#BookReview – A Long Voyage to the Moon: The Life of Naval Aviator and Apollo 17 Astronaut Ron Evans

#BookReview – A Long Voyage to the Moon: The Life of Naval Aviator and Apollo 17 Astronaut Ron Evans

Geoffrey Bowman, A Long Voyage to the Moon: The Life of Naval Aviator and Apollo 17 Astronaut Ron Evans. Foreword. Images. Sources. Lincoln, NE: University Press of Nebraska, 2021. Hbk, 377 pp.

Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie

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Ronald E. Evans is not a household name. Names such as Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and Neil Armstrong remain more or less recognisable to the wider society. Indeed, even later Apollo astronauts, such as Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, Jim Lovell, or John Young, might still trigger images or recognition to a particular generation or those interested in the history of space flight. However, Evans has been significantly overlooked. That is what being the last person to do something will get you: obscurity. Evans was a member of Apollo 17, the last crewed mission to the moon. As such, he was the last Command Module Pilot to fly as part of the Apollo program. Evans also holds several other auspicious accolades. He holds the record for the most time spent in lunar orbit; he was the last man to orbit the moon alone and was the last man to conduct a deep space extravehicular activity. Indeed, Evans was one of only three individuals to have ever done a deep space extravehicular activity. In addition, he remains one of only 24 individuals to ever journey beyond Earth’s orbit into deep space and travel to another celestial body.

After reading the above, it should be apparent that being the last person to do something does not mean your name should end in relative obscurity, placed in a footnote, or known only to those with a passion for all things space. The omission of an Evans biography has finally been corrected by author Geoffrey Bowman and his recent book A Long Voyage to the Moon: The Life of Naval Aviator and Apollo 17 Astronaut Ron Evans which comes out of the University Press of Nebraska stables as part of their absolutely stellar Outward Odyssey Series.

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The prime crew for the Apollo 17 lunar landing mission: Commander, Eugene A. Cernan (seated), Command Module pilot Ronald E. Evans (standing on right), and Lunar Module pilot, Harrison H. Schmitt, 10 October 1972. The Apollo 17 Saturn V Moon rocket is in the background. (Source: Wikimedia)

Bowman successfully highlights the contributions of Evans to the US Navy as he flew missions over North Vietnam before his selection to NASA and his steady progression as a member of various support crews and backup Command Module Pilot on Apollo 14 before landing in a prime spot as the Command Module Pilot for Apollo 17. Moreover, Evans is unique among the Apollo astronauts as the only ‘moon man’ and Vietnam combat veteran. Throughout the narrative, Bowman pulls together the words and remembrances of Evans’ fellow astronauts and the astronaut wives. The use of the recollections of astronaut’s wives is something missing in older histories of the Apollo program. One of the primary contributors to Bowman’s research was a series of interviews with Evan’s wife Jan, and the author makes excellent use of her perspective throughout the narrative. That being said, when Bowman settles into Evan’s training for and flying Apollo, the author’s ability takes flight. Bowman proves he is much more comfortable with who Evans is and his contributions to the Apollo program.

Much like Evans himself, Bowman has worked doggedly to produce this history, and the author and press should be proud of the result. However, as a historian more bent toward academic endnotes, the lack of sourcing continues to be a problem in an otherwise magnificent series. While the Outward Odyssey series is the single best multi-volume series on the complete history of crewed spaceflight, it is sometimes frustrating not to know where a particular quote came from, but that is a relatively minor gripe. As I own all the books in this series, it has clearly not stopped me from continuing to purchase these books.

Ultimately, this work will appeal to those who simply cannot read enough about the history of crewed space flight. We should all be thankful that Bowman has written this book and shined a light on this historic aviator and space traveller.

Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Command Historian at the United States Air Force Academy. A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air and space power studies, he received his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book, The Air Force Way of War (2015), was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s and the Royal Air Force’s Chief of the Air Staff professional reading lists. He is also the author of several books on air force and air power history. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header image:  Eugene Cernan on the Moon during the Apollo 17 mission, 12 December 1972. (Source: Wikimedia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reviewed by Dr James Young

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#Commentary – Air Superiority as a Political Activity

#Commentary – Air Superiority as a Political Activity

By Dr Michael E. Weaver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#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.

#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.

#DesertStorm30 – The Ghosts of Vietnam: Building Air Superiority for Operation DESERT STORM

#DesertStorm30 – The Ghosts of Vietnam: Building Air Superiority for Operation DESERT STORM

By Dr Michael Hankins

Editorial Note: 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Operation DESERT STORM. To mark this anniversary, during 2021, From Balloons to Drones will be publishing a series of articles that examine various aspects of DESERT STORM’s air campaign. We will be publishing pieces throughout 2021, and if you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here. The official call for submissions can be found here.

I think to understand the success of Desert Storm, you have to study Vietnam.

Lieutenant General Chuck Horner, Joint Force Air Component Commander during Operation DESERT STORM[1]

This reflection applies to many aspects of the 1991 Gulf War, undeniably so in the realm of air-to-air combat. As in most wars, air-to-air combat played a relatively small role, certainly not a decisive one. However, the differences between air combat during the Vietnam War and DESERT STORM are stark. In the skies above Southeast Asia between 1965 and 1973, the United States shot down approximately 200 enemy aircraft while North Vietnamese MiGs claimed about 80 US fighters.[2] During DESERT STORM, coalition pilots shot down 42 Iraqi aircraft and only lost one to a MiG.[3] There is no single reason why air-to-air efforts were so much more successful in DESERT STORM than in Vietnam. However, several factors synergistically combined to contribute to a considerable shift in air superiority efforts: training, situational awareness, technology, and the nature of the enemy being faced. These factors were interconnected. Technologies that had first appeared in Vietnam had matured and became more reliable. These technologies were also more interwoven with training and doctrine, drastically increasing their effectiveness in situations like those faced in the Gulf in 1991.

What went wrong in Vietnam

The 1970s and 1980s constitute a second interwar period. As with the period between the First and Second World War, the years between the Vietnam War and DESERT STORM was a time of massive technological, doctrinal, and organisational change within the US military. It was also a time of competing theories and visions regarding what the future of warfare might look like. These debates centred on the idea of fixing the perceived problems of Vietnam. However, there was little agreement over what exactly the problems were and even less about how to fix them.

Regarding the air-to-air realm, clearly, there had been problems in Southeast Asia. To avoid fratricide, restrictive rules of engagement prevented most missiles from being fired in the conditions for which they were designed. At the same time, the jungle environment compounded issues from transport and maintenance that frequently damaged delicate sensor equipment. North Vietnamese MiGs often did not stick around to fight. However, their agility was effective against the larger, heavier American interceptors when they did. US pilots often had little – if any – air combat training and rarely (if ever) against aircraft that mimicked the MiGs capabilities and tactics.

An F-4C Phantom II of the 559th Tactical Fighter Squadron at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, South Vietnam, September 1967. Front to back: Captain John P. Flannery, 1st Lieutenant Lewis M. Hauser. (Source: US Air Force)

To fix these problems, two main camps emerged: the self-described ‘Fighter Mafia’ that later evolved into the larger Defense Reform Movement (Reformers) was led by former fighter pilots, analysts, engineers, and journalists linked to Colonel John Boyd.[4] They argued in favour of new aircraft that they were simple and cheap. The poor performance of missiles in Vietnam frustrated the ‘Fighter Mafia,’ who argued that the key to winning air battles required small, lightweight aircraft that emphasised maneuverability and gunnery. In their argument, aircraft did not need to be burdened with long-range radars. Countering these views was the defence establishment – the service leaders in the Pentagon, the USAF Air Staff, and other analysts, including the commander of Tactical Air Command, General Wilbur ‘Bill’ Creech. This group argued that a high-tech approach was necessary to counter the Soviet threat. They argued that although weapons may be expensive, they were not only effective but could protect more American lives and reduce casualties.[5]

These debates occurred in a context of larger doctrinal changes within all the US military services during a second interwar period of heavy debate and significant technological changes. Nonetheless, the Reformers had a large influence on the direction of air war planning in those years. However, ultimately, few of their proposed reforms truly took hold as the defence establishment had the advantage of being established and in power. However, in having to defend themselves against the Reformers’ frequent critiques, the defence establishment was forced to confront important issues, particularly regarding readiness and weapons testing procedures.

Train How We Fight

Even the most significant changes in technology would be of limited use without equal changes in training. This was something even the revered ace pilot Brigadier General Robin Olds realised. Speaking of his experience flying F-4 Phantoms in Vietnam, Olds lamented, ‘If only I’d had a gun!’ However, Olds opposed adding a gun pod to the F-4s in his unit because, as he recalled:

[o]ut of all my fighter guys, only a precious few have ever fired a gun at an aerial target, let alone learned how to dogfight with guns. Hell, they’d pile into a bunch of MiGs with their hair on fire and be eaten alive.[6]

Some US Navy officers realised the importance of air combat training, instituting the Navy Fighter Weapons School, also called TOPGUN, specifically to train F-4 and F-8 pilots how to defeat MiGs in air-to-air encounters. The school’s graduates began having success in the air battles of 1972. The US Air Force (USAF) was slower to institute similar training but did create the Red Flag exercises in 1975. The key to both programs was ‘dissimilar air combat training’ (DACT): training in mock combat against different aircraft types than one’s own. Said another way, DACT means to train how you fight.[7]

That meant that F-8, F-4, and F-105 pilots needed to square off against smaller, nimbler planes that could simulate the MiGs. T-38s, F-5s and F-86s were perfect for that. Pilots flying as these pretend adversaries became known as ‘aggressor’ squadrons. Eventually, captured MiG fighters of the 4477th Test and Evaluation Squadron (nicknamed the ‘Red Eagles’) could give coalition pilots mock combat experience against actual MiGs.[8]

We Have the Technology

The new DACT training programs were not all about maneuvers and volleyball. The programs incorporated a wide array of new tactics emerging from rapid evolution in new technologies both in new airframes and the new generations of missiles that were far more capable than their Vietnam-era ancestors. These included new fighters like USAF’s F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon, and the US Navy’s F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18 Hornet. A far cry from the interceptors designed in the early Cold War, these new generations of planes emphasised air combat capability as their first priority, with multi-role functions like ground attack as an add-on. In other words, these planes were agile, born to mix it up in dogfights, but could still perform the vital missions of strategic and tactical bombing, close air support, and interdiction. Like the F-16’s fly-by-wire controls, their new control systems maximised the pilot’s command over their aeroplanes. At the same time, head’s up displays enabled pilots to see vital information and keep their eyes on the skies instead of looking down at their instruments and switches.[9]

The prototypes of the YF-16 Fighting Falcon (left) were smaller, lighter, and held less electronics, optimized for the day fighter role. The production model F-16A (right) was larger to incorporate all-weather and ground attack capabilities, among other modifications. (Source: US Air Force)

One of the most significant upgrades was a new model of the heat-seeking Sidewinder missile, the AIM-9L. Unlike previous versions, the ‘L’ (nicknamed ‘Lima’) could be fired from any direction. No longer did pilots need to maneuver behind an enemy after the ‘merge’ (in which two fighters flying head-on zoom past each other before beginning a maneuvering dogfight). This new weapon complimented the new AIM-7F Sparrow missile – a radar-guided missile with improved range and look-down capability. These missiles, combined with the Hughes AN/APG-63 radar housed in the F-15 Eagle’s nose, allowed the new generation of fighters to identify their targets from far beyond what the human eye could see. It also meant they could coordinate with other coalition pilots and “sort” their targets. Maneuvering was still crucial, but as former F-15 pilot Colonel C.R. Anderegg noted:

The cycle of counter vs. counter vs. counter continued, but the fight did not start at 1,000 feet range as in the days of ’40 second Boyd.’ The struggle was starting while the adversaries were thirty miles apart, and the F-15 pilots were seriously intent on killing every adversary pre-merge.[10]

Pilots in previous decades had often decried the lack of a gun on the F-4 and were sceptical of claims that missiles were the way of the future. Missiles were problematic in Vietnam, but in the Gulf War, they dominated. Of the 42 official coalition aerial victories, three were due to ground impact. The only gun kills were two A-10 Thunderbolt IIs that shredded Iraqi helicopters with their infamous GAU-8 cannon. In one case, an F-15E Strike Eagle dropped a laser-guided GBU-10 bomb onto a helicopter and received an aerial victory credit. The remaining 36 – almost 86 per cent – were the result of a guided missile. Of the AIM-7 kills, 16 (44 per cent of the total number of missile kills) were beyond visual range attacks.[11]

Even the best-trained and equipped pilots in the world cannot use their advantages if they are unaware of the threats around them. Effective situational awareness and early warning have proven crucial to air combat success. Throughout Vietnam, several long-range radars provided this capability. Airborne radar and surveillance programs like College Eye and Rivet Top and US Navy ship-based radar-like Red Crown became invaluable to pilots during Vietnam. Bringing the variety of systems together into Project Teaball in the summer of 1972 provided an even more powerful aid to pilots aiming to take out MiGs. Nevertheless, these systems (and the many other similar efforts) had limitations. The invention of pulse-Doppler radar systems enabled a reliable way of distinguishing airborne threats from ground clutter when looking down. This innovation led to the USAF’s E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS). The Navy used a similar concept in their E-2 Hawkeye. These systems gave operators a view of aircraft operating in the entire airspace, allowing them to pass on the word to coalition fighter pilots where the MiGs were from very long ranges. Almost every single aerial encounter during the Gulf War began with a call from AWACS or an E-2.[12]

Know Your Enemy

The US and its allies prepared for a conventional war against the Soviet-style threat that Iraq seemed to be. As the saying goes, the enemy always gets a vote. In the Gulf War case, as one General Accounting Office report put it: ‘the Iraqi air force essentially chose not to challenge the coalition.’[13] Of course, that is not entirely true, as some intense air battles did occur, and a few Iraqi pilots proved quite adept. Nevertheless, overall, the Iraqi Air Force had not invested in air-to-air combat preparedness. There was no Iraqi equivalent of Top Gun or Red Flag, and air-to-air training was lacking. One US Navy Intelligence report stated: ‘Intercept tactics and training [were] still predominantly conservative, elementary, and generally not up to western standards.’ Culturally, while US fighter pilots tended to prize aerial combat, the Iraqi Air Force culture did not, viewing ground attack as a more desirable assignment. As historian Williamson Murray argued, Iraqi pilots ‘did not possess the basic flying skills to exploit fully the capabilities of their aircraft.’[14]

F-15C Eagles of the 58th Tactical Fighter Squadron takeoff on deployment to Saudi Arabia during Operation DESERT SHIELD. (Source: US Air Force)

As F-15s flew combat air patrol missions during the opening strikes, searching for possible MiG threats, infrared cameras revealed one MiG-29 crashing into the ground. At the same time, another launched a missile that destroyed a friendly MiG-23 crossing ahead of it. In some cases, when coalition pilots obtained radar locks, Iraqi pilots made little to no attempt to maneuver before missiles destroyed their planes. When coalition planners began targeting the hardened shelters protecting Iraqi aircraft, many pilots attempted to flee to Iran. Reiterating the Iraqi fighter pilot force’s lack of competence, many of them did not have enough fuel for the trip and crashed. Coalition pilots seized the opportunity to destroy the enemy in the air as they fled.[15]

Conclusion

The lives lost in air combat during the Vietnam War are tragic. Many aircrew members died, others became prisoners, and many suffered lifelong psychological trauma. Every single loss affected the families and loved ones of those crews, creating ripple effects lasting generations. If some strands of hope can be pulled from those tragedies, one of them is that allied airmen’s struggles in the Vietnam War planted the seeds of change that led to the massive increase in air-to-air combat effectiveness in Operation Desert Storm. Technologies, training methods, and tactics first introduced in Southeast Asia continued to mature throughout the 1970s and 1980s, strengthened further by the heat of intellectual debate during those years. The coalition’s effectiveness in air-to-air combat alone did not win the Gulf War, of course. However, it did undoubtedly save many lives and contributed to the US achieving its objectives.

As Horner recalled: ‘Vietnam was a ghost we carried with us.’ One way to exorcise that ghost was by gaining control of the air in Iraq from the outset, which had not happened in Vietnam. It worked. As Horner recalled:

[e]very time the Iraqi interceptor planes, their best defences, took off, it was take off, gear up, blow up, because we had two F-15s sitting on every airfield, overhead every airfield, and so we never gave them a chance.[16]

Dr Michael Hankins is the Curator of US Air Force History at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and is an Editor at From Balloons to Drones. He is a former Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool, and former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018, and a master’s from the University of North Texas in 2013, He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header image: An F-15C Eagle of the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing during Exercise Gallant Eagle, 1986. (Source: US Air Force)

[1] ‘Oral History: Charles Horner,’ Frontline, 9 January 1996.

[2] Sources differ on exact numbers. The best work on the air-to-air aspect of Vietnam to date is Marshal Michel, Clashes: Air Combat over North Vietnam, 1965-1972 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997).

[3] Lewis D. Hill et al, Gulf War Air Power Survey: Volume V: A Statistical Compendium and Chronology (Washington D.C.; US Department of Defense, 1993), p. 637, 641, pp. 653-4; hereafter cited as GWAPS. The one loss was US Navy Lieutenant Commander Michael Scott Speicher. Information about that event can be found here: CIA, FOIA Electronic Reading Room, ‘Intelligence Community Assessment of the Lieutenant Commander Speicher Case,’ 27 March 2001.

[4] For a precis of Boyd’s career, see: Michael Hankins, ‘A Discourse on John Boyd: A Brief Summary of the US Air Force’s Most Controversial Pilot and Thinker,’ From Balloons to Drones, 22 August 2018.

[5] For a pro-reform view, see Grant Hammond, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001); and James Burton, The Pentagon Wars: Reformers Challenge the Old Guard (Annapolis, MD, Naval Institute Press, 1993). The defense establishment view is best represented by Walter Kross, Military Reform: The High-Tech Debate in Tactical Air Forces (Fort McNair: National Defense University Press, 1985); and James C. Slife, Creech Blue: Gen Bill Creech and the Reformation of the Tactical Air Forces, 1978-1984 (Maxwell AFB: Air University Press, 2004).

[6] Robin Olds, with Christina Olds and Ed Rasimus, Fighter Pilot: The Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010), p. 304, 317.

[7] The best overview of the origins of the Red Flag program is Brian Laslie’s The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam (Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2015).

[8] Gaillard R. Peck, Jr., America’s Secret MiG Squadron: The Red Eagles of Project Constant Peg (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2012)

[9] For a history of the development of both aircraft, see Steven A. Fino, Tiger Check: Automating the US Air Force Fighter Pilot in Air-to-Air Combat, 1950-1980 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017); and Michael Hankins, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991’ (PhD thesis, Kansas State University, 2018).

[10] C.R. Anderegg, Sierra Hotel: Flying Air Force Fighters in The Decade After Vietnam (Washington D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 2001), p. 163.

[11] GWAPS Summary Report, p. 60; GWAPS V5, pp. 653-4; Daniel Haulman, ‘No Contest: Aerial Combat in the 1990s,’ Presentation, Society for Military History annual meeting, May 2001, 6; Craig Brown, Debrief: A Complete History of U.S. Aerial Engagements, 1981 to the Present (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Military History, 2007), pp. 23-149.

[12] Kenneth P. Werrell, Chasing the Silver Bullet: U.S. Air Force Weapons Development from Vietnam to Desert Storm (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2003), pp. 187-205; Michael Hankins, ‘The Teaball Solution: The Evolution of Air Combat Technology in Vietnam, 1968-1972,’ Air Power History 63 (2016), pp. 7-24; Michael Hankins, ‘#AirWarVietnam – Making a MiG-Killer: Technology and Signals Intelligence for Air-to-Air Combat in Vietnam,’ From Balloons to Drones, 15 August 2019. For details of individual encounters, see Brown, Debrief.

[13] GAO/NSIAD-97-134, ‘Operation Desert Storm: Evaluation of the Air Campaign,’ United States General Accounting Office Report to the Ranking Minority Member, Committee on Commerce, House of Representatives, June 1997, p. 66.

[14] Williamson Murray, with Wayne M. Thompson, Air War in the Persian Gulf (Baltimore, MD: The Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America, 1995), 67, 92.

[15] Brown, Debrief, pp. 51-73; Murray, Air War, pp. 110-1, p. 162, 180.

[16] ‘Oral History: Charles Horner,’ Frontline, 9 January 1996.

#DesertStorm30 – Lessons Taught, Lessons Forgotten

#DesertStorm30 – Lessons Taught, Lessons Forgotten

By Dr Benjamin S. Lambeth

Editorial Note: 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of Operation DESERT STORM. To mark this anniversary, during 2021, From Balloons to Drones will be publishing a series of articles that examine various aspects of DESERT STORM’s air campaign. We will be publishing pieces throughout 2021, and if you would like to contribute to the series, please contact our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Ross Mahoney, at airpowerstudies@gmail.com or via our contact page here. The official call for submissions can be found here.

From Balloons to Drones is pleased to be working in conjunction with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies to publish a series of articles on various aspects of the DESERT STORM air campaign. These articles were initially published as part of a Mitchell Institute of Aerospace Studies special report, Desert Storm: 30 Years Later – Lessons from the 1991 Air Campaign in the Persian Gulf War. These article were originally presented at a day-long Mitchell Institute program on the DESERT STORM air campaign held on 19 March 2016, You can download the report here.

In this latest instalment, we are pleased to present a piece by Dr Benjamin Lambeth of the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment. In this article, Lambeth discusses some of the lessons learnt and forgotten from the DESERT STORM air campaign and their influence on more recent operations.

It is a special honor for me to have been invited to share the podium with this symposium’s roster of distinguished speakers to offer some final thoughts on what I believe we all would agree still remains even today – a quarter of a century later – the most epic American combat experience since Vietnam. Having now heard all of the preceding presentations this afternoon, I believe that my charter for my concluding remarks is to try to reinforce the most important and memorable recollections that were voiced earlier by those who were actually there in the fight—both in the war zone in Southwest Asia and back here in Washington.

A Combat First

To begin with, as most of you all will remember, not long after Operation Desert Storm ended, then-Secretary of the Air Force Don Rice commissioned the Gulf War Air Power Survey, or GWAPS as it is more commonly called for short. That was an in-depth, five-volume assessment of the air war modeled on the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey conducted after World War II. Professor Eliot Cohen at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies here in Washington led it.

In the preface to their unclassified synopsis of the GWAPS effort, Eliot and his co-author Tom Keaney wrote that one important purpose of the exercise had been to provide ‘an analytical and evidentiary point of departure for future studies of the air campaign.’ Inspired by that enticement, I subsequently sought to try my best to make broader sense of the Gulf War and its meaning in a substantial study of American air power’s evolution since Vietnam that was sponsored by General Ron Fogelman during his tenure as Air Force chief of staff. That study was eventually published as a commercial book by Cornell University Press in 2000. After much careful consideration, I finally chose as its title, The Transformation of American Air Power. I did so, I will now admit, before what I later came to disparage as the ‘T-word’ became so popularized and devalued by the Rumsfeld Pentagon that it eventually ended up meaning almost anything one might want it to mean. But I still have no regrets over having made that title choice, since, if used with all due discretion and discipline, ‘transformation’ remains an uncommonly powerful word. My dictionary defines ‘to transform’ as ‘to change the nature or character of something radically.’ And that is exactly what I believe happened to the substantially improved American air posture after Vietnam that we finally took to war against Saddam Hussein in 1991.

A F/A-18C Hornet strike-fighter VMFA-232 of the US Marine Corps taxies on the runway before a mission in support of Operation DESERT STORM. (Source: US National Archives and Records Administration)

Transformed Airpower in Action

We have already heard abundant first-hand testimony this afternoon as to the main details of the air component’s performance throughout the campaign, so I will not waste time recapitulating any of those events in my own remarks. Let me just say that after the campaign’s cease-fire went into effect, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind about the determining influence that the initial air attacks had in producing the subsequent course and outcome of Desert Storm. Those attacks against Iraq’s air defenses and command and control facilities were uniformly effective, with initially, more than 600 strike sorties launched in radio silence against the country’s most significant targets the first night and with just one coalition aircraft lost to enemy fire—a Navy F/A-18, presumably to a lucky long-range infrared-guided air-to-air missile fired from an Iraqi MiG-25 that had somehow escaped being detected and identified by our E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft that was operating on station nearby. Over the next three days, the air war struck at the entire spectrum of Iraq’s military assets, gaining unchallenged control of the air and the needed freedom to operate with near-impunity against Iraq’s airfields, ground forces, and other targets of interest. In one of the first serious assessments of the campaign’s air offensive to have appeared in print after the dust settled, the United Kingdom’s most respected commentator on air warfare, retired RAF Air Vice-Marshal Tony Mason, aptly characterized it as ‘the apotheosis of 20th-century air power.’

Perhaps the single most important point to be made about the planning approach that underlay Desert Storm’s air effort has to do with its having sought and achieved desired combat effects as a major departure from our earlier targeting practice. For example, there was no assessed need for the air component of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) that conducted the campaign to destroy each and every last Iraqi acquisition and tracking radar and surface-to-air missile (SAM) site. It was enough for it simply to be so effective in its initial SAM-suppression attacks that Iraq’s SAM operators were intimidated from turning on their radars and engaging the coalition’s attacking aircraft, since they had quickly learned from the first-hand experience of others that if they did, they would invite a high-speed anti-radiation missile (HARM) shot down their throats with the certainty of sunrise.

And, by the same token, there was no assessed need for the air component to destroy each and every last Iraqi fighter aircraft. The coalition was so totally dominating in the air-to-air arena that the Iraqi Air Force soon lost any incentive to turn a wheel. Before long, it was said by some inside observers of the ongoing air war that the three most fearsome words to an Iraqi fighter pilot were ‘cleared for takeoff.’

An aerial view of four hardened aircraft shelters at Kuwait International Airport that were attacked by coalition air forces seeking to destroy Iraq aircraft during Operation DESERT STORM. (Source: US National Archives and Records Administration)

What Made it Possible?

To sum it all up in brief, American airpower showed during Operation Desert Storm that it had finally matured in its ability to deliver the kinds of outcome-determining results that its early visionaries had promised in vain years before. Thanks to our exploitation of the latest technology, our pursuit of more realistic aircrew training, and our development of better strategies and concepts of operations after Vietnam, American airpower in all services underwent a nonlinear growth in capability as a result of the advent of stealth and our ability to attack targets consistently with high accuracy around the clock. Only later, of course, with the subsequent advent of the satellite-aided Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), could it do so in any weather conditions as well.

But by the time of Desert Storm, our air assets had finally gained what they needed by way of combat wherewithal to set the conditions for victory in high-intensity warfare. They also ever more steadily came to supplant the traditional role of our ground forces in contributing the bulk of heavy lifting toward achieving joint-force combat objectives, with friendly ground forces now fixing enemy ground troops and air power doing most of the killing of them rather than the other way around, as had been the case in all previous joint air and land operations.

To offer just two examples of this momentous combat role reversal, during the pre-campaign Operation Desert Shield buildup of allied forces in the war zone, CENTCOM shipped nearly 220,000 rounds of M1A1 Abrams main battle tank ammunition to the forward area, of which less than 2 percent were actually fired in combat. For its part, the air component dropped more than 23,000 bombs on Iraq’s ground forces, making for 67 percent of the campaign’s overall air effort.

By the same token, fast-forwarding to the three-week major combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in early 2003, the U.S. Army flew only two deep-attack missions with fewer than 80 of its AH-64 Apache attack helicopters, and it fired only 414 of its high-end MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) in support of its march northward from Kuwait to the heart of Baghdad. In contrast, CENTCOM’s air component during the same three weeks flew more than 20,000 strike sorties, using 735 fighters and 51 bombers to attack, with devastating effect, more than 15,000 Iraqi target aim points in direct facilitation of CENTCOM’s land offensive, but also mostly ahead of and independent of any friendly ground-force action.

Perhaps the most compelling testimony to what that air capability allowed in Operation Iraqi Freedom came from Lieutenant Nate Fick, a Marine Corps platoon commander during CENTCOM’s land offensive, who later wrote in his book One Bullet Away:

For the next hundred miles, all the way to the gates of Baghdad, every palm grove hid Iraqi armor, every field an artillery battery, and every alley an antiaircraft gun or surface-to-air missile launcher. But we never fired a shot. We saw the full effect of American air power. Every one of those fearsome weapons was a blackened hulk.

Later Airpower Successes

With respect to the air component’s successful performance in beating down Iraq’s ground forces in the Kuwaiti Theater of Operations (KTO) in just a little more than a month to a point where they no longer presented a major threat to the coalition’s final four-day land push, some observers tended for a time afterwards to dismiss that performance as nothing more than a one-off anomaly. It was, they said dismissively, the open desert setting, or the unusual vulnerability of Iraq’s armored forces to precision attacks from above, or any number of other unique circumstances that somehow made the air war an exception to the familiar time-honored rule that it takes friendly ‘boots on the ground’ in large numbers, and ultimately in head-to-head close combat, to defeat well-endowed enemy forces in high-intensity warfare.

To many people, that argument sounded reasonable enough when American and allied air power’s rapid rout of the Iraqi army was something the world had never seen before. Yet in the 12 years that followed Desert Storm, allied air power prevailed again in four widely dissimilar subsequent cases, starting with NATO’s two air-dominated wars over the Balkans in 1995 and 1999 and followed soon thereafter by Operation Enduring Freedom against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in late 2001 and then by the major combat phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March and April 2003. True enough, in none of those five cases, with the one exception of Kosovo, did air power produce the sought-after result all by itself. Yet one can fairly say that in each instance a mature air component was the main enabler of all else that followed by way of producing the desired outcome at such a low cost in friendly and noncombatant enemy lives lost. In so doing, American air power showed to the world that it had finally come of age, at least for high-intensity wars against well-equipped enemy forces.

A US Air Force F-15 Eagle from the 494th Fighter Squadron taxis for take-off for an airstrike against a Bosnian Serb target during Operation DELIBERATE FORCE. (Source: US National Archives and Records Administration)

Airpower’s Triumphant Years

In the wake of that uninterrupted succession of air warfare achievements, the first twelve years that followed Desert Storm looked for the entire world like an unqualified air power success story. Thanks to its preeminent role in the 1991 Gulf War, it seemed to many that the air weapon had finally become the tool of first choice for U. S. Joint Task Force (JTF) commanders. That impression was further reinforced by the similarly preeminent role played by air power in shaping the equally successful outcomes of Operations Deliberate Force and Allied Force in 1995 and 1999. Indeed, as Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute remarked at the turn of the 21st century, by the time the second Bush administration took office in January 2001, ‘not only did it look like air power could win wars, but there was a new crop of policymakers ready to embrace that message,’ starting with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

That view was further reinforced by the outcomes of the major combat phases of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom in late 2001 and early 2003, both of which were also largely enabled by the effective use of air power in making possible the unimpeded ground operations that brought an early end to the existing regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. In all, by the end of major combat in Iraq in April 2003 after just three weeks of sustained allied air and land operations, the evolved capabilities offered by transformed American air power seemed finally to have heralded a new style of war for the United States and its coalition partners, at least with respect to high-intensity combat against conventional forces like the ones that Saddam Hussein had fielded.

A New Insurgent Challenge

Unfortunately for that fact-based and well-founded conviction, however, the end of major combat in Iraq heralded a new era of warfare for Americans in not just one way but in two. Just as the Iraqi Freedom experience confirmed our final mastery of high-intensity combat, it also confronted us with a newly emergent wave of counterinsurgency fighting for the first time since Vietnam. That second challenge, for which we were totally unprepared, became clear within just days of the occupation’s onset as coalition ground forces were shown to have been both completely untrained and un-resourced to meet the needs of post-campaign stabilization. A similar challenge arose in Afghanistan after the Bush team took its eye off the ball there, opening up a chance for the Taliban to move back into the ensuing power vacuum in an attempt to regain control of the country.

Before our initial successes in Afghanistan and Iraq went sour and morphed into prolonged land-centric wars of attrition, the main focus of the American defense debate in Washington had been on the relative merits of air power versus ground power in joint high-intensity combat. By the time we were ready to take on Iraq in 2003, the American ‘boots on the ground’ community had clearly become the more beleaguered of the two in the continuing inter-service tug-of-war over roles and resources. However, the insurgencies that soon thereafter consumed us in Iraq and Afghanistan for half a decade and more entailed enemy wartime conduct of a quite different sort—designed to avoid our greatest strengths and instead to make the most of our vulnerabilities and weaknesses. As a result, the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps gained a new lease on life after 2003 as the challenges of combating newly-emergent insurgencies moved the spotlight from air power to our ground forces as those bearing the brunt of daily combat losses and accordingly those in greatest need of daily sustenance and funding.

Lessons Forgotten in the Fight Against ISIS

Looking now at our current effort against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), it has already been under way at a lethargic pace for more than two years, with still no end in sight or any truly significant progress achieved so far, yet at a cost of more than $5 billion in sunk cost to date, to say nothing of the additional cost in reduced service life for our jets that have flown so many combat sorties for so little gain. To my mind, it has been more than disheartening to see just how far we seem to have regressed in the 25 years since the first President Bush told us after Desert Storm that “we’d finally kicked the Vietnam syndrome.” We are now back to Vietnam all over again, it appears, with the return of the daily body count and CENTCOM’s daily recital of the number of sorties flown, bombs dropped, and targets attacked in the absence of any more meaningful metrics of performance to show how effectively we are actually faring.

I am reminded too in this regard of how we seem to have forgotten the wise counsel of the classic Prussian military philosopher Carl von Clausewitz, who stressed the criticality of correct situation assessment and of duly fighting the war one is actually in rather than the war one believes one is in or would prefer to be in. In that respect as well, it is hardly surprising that a U.S. Army-dominated CENTCOM that has been so deeply habituated to counterinsurgency warfare as a daily diet for more than a decade would naturally roll into this latest fight against ISIS as though it were just a continuation of the counterinsurgency war in Iraq. That unthinking approach has, among other things, occasioned the draconian no-civilian-casualties rules of engagement that have so badly hampered our air effort since it began ever so haltingly in early August 2014.

But ISIS is not an insurgency. On the contrary, it is a self-avowed emerging nation state that is replete with coherent leadership, territory, an infrastructure, an economy, a central nervous system, and the beginnings of a capable conventional army, all of which are eminently targetable by precision air power. Accordingly, it should be engaged by our air assets as such and not in the more gradualist and ineffectual way in which CENTCOM has pursued the Obama administration’s half-hearted campaign so far.

Two US Navy E/A-18G Growlers and two US Marine Corps F/A-18C Hornets fly in formation over the US Central Command area of responsibility in support of Operation INHERENT RESOLVE, 25 September 2020. (Source: US Department of Defense)

Has Airpower Paid a Price for Its Precision?

In that regard, before turning to my final reflections on Desert Storm, it behooves us to ask first how the current fight against ISIS may offer the latest telling example of how our very ability to avoid causing noncombatant casualties in warfare almost routinely has increasingly rendered air power a victim of its own success since 1991. People like most of us in the audience here whose formative images of air power were steeped in Vietnam had our eyes opened during the first few nights of Desert Storm by watching cockpit weapon system video clips on the nightly TV news showing laser-guided bombs homing down the air shafts of Iraqi bunkers one after the other with unerring precision. Thanks to that substantially improved capability that was first pioneered in Vietnam, avoiding unintended civilian casualties in the course of conducting air strikes naturally became a goal that air campaign planners sought to bend every effort to strive for in future conflicts.

But by the time of Operation Deliberate Force against the Bosnian Serbs in 1995, just four scant years after Desert Storm, American political leaders and rank-and-file citizens alike had become so habituated to such accuracy that what campaign planners once strove for in good faith, because air power could now generally permit it, had become not just expected but was now a binding precondition for getting an approval to drop a bomb or strafe a target. Even one inadvertent civilian fatality as the result of an errant air attack was now likely to become front-page news, as it has been ever since our would-be air war against ISIS began in early August 2014.

True enough, air power’s heightened ability to minimize unintended civilian casualties in warfare has brought along with it a new responsibility on the part of airmen to make the most of that ability in their target planning in good faith. But at the same time, it has also levied a new challenge on our most senior leaders, both civilian and uniformed, to do better at managing public expectations when even the most stringent Laws of Armed Conflict are not as exacting as our own self-imposed rules of engagement have lately become. Otherwise, collateral damage avoidance will continue to trump mission accomplishment in priority, which is tantamount to the tail wagging the dog in the conduct of war.

What Made Desert Storm Unique

With all of that by way of background, how can we best summarize the main takeaways to be drawn from the 1991 Persian Gulf War? For my money, American air power between the end of the Vietnam War and the start of Operation Desert Storm had finally evolved to a point where it had become truly strategic in its character, thanks to its by-then proven ability to produce outcome-determining effects. That was not the case before the advent of low observability to enemy radar, precision target attack capability, and vastly better real-time battlespace situation awareness in the American air posture. Earlier air wars were limited in the combat successes they could achieve because it simply took too many aircraft and too many losses to achieve too few results at too high a cost. But by 1991, American air power had finally arrived at a point where it could make its presence felt quickly and could impose effects on an enemy from the very outset of fighting that could have a determining influence on the subsequent course and outcome of a campaign. How? In large part by enabling almost unopposed friendly ground maneuver and thereby establishing the needed conditions for achieving a JTF commander’s campaign goals fairly quickly. Or, put more simply, by granting JTF commanders and their subordinate forces freedom from attack and freedom to attack.

This breakthrough in capability, however, was not just about technology. As Congressman Les Aspin rightly remarked after the Gulf War ended when he was still chairman of the House Armed Services Committee: ‘One, the equipment worked and was vindicated against its critics.’ But also, he added: ‘Two, we know how to orchestrate it and use it in a way that makes the sum bigger than all the parts.’ His second point in that statement was really the more important of the two by far. For if Desert Storm’s ultimate successfulness heralded any ‘revolution’ in warfare, then it was as a result of the campaign’s effective exploitation of all the inputs discussed earlier this afternoon, including the critically important and unquantifiable intangibles like training, tactics, proficiency, skilled leadership, concepts of operations, and boldness in execution in addition to all the technology magic that Americans usually fixate on when considering the main ingredients of military capability.

What the Gulf War Bequeathed to Us

In light of all the foregoing, it is long past time for airmen to stop seeking their intellectual guidance from such outmoded prophets as the Italian general Giulio Douhet, who advocated for air power at a time in the early 1920s when it was still embryonic and had virtually nothing in common with what it has since become today. If we need to identify new sources of such guidance for tomorrow’s still-evolving air weapon, then they should be drawn instead from the successor generation of American airmen whose path breaking insights into force employment allowed the example set by airpower’s more recently acquired performance capabilities in 1991. For in Operation Desert Storm, air power showed, for the first time ever, its ability to achieve strategic effects directly through its increased survivability and lethality. In earlier years, air forces sought to impose the greatest possible pain on enemy populations and industry, as was done against Germany and Japan in World War II and even against North Vietnam toward that war’s end in 1972, because such a strategy was the only one that air power could then underwrite with any hope of achieving success. Today, however, there is so much more one can do with air power to produce combat outcomes that more directly affect an enemy’s ability—not his will, but his ability—to continue fighting.

Of course, all force elements, including ground forces, have the opportunity in principle to seek the effects of mass without actually having to mass by leveraging modern technology to the fullest in quest of greater precision in force employment. But what was unique about modern air power as it first showed its hand in 1991 was that it had finally pulled well ahead of surface forces in its relative ability to do this, thanks not only to its newly-gained advantages in stealth, target-attack accuracy, and battlespace awareness, but also to its long-standing and enduring characteristics of speed, range, and flexibility. That, I would suggest, is the main legacy of air power’s transformation since Vietnam that we saw demonstrated for the first time in Operation Desert Storm.

Dr Benjamin S. Lambeth is a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in the US. He assumed this position in July 2011 after a 37-year career as a Senior Research Associate at the RAND Corporation, where he remains an adjunct associate. Before joining RAND in 1975, he served in the Office of National Estimates at the Central Intelligence Agency. A civil-rated pilot, Lambeth has flown or flown in more than 40 different types of fighter, attack, and jet trainer aircraft with the U.S. Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, and with eight foreign air forces worldwide. He also attended the USAF’s Tactical Fighter Weapons and Tactics Course and Combined Force Air Component Commander Course, the Aerospace Defense Command’s Senior Leaders’ Course, and portions of the Navy Fighter Weapons School (TOPGUN) and Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Instructor’s Course. In 2008, Lambeth was appointed by the Secretary of Defense to serve an eight-year term as a member of the Board of Visitors of Air University, which he completed in 2016. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Air Force Association, the U.S. Naval Institute, the Association of Naval Aviation, the Red River Valley Fighter Pilots Association, and the Editorial Advisory Boards of Air and Space Power Journal and Strategic Studies Quarterly. He is the author of numerous books including The Transformation of American Air Power (2000), which won the Air Force Association’s Gill Robb Wilson Award for Arts and Letters in 2001. His most recent book is Airpower in the War against ISIS (2021).

#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.