gorbachev also added:

[a]s far as Soviet equipment is concerned, it is not so much a problem, I think, as the people operating it. Iraqi military professionalism is not, as we can see, up to the mark.’[19]

Reinforcing this view, the Soviets believed that, as the air defence systems employed by the Iraqis were able to down most types of Coalition aircraft used, it suggested that the problem was more one of staffing than technology. It also reinforced an emerging view that modern wars demand well-trained professional soldiers to man and maintain it, not a large conscript army.[20]

After DESERT STORM, Iraq’s air defence system continued to harass the Coalition aircraft, defying the restrictions imposed by the no-fly zone. During Operation DESERT FOX, Iraq engaged Coalition aircraft more than 1,000 times over three years and fired nearly 60 SAMs.[21] The Iraqis even fired unguided rockets at the aircraft to harass them. The Iraqi IADS remained operational throughout and was never ‘put down.’

The Iraqi IADS had limited capabilities and was not as lethal or effective as initially projected; however, its capabilities had been exaggerated in most of the assessments conducted before DESERT STORM. Considering its limited capabilities against a modern air force, aggravated by poor training standards, it performed reasonably well and inflicted a fair amount of attrition. On the other hand, the SEAD operations by coalition air forces were not as effective as claimed during the operations. Even as the surveillance network and radar-guided SAMs were suppressed, the Iraqi IADS continued to function, albeit with reduced efficiency and continued to attrite. It must be remembered that GBAD cannot be suppressed entirely and will continue to inflict losses. It was so during DESERT STORM and will remain so in future conflicts.

Colonel Mandeep Singh, a veteran air defence gunner, has a Masters in Defence and Strategic Studies. He has contributed several articles on air power and air defence for specialist journals. His books include Air Defence Artillery in Combat, 1972 to the Present: The Age of the Surface-to-Air Missiles (2020) published by Air World.

Header image: An Iraqi SA-6 Gainful low-to-medium altitude surface-to-air-missiles on its transporter-erector-launcher. This system was captured by US forces in 2006; however, during the first Gulf War, Iraq operated a number of these systems. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] The Iraqi Air Force had a mix of combat aircraft, ranging from 190 advanced Mirages, MiG-25s, MiG-29s, and Su-24s to about 300 moderate-quality MiG-23s, Su-7s, Su-25s, Tu-16s and Tu-22s. Most of the air force however comprised of older aircraft like the MiG-17s and MiG-21s.

[2] ‘Conduct of the Persian Gulf War,’ Final Report to the Congress (Washington, DC : Dept. of Defense, 1992), p. 15.

[3] The P-18 radar, which uses metre-length waves in the Very High Frequency (VHF) bandwidth, can detect targets at a greater range than centimetre or millimetre wave radar which stealth aircraft are optimised against. It was a P-18 radar of the Yugoslav Army that detected an F-117 Nighthawk during the Kosovo air war, which led to its shooting down by an SA-3 missile. Similarly, P-12 radar also operates in VHF and can detect stealth aircraft. Kenneth Werrell, in his book Archie to SAM, mentions that Iraq had low-frequency radars though this is not mentioned by any other source. See, Kenneth Werrell, Archie to SAM: A Short Operational History of Ground-Based Air Defense, second edition (Maxwell, AL: Air University Press, 2005), p. 218. Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor, The Generals’ War: The Inside Story of the Conflict in the Gulf (New York: Little Brown, 1995), p. 105; Williamson Murray, ‘Operations’ in Gulf War Air Power Survey – Volume II: Operations and Effects and Effectiveness (Washington DC: Department of the Air Force, 1993), pp. 77-82.

[4] Iraq had 7,000 SAM and 6,000 AA Guns with the Republican Guard had its own air defence System with about 3,000 AA Guns and 60 SAM Batteries. See: Anthony Tucker-Jones, The Gulf War: Operation Desert Storm 1990-1991 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Books, 2014), p. 40.

[5] United States Air Force, ‘Reaching Globally, Reaching Powerfully: The United States Air Forces in the Gulf War’ (United States Air Force, 1991), p. 5.

[6] Richard Blanchfield et al, Part I – Weapons, Tactics, and Training’ in Gulf War Air Power Survey – Volume IV: Weapons, Tactics, and Training and Space Operations, directed by Eliot Cohen (Washington DC: Department of the Air Force, 1993), p. 15.

[7] Tucker-Jones, The Gulf War, p. 40.

[8] ‘Iraqi Threat to U.S. Forces,’ Naval Intelligence Command, Navy Operational Intelligence Center, SPEAR Department, December 1990, p. 3-14.

[9] ‘Operation Desert Storm: Evaluation of the Air Campaign’ (Washington DC: General Accounting Office, 1997), p. 137.

[10] ‘Operation Desert Storm: Evaluation of the Air Campaign,’ p. 137.

[11] Jim Corrigan, Desert Storm Air War: The Aerial Campaign against Saddam’s Iraq in the 1991 (Guilford, CT: Stackpole Books, 2017), p. 59.

[12] Lon Nordeen, Air Warfare in the Missile Age, second edition (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution, 2010), pp. 413-4.

[13] James P. Coyne, Air Power in the Gulf (Arlington, VA: Air Force Association, 1992), pp. 67-71.

[14] ‘Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress, April 1992,’ (Washington, DC: Dept. of Defense, 1992), p. 197.

[15] Bradley Graham, ‘Gulf War left Iraqi Air Defence Beaten, Not Bowed,’ Washington Post, 6 September 1996.

[16] Graham, ‘Gulf War left Iraqi Air Defence Beaten, Not Bowed.’

[17] Quoted in ‘Outgunned Weaponry is Under Fire in Kremlin,’ The Irish Independent, 2 March 1991, p. 6. See also Alexander Velovich, ‘USSR Demands Post-Gulf Air Defense Review,’ Flight International, 13-19 March 1991, p. 5.

[18] Benjamin S. Lambeth, ‘Desert Storm and Its Meaning: The View from Moscow,’ A RAND Report (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1992), p. 23.

[19] Lambeth, ‘Desert Storm and Its Meaning,’ pp. 23-4, fn. 10.

[20] Daniel Sneider, ‘Soviets Assess Their Arsenal After Iraq’s Defeat in Gulf,’ The Christian Science Monitor, 8 March, 1991, p. 1.

[21] Tucker-Jones, The Gulf War, p. 201.

#Podcast – The Unconventional Journey of General Larry Spencer: An Interview with General (ret’d) Larry O. Spencer

#Podcast – The Unconventional Journey of General Larry Spencer: An Interview with General (ret’d) Larry O. Spencer

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 podcast, we are joined by General Larry O. Spencer, former Vice Chief of Staff of the U. S. Air Force. He recounts his journey from being raised in Southeast Washington, D. C. to enlisting in the U. S. Air Force and eventually rising through the ranks to become one of only nine African Americans to wear four stars. General Spencer’s background as a support officer in an organization that tends to favour pilots and aircrews brings a different lens through which to look at the USAF and the use of air power.

dark-horse

General (ret’d) Larry O. Spencer served as Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force until his retirement in 2015. As VCSAF, he presided over the Air Staff and served as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Requirements Oversight Council and Deputy Advisory Working Group. He assisted the Chief of Staff with organising, training, and equipping 664,000 active-duty, Guard, Reserve, and civilian forces serving in the United States and overseas. Spencer was born in Washington, D.C. He received his Bachelor of Science degree in industrial engineering technology from Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, and was commissioned through Officer Training School in 1980 as a distinguished graduate. Spencer has commanded a squadron, group and wing and was Vice Commander of the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Center. He was also the first Air Force officer to serve as Assistant Chief of Staff in the White House Military Office. In addition, he served as the Comptroller and then Director of Mission Support (A7) at a major command; and held positions within the Air Staff and Secretary of the Air Force. Before becoming VCSAF, Spencer was Director, Force Structure, Resources and Assessment, Joint Staff, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C.

Header image: General Larry O Spencer outside his family home in Washington DC, 30 July 2015 (Source: United States Air Force)

#BookReview – Korean Air War: Sabres, Migs and Meteors, 1950-53

#BookReview – Korean Air War: Sabres, Migs and Meteors, 1950-53

Michael Napier, Korean Air War: Sabres, Migs and Meteors, 1950-53. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2021. Images. Notes. Bibliography. Glossary. Appendices. Index. Hbk. 320pp.

Reviewed by Dr Ross Mahoney

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In the western world, the Korean War is often thought of as the forgotten war of the early Cold War. This was, at least from an American perspective, because ‘[l]ike the proverbial shrimp caught between two whales, the Korean War [was] trapped between World War II and the Vietnam War.’[1] Furthermore, from a British and French perspective, the war does not easily fit into national narratives surrounding their ‘retreat’ from empires in Southeast Asia, namely the Malayan Emergency and the French-Indochina War. The Korean War did, however, significantly impact the Cold War’s early course, particularly strengthening the recently established North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.

From the perspective of the application and development of air power, the Korean War was also significant. Specifically, it was the first time jet fighters met in combat. Furthermore, the war also saw a wide range of air power capabilities deployed over Korea, including discussions throughout the conflict about the potential delivery of nuclear weapons.[2] This has meant that, despite the unfortunate epithet of being a forgotten war, several important works, such as Conrad Crane’s American Airpower Strategy in Korea (2000), have appeared and examined the use of air power over the Korean peninsula.

Michael Napier, a retired Royal Air Force fast-jet pilot and author, comes into this mix with his 2021 volume, Korean Air War. In just over 300 pages, Napier systematically describes the course of the air war over Korea. The book, chronologically laid out, deals with the air war in seven chapters plus a retrospective to finish the volume. There are also two appendices included. The chapters follow the broad course of the main phases of the Korean War. For example, Chapter Three deals with the period of the offensive by United Nations (UN) forces between August and October 1950 (pp. 72-113). This is then followed up by a chapter that looks at the period of the Chinese offensives (pp. 114-55) against UN forces that forced them back to roughly the 38th Parallel. Within these chapters, Napier details the various uses of air power by both sides during the war. This includes the use of tactical and strategic air power as well as naval air power. Napier also does a good job of describing the coalition character of the air war for both sides. However, his attempt to highlight the British contribution can sometimes be overstated.

lossy-page1-3000px-U.S._Marines_of_the_First_Marine_Division_Reconnaissance_Company_make_the_first_helicopter_invasion_on_Hill_812,_to..._-_NARA_-_520805.tif
US Marines of the First Marine Division Reconnaissance Company make the first helicopter invasion on Hill 812, to relieve the Republic of Korea 8th Division, during the renewed fighting in Korea, 20 September 1951. (Source: Wikimedia)

While the book comprehensively deals with the air war over Korea, readers should not expect an academic examination of the use of air power between 1950 and 1953. That is not what this book is. However, this is not a criticism per se. Instead, the book has been written with a specific audience in mind – the general reader looking for an introduction to the subject. This is highlighted by Napier’s choice to examine the war chronologically (p. 6). This is a choice that makes it easier for the lay reader to understand what was a complex and contested operating environment. Ultimately, therefore, we end up with a very useful narrative of the course of the air war that introduces readers to the subject matter.

One area, however, where the book does fall down is in its use of sources. Regarding primary sources, Napier has overwhelmingly relied on files in British archival institutions, notably The National Archives and the Royal Air Force Museum. While perhaps a pragmatic decision given the author’s location and the character of this book as a popular account of the air war, it does, nonetheless, skew the author’s interpretation. Furthermore, at least from the perspective of UN forces deployed, most of the air power deployed in support of the war effort came from the US. As such, one would expect more attention to be given to the records produced by those forces involved. Finally, given the above issue, Napier relies on secondary sources to fill in the gaps despite arguing that published accounts of the air war over Korea were less than ‘objective’ (p. 6) in their analysis. However, it appears from the notes and bibliography that Napier did not consult important, more ‘objective’ works such as Crane’s noted above and others.[3] The use of such works would have further enriched Napier’s narrative

Overall, despite the above criticism, Napier has done an excellent job of writing a comprehensive introductory narrative to the air war over Korea. In particular, Napier does a good job of weaving together a narrative that tells the story of both sides of the air war over Korea. The book is lavishly supported by high-quality imagery and maps that help support the text.

Dr Ross Mahoney is the Editor-in-Chief of From Balloons to Drones and is an independent scholar specialising in air power and the history of air warfare. He is currently the Senior Historian within the City Architecture and Heritage Team at Brisbane City Council in Australia. He has over 15 years of experience within the heritage and education sectors in Australia and the United Kingdom. He was the inaugural Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum in the UK. In Australia, he has worked as a Historian for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and taught at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University based at the Australian War College. His research interests are focused on military history, with a specific focus on the history of air warfare, transport history, and urban history. He has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He has a website here and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.

Header image: Four US Air Force North American F-86E Sabre fighters over Korea in November 1952. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Allan Millett, The War for Korea, 1945-1950: A House Burning (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2005), p. 1.

[2] Daniel Calingaert, ‘Nuclear weapons and the Korean War,’ Journal of Strategic Studies 11, no. 2 (1988), pp. 177-202.

[3] Other works of note not cited include: Eduard Mark, Aerial Interdiction: Air Power and the Land Battle in Three American Wars (Washington DC: Office of Air Force History, 1994); John Sherwood, Officers in Flight Suits: The Story of American Air Force Fighter Pilots in the Korean War (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1998); Jacob Neufeld, Coalition Air Warfare in the Korean War 1950–1953 (Washington DC: U.S. Air Force History and Museums Program, 2005); Roger Horky, ‘Clipping the Eagle’s Wings: The Limiting of the Korean Air War, 1950-1953’ (PhD Thesis, Texas A&M University, 2013).

#Podcast – The True Origins of the Cold War: An Interview with Dr John Curatola

#Podcast – The True Origins of the Cold War: An Interview with Dr John Curatola

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 the years after the Second World War, the US shifted its strategy to one focused on air power and delivery of nuclear weapons–but why and how did this happen? Dr John Curatola, the Military Historian for the Center for War and Democracy at the National World War II Museum, takes us through the fierce rivalry between the US Air Force and Navy, the scandalous ‘Revolt of the Admirals,’ and the development of thermonuclear weapons. 

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Dr John Curatola is the Military Historian for the Center for War and Democracy at the National World War II Museum. He was formerly a Professor of Military History at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Curatola is a retired Marine Officer of 22 years with a Doctorate from the University of Kansas. In addition to his published works, he has lectured extensively on airpower and early Cold War topics at the National Archives, C-SPAN, and international venues. His latest book is Autumn of Our Discontent: Fall 1949 and the Crises in American National Security (2022).

Header image: A US Air Force Convair B-36B Peacemaker of the 7th Bombardment Wing in flight, in 1949. (Source: Wikimedia)

#Podcast – Women Naval Aviators: An Interview with Beverly Weintraub

#Podcast – Women Naval Aviators: An Interview with Beverly Weintraub

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.

After the Second World War, women were not allowed to fly in military aviation roles in the US. That began to change in the 1970s. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Beverly Weintraub tells us about the story of six women US Naval aviators from her book: Wings of Gold: The Story of the First Women Naval Aviators from Lyons Press.

Beverly Weintraub is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist whose coverage of aviation, education and social services has appeared in the New York Daily News and the Washington Post. She served for 10 years on the Daily News Editorial Board, winning the Pulitzer with several colleagues for editorials examining the illnesses afflicting 9/11 first responders. She is currently executive editor at The 74, a K-12 education news site. An instrument-rated private pilot, Weintraub is a member of the Ninety-Nines, International Organization of Women Pilots; serves on the board of directors of the Air Race Classic, the annual all-women cross-country aeroplane race; and is a five-time ARC racer.

Header image: Captain Rosemary Mariner, the commander of VAQ-34 in the early 1990s. (Source: US Naval History and Heritage Command)

#HistoricBookReview – Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam, 1965-1972

#HistoricBookReview – Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam, 1965-1972

Marshall L. Michel III, Clashes: Air Combat Over North Vietnam, 1965-1972. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997. Appendices. Endnotes. Index. 340 pp.

Reviewed by Dr James Young

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As indicated by the title, Marshall Michel’s Clashes is a chronological examination of the air war over North Vietnam. At the time of its publication in 1997, Clashes was the first comprehensive treatment of the conflict to take advantage of North Vietnamese sources. Unlike most of his predecessors, Michel consciously avoided basing his main argument on the political issues surrounding Operations ROLLING THUNDER and LINEBACKER. These political issues include targeting choices by the White House, bombing halts, and rules of engagement enforced by US Navy (USN) and the United States Air Force (USAF) Pacific Air Forces (PACAF). Instead, Michel focuses on the ‘military significance [USAF’s and USN’s bombing campaigns had] in the larger context of the Cold War and possible U.S.-Soviet military confrontation,’ as ‘this was the one area of the Vietnam War that had military significance in the global balance of power.’ (p. 1) Within this framework, Michel posits that the twin campaigns were a ‘test of American air combat performance,’ (p. 1) and then proceeds to explain how the USAF and USN largely failed the exam.

Michel’s organisation is simple, with Clashes divided into two chronological sections. The first of these begins with a discussion of air combat in general, the two American services’ thoughts on fighter doctrine, and how the USN and USAF evaluated these theories in a series of rigorously controlled exercises. Michel takes great pains to point out that these exercises, conducted in the clear skies and low humidity of the western United States, led to a misplaced faith in American technological superiority as the war began. After this introduction, Clashes transitions to the initial campaign against North Vietnam. After a cursory discussion of operational goals, Michel starts with the initial USN air raids and the gradual escalation that became ROLLING THUNDER. Clashes highlights the friction that emerged from both services’ aircrew rotation policies, internal and external service rivalries, a harsh climate and, most importantly, a rapidly evolving and uncooperative enemy. By the end of Part I, Clashes makes two things clear. First, the North Vietnamese proved to be far more capable opponents than the American forces expected, with their Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) arguably the deadliest of its kind in the entire world. Second, it became clear that the USAF/USN’s already inadequate conventional capabilities had worsened throughout ROLLING THUNDER.

A-7A_Corsair_II_of_VA-27_about_to_launch_from_USS_Constellation_(CVA-64)_in_the_Gulf_of_Tonkin_on_27_August_1968_(NNAM.1996.253.7075.035)
A US Navy Vought A-7A Corsair II from VA-27 prepares to be catapulted off the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Constellation (CVA-64) in the Gulf of Tonkin on 27 August 1968. It is armed with Mark 82 227 kg Snakeye bombs and AIM-9B Sidewinder missiles. VA-27 was assigned to Attack Carrier Air Wing 14 aboard the Constellation for a deployment to Vietnam from 29 May 1968 to 31 January 1969. (Source: Wikimedia)

Having presented the reader with this sobering assessment, Michel begins Part 2 by stating, ‘[t]he judgments about air-to-air combat during Rolling Thunder were a Rorschach test for the U.S. Air Force and Navy.’ (p. 181) The USAF’s leadership had a ‘clear lack of interest in improving its air training’ (p. 185) for several disparate reasons. In contrast, the USN’s admirals ensured that its crews were ‘prepared for the new round of air combat anywhere in the world’ (p. 188) by both enforcing new doctrine and modifying existing equipment. Michel manages to deftly interweave both services’ advances using simple yet accurate language concerning ordnance, electronics, and airframes. Finally, unlike other works before it, Clashes concludes Part II’s introductory chapter with a discussion of the North Vietnamese Air Force’s (NVAF’s) contemporaneous improvement in doctrine, equipment, and training. In this manner, Michel sets the table for the remainder of Part II by ensuring the reader understands why Operations LINEBACKER I and II are not simple continuations of ROLLING THUNDER. As with Part I, Michel’s writing ability stands out as he discusses how the USAF and USN engaged the NV-IADS. Only a prohibitive amount of resources prevented steep losses among strike aircraft for the USAF (p. 242-6). In contrast, the USN’s emphasis on the Top Gun program, missile improvements, and strike doctrine resulted in ‘MiGs concentat[ing] almost exclusively on Air Force sorties’ (p. 277) due to heavy losses. By drawing this stark contrast, Michel both explicitly condemns USAF leadership for their choices from 1968-1972. He implicitly proves his thesis by establishing a connection between difficulties in Southeast Asia being indicative of the USAF’s conventional capabilities in a broader Cold War sense.

Although subsequent books, such as Craig C. Hanna’s Striving for Air Superiority (2002) and Wayne Thompson’s To Hanoi and Back (2000) have taken advantage of more recently declassified documents, Clashes remains a work of tremendous value for anyone interested in post-Second World War air combat. Michel’s reliance on official USAF and USN primary documents, such as Project CHECO, the USAF’s Red Baron report, and the USN’s Ault Report, erases much of the ideological clutter affecting previous works that dealt with the war. When coupled with his skilful prose, the overall result is a balanced, informative account that is quite accessible. Clashes’ continued relevance would make it equally at home in a public library, a professional military course, or an undergraduate Vietnam course. Even beyond these uses, it remains an excellent cautionary tale of what can occur when an air service fails to rigorously test, train, and exercise its doctrine before entering a conflict. It is highly recommended for anyone interested in Cold War military history for all these reasons.

Dr James Young is an air power historian, aviation enthusiast and military analyst. His writing credits include the USNI’s 2016 Cyberwarfare Essay Contest, articles in ArmorThe Journal of Military History, Marine Corps University Press Expeditions, and USNI Proceedings. In addition to his historical work and the critically acclaimed Usurper’s War-series, he has collaborated with bestselling authors Sarah Hoyt, S.M. Stirling, and David Weber.

Header Image: A US Air Force Boeing B-52G Stratofortress from the 72nd Strategic Wing (Provisional) waits beside the runway at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, as another B-52 takes off for a bombing mission over North Vietnam during Operation LINEBACKER II on 15 December 1972. (Source: Wikimedia)

#Commentary – Air Superiority as a Political Activity

#Commentary – Air Superiority as a Political Activity

By Dr Michael E. Weaver

Air superiority needs to be conceived as a political condition that begins in peacetime, not merely a wartime operational pursuit. Perceiving air superiority in this way will make connections to the ordinary peacetime conditions political actors like the United States seek, resulting in military strategy, targeting, and weapons acquisition more in tune with national policy. This commentary piece is an essay based on a comprehensive study on the relationship between military means and political ends. Typically, examinations of air superiority start with discussing airframes, basing, technology, and tactics. This proposal, however, begins with the issues of legitimacy and norms and suggests ways of achieving air superiority rooted in peacetime operations. It concludes that a mix of manned and unmanned fighter aircraft is the best means of achieving this national policy.

An Essential Condition
Airliners require airspace free of the threat of missiles, drones, and gunfire before they even consider flight. Conversely, military pilots prefer unimpeded airspace in which whatever fire an enemy can send their way is insufficient to cause more than an occasional loss through which they can fly their missions without substantial interference and complete their missions. If the stakes are high enough, aircrews will press forward despite losses to hostile fire. Those can increase to the point that only the most necessary missions will justify prohibitive losses.

Air superiority is the general term used to describe these varying grades of airspace control. The condition is normally conceived in operational and physical terms: is a sector of airspace permissive enough for operations to be completed without too many losses? How many aircraft can one lose before it becomes too difficult to dominate a sector of airspace? Can a military actor achieve air superiority by shooting down a number or a percentage of aircraft?

More abstractly, one can relate air superiority to achieving a military strategy. For instance, Great Britain did not achieve air superiority over south-eastern England in September 1940 when its shoot-downs of Luftwaffe aircraft reached an arbitrary threshold. Instead, Britain gained air superiority when Germany could no longer proceed with its agenda of invading the United Kingdom; inflicting losses was just an intermediate step for the Royal Air Force. As a result, the British achieved a favourable outcome even though losses to enemy aircraft continued.

A Function of Governance
One can best perceive of air superiority as a political act and consequence. Since the ultimate goal of politics is to decide who governs where, how, and under what terms, the most helpful way to conceive of air superiority is as a political act. A state should ask whether its norms, rules, power, and assumptions govern what happens in the air when determining the safety within the airspace in which its national interests lay. These concepts take us into the realm of sovereignty: who or what has ultimate authority. For example, the Soviet Union was not completely sovereign over its airspace in 1983 when it shot down the Korean airliner flight 007 because of standards of international behaviour. It had the capacity to shoot down intruding airliners, and it could have continued to shoot down airliners for some time without much exertion. Instead, Moscow found itself condemned for shooting down an aircraft that should not have been where it was in the first place because international norms had already labelled what the Soviets did as illegitimate. The Soviets had violated a norm that really did not need to be codified: you just do not shoot down civilian airliners full of people. Because international discourse had long since settled that issue, the Soviet Union was condemned for its action. Arguments such as, ‘It’s over our territory,’ or, ‘warnings are all over air navigational charts; they simply should not have been flying there,’ carried insufficient weight. Furthermore, the issue had already been decided years before the incident through international law and had nothing to do with aircraft capabilities or weapons loads. The Soviets did not recognise that air superiority was ultimately a political issue, not an issue of military power, and they did not have ultimate authority over the concept.

Bird of a feather ...
An F-15 Eagle banks left while an F/A-22 Raptor flies in formation en route to a training area off the coastline of Virginia, 5 April 2005. (Source: Wikimedia)

Formulation
Norms, discourse, legitimacy, and governance, should be the starting points for understanding air superiority; machines such as aircraft, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), drones, or satellites are tools that may or may not ultimately determine the legitimacy or reality of airspace control. Furthermore, since military force is a subset of information warfare, political actors can largely determine the legitimacy of airspace control before a shooting war is even contemplated, thus predetermining a significant portion of the consequences of hostile actions before they are initiated. States already pursue these conditions by flying between China and Taiwan or over the Sea of Okhotsk. Because airforces – and more ideally, civilian airliners – normalise these flights by making them regularly, they have become legitimate. Because international rules are related to air superiority, both should be considered cohabitants on the same continuum, like radio waves and light waves on the electromagnetic spectrum.

The achievement of air superiority thus begins in peacetime with the establishment of what is legitimate behaviour. Therefore, China understands this and is trying to construct airspace sovereignty over the western Pacific Ocean with manufactured islands, agitation over centuries-old, discredited maps, and military power: air sovereignty constructivism, if you will. Of course, nearby actors such as Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines, cannot give in lest they normalise China’s aggression, but they do not have sufficient power to resist militarily.

Although it forms a critical component of the response, resisting China’s aggression and preserving airspace freedom does not begin with building powerful air forces. Regional powers must perpetuate an ongoing narrative about what is legitimate in the airspace off the coasts of Asia. When they make violations of their airspace by Chinese military aircraft actions that are automatically condemned; for example, they will have contributed to a powerful foundation for air superiority. Grassroots rhetoric condemning Chinese production of runway cratering missiles, not to mention artificial islands, would further contribute to the discourse of air superiority. So, the first component of air superiority operations would be to create a norm of, ‘this is simply the way things are; this is what is appropriate.’ For instance, international airspace is accepted, and air defence identification zones extend only as far as radar coverage from one’s mainland (generally around 200 miles). When no one, or at most, only China, questions that assertion, those states will have added to the legitimacy of their own defensive military aggression if it is ever necessary. Nurturing this narrative does not carry prohibitive costs, but it requires constant attention and never ends.

This endeavour’s more deliberate components include international agreements, international organisations, multinational military exercises, and air sovereignty flights. Conducted as a diplomatic-information campaign, these activities can predetermine who will be the victim and who will be the aggressor if armed conflict erupts. Indeed, ensuring that one’s state achieves victim status and is not labelled the aggressor is the most critical goal in the discourse of air superiority. Victims have very liberal rights to self-defence during war, while aggressors may not have any rights. Therefore, possessing the legitimate right of self-defence when protecting airspace is critical and begins in peacetime. States should make maintaining that status an ongoing component of their grand strategy and ensure that illegitimate power is the only means available to actors like China and Russia.

Ultimately a determined aggressor will not care. International opprobrium, condemnation, and even new enemies who wage war against the aggressor state may not be enough to dissuade a political actor from taking what he wants by force. However, if the revisionist power wins that battle over airspace, it will find itself in a weakened condition for resisting the international opprobrium that would follow. Ideally, regional actors will possess enough military power to persuade an aggressor to not go to war in the first place or fight him to a standstill if war comes. The question of what the best hardware is for accomplishing that goal is one that states must answer the first time correctly.

Prior to Weapons Acquisition
The most important question surrounding the hardware of air superiority is not which machine will shoot down the most enemy aeroplanes or missiles. Instead, one should ask political questions addressing legitimacy, deterrence, which governs where and how, and gaining victim status. Covering those bases will function as force multipliers to the combat capabilities of one’s air and space forces. States should opt for a mix of capabilities—not for operational reasons or the ability to achieve high kill rates of invading aircraft and missiles, although necessary. Instead, the capabilities must further political goals. Air capabilities need to be able to deter, reaffirm legitimacy, confer aggressor status on the state that is attacking, and wreck the aggressor’s strategy. From there, one should construct a system of sufficient lethality to preserve or regain air superiority. Furthermore, an air force should pursue air superiority as a component of governance, not merely as a military operation.

Surface-to-air missiles may be the best starting point because they are inherently defensive. A PAC-III missile cannot attack China from South Korea or anywhere else, for that matter. SAMs are legitimate because they operate from within a country or one of its warships. They are not aggressive since they are defensive weapons. An enemy must attack them, often as the first step in an airstrike; thus, SAMs force the enemy into labelling himself the aggressor and your state the victim, giving the attacked country the power that comes to a victim in today’s discourse. But an air force can use up its SAMs quickly. Suppose the enemy still has offensive power after the defender fires off its last missiles. In that case, the defender will be in a precarious state, and victim status and the legitimacy of his cause may be so much rhetoric.

The SAM’s stablemate, antiaircraft artillery, can cause great destruction to an attacker. As inherently defensive weapons, they are legitimate and not a weapon of aggression. They need to be able to detect and hit enemy missiles and aircraft; however. Otherwise, their use conveys the image of mindless firing and panic. Since the geographic coverage of each piece is quite small, they are tertiary weapons.

Cyber weapons should be a component of air superiority hardware. Few things could be better than somehow switching off or wrecking enemy hardware from within, for instance, but to my knowledge, computer viruses do not yet cause circuit boards to melt themselves. A force struck down with computer viruses can clean out the malicious software, and even examine and exploit it for a counterattack. For that reason, cyber weapons are one-shot pieces of software. They can help defeat an enemy onslaught, but they can also help an enemy strengthen his network defence because the attack exposes a weakness.

Space-based weapons have the potential to dominate the airspace below, but they have problems when it comes to legitimacy, deterrence, and labelling. If a country flies a space laser over its enemy to protect international airspace, it does so intrusively, confusing the world audience as to who the aggressor is. Placing a satellite armed with defensive weapons could give the appearance of a constant offensive threat overhead. Damocles would not be a politically helpful label for an armed satellite.

An F-35C Lightning II assigned to the VFA-101 launched off the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) flight deck on 4 September 2017.

Weapons Have Differing Meanings
There is currently a rush to build unmanned aircraft that either function as remotely piloted vehicles or as autonomous aircraft flown by artificial intelligence. They are less expensive, there is no pilot to be killed or captured, and their swarms can overwhelm defences or attacking strike packages. Drones, however, can only extend firepower, not legitimacy. Squadrons of drones either convey the seriousness of large groups of appliances or the sinister capability of robots; fiction writing has already determined many of the meanings we attach to drones. It will be challenging for drones to be perceived solely as defensive and fully legitimate, and their deterrent effect may be less. One of the components of deterrence is forcing the enemy to attack and kill your people and your territory if they wish to attack. Thus, an enemy is less likely to attack an ICBM in a silo, for example, than a ballistic missile submarine; land-based ICBMs enhance deterrence. Furthermore, people, not machines, need to govern airspace. People are more legitimate than machines, and people, not machines, can be victimised. Drones can threaten, but unlike manned aircraft, they cannot coerce in a way that is seen as legitimate. Drones will be most effective in furthering a political narrative when retained as adjuncts – extra shooters – to manned aircraft.

Because of the politics of air superiority, its optics, the issue of legitimacy, the need to convey political will and commitment, and the different meanings attached to manned aircraft and autonomous aircraft, a great need remains for men and women to fly the aircraft and man the SAM sites that achieve air superiority. Skin in the game is necessary because an aggressor will be less inclined to shoot down a manned aircraft than a drone. The people of a country will be up in arms if one of their piloted aircraft is shot down during a crisis, but if one of their drones is shot down, how should they react when an armed appliance has been destroyed? Drones will provoke, but fighters with a human at the controls can deter, signal, provoke, defend, escort, and assert international norms. While drones can provide more tactical firepower, only manned fighters can function as political weapons. Indeed, fighter aircraft that cannot be used against surface targets unless they spend six months in a depot undergoing conversions may be in the national interest to a far greater degree than a multi-role aircraft. It may even be in the national interest to produce a follow-on to the F-22 that can only be used as an air-to-air weapon.

Air Superiority without Bombing China
A capability to achieve air superiority over eastern Europe or the western Pacific without needing to carry out bombardment missions against Chinese or Russian SAM sites or airbases is most attractive politically as well as militarily; an ability to dominate airspace with a mix of manned and unmanned fighter aircraft without the assistance of aircraft attacking targets on enemy territory gives several advantages to political leaders. First, such a capability remains a defensive, legitimate political act of governing airspace and defending airspace. Such aircraft cannot attack their adversaries and thus are less escalatory. They can complete the mission of air sovereignty over their own territory or within international airspace. Proposals of bombing Chinese or Russian airbases in defence of Taiwan or the Baltic states are asinine. When one is bombing Russian airbases, one is attacking Russia, a Russia with a nuclear arsenal. Airfield and SAM site attack strategies, operations, and capabilities were essential when deterring the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War. They may be a requirement against peer states when a geopolitical relationship is going down the tubes, but bombing Chinese or Russian airfields constitutes poor politics for the United States and its allies except in the most extreme circumstances. An offensive capability and strategy in defending friends along the Asian periphery will lead to a war that worsens conditions, rather than a settlement in which those areas are governed in ways that respect the sovereignty of smaller states and international law. An offensive-defensive strategy will erode the victim status regional actors can easily retain if they emphasise an airspace politics of live and let live.

Developing the best new aircraft, SAMS, and directed energy weapons for shooting down enemy aircraft and missiles must not be procurement’s starting point for maintaining air superiority over the western Pacific. Again, air superiority is a political act, a contest of who governs the western Pacific in this instance, and how. What characteristics will the machines employed to carry out that task needs with that goal in mind? Because of the lethality of SAMs, air-to-air missiles, cyber weapons, and guided ballistic missiles, aircraft must be excellent technologically, but not for the sake of fielding the most advanced technology. Because of the political goals of the United States and its allies, the weapons should be defensive. An F-22, for example, is ideal for this mission because it does not possess much of an air-to-ground bombardment capability. That trait is a political advantage because the capability, intentions, and rhetoric are all congruent with a policy goal of governance and air defence. Since F-22-type aircraft do not support a ground attack strategy well, they are politically ideal for preserving air superiority. Several wings of American and allied F-22s and Next Generation Air Dominance Fighters (NGADs) would have the ability to defeat Chinese assets. Since they do not have the range to penetrate deep into Chinese territory, they threaten China less and match the political rhetoric of the United States and its friends more. Most importantly, highly-capable fighter aircraft can achieve air superiority solely in international airspace – the ideal location for exerting air sovereignty.

Because of the political goals behind its existence, the NGAD should be designed as a single-purpose, air-to-air combat-only fighter with a person in the cockpit. It does not need the capability to penetrate deep into Chinese or Russian airspace to destroy surface targets because that capability will not match up with any of the United States’ political goals. Why should the United States and her friends must have the capability to destroy SAM sites and airfields on Russian or Chinese territory? For that reason, the NGADs should be forward deployed, not F-35s. Keep the offensive capabilities of F-35s away from our adversaries. That will support American rhetoric and strategy, and their transfer forward in a crisis will help diplomatic efforts if it ever comes to that.

Air defence NGADs should be the forward-deployed aircraft because they can survive airspace infested with long-range Chinese SAMs fired from warships and long-range fighter aircraft far better than variants of the F-15 or F/A-18. The most advanced legacy airframes – including those not yet manufactured like the F-15EX – would only function as SAM sponges in the western Pacific and have no business flying in this theatre unless Chinese air capabilities have significantly been diminished. Even though it is more survivable against SAMs than legacy aircraft, the F-35 is not ideal for this mission because its offensive capabilities run counter to the policy and narrative desirable for governing the airspace over the western Pacific. Furthermore, it is too slow to run down and destroy the fastest Chinese fighters; it cannot engage and disengage at will like an air superiority fighter needs to do. However, given the low numbers of extant F-22s, F-35s must participate in the air-to-air battle in this scenario for the next several years. Finally, the NGAD should be designed as an aircraft carrier-launched aircraft and then equip both the US Navy and the US Air Force. Aircraft designed for carrier operations can be flown from land bases, but aircraft designed for runway operations cannot stand the stresses of carrier catapult launches and arrested landings. The NGAD should not be multi-role, but it will be multi-service. Furthermore, if it does its job well, it will not need to carry bombs because peer adversaries will not continue offensive warfare if they have lost command of the air.

Policy Goals, Grand Strategy, Narratives, Military Strategy, then Weapons Acquisition
The way to determine what kind of new technology to acquire for deterrence and war is not to first pursue the most advanced technology conceivable. However, the military strategy that results from a defence review may require just that. States need first to decide what they want. What political world do they want to live in? How can they use force, diplomacy, acquisitions, deterrence, legitimacy, and narratives to reach that world without stumbling into a major war – or winning if war breaks out? Air superiority starts with political goals, not technology, doctrine, or operations. Such an approach will significantly improve the United States’ opportunities for maintaining an international order conducive to the ideals and interests of itself and its friends. The capabilities of its military hardware will then be congruent with its peaceful rhetoric.

Dr Michael E. Weaver is an Associate Professor of History at the USAF Air Command and Staff College. He has authored five air power articles and a book on the 28th Infantry Division. His second book, The Air War in Vietnam, is due out in the fall of 2022. Weaver received his doctorate from Temple University in 2002, where he studied under Russell Weigley.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed herein are those of the author alone and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense, the U. Air Force, or Air University. 

Header image: An F-15EX Eagle II from the 40th Flight Test Squadron, 96th Test Wing out of Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, flies in formation during an aerial refuelling operation above the skies of Northern California, 14 May 2021. The Eagle II participated in the Northern Edge 21 exercise in Alaska earlier in May. (Source: Wikimedia)

#Podcast – Through the Stratosphere in the U-2 and in Life: An Interview with Colonel (ret’d) Merryl Tengesdal

#Podcast – Through the Stratosphere in the U-2 and in Life: An Interview with Colonel (ret’d) Merryl Tengesdal

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.

Colonel Merryl Tengesdal flew helicopters in the US Navy before transferring to the US Air Force to become the first (and so far, only) African American woman to fly the U-2. She tells us the fascinating story of her career, what it’s like to fly an aircraft on the edge of space, and drops some inspirational advice along the way.

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Merryl Tengesdal, a military veteran, aviator, and commander who served in the United States Navy and the US Air Force, is an American retired career military officer who is the first and only African-American woman to fly the U-2 spy plane. Her final assignment before retirement was as Director of Inspections for The Air Force Inspector General from October 2015 through August 2017. Tengesdal is a veteran of the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan.

Header image: Tengesdal stood in front of a USAF Northrop T-38 Talon. (Source: Tengesdal Website)

#BookReview – CIA Station D: Area 51 – The Complete Illustrated History of the CIA’s Station D at Area 51

#BookReview – CIA Station D: Area 51 – The Complete Illustrated History of the CIA’s Station D at Area 51

T.D. Barnes, CIA Station D: Area 51 – The Complete Illustrated History of the CIA’s Station D at Area 51. Danbury, CT: Begell House, 2021. Photographs. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. 590 pp. HBK.

Reviewed by Dr Michael W. Hankins

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Area 51 has long been a source of fascination, intrigue, and conspiracy theories. It has also inspired popular culture from television and film to 2019’s widely publicised (but barely attended) Facebook-based attempt to ‘storm the site. However, those familiar with the military aviation world have long known that Area 51 is little more than a US Air Force (USAF) (formerly Central Intelligence Agency, CIA) facility where experimental aircraft are tested. This includes everything from the U-2 spy plane to the F-117 stealth fighter. T.D. Barnes, who worked with the CIA during its formative years at Area 51, attempts to set the record straight with this new book covering the CIA’s activities in the Nevada desert during the early and mid-Cold War. The result is a profoundly informative work that reveals new stories and will please enthusiasts. Still, the size of the book and its challenging organisation might be overwhelming for casual readers.

From the early origins of Station D, which only much later became known as Area 51, Barnes traces the major CIA aviation programs based there. These include the U-2, the A-12 (and associated Blackbird ‘family’ aircraft of the YF-12, SR-71, and M-21), and the MiG exploitation programs that evaluated and flew captured Soviet aircraft. Some side projects associated with these significant programs are explored as well, most notably Project PALLADIUM, which provided valuable intelligence on Soviet radar capabilities. The details of these programs will already be known to many readers. For example, the Blackbird family programs are well documented by works such as Paul Crickmore’s Lockheed Blackbird: Beyond the Secret Missions (revised edition, 2016) or Richard Graham’s The Complete Book of the SR-71 Blackbird (2015). However, Barnes’ work reveals fascinating new details about even these well-covered topics. Barnes presents both familiar and new stories from the perspective of the CIA rather than from the USAF or industry contractors. The Palladium program is particularly interesting, involving complicated, world-ranging plots to send fake signals in the direction of the Soviet Union to see what their radars could detect. Barnes does a good job of tracing the story from field teams collecting information to how information was analysed and used in technological and strategic decision-making at the highest levels.

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A scale model of an A-12 prepared for radar cross section measurements at ‘Area 51,’ c. 1959. (Source: Wikimedia)

This fresh perspective is also wide-ranging. At times, Barnes zooms out to discuss broad historical topics and focuses on minute details of a particular program. As a result, readers will find a wealth of immense detail, as well as many photographs, some of which have not been published before (although some of the photos are of low resolution and appear pixelated on the page). Although technology is often at the centre of these stories, Barnes also sheds interesting light on the institutional histories; seeing the organisational evolution and institutional rivalries from the CIA’s perspective is an interesting and welcome lens on this material. For example, Barnes traces the various tensions between the CIA and the USAF, from high command to individual personnel.

The individual level is where the book really shines. Barnes gives a true, ‘on the ground’ account of many of these programs, not only showing how the CIA’s efforts affected the Cold War, but depicting what it felt like to live there, to work there, and the realities of day-to-day life inside a top-secret facility working on advanced, world-changing programs. The Blackbirds may have been top-of-the-line, sleek, space-age aircraft. Still, Barnes contrasts that with stories about the trouble getting clearances and badges, the type of housing available on the station, the type of bars that employees frequented, and the games with which personnel and pilots amused themselves. Whether he is telling a detailed technological history or something personal, the focus is on the details of these stories – there is no large historical analysis, nor a broad historical argument made in this book.

4477th_Test_and_Evaluation_Squadron_MiG-21_in_flight
A MiG-21F-13 flown by United States Navy and Air Force Systems Command during HAVE DOUGHNUT in 1968. (Source: Wikimedia).

As interesting as the material is, some readers have a few barriers to entry. The first is the whopping price tag of US$149. Although this cost might be too high for some readers, it is worth noting the amount of material one gets for the price. The book is heavy and massive, almost unwieldy. It contains nearly 600 oversized, double-columned pages, each of which is almost twice the dimensions of a typical print book. In terms of word count, this is probably about three typical books’ worth of material, which might help to justify the cost for some readers.Historians looking for a thesis will not find one, as the work does not seek to make a historical argument. Instead, it is focused on detailed accounts of individual stories. Furthermore, although the book is packed with detail, the immense amount of material might be difficult for some readers to navigate. In addition, it is written in a meandering style, which is sometimes charming, but at other times leads to repetition. In some cases, stories are told and retold, sometimes more than once. Usually, the retellings of stories contain slightly different emphases, but periodically sentences are repeated verbatim, and in some cases, photographs are reused. There are no footnotes and only a brief bibliography. Except for a few instances where a document is referenced directly in the text, readers may have trouble finding sources for information or quotes.

In conclusion, enthusiasts of the U-2, A-12/SR-71, and captured MiG programs will likely find much to like about this book, including newly discovered details and fresh images from a new perspective. Although it is a bit less accessible to casual readers, researchers will find plenty to pore over here.

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

Header image: A Lockheed M-21 carrying Lockheed D-21 drone in flight. (Source: Wikimedia)