#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

cia-station-d-area-51

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.

A12radartesting
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)

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books (January 2022)

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books (January 2022)

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

M. Abbott and J. Bamforth, ‘Determining the reasons for the failure of British aircraft manufacturers to invest in Australia’s industry, 1934–1941,’ Australian Economic History Review (2021). https://doi.org/10.1111/aehr.12235 

The aim of the article is to identify the factors that prevented British aircraft manufacturers from investing in Australia in the second half of the 1930s, a period when rearmament was creating demand for aircraft. The article looks at several unsuccessful proposals by British manufacturers to establish factories in Australia to build aircraft in the late 1930s, with additional attention being given to one proposal in particular. There is evidence that the Australian Government favoured the creation of an Australian-owned industry building aircraft under licence to foreign manufacturers, and it was this factor that largely deterred British investors.

Marc J. Alsina, ‘Aviation for the People: Class and State Aviation in Perón’s “New Argentina,” 1946–55,’ Technology and Culture 63, no. 1 (2022).

This article investigates the culture and politics of aviation in mid-twentieth-century Argentina under Juan D. Perón’s populist government. For enthusiasts around the world, aviation seemed poised for the long-prophesized “Air Age” transformations. Most emphasized the middle-class or elite nature of this quintessentially modern industry and its customers. Recent aviation scholarship in Europe and the United States has thus focused on affluent passengers or aircraft owners as the consumers of aviation technology. But this article reveals that Peronist Argentina implemented a massive political aviation program aimed at elevating socioeconomic conditions for the working classes. State media show that the authorities harnessed aviation as a technopolitical tool to both represent and enact their vision for a “New Argentina” by providing “dignified” work for the lower classes.

Xiaoming Zhang, ‘High-Altitude Duel: The CIA’s U-2 Spy Plane Overflights and China’s Air Defense Force, 1961-1968,’ Journal of Military History 86, no. 1 (2022).

During the 1960s, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s U-2 spy planes, piloted by Chinese Nationalist airmen from Taiwan, flew routinely over the Chinese mainland monitoring the Chinese nuclear weapons program; the overflights also demonstrated Beijing’s military weakness and inability to control its airspace. In spite of having only a few Soviet-made surface-to-air missile systems, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force was convinced that human factors, especially agility in strategy, operations, and tactics, could overcome a superior enemy. Although much remains secret, sources now available provide new insights into this secret Cold War history. Moreover, as the Chinese claimed themselves, these experiences remain valuable for China’s military response to war.

Books

Kevin Wright, We Were Never There – Volume 2: CIA U-2 Asia and Worldwide Operations 1957-1974 (Warwick: Helion and Company, 2022).

Devised by Kelly Johnson and operated by the CIA from 1956-74, the U-2 is the world’s most famous ‘spyplane.’ It flew at unprecedented altitudes and carried the most sophisticated sensors available, all in the greatest secrecy.

The second volume of We Were Never There concentrates on the period of operational missions mainly across Asia from 1957-74. The book utilises a large number of declassified documents to explore some of the remaining secrets of these missions.

The book starts by looking at some of the missions conducted by the CIA’s Detachment ‘C’ U-2s against key targets in the Soviet Far East up to Mayday 1960. It moves on to explore in detail the overflights of the Peoples Republic of China by Nationalist Chinese pilots in conjunction with the CIA. In particular, the study of Project TACKLE looks at efforts to gain intelligence on the PRC’s expansive nuclear programme from the early 1960s. This is supplemented with details of Taiwanese/CIA operations against North Korea and its Yongbon nuclear reactor. It presents target images and reveals detailed routes for many of these overflights that have not been publicly seen before.

Whilst the USAF took the lead in operations against Cuba, the book explores the earlier CIA missions against Cuba during the Bay of Pigs landings and the missile crisis. Another chapter explores the efforts to equip the U-2 for operations from US Navy aircraft carriers. Detachment G, based at Edwards AFB, had a worldwide contingency role, able to quickly deploy anywhere in the world. It undertook missions targets in Tibet, the PRC, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, British Guiana, Venezuela and elsewhere.

A section of the book examines the development of the U-2R, a major update of the original aircraft, making it larger and much more capable. Its handling characteristics and comparisons with the U-2C are explored with the help of interviews with two former USAF U-2 pilots who flew both models of the aircraft.

The final chapter looks at the return of the U-2 to Europe, in particular the UK, for training missions from the late 1960s. It covers details on operations over the middle east monitoring ceasefire arrangements between Israel and its neighbours in 1970 and 1973. It ends with the phasing out of Agency U-2 operations, the closure of projects TACKLE and JACKSON and an evaluation of the U-2’s contribution to aerial intelligence collection.

Bill Yenne, America’s Few: Marine Aces of the South Pacific (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2022).

America’s Few delves into the history of US Marine Corps aviation in World War II, following the feats of the Corps’ top-scoring aces in the skies over Guadalcanal. Marine Corps aviation began in 1915, functioning as a self-contained expeditionary force. During the interwar period, the support of USMC amphibious operations became a key element of Marine aviation doctrine, and the small force gradually grew. But in December 1941 came the rude awakening. Within hours of Pearl Harbor, heroic Marine aviators were battling the Japanese over Wake Island.

In the South Pacific, the aviators of the US Marine Corps came out of the shadows to establish themselves as an air force second to none. In the summer of 1942, when Allied airpower was cobbled together into a single unified entity – nicknamed ‘the Cactus Air Force’ – Marine Aviation dominated, and a Marine, Major General Roy Geiger, was its commander. Of the twelve Allied fighter squadrons that were part of the Cactus Air Force, eight were USMC squadrons. It was over Guadalcanal that Joe Foss emerged as a symbol of Marine aviation. As commander of VMF-121, he organized a group of fighter pilots that downed 72 enemy aircraft; Foss himself reached a score of 26. Pappy Boyington, meanwhile, had become a Marine aviator in 1935. Best known as the commander of VMF-214, he came into his own in late 1943 and eventually matched Foss’s aerial victory score.

Through the parallel stories of these two top-scoring fighter aces, as well as many other Marine aces, such as Ken Walsh (21 victories), Don Aldrich (20), John L. Smith (19), Wilbur Thomas (18.5), and Marion Carl (18.5), many of whom received the Medal of Honor, acclaimed aviation historian Bill Yenne examines the development of US Marine Corps aviation in the South Pacific.

#DesertStorm30 – Electric Avenue: Electronic Warfare and the battle against Iraq’s air defences during Operation Desert Storm

#DesertStorm30 – Electric Avenue: Electronic Warfare and the battle against Iraq’s air defences during Operation Desert Storm

By Dr Thomas Withington

In January 1991, a US-led coalition launched Operation DESERT STORM to evict Iraq from Kuwait, which the former had invaded six months earlier. DESERT STORM was a combined operation involving a major air campaign. At the time, Iraq had one of the world’s most sophisticated air defence systems. The radars and communications necessary to spot hostile aircraft and coordinate their engagement were integral to this. As a result, the coalition correctly determined that the air campaign would only succeed by establishing air superiority and supremacy. This would be achieved through an Offensive Counter Air (OCA) campaign against the Iraqi Air Force (IQAF). A crucial part of this was an electronic war waged against Iraqi air defence radars and communications. This article explains the extent to which Iraq’s air defences threatened coalition air power, how the electronic war against these air defences was fought and why they were not able to overcome the coalition’s electromagnetic supremacy.

When Operation DESERT STORM began on the morning of 17 January 1991, Iraq possessed one of the world’s most fearsome Integrated Air Defence Systems (IADS). At 02:38, its demise began. Task Force Normandy, an armada of US Army AH-64A Apache gunships and US Air Force (USAF) MH-53J Pave Low helicopters attacked a group of IQAF radars. These were positioned a few miles behind the midpoint of the Saudi-Iraqi border within the Iraqi 1st Air Defence Sector’s area of responsibility. The radars consisted of P-18 Very High Frequency (VHF), P-15 Ultra High Frequency (UHF) and P-15M2 UHF ground-based air surveillance radars.[1] This attack left a large swathe of Iraq’s southwest airspace without radar coverage. As a result, Iraq’s IADS failed to detect waves of incoming aircraft tasked with hitting strategic targets. These planes followed USAF F-117A Nighthawk ground-attack aircraft which had slipped through Iraqi radar coverage earlier to hit targets in Baghdad.

The Story so Far: From Vietnam to DESERT STORM

The United States had learned about well-operated air defences the hard way during the Vietnam War. Vietnam’s air war saw the United States lose over 3,300 fixed-wing aircraft across all services. Rotary-wing and uninhabited aerial vehicle losses pushed this figure to over 10,000.[2] In addition, the North Vietnamese IADS, consisting of Anti-Aircraft Artillery (AAA) and SA-2 high-altitude Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs), reaped a grim toll on American aircraft. The experience led to the development of the USAF’s Wild Weasel concept.

Republic F-105G
Republic F-105G ‘Wild Weasel’ in flight on 5 May 1970. External stores include QRC-380 blisters, AGM-45 Shrike and AGM-78B Standard Anti-Radiation Missile. (Source: Wikimedia)

First seeing service in the summer of 1965, customised F-105F Thunderchief fighters outfitted with radar detectors, listened for transmissions from an SA-2’s accompanying radar. The purpose of locating the accompanying radar was that it helped locate the associated SAM battery. The aircraft would then attack the radar, initially with gunfire and rockets and later with specialist Anti-Radar Missiles (ARMs). These attacks destroyed the radar site and blinded the SAM site, thus reducing the threat to incoming attack aircraft. These aircraft were eventually upgraded to F-105G standard. The Wild Weasel concept was progressively honed during and after the Vietnam War with ever-more capable radar sensors, ordnance, and platforms. When the USAF deployed to Saudi Arabia in 1990, the Wild Weasels used F-4G Phantom-II jets with sophisticated radar-hunting equipment and AGM-88 high-speed anti-radar missiles.

The skies over Southeast Asia gave the US armed forces, and their North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies a taste of the potency of Soviet and Warsaw Pact air defences as they had for the Israeli Air Force during the Six-Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War of 1973. No sooner had the last US units left Vietnam than the so-called ‘New Cold War’ began to unfold. Both NATO and the Warsaw Pact prepared for a confrontation that might engulf East and West Germany. Part of the Warsaw Pact’s role was to ensure that air approaches into the European USSR were heavily defended. This required robust IADSs of fighter defences and an umbrella of short-range/low-altitude, medium-range/medium-altitude SAM systems covering the altitudes NATO aircraft were likely to use. This SAM umbrella protected everything from dismounted troops on the front line pushing through the Fulda Gap on the Inner German Border to strategic politico-military leadership targets in the Soviet Union.

The Wild Weasel units were not the only assets involved in degrading Soviet air defences. Also important were SIGINT (signals intelligence) platforms, such as the USAF’s RC-135U Combat Sent ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) gathering aircraft. These aircraft allowed NATO to develop an understanding of where the radars supporting Soviet and Warsaw Pact air defences were situated. Understanding where the radars were located allowed NATO to build up an electronic order of battle of the ground-based air surveillance radars and Fire Control/Ground-Controlled Interception (FC/GCI) radars the air defences depended upon to detect and engage targets with SAMs or fighters. Many aircraft configured to collect SIGINT and prosecute Soviet/Warsaw Pact air defences were the same that deployed to the Persian Gulf. After arriving, they soon discovered similar defences to those on the eastern side of the Inner German Border.

KARI: Defending Iraqi Airspace

The US Department of Defence’s official report on DESERT STORM did not mince its words regarding the potential ferocity of Iraq’s IADS:

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.[3]

The components of Iraq’s air defence system were sourced from the USSR and France. In the wake of the 17 July Revolution in 1968, which brought the Iraqi affiliate of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party to power, France steadily deepened its relationship with Iraq. As a result, France sold some of its finest materiel to Iraq during the 1970s and 1980s. For Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein, who had seized power in July 1979, this was ideal.

With tensions growing between Iraq and Iran, the Iraqi armed forces needed as much support as the regime could muster. They were not disappointed. Paris supplied Roland Short-Range Air Defence (SHORAD) SAM batteries. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, furnished Iraq with SA-2 batteries, SA-3 medium-range/medium-altitude, SA-6A low/medium-altitude/medium-range, SA-8, and SA-9 SHORAD SAM batteries. Additional SHORAD coverage was provided by a plethora of ZSU-23-4 and ZSU-57-2 AAA systems and SA-13 Man-Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS). The SAMs were mainly to protect Iraqi strategic targets. Divisions of the elite Republican Guard also had some organic SA-6 and Roland units. AAA was used for corps and division air defence, along with the point defence of strategic targets. These units would also have MANPADS coverage, some SA-8s and Rolands. These provided air defence coverage over the manoeuvre force.[4]

These air defences received targeting information from Chinese-supplied Type-408C VHF ground-based air surveillance radars with a range of 324 nautical miles/nm (600 kilometres/km). Iraq received five of these radars between 1986 and 1988. France also supplied six TRS-2215/2230 S-band ground-based air surveillance radars between 1984 and 1985. These had a range of 335nm (620km).[5] Iraq supplemented these with five French TRS-2206 Volex ground-based air surveillance radars transmitting on an unknown waveband with a range of 145nm (268.5km). The Soviet Union also supplied several ground-based air surveillance and height-finding radars for use with Iraq’s SAM batteries and independently. These included six P-12 and five P-14 VHF ground-based air surveillance radars with ranges of 135nm (250km) and 216nm (400km), respectively, plus ten P-40 radars with a 200nm (370km) range and five PRV-9 height-finding radars with a 162nm (300km) range.[6]

The IQAF’s radars, fighters, airbases, SAM batteries and supporting infrastructure that provided operational/strategic level air defence were networked using the French-supplied KARI Command and Control system.[7] The nerve centre of the IADS was the Air Defence Operations Centre in downtown Baghdad. This was responsible for Iraq’s operational/strategic air defence, particularly industrial and political installations.

Iraq’s airspace was segmented into four sectors (see figure 1).[8] Each was commanded from a Sector Operations Centre. Subordinate to the Sector Operations Centres were the Intercept Operations Centres. The Intercept Operations Centres would control a segment of airspace in a specific sector using organic radars. Their radar pictures would be sent to the Sector Operations Centre. There they would be fused together creating a Recognised Air Picture (RAP) of the sector and its air approaches. The recognised air picture was sent up the chain of command to the Air Defence Operations Centre using standard radio, telephone, and fibre optic links. A ‘Super RAP’ of Iraq’s airspace and approaches was created at the Air Defence Operations Centre. KARI used several means of communication to provide redundancy. If radio communications were jammed, communications with the Air Defence Operations Centre could be preserved using telephone and fibre optic lines. If telephone exchanges and fibre optic nodes were hit, radio communications could be used.

Iraq Air defence
Figure 1 – Iraqi Air Defence Sectors, Sector Operations Centres, and Intercept Operations Centres

Cooking up a Storm

Coalition air planners had two critical Iraqi threats to contest in the bid to achieve air superiority and air supremacy; the Iraqi IADS and deployed Ground-Based Air Defences (GBAD) protecting the Iraqi Army and Republican Guard units. The IADS/GBAD had to be degraded to the point where they would effectively be useless if coalition aircraft enjoyed relative freedom in the skies above the Kuwait Theatre of Operations. Electronic Warfare (EW) was intrinsic to this effort. The IADS and GBAD relied on air surveillance, battle management and weapons control.[9] Air surveillance was dependent on radar, battle management was dependent on communications, and both depended on the electromagnetic spectrum.

The concept of operations for coalition electronic warfare to support the air campaign was to attack the two electronic elements of the IADS/GBAD, namely radar and radio communications, without which situational awareness and command and control would be badly degraded if not neutralised altogether. Alongside electronic warfare, kinetic attacks on radars were made using anti-radiation missiles and against key nodes and targets in the IADS using conventional ordnance. Following Kuwait’s occupation, the coalition’s immediate task was to build an electronic order of battle of the radars and communications intrinsic to the IADS and GBAD. Space and airborne assets were instrumental to this effort. Although much information regarding the specifics of the US Central Intelligence Agency/National Reconnaissance Office Magnum SIGINT satellite constellation remains classified, they were almost certainly employed to collect raw signals intelligence germane to the IADS/GBAD. This would have been analysed at facilities in the US before being disseminated to allies.[10]

SIGINT collection followed a hierarchical approach. The Magnum satellites made a ‘broad brush’ collection of Iraqi electromagnetic emissions, discerning potential signals of interest from radars or communications from the prevailing electromagnetic noise generated by the country.[11] Further investigation of these signals of interest would be done using airborne SIGINT assets.[12] For example, the USAF based two RC-135Us at King Khalid International Airport, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.[13] These jets flew close to Iraq’s borders to ‘hoover up’ as much ELINT as possible.[14] This served two purposes. First, the collection of ELINT allowed the coalition to determine which radars were used by Iraq’s IADS/GBAD and where they were located. This allowed potential gaps or more weakly defended areas in Iraqi air defence coverage to be identified. Second, regular ELINT collection allowed SIGINT experts to determine the pattern of electromagnetic life. This would have helped answer pertinent questions about whether Iraqi SA-2 batteries switched their radars off every evening or every weekend. By identifying geographical or temporal gaps in radar coverage, coalition planners could take advantage of weak coverage.

American SIGINT aircraft were joined by Royal Air Force Nimrod RMk.1s flying from Seeb airbase in Oman, and Armée de l’Air (French Air Force) C-160G Gabriel and DC-8F Sarigue SIGINT planes based at King Khalid International Airport. However, the Iraqis knew they were being watched. Iraqi air defenders had correctly deduced that coalition SIGINT efforts would extract as much usable SIGINT as possible. As a result, they tried to keep their radar and radio use to a minimum while coalition warplanes relentlessly probed Iraqi air defences to tempt radar activation and communications traffic for collection by SIGINT aircraft hanging back from the fighters.[15]

Support was also provided by the US Navy’s Operational Intelligence Centre’s Strike Projection Evaluation and Anti-Air Research team, better known as SPEAR. This unit helped build a comprehensive order-of-battle of the Iraqi IADS/GBAD.[16] In cooperation with the USAF and national US intelligence agencies, SPEAR identified key nodes in the Iraqi IADS that would badly degrade its efficacy if destroyed.[17] In addition, the process helped draft simulation programmes that built an increasingly detailed model of the Iraqi IADS/GBAD system. These programmes were continually updated as new intelligence arrived, allowing analysts to perform ever-more detailed replications of the expected potency of Iraqi air defences.[18]

DESERT SHIELD
An RC-135V/W Rivet Joint from the 9th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing approaches a KC-135 Stratotanker from the 1700th Air Refueling Squadron Provisional during Operation DESERT SHIELD. (Source: Wikimedia)

Alongside the RC-135Us discussed above, USAF RC-135V/W Rivet Joint and US Navy EP-3E Aries planes primarily collected Communications Intelligence (COMINT) on Iraq’s IADS/GBAD. Although the Rivet Joints were primarily configured to collect COMINT from radios and telecommunications transmitting on V/UHF wavebands of 30 megahertz to three gigahertz, these frequencies were also used by several Iraqi early warning and ground-based air surveillance radars. This allowed the Rivet Joints to assist their Combat Sent counterparts in gathering ELINT.[19]

Determining Iraq’s electronic order of battle allowed the radars to be attacked kinetically by USAF F-4G Wild Weasels using the AGM-88B/C missiles. Radars were also engaged electronically by USAF EF-111A Raven EW aircraft. Likewise, radio communications were attacked electronically with USAF EC-130H Compass Call planes. However, the USAF was not the only custodian of the suppression of enemy air defence mission. The US Navy was an avid user of the AGM-88 and, together with the US Marine Corps (USMC), flew EA-6B Prowlers. These jets could electronically and kinetically target hostile radars and gather ELINT.

Now in the streets, there is violence

‘The attack on the Iraqi electronic order of battle affected every aspect of the air supremacy operation,’ noted the official record of Operation DESERT STORM.[20] The initial focus of the electronic warfare battle was to destroy critical radars and communications nodes in the Iraqi IADS to paralyse the air defence network at strategic and operational levels.[21] At the tactical level, deployed SAM systems were then attacked with anti-radiation missiles when they illuminated coalition aircraft. This was done by patrolling F-4Gs and EA-6Bs, waiting for these radars to be activated or having the same aircraft and other anti-radiation missile-armed warplanes, such as the Royal Air Force’s Tornado GR.1 ground attack aircraft with their ALARMs (Air-Launched Anti-Radiation Missiles) accompany strike packages of aircraft. This had the dual purpose of helping keep these aircraft safe and continually attritting the kinetic elements of Iraq’s air defence.[22]

As noted earlier in this article, plans for attacking Iraq’s IADS/GBAD system became a reality in the early morning of 17 January. While Task Force Normandy laid waste to Iraqi radars, F-117As hit the Sector Operations Centres and Intercept Operations Centres in the 1st and 2nd Air Defence Sectors.[23] The actions of the Nighthawks and Task Force Normandy opened gaps in southern and western Iraqi radar coverage and air defence command and control network, which was then exploited.[24] Stealthy and non-stealth aircraft alike ingressed into Iraqi airspace to reach their strategic targets with electronic attack assistance provided by EF-111As and EA-6Bs. These platforms effectively jammed Iraqi early warning/ground-based air surveillance radars transmitting on V/UHF frequencies and FC/GCI radars transmitting in higher wavebands.[25] Typically, the EF-111As and EA-6Bs flew jamming orbits to protect air operations in a particular segment of the Kuwait Theatre of Operations. For example, USAF EF-111As flew orbits in western Iraq, providing jamming support to strikes in that part of the country, performing similar missions in the vicinity of Baghdad.[26] The EF-111As and EA-6Bs also relayed near-real-time updates on the Iraqi Electronic Order of Battle in their locale using radio and tactical datalink networks. Air campaign planners then adjust the air campaign’s electronic dimension accordingly.[27]

EA-6B DESERT STORM
EA-6B Prowlers of VAQ-130 refuelled by a KC-135 Stratotanker en-route to an attack during Operation DESERT STORM. (Source: NARA)

With one part of its radars destroyed and jamming afflicting the others, coalition aircraft headed into Iraq, clearing a path through the IADS, and hitting IADS targets with anti-radiation missiles and air-to-ground ordnance.[28] As well as hitting these targets, BGM-109 cruise missiles hit transformer yards dispersing carbon fibre filaments. This caused short circuits in the power supply.[29] Air defence facilities without backup power went offline. Even those with generators would still see their systems shut down before being reactivated, costing valuable time.[30]

Influenced by Israeli Air Force operations over the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon close to that country’s border with Syria in June 1982, another tactic used by the coalition was the use of USAF launched BQM-74C Chukar drones to mimic coalition combat aircraft ingressing Iraq’s 1st Air Defence Sector. The intention was for Iraqi air defenders to illuminate the drones and engage them. This allowed anti-radiation missile-equipped aircraft to determine the position of SAM batteries engaging the drones and attack their radars. The US Navy performed similar missions with their ADM-141A/B Tactical Air-Launched Decoys This was an effective tactic as it not only revealed the location of Iraqi SAM batteries, but it forced them to expend missiles.[31]

The Continuing Campaign

Initial overtures in the air defence suppression campaign were aimed at attritting Iraqi long and medium-range/high and medium-altitude SAM systems to help sanitise the airspace for following coalition strikes.[32] Typically, AAA would be effective up to altitudes of circa 15,000 feet/ft (4,572 metres/m), with Iraqi SAM batteries effective up to circa 40,000ft (12,192m).[33] The controlled kinetic and electronic violence unleashed against the Iraqi IADS/GBAD during the first 24 hours of the war was palpable. The official record notes that almost 48 targets, including an array of air defence aim points, were hit: ‘This was not a gradual rolling back of the Iraqi air defence system. The nearly simultaneous suppression of so many vital centres helped cripple Iraq’s air defence system.’[34] This inflicted a level of damage from which the Iraqi IADS/GBAD could not recover.

As the campaign unfolded Iraqi air defenders learnt that activating their radar invited an AGM-88 or ALARM attack. By the end of the first week of combat operations, the Iraqis realised that a significant dimension of the coalition air campaign focused on destroying their air defences.[35] SAMs would still be fired ballistically in the hope of a lucky strike, but sans radar, SAM capabilities were severely degraded. Switching off the radars did not stop the attacks. AAA or SAM sites that kept their radars switched off were engaged with conventional air-to-ground ordnance.[36] Life was increasingly unpleasant for Iraqi air defenders who realised that switching off their radars did not stop the attacks. One can only imagine the demoralisation this must have caused.

Assessment

Benjamin Lambeth correctly asserted that DESERT STORM exemplified the decisive migration of electronic countermeasures and EW in general ‘from a supporting role to a direct combat role.’[37] Quite simply, without EW, the coalition would not have succeeded in degrading the Iraqi IADS/GBAD to a point where it could no longer meaningfully challenge coalition air power in such a short space of time. One of the major successes of the electronic warfare aspect of the air campaign was its dislocation of Iraqi IADS/GBAD command and control. Despite the technological sophistication of KARI, it could not mitigate the hierarchical nature of Iraqi air defence doctrine. The Intercept Operations Centres struggled to operate when their Sector Operations Centre and the Air Defence Operations Centre was neutralised.[38] There appeared to be little redundancy within KARI by which these centres could assume the responsibilities of their destroyed or badly degraded counterparts. For instance, the Air Defence Operations Centre was destroyed as a priority target at the start of the air campaign. It does not appear that Iraqi air defenders could rapidly replicate Air Defence Operations Centre functions at either a back-up facility or at one of the Sector Operations Centres. Likewise, when Sector Operations Centres were taken out of the fight, their functions were not immediately assumed by Intercept Operations Centres in their area of responsibility or adjacent sectors.

While KARI was a sophisticated system, Iraq possessed radars and SAM systems already known to the US and its allies on the eve of DESERT STORM. The US had encountered similar SAM systems in the skies over Vietnam and during Operation Eldorado Canyon in 1986 when the US attacked strategic targets in Libya in retaliation for the sponsorship of political violence by its leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. Likewise, Israel had faced similar defences during numerous conflicts with its neighbours. Although Israel remained outside the US-led coalition, it is all but certain that intelligence germane to Iraq’s air defence systems would have been made available to the US.[39] The French are also thought to have shared intelligence regarding Iraq’s Roland and KARI systems in a similar fashion.[40] Egypt, an avid user of Soviet-supplied air defence equipment and member of the US-led coalition, was also believed to have been furnished the latter with intelligence.[41] Some of Iraq’s air defence equipment may have lacked Electronic Counter-Countermeasure (EECM) protection to exacerbate matters. Some of Iraq’s radars, notably early versions of the SNR-75 S-band and C-band 65nm (120km) to 75nm (140km) range fire control radars accompanying the SA-2 batteries may not have been fitted with ECCM.[42]

Once the war commenced, the Iraqis fell for the US ruse of using drones to seduce radars into revealing themselves, only to receive an ARM for their trouble. A glance at the history books would have revealed that given the success the Israeli Air Force had enjoyed using this tactic a decade previously, there was every chance the coalition may follow suit. This tactic was recently revisited during the 2020 conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Azeri armed forces skilfully exploited Uninhabited Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). UAVs were used to tempt Armenian GBADs to activate their radars. By activating the radars their location could be determined, and the GBADs then struck with suicide UAVs equipped with explosives.

Furthermore, Iraq’s air defence doctrine lacked flexibility. Indeed, it has been argued that Iraq’s air command and control writ large during the preceding Iran-Iraq War was characterised by over-centralisation and rigid planning.[43] This may have resulted from two factors; the authoritarian nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the procurement of Soviet materiel not only for air defence but across the Iraqi armed forces with a similar acquisition of Soviet doctrine not known for its flexibility.[44] There are significant questions to ask regarding the degree to which subordinates in the IADS believed they had latitude and blessing for individual initiative in the tactical battle. Similar questions apply to higher echelons. Did operational commanders in the air force and air defence force feel emboldened to take decisions as the battle unfolded? Saddam Hussein presided over a totalitarian state where insubordination, real or perceived, could be punished harshly. This raises the question as to whether the fear of taking the wrong decision paralysed decision-making. The result being that the Iraqi IADS lost the initiative in the coalition’s electronic battle. An initiative it never recovered. The net result of a lack of doctrinal flexibility, and against the backdrop of Saddam Hussein’s regime, meant that Iraq’s air defences did not respond and adjust to the electronic battle. Tactical and operational flexibility did not extend beyond radar operators switching off their systems to avoid an attack by an ARM.

However, the coalition’s success was underpinned by a vitally important factor, the luxury of time. DESERT STORM was not a ‘come as you are’ war. The US and its allies had 168 days between Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and the commencement of the air campaign to plan the electromagnetic scheme of manoeuvre that supporting the air war.

DESERT STORM underlined a truism in air power: Air superiority as a prerequisite for air supremacy must be achieved over an opponent as early as possible. OCA was central to this effort. Electromagnetic superiority and supremacy are central to OCA. One must ensure one can manoeuvre in the spectrum with minimal interference from one’s adversary while denying their adversary use of the spectrum. Working towards electromagnetic superiority and supremacy reduces red force access to the spectrum, denying its use for situational awareness and command and control. Denying Iraqi air defenders’ situational awareness and command and control blunted the efficacy of the kinetic elements of Iraq’s IADS/GBAD, which were then attritted using ARMs and conventional ordnance.

DESERT STORM ended on 28 February. Electronic warfare was intrinsic to the air campaign’s success. Iraq’s IADS and GBAD were prevented from meaningfully interfering with the coalition’s actions. However, this was not the end of the story. The US and the UK would continue to confront the rump of Iraq’s air defences for several years to come until the final showdown with Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003.

Dr Thomas Withington specialises in contemporary and historical electronic warfare, radar, and military communications, and has written numerous articles on these subjects for a range of general and specialist publications. He holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham.

Header image: EF-111A Raven aircraft prepare to take off on a mission during Operation Desert Shield. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] C. Kopp, ‘Operation Desert Storm: The Electronic Battle, Part-2’ @http://www.ausairpower.net/Analysis-ODS-EW.

[2] J. Schlight, A War Too Long: The USAF in Southeast Asia 1961-1975 (Washington DC: Air Force History and Museum Programme, 1996), p. 103.

[3] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress, (Alexandria, VA: US Department of Defence, 1992), p. 15.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Author’s proprietary information.

[6] Ibid.

[7] KARI is the French name for Iraq spelt backwards.

[8] ‘Iraqi Air Defense – Introduction’.

[9] P.W. Mattes, ‘Systems of Systems: What, exactly, is an Integrated Air Defense System?’, The Mitchell Forum No.26, (Arlington VA: The Mitchell Institute, June 2019), p. 3.

[10] Confidential interview with US electronic intelligence expert, 17/3/21.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] S. Morse (ed), Gulf Air War Debrief, (London: Aerospace Publishing, 1991), p. 37.

[16] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. 124.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Kopp, ‘Operation Desert Storm’.

[19] Morse (ed.), Gulf Air War Debrief, p. 37.

[20] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. 220.

[21] Kopp, ‘Operation Desert Storm’.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. 153.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid, p. 172.

[26] Ibid, p. 220.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Kopp, ‘Operation Desert Storm’.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Confidential interview with US electronic intelligence expert.

[31] Kopp, ‘Operation Desert Storm’.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. 202.

[34] Ibid, p. 156.

[35] C. Kopp, ‘Operation Desert Storm: The Electronic Battle, Part-3’ @http://www.ausairpower.net/Analysis-ODS-EW.html consulted 12/2/21.

[36] Ibid.

[37] B. Lambeth, The Winning of Air Supremacy in Operation Desert Storm, (Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1993), p. 5.

[38] ‘Iraqi Air Defense – Introduction’.

[39] Confidential interview with US electronic intelligence expert.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Kopp, ‘Operation Desert Storm: The Electronic Battle, Part-1’.

[42] Ibid.

[43] A.H. Cordesman, A.R. Wagner, The Lessons of Modern War Volume-II: The Iran-Iraq War, (London: Mansell, 1990).

[44] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. 9.

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books (December 2021)

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books (December 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

Donald Bishop and Erik R. Limpaecher, ‘Looking Bakc from the Age of ISR: US Observation Balloons in the First World War,’ Air Power History 68, no. 3 (2021).

No abstract provided.

Patrick Luiz Sullivan De Oliveira, ‘Transforming a Brazilian aeronaut into a French hero: Celebrity, spectacle, and technological cosmopolitanism in the turn-of-the-century Atlantic,’ Past & Present (2021). https://doi.org/10.1093/pastj/gtab011

This article explains how the Brazilian Alberto Santos-Dumont, who at the turn of the twentieth century became the first global celebrity aeronaut, operated as a symbol of ‘technological cosmopolitanism’ — a world view that ostensibly promoted a vision of global unity through technology-enabled exchanges while simultaneously reproducing a core-periphery imagined geography that threatened to erase marginalized populations. Technological cosmopolitanism fitted snugly within the rubric of the Third Republic’s aspiring universalism, which assumed that France offered a model to be emulated around the world, but it was not hegemonic. If for the French appropriating Santos-Dumont meant safeguarding France’s leadership in aeronautics and assuaging their claims of universality, for Brazilians the elision was marked by ambiguity. Brazil’s First Republic hungered for heroes, and authorities saw Santos-Dumont as a symbol of modernity that showed that its place in world history was more than peripheral, even though that very vision was shaped by a Paris-centric world view. But marginalized Afro-Brazilians also found ways to appropriate a white ‘Frenchified’ Brazilian and reimagine their place in a cosmopolitan order. Technological cosmopolitanism evoked a world united by transportation, communication and exchange, but imagining who got to construct and partake in that community was a process continuously marked by erasures and reinsertions.

A. Garcia, ‘The South African Air Force in Korea: an evaluation of 2 Squadron’s first combat engagement, 19 November until 2 December 1950,’ Historia 66, no. 2 (2021).

South African participation in the Korean War (1950–1953) in direct support of an international military offensive led by the United States of America demonstrated the National Party administration’s commitment to opposing Communism. This article details how the deployment of South African Air Force 2 Squadron achieved the strategic objectives of the South African government in supporting the anti-communist United States-led United Nations coalition in the Korean War. It evaluates the performance of South Africa’s Air Force in their first operational test since the Second World War. The combat operations discussed under the scope of this article include the first tactical engagement of 2 Squadron in support of the initial advance (19 November to 21 December) 1950 and then later, the retreat of the United Nations force.

William Head, ‘The Berlin Airlift: First Test of the U.S. Air Force,’ Air Power History 68, no. 3 (2021).

No abstract provided.

N.R. Jenzen-Jones and Jack Shanley, ‘Precision Strike,’ The RUSI Journal (2021) DOI: 10.1080/03071847.2021.2016208

This article examines the development of precision guided munitions (PGMs) from the earliest proto-PGMs of the late 18th century to the miniaturised, semi-autonomous forms in present service. N R Jenzen-Jones and Jack Shanley trace the history of these revolutionary weapons and examine how their battlefield roles and real-world use cases have evolved over time.

T.B. Kwan, ‘“The effects of our bombing efforts”: Allied Strategic Bombing of the Japanese Occupied Territories during World War II,’ Air Power History 68, no. 3 (2021).

No abstract provided.

Wyatt Lake, ‘Origins of American Close Air Support,’ Air Power History 68, no. 3 (2021).

No abstract provided.

John G. Terino Jr., ‘Cultivating Future Airpower Strategists: On “Developing Twenty-First-Century Airpower Strategists”,’ Strategic Studies Quarterly 15, no. 4 (2021).

In 2008, Major General R. Michael Worden forecast specific challenges for airpower strategists including emerging technology, transnational terrorist organizations, an explosion of information power, budgets, and resourcing. His predictions have borne out in what the Air Force faces today, and Air University is responding, providing the next generation of airpower strategists.

Joseph B. Piroch and Daniel A. Connelly, ‘Six Steps to the Effective Use of Airpower: On “The Drawdown Asymmetry: Why Ground Forces Will Depart Iraq but Air Forces Will Stay”,’ Strategic Studies Quarterly 15, no. 4 (2021).

Then-Lieutenant Colonel Clinton S. Hinote’s 2008 analysis of the Iraq drawdown and the continued role of airpower in that conflict serves as a foundation for six steps to the effective use of airpower today.

Thomas Wildenberg, ‘Col. Thomas L Thurlow and the Development of the A-10 Sextant,’ Air Power History 68, no. 3 (2021).

No abstract provided.

Books

Phil Haun, Colin Jackson, and Tim Schultz (eds.), Air Power in the Age of Primacy: Air Warfare since the Cold War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021).

Since the end of the Cold War the United States and other major powers have wielded their air forces against much weaker state and non-state actors. In this age of primacy, air wars have been contests between unequals and characterized by asymmetries of power, interest, and technology.  This volume examines ten contemporary wars where air power played a major and at times decisive role. Its chapters explore the evolving use of unmanned aircraft against global terrorist organizations as well as more conventional air conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and against ISIS. Air superiority could be assumed in this unique and brief period where the international system was largely absent great power competition. However, the reliable and unchallenged employment of a spectrum of manned and unmanned technologies permitted in the age of primacy may not prove effective in future conflicts.

Mark Lardas, Truk 1944–45: The Destruction of Japan’s Central Pacific Bastion (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2021).

A fully illustrated history of how the US Navy destroyed Truk, the greatest Japanese naval and air base in the Pacific, with Operation Hailstone, and how B-29 units and the carriers of the British Pacific Fleet kept the base suppressed until VJ-Day.

In early 1944, the island base of Truk was a Japanese Pearl Harbor; a powerful naval and air base that needed to be neutralized before the Allies could fight their way any further towards Tokyo. But Truk was also the most heavily defended naval base outside the Japanese Home Islands and an Allied invasion would be costly. Long-range bombing against Truk intact would be a massacre so a plan was conceived to neutralize it through a series of massive naval raids led by the growing US carrier fleet. Operation Hailstone was one of the most famous operations ever undertaken by American carriers in the Pacific.

This book examines the rise and fall of Truk as a Japanese bastion and explains how in two huge raids, American carrier-based aircraft reduced it to irrelevance. Also covered is the little-known story of how the USAAF used the ravaged base as a live-fire training ground for its new B-29s — whose bombing raids ensured Truk could not be reactivated by the Japanese. The pressure on Truk was kept up right through 1945 when it was also used as a target for the 509th Composite Squadron to practise dropping atomic bombs and by the British Pacific Fleet to hone its pilots’ combat skills prior to the invasion of Japan.

David Nicolle and Gabr Ali Gabr, Air Power and the Arab World – Volume 5: The Arab Air Forces and the Road to War 1936-1939 (Warwick: Helion and Company, 2021).

The years immediately prior to the outbreak of the Second World War saw the earliest and the more recently established Arab Air Forces attempting to play a role on the regional if not yet on the world stage for the first time. It was a period when those Arab states which had real or merely theoretical independence were more or less allied with European countries that were gearing up to face the growing Fascist and Nazi threats. Unfortunately, these anti-Fascist and anti-Nazi countries were themselves the imperial powers, France and the United Kingdom, which were still seeking to maintain their domination of the greater part of the Arab World. To say that this complicated the situation, and strained the loyalties of the men of the newly emergent Arab air forces would be an understatement.

Volume 5 of the Air Power and the Arab World series, therefore, seeks to shed light on a difficult and widely misunderstood time.  It draws upon decades of research, including previously unpublished interviews with men now dead, archive sources than have never before been translated into a European language, and material which, though available in obscure Arabic publications, has been almost entirely neglected by aviation historians. 

This volume is richly illustrated with specially commissioned colour artworks illustrating the aircraft flown by the air forces in the Arab world during this dynamic period of time.

#DesertStorm30 – On the Brink of Combat: The Women Aviators of DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM

#DesertStorm30 – On the Brink of Combat: The Women Aviators of DESERT SHIELD and DESERT STORM

By Eileen Bjorkman

At one minute past midnight on 17 January 1991, US Air Force Major Kathy Rambo-Cosand prepared to take off in a Lockheed C-141 Starlifter from Ramstein Air Base, Germany. It was snowing, and her aircraft was packed with 44,000 pounds of cluster bombs headed for Saudi Arabia. The aircraft was severely overweight: she was authorised to fly at ‘emergency war weights.’ If the C-141 lost an engine on take-off from Ramstein’s short runway, they would most likely crash. She worried about what the cluster bombs might do if that happened. Moreover, an accident was a realistic possibility: A Lockheed C-5 Galaxy had crashed, taking off from Ramstein just a few months earlier, killing 13 of the 17 people on board.

As Rambo-Cosand and her crew waited for their take-off clearance, a call came on the radio: “All missions are cancelled.” The airspace over Saudi Arabia had been shut down as coalition fighters and bombers kicked off Operation DESERT STORM, the coalition effort to remove Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Rambo-Cosand and her crew waited in their aircraft as planners decided what to do. Finally, at 2:30 a.m., she received the call to take off. With the C-5 crash and the enormity of her cargo weighing heavily on her, Rambo-Cosand pulled onto the runway and lumbered into the sky. Unfortunately, the most stressful take off of her career was for naught: when they arrived over Italy, they were turned back to Ramstein.[1]

At that point, Rambo-Cosand had been flying in and out of Saudi Arabia for the past four months, and it would be many more months before she finally returned home to her family. Indeed, the rapid build-up, sustainment, and eventual employment of forces in the Middle East as part of Operation DESERT SHIELD/STORM was only possible because of support aircraft that did everything from hauling cargo to communications jamming.[2] Moreover, it was these aircraft that women like Rambo-Cosand flew since they were not allowed to fly in combat; a provision within the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act passed by Congress in 1948 prohibited that. This article explores the experience of some of those women during DESERT SHIELD/STORM and details some of the challenges faced by US females operating in a combat environment.

Wells
Major Stephanie Wells and her C-5 crew delivering tanks to Al Jubayl, Saudi Arabia on 19 January 1991 (Source: Stephanie Wells)

The Women Aviators of Operation DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM

Despite the combat restrictions, women soon arrived in Saudi Arabia. Some of the first women were pilots, like US Army Captain Victoria Calhoun, a Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter pilot at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, who deployed on 9 August, two days after Operation DESERT SHIELD began in response to the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq. Calhoun had asked to be stationed at Fort Bragg the previous year because she figured if any action happened, it would happen there. She was right, but shortly after arriving, her unit deployed to support the 1989 invasion of Panama, and her operations officer would not let her go, replacing her with a less-experienced male pilot. A year later, she feared the same thing might happen. However, when someone questioned her battalion commander about whether women would deploy to Saudi Arabia, he said, “They have to go. If they don’t go, we’re not mission capable as a unit!”

Calhoun arrived at Dhahran Air Base with an advance party to conduct reconnaissance and prepare the base for more arrivals. At first, there was not much flying for the Chinooks, mainly because the sand in Saudi Arabia caused maintenance nightmares. The missions Calhoun flew transported parts and supplies around to other units, a mission nicknamed “Desert Express.”[3]

Reserve units began activating on 24 August. All C-5 reserve squadrons were activated as the massive cargo aircraft hauled most of the Army’s tanks and larger helicopters to the theatre. Major Stephanie Wells, a C-5 pilot from Kelly Air Force Base, Texas, was activated on 29 August. She was thrilled to be part of the team: when she had initially called her unit on 6 August to inquire about deploying, she was told that women would not be allowed to go.[4] Nevertheless, Wells was soon flying C-5s all over the world. At first, she never knew where she would be going on any given day, but then things settled down, and she began flying missions out of Dover Air Force Base, Delaware.[5]

Technical Sergeant Donna Davis, a C-5 flight engineer in a reserve unit at Travis Air Force Base, California, soon wound up in Germany. When a crew landed, after eight hours of crew rest, Davis says they were normally assigned to an aircraft brought in by another crew. The crews stopped to rest, but the aeroplane kept going. The crews often pulled 24-hour shifts before going back into crew rest, and Davis found it hard to sleep more than about four hours at a time. She was not alone; most of the crews were exhausted all the time and, as she says, “Thank goodness for autopilot.”[6]

Wells 2
Major Stephanie Wells in the cockpit of a C-5 at the beginning of Operation DESERT STORM. (Source: Stephanie Wells)

As the initial troops and equipment flowed to Saudi Arabia, Rambo-Cosand, who was in a reserve unit at McGuire Air Force Base, New Jersey, debated what to do. She had met her husband when she had been one of the first ten women to attend US Air Force pilot training in 1976, and they had just settled with their two children into new quarters after a move to Honduras. She hated to leave her 2-year-old and 7-year-old at home, but she decided to volunteer to fly some missions, thinking that if enough reservists volunteered, her unit would not be activated. However, before she could arrive to begin her volunteer tour, her unit was activated on 9 September. Rambo-Cosand moved heaven and earth to get to McGuire in less than 24 hours, begging the US Embassy to get her on a 6:00 a.m. flight out of Honduras the following day. Even living overseas, she beat several airline pilots in her squadron to McGuire.

After arriving at McGuire, Rambo-Cosand flew first to Zaragoza, Spain, and then began flying shuttles to Saudi Arabia. Working 30-hour days, she and her crew flew 150 hours in 16 days compared to the normal 75 hours they might fly in a month. She recalls, “We were like zombies.” But like most pilots, Rambo-Cosand enjoyed what she was doing. She found aeromedical evacuation flights of wounded personnel to be the most special. Whenever she carried patients, she always went back to talk to them and hold their hand before returning to the cockpit, hoping they would make it.

By early October, enough forces were in place to defend Saudi Arabia should the Iraqis attack. An additional a build-up of forces began in early November to prepare for an offensive operation.[7] In November, the United Nations Security Council also set a deadline for Iraq to withdraw forces by 15 January 1991. The deadline passed, and the air war started on 17 January.

On the first day of the war, US Air Force Captain Sheila Chewing helped two McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle fighter pilots shoot down two Iraqi Mikoyan MiG-29 Fulcrums. She was a weapons controller onboard a Boeing E-3 Sentry, an Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft distinguished by a gigantic disc-shaped radar antenna mounted on top of the aircraft and used for tracking both friendly and enemy aircraft. She spotted the MiG-29s on her radar screen onboard the AWACS and then directed the F-15 pilots until their own radars could track the enemy aircraft and launch missiles at them. Chewing later said, “When that happened [bringing down an enemy plane], we really felt like we were doing our jobs.”[8]

While airlift crews shuttled endlessly among the US, Europe, and the Middle East, some women who flew refuelling tankers and other support aircraft settled at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. Air Force Captain Christina Vance Halli, a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker pilot, was happy to deploy to support DESERT STORM. She was tired of being at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, where she mostly sat alert with bomber crews and rarely flew. Instead, she and the rest of her crew flew as passengers to get to Incirlik. During a stop in Greece, it was obvious they were getting closer to the action: a man wearing a flak jacket met them at the aircraft and instructed them to low crawl across the ramp to his vehicle.

The aircraft that launched from Incirlik did so as part of a large strike package of tankers, communications jammers (EC-130s), tactical reconnaissance aircraft (RF-4Cs) and the fighter aircraft that would be striking targets deep into Iraq. For most missions, the slower Lockheed EC-130s launched first to get into position to provide jamming protection for the striking aircraft. At the same time or shortly after, McDonnell Douglas RF-4C Phantom aircraft took off and finally, the KC-135s departed, followed by the striking aircraft. A typical strike package had three to five tankers, each servicing four to eight fighters. The refuelling’s were a bit of an adventure, done in radio silence and mostly at night, but the skill of all crews involved prevented any mishaps. The fighters followed the tankers to Iraq’s northern border, refuelling as needed and getting a top-off before entering Iraq. At that point, the tankers did a U-turn and held in orbit, waiting for the strikers to return.[9]

In the meantime, the EC-130s orbited nearby to provide jamming support. Captain Amy Hermes Smellie was an EC-130 co-pilot. She recalls sometimes seeing anti-aircraft artillery in the distance as the strikers reached their targets; on other occasions, she wore night vision goggles look for targets. Unlike the other support aircraft that might carry one or two women aviators on a mission, the EC-130s were often packed with women linguists in the back of the aeroplane. Smellie says the linguists were the driving factor in EC-130s; the Air Force might have been able to fly EC-130 missions without women pilots, but they did not have enough male linguists.[10]

The ground campaign began on early 24 February. That day Major Marie Rossi, the company commander of one of Calhoun’s sister units, appeared on CNN, saying, “[T]his is the moment that everybody trains for – that I’ve trained for – so I feel ready to meet the challenge.”[11] To prepare for the assault, coalition ground forces had quietly moved hundreds of miles to the west, including Calhoun’s CH-47 unit, which moved from Dhahran to Rafha. Instead of flying to Rafha, Calhoun was put in charge of a convoy for the move. However, once at Rafha, she got in on the action. On the second day of the ground war, she flew Chinook missions to move elements of the US 101st Airborne Division to Forward Operating Base Cobra, 93 miles inside Iraq, to provide a logistics base for the 101st as they conducted their assault. Overall, Calhoun flew 22 hours of combat, flying into Iraq and coming within 90 miles of Baghdad.[12]

DS Map
Map depicting Army unit locations at Dhahran and Rafha; FOB Cobra is north of Rafha. (Source: Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress)

Offensive operations ended at 08:00 on 28 February, but that did not stop the danger. Marie Rossi, the pilot who had appeared on CNN, died on 1 March, the day after the cease-fire, when her helicopter hit an unlit radio tower.

US Navy women did not get as many opportunities to fly during the war as their Air Force and Army counterparts. A handful of women, mostly in helicopter combat support squadrons, carried personnel and equipment around the Persian Gulf and flew other support missions, including search and rescue.[13] Lieutenant Commander Lucy Young, who had qualified to fly Douglas A-4 Skyhawk strike aircraft and was the US Navy’s first female strike instructor, nevertheless was not allowed to fly in combat. By 1991, she had left the Navy and was in a reserve unit in Atlanta, flying McDonnell Douglas C-9s, a small cargo aircraft like the commercial DC-9. Young’s squadron was never activated, but she spent three weeks flying people and cargo around the Middle East during the build-up in September 1991 while male strike pilots she had trained headed for the war on aircraft carriers.[14]

Captain Peggy Phillips, a C-141 pilot in the reserves at McChord Air Force Base, Washington, says that the women transport pilots were the ‘first in and last out’ of the theatre. This was especially true of the reservists; many were activated in August or September of 1990 and not deactivated until May or June 1991. Another aspect of being an airlifter was that the crews received no parades or big welcomes when they returned home like many of the combat units, who deployed and returned as a group. Instead, the airlifters dribbled over and back, activating, and deactivating on individual timelines. Phillips had a two-day notice to deactivate. She quietly went home with no fanfare.[15]

The Dangers faced by Female Aviators

Going up against the fourth largest army in the world, planners expected the overall battle to be short but potentially very bloody, with as many as 30,000 casualties.[16] Given that the all-volunteer force in place since the mid-1970s was 15% female, at least some of those casualties were expected to be women.

Although the aircraft flown by women aviators largely kept them away from enemy fire, the missions weren’t risk-free. Tankers occasionally flew over hostile territory with their strike package. For example, Captain Ann Weaver Worster reportedly flew her tanker 250 miles inside Iraq on one mission.[17] In another instance, an SA-8 surface-to-air missile exploded above a KC-135 flying out of Incirlik.[18]

Once the Iraqis started launching SCUD missiles during Desert Storm, the transport and other support crews were vulnerable when they landed in Saudi Arabia. For example, Rambo-Cosand received word of a ‘black flag’ SCUD alert during one flight, and the crew donned their chemical warfare gear before landing. Once on the ground, the crew dashed to a bunker in their gear, where they stayed for several hours until their aircraft could be refuelled and reloaded for their return flight.[19]

In addition to dealing with hostile forces, the women aviators also dealt with a hostile environment from their hosts. For example, Saudi ground crews refused to take fuel orders from women crewmembers and women who stayed in Saudi Arabia overnight had to cover up if they wanted to go off base.[20]

Family Issues

Naysayers had predicted that women would become pregnant to avoid going to war. Some pregnant women could not deploy, but it was not only women who wanted to stay home for family reasons. Halli, the KC-135 pilot, recalled that her navigator did not want to deploy because his wife was pregnant; he was replaced with another navigator.[21]

During their deployments, men and women left behind families, including small children. For example, C-5 flight engineer Donna Davis left her son with her parents, although she made it home for Christmas.[22] Unlike crewmembers who lived near McGuire, Rambo-Cosand found it difficult to get home whenever she had a few extra days in the US, although she did make it back to her family in Honduras for a few days about every six weeks.[23] Sometimes childcare took creative juggling. For example, C-141 pilot Peggy Phillips had three small children and an airline pilot husband who was also an activated reservist. The couple served in the same unit at McChord, and their commander allowed them to work their schedules so that while one was flying on a trip, the other worked in the squadron.[24]

Conclusion – An Opportunity for Change

Carolyn Becraft, a significant player in the fight to overturn the archaic combat exclusion law, says activating the reserves had a huge impact on the public’s acceptance of women going into hostile territory. Unit activations turned into local stories, and people saw their neighbours, both men and women, heading to war.[25]

The women aviators in Desert Shield and Desert Storm and other women who served in the Middle East, collectively proved they could participate in combat. After legislation and a Presidential Commission to further study the issue, women aviators finally earned the right to fly combat aircraft on 28 April 1993. However, for most women who flew in Desert Storm, the change came too late in their careers. Tanker pilot Christina Vance Halli left the Air Force and applied to fly General Dynamics F-16s at the Air National Guard unit in Fresno, California. The unit seemed receptive, allowing her to go through a process of visits and interviews before turning her down. Their reason? She did not have any fighter experience.[26]

Eileen A. Bjorkman is a former flight test engineer in the USAF with more than thirty-five years of experience and over 700 hours in the cockpits of F-4s, F-16s, C-130s, and C-141s. Her most recent book is Unforgotten in the Gulf of Tonkin: A Story of the U.S. Military’s Commitment to Leave No One Behind (2020) She is also the author of The Propeller under the Bed: A Personal History of Homebuilt Aircraft and has published articles in the Smithsonian’s Air & Space MagazineAviation HistorySport Aviation, the Everett Daily Herald, and the Herald Business Journal.

Header image: Members of the US.’ Air Force disembark from a Lockheed C-141B Starlifter aircraft upon their arrival in support of Operation DESERT SHIELD. This is the type of aircraft flown by Major Kathy Rambo-Cosand and Captain Peggy Phillips as mentioned in this article. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Interview with Kathy Rambo-Cosand, 21 April 2021.

[2] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War: Final Report to Congress (Washington, D.C.: US Department of Defense, 1992), p. 45

[3] Interview with Victoria Calhoun, 2 May 2021.

[4] Jeanne Holm, Women in the Military: An Unfinished Revolution, Revised Edition (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1993), p. 450.

[5] Interview with Stephanie Wells, 29 April 2021.

[6] Interview with Donna Davis, 22 April 2021.

[7] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. 83

[8] Joby Warrick, ‘AWACS Proves to be Gulf ‘Trump Card,” Air Force Times, 26 March 1991, p. 11, as quoted in Holm, Women in the Military, p. 452.

[9] Interview with Christina Vance Halli, 30 April 2021.

[10] Interview with Amy Hermes Smellie, 21 April 2021.

[11] Holm, Women in the Military, p. 460.

[12] Calhoun interview.

[13] Jean Ebbert and Marie-Beth Hall, Crossed Currents: Navy Women from WWI to Tailhook (McClean, VA: Brassey’s, 1993), p. 264.

[14] Interview with Lucy Young, 29 April 2021.

[15] Interview with Peggy Phillips, 2 May 2021.

[16] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, p. ii; Richard P. Hallion, Storm over Iraq: Air Power and the Gulf War (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), pp. 2-3.

[17] Holm, Women in the Military, p. 449.

[18] Conduct of the Persian Gulf War, pp. 234-235

[19] Rambo-Cosand interview.

[20] Multiple women mentioned these issues to me during interviews.

[21] Halli interview.

[22] Davis interview.

[23] Rambo-Cosand interview.

[24] Phillips’ interview.

[25] Interview with Carolyn Becraft, 21 April 2021.

[26] Halli interview.

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books (November 2021)

#ResearchResources – Recent Articles and Books (November 2021)

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

Articles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Dr Michael W. Hankins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture3
The YF-16 displayed alongside the ground attack armament it can carry, Edwards AFB, California, 12 February 1975 (Source: US Air Force)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#Podcast – The US War Against ISIS: An Interview with Dr Aaron Stein

#Podcast – The US War Against ISIS: An Interview with Dr Aaron Stein

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

The war in Syria from 2011 onwards has featured heavy reliance on air power, not just by the US and its allies but also by the Russian Air Force. In this exciting episode, Dr Aaron Stein discusses his new book, The US War Against ISIS, which details how air power played a crucial role in the conflict against terrorist groups in Syria. He also reveals the fascinating and almost unbelievable engagements between US and Russian aircraft in this complex conflict.

9780755634811

Dr Aaron Stein is Director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia in the US. He is the author of Turkey’s New Foreign PolicyDavutoglu, the AKP and the Pursuit of Regional Order and has published in the peer-reviewed journals Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, Insight Turkey, and The Journal of Strategic Security.

Header image: An MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopter from HSC 15 flies as the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) conducts flight operations in the US 5th Fleet area of responsibility supporting Operation INHERENT RESOLVE.