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

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

By Dr Mike Hankins

Editorial Note: During 2019, From Balloons to Drones is running a series of articles looking at various aspects of the air war over Vietnam from the French-Indochina War through to the end of the Vietnam War. In this article, Dr Mike Hankins discusses the use of signals intelligence via Project Teaball that helped to improve the air-to-air combat ratios of the United States Air Force during the Vietnam War. If you would like to contribute to the series, then please email our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here. The official call for papers is here.

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

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

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

Web of Confusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Door Syndrome

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

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

LINEBACKER and Project Teaball

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Show We’ve Had

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

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

Vogt went on to say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator of US Air Force History at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled ‘The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.’ He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: A U.S. Air Force Lockheed EC-121K ‘Rivet Top’ of the 552nd Airborne Early Warning & Control Wing, based at Korat Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, in 1967-68. (Source: Wikimedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[11] Ritchie Interview, 37, 8.

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

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

[14] Nederveen, ‘Wizardry,’ 24.

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

[16] Red Baron III, C-1–D-6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[23] Red Baron III, Vol. 1, C-1–D-6.

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

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

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

[27] Nederveen, ‘Wizardry,’ pp. 28-9.

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

[29] Ibid., p. 31.

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

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

[32] Ibid., p. 95.

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

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

#AirWarVietnam – Contested Skies: A Brief Guide to the Historiography of the Air War in Vietnam

#AirWarVietnam – Contested Skies: A Brief Guide to the Historiography of the Air War in Vietnam

By Dr Michael Hankins

Editorial Note: During 2019, From Balloons to Drones will be running a series of articles looking at various aspects of the air war over Vietnam from the French-Indochina War through to the end of the Vietnam War. To kick off this series, Assistant Editor, Dr Michael Hankins, provides a brief overview of the historiography of the air war. While not conclusive, it does give an idea of the critical strands present in the historiography and highlights where there are some important omissions such as a scholarly examination of air power during the French-Indochina War. If you would like to be a part of that discussion by submitting your work to the series, please email our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here. The official call for papers is here.

Here at From Balloons to Drones, we are launching a series of articles on the air war in Vietnam. This is no easy task, as writing about the Vietnam War is akin to strolling into a minefield: There is a good chance of causing an explosion. Historian Robert Citino stated it best:

Anyone who tries to draw conclusions from the Vietnam War will almost certainly anger the legions of Americans who have already made up their minds about it.[1]

In the U.S. especially, the debate over the war rages in both public and academic spheres regarding what happened and what it means for American society.[2] As the war in its entirety remains controversial, the sub-field on the air wars has developed its own debates and tropes. This article is intended as a quick guide to some of that literature as well as an introduction to a few of the broader arguments and issues that loom over the entire field. If there is any single takeaway from a survey of the literature of the Vietnam War (and its air components in particular), it is that the war remains contested but relevant, and there is plenty of work for scholars left to do in deepening our understanding of the conflict.

VNAF_A-1E_Skyraiders_at_Bien_Hoa_c1965
A Vietnamese Air Force student pilot and a USAF instructor sit side by side in a VNAF Douglas A-1E Skyraider taxing to the runway at Bien Hoa air base, Vietnam, c. 1965. (Source: Wikimedia)

General Histories

Because there is less of a standing consensus regarding the Vietnam War than in some other conflicts, finding an entry point can be difficult. Perhaps the most middle-of-the-road overview of the entire conflict (written primarily from the American perspective) is still George C. Herring’s America’s Longest War: The United States and Vietnam, 1950–1975 (1979). Originally written in 1979, it is now in its fifth edition (released in 2013) as Herring continually updated it to incorporate new scholarship. Another useful overview is Where the Domino Fell: America and Vietnam 1945-2010 (2014) by James Olson and Randy Roberts. This is the sixth edition of a book initially published in 1991 and constantly updated. The book is still mostly from the American perspective but delves a little bit deeper into some of the backgrounds to the conflict regarding French colonialism and the ideology of Ho Chi Minh, which itself is highly contested.[3] Olson and Roberts are more pointed in their argument that the war was unwinnable for the U.S.

For a more traditional operational look, Phillip Davidson’s Vietnam at War: The History, 1946-1975 (1988) is a valuable in-depth examination of both the French and American phases of the war. For a contrasting, but still, mostly operational look at the war, the works of Gregory Daddis are perhaps the best place to start. It is fair to say that Daddis is the current leader of the field when it comes to military histories of the Vietnam War. His trilogy of books is useful and wide-ranging. No Sure Victory: Measuring U.S. Army Effectiveness and Progress in the Vietnam War (2011) examines the ways that U.S. forces measured progress and success, which led them to make many faulty assumptions. Westmoreland’s War: Reassessing American Strategy in Vietnam (2014) and Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam (2017) each examine the American strategic and operational approaches in the first and second half of the conflict respectively.

What these books do not address as much are the pacification programs (also known as ‘the other war’) and a perspective internal to South Vietnam. Thankfully, more historians are entering the field and producing exciting work in these areas. Jessica Chapman’s Cauldron of Resistance: Ngo Dinh Diem, the United States, and 1950s Southern Vietnam (2013) are one of the most exciting new books in the field, examining the Ngo Dinh Diem regime and the three organisations internal to South Vietnam that resisted it the most. Andrew Gawthorpe’s To Build as Well as Destroy: American Nation Building in South Vietnam (2018) is probably the best look at pacification so far, although it proves to be a promising topic that shows much room to grow.

It is important to note that a book such as Olsen’s and Robert’s (and to some degree Daddis’) are responding to an earlier strain of works that argued the opposite. This argument was that the war was winnable, but that American leaders (mostly civilian political leadership and some military leaders) fundamentally misunderstood the war and for one reason or another, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Perhaps the most widely-read work that takes that argument is Harry Summers’ On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (1982), which analyses the war through a particular interpretation of Clausewitz. Most works that take this tack posit that America could have won the war earlier by going with a more all-out, aggressive military strategy.

The Air War(s)

That more aggression could have produced victory was certainly the belief of many U.S. Air Force leaders. For example, speaking to Air Force Academy cadets in 1986, General Curtis LeMay was asked whether the U.S. could have won the war. He responded: ‘In any two-week period you care to mention.’[4] Many books on the air war take a similar approach, such as On Yankee Station: The Naval Air War Over Vietnam (1987) by John Nichols and Barrett Tilman. This argument is especially common among oral histories and memoirs. There are a plethora of such books, particularly by pilots eager to share their ‘There I was…’ stories and many of these works are very useful. The best is Airpower in Three Wars: World War II, Korea, Vietnam (1978) from the Commander of 7th Air Force, General William Momyer (pronounced Moe-Mye-er). Other notable entries in this category include Ed Rasimus’ Palace Cobra: A Fighter Pilot in the Vietnam Air War (2006), Robin Olds’ Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds (2010), Ken Bell’s 100 Missions North: A Fighter Pilot’s Story of the Vietnam War (1993), and Robert Wilcox’s oral history of the Top Gun program, Scream of Eagles: The Creation of Top Gun and the U.S. Air Victory in Vietnam (1990), to name a few.

However, most of the literature from historians regarding the air campaigns have argued the opposite: that a more aggressive bombing approach earlier in the war was not feasible for a variety of reasons. One of the earliest books to push for this line of thinking is Mark Clodfelter’s The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (1989). This book is, in this author’s opinion, still the most important book on the air war in Vietnam and one of the most important works in the field of air power history in general. Other works have made similar or related arguments but in more specific areas. Earl Tilford’s Crosswinds: The Air Force’s Setup in Vietnam (1993) looks at the years leading up to the war and argues that the Air Force’s structure and doctrine did not lend itself to the type of fighting in Vietnam.[5] For an operational look at the air campaigns through this lens, the most useful works are Jacob Van Staaveren’s Gradual Failure: The Air War over North Vietnam, 1965-1966 (2002) and Wayne Thompson’s To Hanoi and Back: The United States Air Force and North Vietnam, 1966-1973 (2000) each of which focuses on a distinct time frame. The Linebacker II campaign sometimes called the ‘11-day war’ or ‘the Christmas bombing’ can be contentious. The best operational account of it so far is Marshall Michel’s The Eleven Days of Christmas: America’s Last Vietnam Battle (2001), which blames Air Force leaders rather than political leaders for the mission’s problems.

Many of the more popular memoirs deal with air-to-air aspect, although such encounters were rare, as the North Vietnamese Air Force tended to average thirty to forty operational fighters at any given time (compared to the thousands of aircraft the U.S. had in-theatre). There are some broader examinations of the air-to-air aspect. The most comprehensive is Marshall Michel’s Clashes: Air Combat over North Vietnam, 1965-1972 (1997), although Craig Hannah’s brief Striving for Air Superiority: The Tactical Air Command in Vietnam (2001) is also useful.[6] Because the war featured an expansion of tactical air power, many works deal with a diversity of air power roles, one of the best entry points is Donald Mrozek’s Air Power and the Ground War in Vietnam: Ideas and Actions (1988). Part of the problem with the use of tactical air power in Vietnam was the confusing command structures and service rivalries. Ian Horwood’s Interservice Rivalry and Airpower in the Vietnam War (2006) is perhaps the best text examining that issue and is a useful general exploration of tactical airpower in the south.

B-52D_approaching_U-Tapao_1972
A U.S. Air Force Boeing B-52D Stratofortress aircraft coming in for a landing at U-Tapao air base, Thailand, after a mission over Vietnam, 30 October 1972. (Source: Wikimedia)

The problems that the US military experienced in Vietnam led to a long period of change afterwards, as the various services all raced to reform themselves not to repeat the perceived mistakes of the war. However, the services disagreed (with each other and within themselves) about what precisely the mistakes were and how to solve them. The period following the war, from the late 1970s until 1991, was essentially a second ‘interwar period,’ similar in some ways to the 1920s and 1930s. The degree to which the Vietnam War was used as an impetus for change in the air power realm has been covered in many works. There are so many volumes on this subject that they would require a separate article on their own, although some useful starting places include Brian Laslie’s The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam (2015), Mike Worden’s The Rise of the Fighter Generals: The Problem of Air Force Leadership, 1945–1982 (1998), and C.R. Anderegg’s Sierra Hotel: Flying Fighters in the Decade After Vietnam (2001). You can find a historic book review of this latter title here.

Although many of the works listed here are of high quality, there are some inherent limitations to the field. Most of them are limited to studying a specific geographical area or timeframe (or both), and there are fewer works that take a comprehensive look at the entirety of the air wars. Some such works are forthcoming, but there is more room for more books that take this wider approach. Most works are written by people who have some tie to the military. Many are veterans of the war or have served in the time since. Many more are civilian employees of the military (of which this author is one as well, so take my recommendations with a grain of salt of course). Many of the books listed here are from government or military presses. None of this is to imply that they are of lesser quality or that they have any particular biases (indeed, much of the material from Air University Press can be interpreted as critical of the Air Force), but it does mean that the perspectives given are limited. Further limiting our view of the war is the paucity of books written by women and people of colour. The majority (although not all) of the books in the field are from the perspective of men, predominantly white – a limitation that is hopefully in the process of being alleviated as new and diverse scholars continue to enter the field.

There is a reason to believe that the field of Vietnam War histories is on the verge of a turning point, as the previous generation who remembers the war as a part of their lives is starting to give way to a new generation that has no personal memory of the war. New sources and new perspectives are beginning to emerge, as new and old scholars alike develop not only new answers to questions but new questions. It is an exciting time to be a historian of this era.

Conclusion

There is an overwhelming number of works about the air wars in Vietnam. This brief survey, focusing on significant monographs, is not meant to be comprehensive, but merely a guide to some of the more influential works and themes. There are many wonderful and useful works not mentioned here, and that is not meant as a slight against any of them. For more, any serious student of the Vietnam War must become quickly aware of the work of Dr Edward Moïse. Not only are his own works useful reading, but his website contains quite possibly the largest bibliography of works on the Vietnam War, many of which are annotated and organised into searchable categories. This is an invaluable resource.

Despite the large size of the field, there is much work left to be done. While there are many memoirs and oral histories of various aspects of the war, we still need scholarly monographs on the air wars in Laos and Cambodia, on Air America (the CIA’s air effort), on the defoliation operations, and on-air mobility both in terms of troop movements and airlift of supplies and humanitarian efforts. Many of the works mentioned do discuss air power used by the Army and Marines, but more works focusing on these aspects are needed. Perhaps the two most significant gaps in the field are a good scholarly analysis of the use of air power during the French-Indochina War and a discussion of the perspective of the North Vietnamese Air Force. Chinese involvement in terms of providing pilot training and providing some actual pilots could also be examined in more depth. Of course, there is always room for new interpretations of ideas that have been previously discussed. Several excellent books do exist on these topics, but there is room for scholars to expand our knowledge and understanding. This is just a tip of the iceberg of some of the exciting work left to be done in the field.

The Vietnam War is a conflict that will continue to be controversial as those involved on all sides continue to grapple with its legacy. We here at From Balloons to Drones hope that the upcoming series of articles from a variety of perspectives can help move that discussion forward.

Dr Michael Hankins is Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled “The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.” He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: A USAF Douglas A-26C Invader loaned to France during the Indochina War. This aircraft was loaned to France from March 1952 to November 1955. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Robert M. Citino, Blitzkrieg to Desert Storm: The Evolution of Operational Warfare (Lawrence, KS: The University of Kansas Press, 2004), 254.

[2] For insightful studies of the memory of the Vietnam-American War, see Christian G. Appy, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (New York: Viking Press, 2015); Patrick Hagopian, The Vietnam War in American Memory Veterans, Memorials, and the Politics of Healing (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012); and Gregory Daddis, ‘The Importance of the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive,’ War on the Rocks, 29 January 2018.

[3] Determining whether Ho Chi Minh was primarily a nationalist or a communist has been a major point of contention in the literature. Olsen and Roberts argue that he was in fact both, and that for him, those concepts cannot be separated.

[4] See Earl Tilford, ‘Linebacker II: The Christmas Bombing,’ The VVA Veteran, January/February 2014. This quote from LeMay is widely cited in many works.

[5] An earlier form of this book is available as a free download from AU Press under the title Setup: What the Air Force Did and Why.

[6] On the subject of air-to-air combat in Vietnam, see the author’s MA Thesis, ‘The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air Combat in Vietnam’ (MA Thesis, University of North Texas, 2013).

Call for Submissions: Air War Vietnam

Call for Submissions: Air War Vietnam

From Balloons to Drones is seeking submissions for a series of articles that examines the varied use of air power during the conflict in Vietnam (1945-1975). Two thousand nineteen marks 50 years since the announcement of President Nixon’s policy of Vietnamization. This marked a significant turning point in a conflict that dated back to the end of the Second World War when France returned to Indochina to reclaim her colonial possessions. Throughout this long conflict in Vietnam – both during the French Indochina War and the Vietnam War – air power played a significant role. Themes to be explored might include, but are not limited to:

Roles | Operations | Strategy, Theory and Doctrine

Strategic and Operational Effect | Technological Developments

Organisation and Policy | Culture | Ethical and Moral Issues

National, International and Transnational Experiences

We are looking for articles of c. 2,500 words, though we will accept larger pieces and we reserve the right to publish them in parts. We welcome and encourage submissions from academics, policymakers, service personnel, and relevant professionals. We plan to begin running the series in May 2019, and it will continue for as long as we receive potential contributions.

Submissions should be submitted in Word format and emailed to the address below with ‘SUBMISSION – Air War Vietnam’ in the subject line. Also, please include a 50-100-word biography with your submission. References can be used, and please be careful to explain any jargon. However, if you are not sure if your idea fits our requirements, then please email us with ‘POTENTIAL SUBMISSION – Air War Vietnam’ in the subject line to discuss.

If you are interested in contributing, please email our editor, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here.

Header Image: A USAF Douglas A-26C Invader loaned to France during the Indochina War. This aircraft was loaned to France from March 1952 to November 1955. (Source: Wikimedia)

#highintensitywar and the Realistic Training Paradigm: Red Flag and Aerial Warfare

#highintensitywar and the Realistic Training Paradigm: Red Flag and Aerial Warfare

By Dr Brian D. Laslie

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Dr Brian Laslie discusses the introduction of Exercise Red Flag by the United States Air Force (USAF) as a response to the Service’s experience of high-intensity warfare during the Vietnam War. This article illustrates the importance of realistic training scenarios as a critical tool in honing the preparation of air forces for the challenges they might meet in the future.

In November 1975, the USAF began an exercise designed to prepare its pilots to face the realities of combat in a simulated, and yet very realistic, training exercise.

Since that first exercise, the USAF has continued to train its pilots for air combat under the Red Flag banner. I recently travelled to discuss the exercise’s origins with a squadron preparing to head to the Nellis ranges in early 2018. The unit wanted me to discuss how Red Flag got started, but perhaps more importantly, why the exercise is the single most important military training event for USAF aircrews, sister service air components, and allied air forces, today.

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An RAAF EA-18G Growler at Red Flag 18-1. (Source: Australian Department of Defense)

No matter what statistical, empirical, or subjective measurement you use, the American experience in the Vietnam War was not a good one. This was no less true for the USAF than the other branches of the US military. Pilots and senior leaders were less than impressed with their results during combat. The most significant critique came from the line pilots who felt they went into combat ill-prepared to face the enemy. Issues such as how to attack surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites, what an incoming MiG might look like, how to fight that MiG once it was identified, and the proper altitude to get through anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) were not priorities for pilot preparation before the war. In addition to these threats, pilots had to contend with working with complex and sometimes unreliable radar and missile systems all while engaged in high-intensity, manoeuvring aerial combat. In short, American pilots were not properly trained for combat. After the Vietnam War ended, the USAF set about righting these problems through a massive overhaul of existing training paradigms. The changes made in the wake of the Vietnam War fundamentally altered the USAF’s way of war.

As the conflict in Vietnam progressed, the USAF commissioned a series of reports to study every aerial engagement with an enemy aircraft. The so-called Red Baron reports captured the problems in painful detail. Fighter aircraft had to contest with densely-packed SAM sites, enemy MiGs, and a very potent AAA threat. Although AAA was by far the most common cause of aircraft damage and loss, dealing with the SAMs and MiGs was perhaps more stressful as the latter, in particular, would seemingly come out of nowhere. One of the major findings from the reports was that American pilots often did not know enemy MiG aircraft were present until they fired. According to a later RAND study, MiGs were 100 times more likely to close to dogfighting proximity than initially anticipated. To deal with this MiG threat, US fighter pilots had only two options: engage or attempt to escape. If the American pilot did enter into a dogfight, odds were this was the first time he had ever fought against a dissimilar aircraft. An F-4 pilot, for example, might have trained against other F-4s, but he had never practised combat against anything resembling an enemy aircraft.

Since North Vietnamese pilots were known to fly using Soviet tactics, the USAF was forced to reconsider its approach. If USAF pilots fared so poorly against Soviet-trained pilots, how would they fare against the Soviets themselves? In 1972, the USAF took a step towards crafting a better answer to that question by creating dedicated Aggressor Squadrons, pilots trained specifically to emulate the Soviet style of aerial warfare. The mission of the newly created 64th and 65th Aggressor squadrons was to be a ‘professional adversary force conducting a program of intense dissimilar air combat training’ to teach Air Force pilots how to engage and destroy Soviet fighters. One fighter pilot said:

In 1972, when the Aggressors were formed, and DACT [Dissimilar Air Combat Training] became a word you could say openly the biggest deficiency we had in air-to-air capability was human performance. Our tactical BFM [Basic Fighter Maneuvers] skills were weak…by 1975 DACT and four Aggressor squadrons equipped with new F-5Es were the hottest game in town. Moreover, what did those Aggressors do? They taught BFM […] Even as Soviet tactics simulation quickly grew as an Aggressor mission, BFM was still the heart of every debriefing.

The Aggressor squadrons travelled from base to base and introduced fighter squadrons to combat with the Soviet Air Force. Aggressor pilots were often hand-picked for a specific skill set. After arriving at Nellis, they underwent an indoctrination process into the history, culture, and training of the Soviet fighter pilot. They also had the opportunity to get hands-on with Soviet equipment. When flying, Aggressors used Soviet tactics to an extent, typically to ‘the merge’ or the point where the fighters became locked in a visual, turning dogfight. At that point, the ‘gloves came off.’ The creation of the Aggressor squadrons was a significant step forward for American pilots, but it still was not enough. Since a USAF pilot in Vietnam had an exponentially better survival rate after completing ten combat missions, Pentagon planners needed a way to expose junior pilots to those first ten missions under safer conditions. Red Flag was the answer.

Red Flag 16-3 hits full throttle
An F-16C Fighting Falcon from the 64th Aggressors Squadron banks off toward the Nevada Test and Training Range to participate in a training sortie during Red Flag 16-3, 19 July 2016. (Source: United States Air Force)

Red Flag was the creation of Lieutenant Colonel Richard ‘Moody’ Suter.[1] Although the ‘iron majors’ provided Red Flag with its intellectual underpinnings and conducted the brunt of the leg-work necessary to get the exercise started. Suter and the other action officers enjoyed great support from Tactical Air Command (TAC) and senior USAF leaders in the Pentagon. When Suter pitched Red Flag to TAC Commander General Robert Dixon, the General loved the idea at once and set about making it a reality. This was no small feat considering Dixon’s reputation for being tough on staff officers and his reputation as the ‘Tidewater Alligator.’ General George Brown, the Chief of Staff of the USAF (CSAF), enthusiastically supported the exercise as well and told Dixon to get it going. The following CSAF, General David Jones also supported the exercise. The Air Staff’s intelligence directorate created a new intelligence unit solely to support Red Flag and began work to move Soviet equipment, including MiG fighters, to Nellis to provide a ‘hands on’ approach to fighting Soviet machinery. Overall, this lightning-quick response led to the first Red Flag taking place only four months after Suter’s initial pitch to TAC.

Red Flag was designed to combine ‘good basic fighter skills’ with ‘realistic threat employment’ to enhance pilot proficiency and readiness for future combat operations. Red Flag I began in November 1975. The primary unit was the 49th Tactical Fighter Wing flying F-4s. Support elements included OV-10s, F-105s, and CH-53s. Red Flag II in early 1976 had increased support elements, and Red Flag III was larger still, seeing the first participation of the new F-15 and the first-night operations as participants flew nearly 1,000 sorties. These early Red Flags drew tremendous praise from participants and requests for more aggressors and more threats, so subsequent exercises increased in size and scope. By the late 1970s, units from the US Pacific Air Forces and the USAF in Europe were travelling to Nellis to take part.

Throughout the 1980s Red Flags became increasingly realistic and, by extension, more difficult for the participating aircrews. As technology advanced, so did the exercise. Gone were the days of tape-recording a mission, and in were the days of the Red Flag Mission Debriefing System, Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation, and Nellis Air Combat Training System. Allied nations began taking part as well, and by the end of the 1980s, more than 30 countries had flown in or observed a Red Flag, meaning foreign aircraft were just as likely to be seen in the skies over southern Nevada as American ones. Red Flag expansion continued through the during the 1980s. The April 86 Tactical Analysis Bulletin focused on improvement to existing training methods:

Acknowledging and defining the increased capabilities and advances in Soviet technology is the first step in improving our own training programs.

Even today, a typical Red Flag runs for two weeks with two ‘goes’ each day. Individual squadron briefs follow a mass brief before aircrew step to their aircraft. As the exercise goes on, the missions get progressively harder, forcing pilots and mission planners to work together to accomplish their objectives. Each Red Flag has a mix of fighter and bomber aircraft along with supporting electronic attack, aerial refuelling, airborne battle management, surveillance, and cargo aircraft. Sister service and foreign participation also occur on a regular basis, letting all experience the realities of air-to-air and air-to-ground combat across the joint and combined force. They learn the ‘golden rules’ of BFM lost before Vietnam: ‘lose sight, lose fight,’ manoeuvring in relation to the adversary, and nose position of their aircraft versus energy. They learn:

BFM is used by the pilot to place himself in a piece of sky from which he can launch lethal ordnance, or to keep from becoming a star on the side of somebody else’s jet.

From start to finish, Red Flag prepares pilots to conduct air operations as part of a larger force.

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An Indian Air Force Sukhoi SU-30 during Red Flag 08-4 in 2008. (Source: Wikimedia)

Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait offered the perfect opportunity for USAF operators to employ the tactics and doctrine they had been perfecting for the previous decade and a half. Red Flag, Prized Eagle, and numerous other large force employment exercises had prepared American airmen well for the enemy they were going to face in combat, primarily on night one, of Operation Desert Storm. While technological marvels such as the F-117 had a direct impact on combat operations and an even larger one on the American media and public, it was the pilots in the multi-role fighters, bombers, and special operations aircraft who ensured air superiority and thus unhindered freedom of manoeuvre for the land component forces.

With an estimated 44 kills during Desert Storm, American pilots demonstrated they were unmatched when it came to aerial combat. The training changes employed by the USAF after Vietnam went a long way in allowing American pilots to engage and destroy the enemy even when their technology came up short or rules of engagement prohibited them from employing their weapons beyond visual range. As one American fighter pilot said of his time in Desert Storm,‘[T]he Red Flag experience prepared me for combat operations.’

Two dogfights, one from Vietnam and one from Desert Storm, capture the impact of Red Flag. In April 1965, a two-ship of F-4s engaged 4 MiG-17s in a protracted dogfight that ended in a ‘probable kill’ of one MiG-17. In total the F-4s attempted to fire six missiles: two did not guide, three motors did not fire, one hung on the rails, and a MiG successfully evaded the one missile that both fired and tracked. In a similar case, on 19 January 1991, two F-15s engaged two MiG-25s. One F-15 fired two AIM-7s and two AIM-9s, the other fired one AIM-9 and one AIM-7 for a total of six missiles, but, in this case, two confirmed kills. These two air engagements indicate that if technology and weapons were similar, then there must be another explanatory factor in success during Desert Storm. That factor was the training revolution. The link between training exercises and real-world events can be somewhat subjective, but numerous pilots interviewed said their participation at Red Flag was of fundamental importance as they entered combat. One MiG-killer of Desert Storm went so far as to say that the primary difference between himself and his opponent was that he had been in hundreds of dogfights at Red Flag.

USAF success continued throughout the 1990s in the skies over the Balkans where American pilots continued to show just how well their training prepared them to face the enemy. Even as this article is published, Red Flag 18-1 has recently finished. Beyond that, those trained at numerous Red Flag exercises are, even now, plying their trade in the skies over Syria and Iraq, performing close air support, combat air patrols, and interdiction missions. These men and women have a distinct training advantage not only over their current enemy but against any aerial or ground opponent they might face. Although created forty years ago this year, Red Flag remains enormously crucial in training aircrews for combat. Red Flag and the Aggressors still provide a realistic threat environment, and the exercise continues to expand with the inclusion of non-kinetic, cyber, and other threat replications. The most recent Red Flag went ‘virtual’ to increase the size and complexity of the threats faced by the flyers. Red Flag remains the single most complex and comprehensive training exercise in the world, and it provides a combat edge to participants that other countries simply cannot or do not replicate.

Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). He is also an Assistant Editor of From Balloons to Drones. A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. He is the author of Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force (2017) and The Air Force Way of War (2015). The latter book was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list and the 2017 RAF Chief of the Air Staff’s reading list. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: An F-15C Eagle assigned to the Oregon Air National Guard’s 123rd Fighter Squadron approaches an in-flight refueling boom during Red Flag 18-1, 7 February 2018. Units from across the US along with members from the Royal Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force participated as Blue Forces in this year’s first Red Flag exercise.

[1] On the development of Red Flag, see: Brian D. Laslie, The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam (Lexington, KT: The University Press of Kentucky, 2015).

Remembering The F-4 Phantom – Part 2: Orchestrated Confusion

Remembering The F-4 Phantom – Part 2: Orchestrated Confusion

By Mike Hankins

Previously, we looked at how McDonnell lost a significant contract with the US Navy after their upgraded F3H Demon failed a fly off competition against their competitor, Chance-Vought’s entry which became the F-8U Crusader.

1280px-mcdonnell_f3h-g_mockup_in_1954
An early mockup of a modified F3H which is beginning to show some familiar visual characteristics of the F-4. (Source: US Navy National Museum of Naval Aviation)

McDonnell engineer Herman Barkley took the Demon’s rejection as a personal challenge and immediately began designing an unsolicited new aircraft initially without military funding.[1] Original sketches for the new craft consisted of yet another version of the Demon, similar to the design that had already failed against Vought’s F-8U. The US Navy had a vested interest in allowing McDonnell to experiment with the design. It could keep McDonnell afloat, enabling it to remain a valuable supplier, and perhaps reap some return on the initial investment they had both placed in the failed F3H. Upon review of these sketches, The US Navy did support the project, but gave no stated mission requirements for the plane, encouraging McDonnell to experiment on the drawing board. According to J. S. McDonnell himself:

All we had to work with in the beginning [of F-4 Phantom II Development] was a gleam in the customer’s eye […] What followed was two years […] of orchestrated confusion.

The US Navy, because of their doctrinal assumptions, wanted to focus on high-speed interceptors but was purposefully vague about communicating this, hoping McDonnell would reach in new and unexpected directions. This lack of specificity and a desire to maximise profits by designing a versatile plane that functioned in many contexts led McDonnell to develop a multi-role aircraft not optimised for the air-to-air mission.[2]

The confusion continued until Spring of 1955 when Commander Francis X. Timmes (newly in charge of the project) emphasised the high-speed interceptor role and stressed adaptability. Those concepts required that the plane to have two seats, two engines, and an armament of only missiles. The plane thus featured eleven hardpoints for carrying bombs or missiles, the most ever designed on an airframe at that time. The homogenous armament and dual-pilot setup both theoretically enhanced adaptability, since dogfighting was (allegedly) unnecessary, the lack of guns made the plane lighter (thus faster), and pilot duties could be split between two people. In July 1955, the US Navy rewarded McDonnell’s efforts with a contract for the production of seven prototypes.

The Phantom’s unique look was the result of over 5,300 hours of wind tunnel tests, which revealed a significant problem in supersonic flight. The plane was susceptible to ‘roll coupling,’ which is a technical way of saying the plane became uncontrollable – a condition from which pilots were trained to eject immediately. The angled wingtips and tail decreased the chances of this occurring. To add to stability concerns without sacrificing speed, the Phantom was given the ‘Stab Aug’ system that could sense unstable flight paths and automatically correct for them quicker than a pilot could manually. Computer controlled intake ramps to control air flow into the engines also increased the plane’s top speed. Another computerised system, ‘Boundary Layer Control,’ sent excess air from the engines over the wings to generate more lift and increase speed and acceleration. [3]

f4h-1_leadership
Herman Barkley (left) with test pilot Robert Little(center) and fellow engineer David Lewis (right) in front of a prototype of the F-4. (Source: Wikimedia)

Though the bond between the US Navy and its developers was strong, the military was loathed to place all its eggs in one basket. Timmes solicited other designs to fit the same roles as the Phantom in August 1955. The company that stepped up to the plate was none other than McDonnell’s old nemesis: Chance-Vought. Vought had developed an upgraded version of their successful F-8U Crusader, the very plane that had beaten McDonnell’s F3H Demon. Both new designs were set to compete in an unofficial fly off beginning on 15 September 1958. The tests emphasised the assumptions of the time, focusing on maximum speed and climbing rates. The assessments did not include manoeuvrability, gunnery, or other metrics pertinent to air-to-air combat.

In every tested category, the F8U-3 Crusader proved superior. It even had better fuel mileage. Its only drawbacks were a lower payload and time-consuming maintenance requirements. Despite this, George Spandenberg, then the director of Bureau of Aeronautics’ Evaluation Division, thought that single-seat, single-engine planes were inherently unreliable and argued that a two-seat plane would boost morale. Thus he boldly asserted, ‘The single-seat fighter era is dead.’ Advocates of the F-4 often claim the Phantom ‘won’ the contest (since it did win the US Navy contract after all), although a close look at the fly off reveals the upgraded Crusader had clear performance advantages in every category.[4]

Despite the Phantom’s lacklustre performance at the fly off, it was still an impressive aircraft in many respects. Between December 1959 and April 1962, the F-4 set over a dozen world records, the most coveted (and revealing of the plane’s doctrinal design focus) of which was that of absolute top speed: 1,606.3 miles per hour.[5] The F-4 also possessed many problems that came back to haunt the military over the jungles of Vietnam, and that appear almost negligent in retrospect. Aside from the stability issue (which caused ‘departure’ or ‘the adverse yaw effect,’ terms for when the plane loses control during maneuvers), the almost non-existent rear-visibility was a problem, as were the giant plumes of black smoke produced by the engines that gave away the location and heading of every Phantom. The plane was also quite vulnerable to ground fire because its hydraulic lines were delicate and devoid of redundancy. Indeed, ground fire downed more F-4s in Vietnam than any other single threat. Across US Air Force (USAF), the US Navy and the US Marine Corps combined, from January 1962 to January 1973, 930 planes were lost to small arms ground fire, or, 45% of losses by known causes. AAA claimed 632; SAMs shot down 191; MiGs destroyed 79, and friendly fire claimed 25.

The USAF observed these record-setting demonstrations and grew interested in the plane’s usefulness as a strategic bomber and interceptor.[6] After a series of tests, USAF eventually ordered more than triple the number of Phantoms as the Navy. McDonnell finally created four new models of the Phantom to USAF specifications, the first and most significant of which was the F-4C.[7]

U.S._Air_Force_McDonnell_F-4C_Phantom_II_fighters_refuel
A flight of US Air Force McDonnell F-4C Phantom II fighters refuel from a Boeing KC-135A Stratotanker aircraft before making a strike against targets in North Vietnam. The Phantoms are loaded with six 750 pound general purpose bombs, four AIM-7 Sparrow air to air missles, and 370 gallon external fuel tanks on the outboard pylons. (Source: Wikimedia)

Although the Phantom would undoubtedly have performed extremely well in its designed role of intercepting enemy bombers, it ironically never had to. Instead of saving the world from nuclear Armageddon in the hypothetical World War III, the F-4 instead flew in a limited war over the jungles of a tiny third world country that many Americans had trouble locating on a map. The enemies it faced were not large lumbering bombers threatening nuclear annihilation, but missiles, ground fire, and manoeuvrable MiG fighters much more adept at air combat. Statistically, the deadliest enemy for the Phantom, one of the most powerful and expensive planes in US history to that point, was an individual on the ground with a machine gun. Similar to the doctrine that spawned it, the F-4 was the right plane for the wrong war.

The F-4 Phantom II was a fighter plane possessing few characteristics of traditional fighters. It was large, cumbersome, and built around the concept of long range attacks, sacrificing the agility and armament necessary of true air superiority craft. Originally conceived as an interceptor and soon burdened by ‘mission creep’ that insisted it handle multiple roles, the plane was the poster child for pre-Vietnam USAF doctrine, namely, the quasi-religious devotion to strategic bombing that minimised all other roles of air power.

Part One of this article can be found here.

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

Header Image: A USAF McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II from the 81st Tactical Fighter Squadron, 52nd Tactical Wing, releasing 18 Mark 82 227 kg bombs over the Bardenas Reales Gunnery Range, Spain, 25 March 1986. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Enzo Angelucci and Peter Bowers, The American Fighter (New York: Orion, 1987), p. 451, 310. Larry Davis, F-4 Phantom II in Action (Carrollton, TX: Squadron/Signal Publications, 1984), p 4.

[2] Glenn E. Bugos, Engineering the F-4 Phantom II: Parts Into Systems (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996)p.  23, 9, pp. 13-14.

[3] Ibid, p. 20, pp. 25-28, 37-40, 51-2.

[4] Peter E. Davies,  USN F-4 Phantom II vs VPAF MiG 17/19: Vietnam 1965-73 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2011), p. 16; Lou Drendel, F-4 Phantom II in Action (Warren, MI: Squadron/Signal Publications, 1972), p. 6; Bugos, Engineering the F-4, pp. 95-9.

[5] Mick Spick, All-Weather Warriors: The Search for the Ultimate Fighter Aircraft (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1994), p. 131; Enzo Angelucci with Peter Bowers, The American Fighter: The Definitive Guide to American Fighter Aircraft from 1917 to the Present (London: G.T. Foulis, 1987), pp. 310-1.

[6] Bugos, Engineering the F-4, p. 104.

[7] Anthony M. Thornborough, USAF Phantoms: Tactics, Training, and Weapons (New York: Arms & Armour Press, 1988), pp. 11-12; Bugos, Engineering the F-4, p. 115.

Remembering the F-4 Phantom – Part 1: A Product of Its Time

Remembering the F-4 Phantom – Part 1: A Product of Its Time

By Mike Hankins

A few weeks ago, on August 17, 2016, the QF-4 Phantom flew its final unmanned mission for the United States Air Force (USAF). Although the Phantom was officially retired from combat use in 1996, USAF has been using unmanned, remote-controlled versions of the F-4 as target drones in training exercises. As the QF-4 completes its final flight, it feels like the end of an era. With over 5,000 built, the F-4 was one of (if not the) most ubiquitous aircraft of the Vietnam War and formed the backbone of the USAF in that period.

Final flight farewells Phantom
Airmen from the 82nd Aerial Target Squadron, Det. 1 at Holloman Air Force Base hosted the final manned flight of the QF-4 Phantom as part of the Phinal Phlight Ceremony on 21 December 2016. The ceremony commemorated and retired the QF-4 Phantom after 53 years of service in the US  Air Force.  Over its many years at Holloman, the QF-4 flew 145 unmanned missions and 70 aircraft were destroyed in service. It flew its last unmanned mission in August 2016 and was replaced by the QF-16 in 2017. (Source: Wikimedia)

In many ways, the F-4 was the last representative of an earlier era in USAF thinking — its design (emphasising speed, interception, and multi-role capability) reflected the doctrines and assumptions of the early Cold War. During the Vietnam War, those assumptions began to be overturned, and the Air Force eventually turned to a new generation of fighters in planes like the F-15 Eagle and F-16 Falcon. As the Phantom has now officially passed out of use in the US, it is worth taking some time to look back at the Phantom’s design, what that tells us about previous modes of thinking in the Air Force, and what that might mean for the future.

After World War II, USAF, and indeed the entire US military was dominated by Strategic Air Command (SAC), which maintained a fleet of nuclear bombers. The assumption was that a potential “next war” would involve the US and the Soviet Union launching atomic bombs at each other. Thus, national security rested on the idea of being able to drop nukes on Soviet vital centres, while also being able to intercept any Soviet bombers that attempted to do the same.</p

Century_series_fighters_NACA_1957
Four US Air Force Century-series fighters in flight in 1957. These supersonic fighters were tested by the NACA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base. The aircraft visible are: McDonnell F-101A-5-MC Voodoo (top), Lockheed XF-104A Starfighter )left). This latter aircraft crashed on 11 July 1957 due to an uncontrollable tail flutter. The pilot, Bill Park, ejected safely. A Convair F-102A-20-CO Delta Dagger (right), North American F-100A-20-NA Super Sabre (bottom). (Source: Wikimedia)

Other tactical missions like air superiority, ground support, or supply interdiction, became irrelevant. The age of fighter escorts, dogfights, and close air support against fielded enemy ground forces was over. In those early years of the Cold War, despite a few small voices of criticism, the USAF devoted less than 6 percent of its research and development resources into tactical and fighter roles. As a result, several tactical fighter wings disappeared in the late 1950s. Tactical Air Command was responsible for these functions and quickly found that the best way to retain relevance (and budget dollars) was to make a case that they too could contribute to SAC’s nuclear mission. They thus focused on developing fighter/bombers and interceptors that emphasised speed (at the expense of manoeuvrability) to either quickly deliver a nuclear warhead, or to intercept an enemy bomber and shoot it down in one pass – not with guns, but with guided missiles. This approach was exemplified in their ‘Century Series’ of interceptors. [1]

The US Navy also came to the same conclusion – that maintaining their budget and relevance necessitated that they participate in the nuclear mission, especially once atomic warheads became small enough to mount to carrier-based aircraft. New US Navy aeroplane designs focused on delivery of tactical nukes and interception of enemy bombers, and although the US Navy did not abandon air superiority to the degree that USAF did, the role of US Navy fighters certainly diminished in the post-war period. For example, the Fleet Air Gunner Unit, which trained weapons officers on US Navy planes, closed in 1960 and new training syllabi excised air-to-air combat.[2]

These assumptions and trends are key to understanding the development of the F-4 Phantom, but one the other main factor was the system of the ‘Military-Industrial Complex.’ Few defence contractors existed in the early Cold War, and the vast sums involved in contract awards and losses could make or break companies quickly. To keep options open, the military had a strong incentive to maintain their contractors afloat, sometimes making purchases regardless of actual needs. The military also encouraged these companies to push the envelope of cutting-edge technology, at times guided by strict mission parameters, on other occasions without many guidelines at all. Thus, a strong paternal bond developed between the military and its industrial suppliers, creating an environment that encouraged companies to experiment and take risks without fear of a total company failure.[3]

xf3h_demon_on_uss_coral_sea_28cva-4329_in_1953
A US Navy McDonnell XF3H-1N Demon on the elevator of the aircraft carrier USS Coral Sea, in 1953. (Source: Wikimedia)

This bond came into play in September 1952, when the US Navy Bureau of Aeronautics invited proposals for a new fighter plane dedicated to the (redefined) air superiority and interception missions. The US Navy eventually awarded this contract to McDonnell’s rival firm Chance-Vought, whose entry became the F-8U Crusader. McDonnell’s losing design in this competition was a version of the F3H Demon upgraded with a dual-engine and a missile armament. In 1954, the losses from this project nearly destroyed McDonnell. The US Navy had much to lose if its weapons manufacturers closed and viewed these defence contractors as too big to fail.[4]

Next time, we will look at McDonnell’s response to this loss, and how it led to one of the most ubiquitous aircraft of all time.

Part Two of this article can be found here.

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

Header Image: The unmanned QF-4 target drone (Source: http://www.military.com/equipment/qf-4-aerial-target)

[1] Earl H.Tilford, Crosswinds: The Air Force’s Setup in Vietnam (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1993), pp. 20-22; Craig C. Hannah, Striving for Air Superiority (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2002), p. 28; Caroline F. Ziemke, ‘In The Shadow of the Giant: USAF Tactical Air Command in the Era of Strategic Bombing, 1945-1955’ (PhD Thesis, The Ohio State University, 1989), p. 7.

[2] George W. Baer, One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U. S. Navy, 1890-1990 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994), P. 334.; Robert W. Love, Jr., History of the United States Navy, Vol. 2 (Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1992), pp. 375-6.

[3] Glenn E. Bugos, Engineering the F-4 Phantom II: Parts Into Systems (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996), p. 23.

[4] Bugos, Engineering the F-4, pp. 15-17.