The 12 May 2019 tanker attacks off the United Arab Emirates coast in the Persian Gulf by suspected Iranian or Iran-backed saboteurs reminded us of the high-stakes Tanker War during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).
During the Iran-Iraq War, from around 1984, merchant tankers sailing through the Persian Gulf were regularly targeted by both Iraqi and Iranian forces in the Tanker War. The Iraqis frequently used air power to target Iranian oil tankers and merchant ships in an attempt to wage economic warfare against Iran – a strategic move to strangle Iran’s economic lifeline. One of the primary aircraft used by the Iraqis to conduct anti-shipping operations was the Dassault Mirage F1, which was armed with Exocet missiles.
The Mirage F1 was the Dassault’s answer to several technological challenges faced by the famous delta-winged Mirage III. The Mirage III made its mark during the Six Day War when the Israelis used their Mirage IIIs successfully in their opening pre-emptive strikes against its Arab neighbours. The Mirage III, however, had inherent weaknesses – its delta wing meant that the Mirage III had to land with a high pitch at high speeds, often causing accidents with inexperienced pilots. It also required long airstrips for its take-off run and landing, making these large airfields easy to spot and vulnerable to enemy counter strikes. The Mirage IIIs were also unable to operate from robust forward air bases. The Mirage III, with its delta wings, was less agile at low altitude compared with other non-delta winged aircraft and had a short operational radius.
All these weaknesses were remedied in the new Mirage F1. The F1 featured a high mounted swept wing and a conventional tail design, dumping the use of delta wings. These changes enabled the F1 to carry 40 per cent more fuel, translating to a longer operational radius, a shorter take-off run and slower landing speed, and all-around better manoeuvrability. The F1 was armed with two DEFA 553 30-mm cannons with 135 rounds per gun with a typical intercept load of two Matra Super 530 and two R.550 Magic anti-aircraft missiles.
The Mirage F1 was a success with the French Air Force, which acquired and used it as their primary interceptor aircraft in the 1970s and 1980s. It was also exported to numerous countries including Spain, South Africa (where it saw combat as a strike aircraft), and Iraq.
The Iraqis acquired the Mirage F1 in the late 1970s, and its first F1s were delivered just in time to participate in the Iran-Iraq War. The Mirage F1s performed remarkably well in obtaining air superiority (shooting down the first Iranian F-14 Tomcat in a dogfight in November 1981), ground attack roles (both close air support and interdiction strikes) and anti-shipping missions. Armed with Exocet missiles, the Mirage F1 made its mark in conducting anti-shipping operations against Iranian-flagged oil tankers and merchant ships during the Tanker War.
Mirage F1s attacked and damaged numerous oil tankers and conducted air raids against Iranian oil terminals at Kharg Island. Their use culminated in the attack on USS Stark (an Oliver Hazard Perry guided missile frigate) on 17 May 1987. The Stark was hit by two Exocets launched from an Iraqi Mirage F1. The attack damaged the Stark and killed 37 US sailors but did not sink it. The Iraqis claimed that the pilot had mistaken the frigate as an Iranian oil tanker. Interestingly, recently, there have been questions raised regarding the type of aircraft that launched the attack.
Iraqi Mirage F1s continued to operate during the First Gulf War. In a desperate attempt to hit back at the US-led coalition forces, two Mirage F1s armed with incendiary bombs took part in an air strike attempting to destroy the Saudi oil refinery in Abqaiq, but both were shot down by a Royal Saudi Air Force F-15.
Although the Mirage F1 has mostly been retired from service, limited numbers still serve in a few air forces today, ironically including Iran, which had confiscated 24 Iraqi Mirage F1s that were flown into Iran during the First Gulf War to prevent their destruction. The non-delta winged Mirage F1, although not as famous as the Mirage III, has given extraordinary service for its users and should be given better recognition than it deserves.
Dr Adam Leong Kok Wey is Associate Professor in Strategic Studies, and the Deputy Director of Research in the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies (CDISS) at the National Defence University of Malaysia. He has a PhD in strategic studies from the University of Reading and is the author of two books on military strategy and history including Killing the Enemy: Assassination operations during World War II (2015) published by IB Tauris.
Header Image: A US sailor scans for mines from the bow of the guided missile frigate USS Nicolas during an Operation Earnest Will convoy mission, in which tankers are led through the waters of the Persian Gulf by US warships, c. 1988. (Source: Wikimedia)
Editorial Note: In the first part of a two-part article, Dr Peter Layton explores the evolution of the armed unmanned aircraft from its first use in the Second World War through to the First Gulf War.
In the Solomon Islands off Australia’s northern shores, on the 19 October 1944, a US Navy flown, Interstate Aircraft-built TDR-1 dropped a mix of ten 100lb and 500lb bombs against Japanese gun emplacements on Ballale Island. This was the first operational armed unmanned aircraft attack in history.
The twin-engined unmanned aircraft involved was just one of some fifty sent into combat in late 1944 with Special Task Air Group One. The armed unmanned aircraft took off under radio control that was then transferred to accompanying manned TBM-1C Avenger control aircraft for the long transit to the target area. The control aircraft remained some 8-12 kilometres outside of the ground defences while using a data linked real-time video picture displayed on a cockpit mounted television screen for close-in guidance. Few of the Air Group personnel involved had even seen a television set before they joined the unit. Their feats would not be replicated until early in the 21st century.
In truth, while after 1944-armed unmanned aircraft continued to attract considerable interest and at times funding, the technology available was too immature. The crucial issue was to find technological solutions that could overcome the many problems arising from not having a person in the aircraft. Finding the right blend of complex technological solutions took several decades, but this was not enough to see armed unmanned aircraft fly again in combat. There had to be a compelling operational need only they could best meet.
Curiously enough, the next armed unmanned aircraft was again operated by the US Navy. In the 1950s, the US Navy was concerned that the Soviets were building submarines faster than it could build anti-submarine warfare (ASW) destroyers. The solution was to upgrade a large number of old Second World War vessels, but these were too small to operate manned ASW helicopters from. Soviet submarines of the time could fire on ASW destroyers at longer ranges than the destroyers could fire back. A helicopter that could drop homing torpedoes was necessary to allow them to engage first. The answer was the small QH-50 Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter controlled by the ship’s crew through a line-of-sight data link and able to deliver two MK-44 ASW homing torpedoes where and when required. There were numerous problems and many crashes, but hundreds were built and saw service throughout the 1960s.
QH-50 enthusiasts consider the more pressing operational demands arising from the worsening Vietnam War prematurely killed the unmanned helicopter off, and in this, they may be right. In the second half of the 1960s, there was a significant air war almost daily over North Vietnam. Attacking US Air Force (USAF) and US Navy strike aircraft were pitched against a continually improving Soviet-equipped integrated air defence system featuring the latest SA-2 and SA-3 Surface-to-Air Missile systems. Bomb damage assessment was a real problem; bad weather and the heavy defences made manned aircraft reconnaissance problematic.
The solution was a fast jet, unmanned aircraft and again hundreds were built, and thousands of sorties flown. These Ryan Lightning Bugs were launched from modified C-130 transport aircraft, flew pre-planned missions and were then recovered using a parachute that was caught in mid-air by a large helicopter. This was an inflexible and expensive way to do business that only fitted the oddities of the Vietnam air environment. With the war’s end in 1975, interest also faded albeit after some trials of armed unmanned aircraft carrying bombs and missiles.
The USAF’s focus shifted to the European Central front then characterised by strong air defences, long-range fighters, a harsh electromagnetic environment and extensive jamming. Launching and recovering unmanned aircraft using slow, vulnerable C-130 transports and CH-53 helicopters in such a hostile air environment looked both very unappealing and most probably operationally ineffective.
The need that drove TDR-1 development however remained. When attacking well-defended targets in a significant war, aircrew survivability was still a real concern. In the late 1970s, the aircrew losses in a new major European War looked as though they would be exceptionally heavy, but there would not be time to bring newly trained aircrews into service as in the Second World War: what should be done? Could armed unmanned aircraft meet the need? After much thought and numerous experiments, the answer adopted instead was to invest sizable funds into high performance manned aircraft equipped with stand-off precision-guided weapons that lowered the sortie numbers required to inflict the necessary damage, field a fleet of electronic warfare attack aircraft able to defeat hostile SAM systems and build secret stealth bombers, the F-117 fleet. This approach was stunningly validated in the short very successful air campaign of the 1991 Gulf War.
Unmanned aircraft lost out not because of aviator biases as some assume but because of their technological immaturity, their relative operational ineffectiveness and their prohibitive costs. Other systems were just plain better. Unmanned aircraft were left as a potential solution in search of a mission. However, the world was about to change.
Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book Grand Strategy.
Header Image: An Interstate TDR-1 at the National Museum of Naval Aviation, Pensacola, Florida. (Source: Wikimedia)
A recent post on the popular website The Aviation Geek Club told the story of what they called ‘the most epic 1 v 1 dogfight in the history of naval aviation.’ This is the story in which Lieutenants Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham and William Driscoll, from among the first batch of graduates from the US Navy’s then-new Top Gun training program, shot down the number one North Vietnamese Air Force fighter ace, Colonel Toon, and became the first American aces of the war. Very little of that tale is true, but it makes for an exciting story, and this website is not the first to tell it. Although the details of these claims bear some scrutiny, the tale raises more interesting more significant questions about how and why legends like this form and grow over time.
Combat situations breed storytellers. Any stressful, exciting, death-inducing human endeavour does. Perhaps even more so among fighter pilots engaging in acrobatic dogfights at near (or above) the speed of sound, combat stories, as they are told and retold, heard and re-heard, become legendary. Especially enticing is the need to explain defeat or even a lack of decisive victory. During the Vietnam War, skilled North Vietnamese pilots shot down US aircraft in numbers that some Americans found embarrassing. The final official tally of air-to-air combat kills was 137 to 67, almost exactly 2:1 in favour of the US. This sounds like a victory to some. Indeed, General William Momyer, Commander US Seventh Air Force, saw it that way when he recalled later that winning by 2:1 was ‘an acceptable rate.’ However, it did not seem acceptable to those who drew historical comparisons. The US had fared better in previous wars, peaking in the Korean War, which saw US F-86 pilots defeating MiG-15s by a factor of more than 10:1. By those standards, Vietnam felt like a massive step backwards.
Explaining the seeming backslide in combat performance was the official task of several investigations, from the US Air Force’s Red Baron Reports to the US Navy’s Ault Report. Pilots ranted about the poor performance of their planes, especially the F-4 Phantom’s thick black smoke trails that gave away its position to anyone caring to look up. Pilots scoffed at the lack of training in basic combat manoeuvring, much less dogfight training. They decried the fact that only ten percent of their missiles hit anything, and that their F-4s lacked the most basic instrument of air combat: a gun. Without a trigger to pull, many argued, how were they supposed to shoot anyone down?
Other pilots took to creating legends. What could explain the fact that so many US aircraft were getting shot out of the sky by an allegedly inferior, third-world country’s hand-me-down air force that only had a few dozen aeroplanes to its name? There must be an amazing, inexplicable, near-mythical, born-genius dogfighter on the enemy side.
Thus, was born the legend of Colonel Toon, AKA Colonel Tomb, AKA Nguyen Tomb.
Telling the Tale
As the legend goes, Toon was more than a double ace, with at least twelve kills to his name, maybe as high as 14, which was how many stars were allegedly painted on the side of his MiG. Toon displayed the typical fighter pilot personality characteristics of aggressiveness and independence. He utilised frequent head-on attacks and a ‘lone wolf’ style of engaging in which he refused to obey the orders of his ground controller and engaged F-4s in vertical manoeuvres, where his MiG was at an inherent disadvantage. According to the typical story, as American pilots struggled, the US Navy’s Ault Report had led to the introduction of Top Gun: a graduate school for fighter pilots. The intensive training there gave US Navy aviators the skills to destroy MiGs wherever they found them. Moreover, allegedly, Top Gun graduates Cunningham and Driscoll used their newly found skills to shoot Toon out of the sky on 10 May, during a massive dogfight at the beginning of Operation Linebacker. Cunningham claimed this himself, and the story is still often repeated in popular outlets.
There is just one problem: almost none of this is true. Top Gun, although undoubtedly useful, was, at the time, a tiny outfit that many leaders in the US Navy did not take seriously. The narrative of Top Gun as the saving grace of air-to-air combat also ignores all of the other useful changes instigated by the Ault Report, as well as other practices the US Navy was doing at the time. These included enhancements to their aircraft, upgraded missiles, the increased reliance on early warning radar systems that gave pilots situational awareness, and the increase in jamming of enemy communications that limited North Vietnamese situational awareness. Besides that, Cunningham and Driscoll were not even Top Gun graduates. Moreover, what of Colonel Toon? He was simply not real. He did not exist.
To unravel these tales, let’s start with Cunningham and Driscoll at Top Gun. The principal disputed aspect of the common claim hinges on the word ‘graduates.’ Cunningham and Driscoll had not been students at Top Gun, but they were involved with the school. Before the start of Operation Linebacker in 1972, Top Gun was in bad shape. It had struggled and fought to get access to aeroplanes to train in, and throughout 1971 most of the instructors assumed it was only a matter of time before the US Navy would shut the place down. With limited student slots, selection for Top Gun was competitive. Only the top-performing pilots of select squadrons were picked, and Cunningham had simply not made the cut – twice. Cunningham’s roommate Jim McKinney, and later Steve Queen, both of whom were his colleagues in VF-96, were selected ahead of him. This was in part because they were viewed as more skilled, partially because Top Gun selection favoured career officers the US Navy could count on to stay in the service after the war, which did not, at that time, describe Cunningham. Also, as his skipper noted, Cunningham was simply immature. Top officers and those selected for the coveted Top Gun training needed to be more than just typical fighter jocks, they needed to be well-rounded officers capable of strong leadership. Cunningham’s commander did not see those qualities in him. His fellow pilots noted the same lack of leadership. When Cunningham later pled guilty to taking millions of dollars in bribes as a congressman, those that served with him said they were ‘not necessarily surprised,’ because even when he was a pilot during the war, he had shown a remarkable lack of officership. Some noted that Cunningham was ‘a mind undistracted by complicated thoughts.’
Just because Cunningham was passed over for Top Gun does not mean he was not participating in some way. In 1971, during his squadron’s turnaround period, Cunningham was assigned to temporary duty at Top Gun as a ‘gopher,’ mostly doing paperwork for the school. However, it gave him a chance to listen to some of the lessons and occasionally sit in the backseat of adversary aircraft. He spent much time with the Top Gun instructors, including Jim Laing, J.C. Smith, Dave Frost, and Jim Ruliffson. The squadron then went on leave for a month, during which time Cunningham’s new commanding officer, Early Winn, permitted him to run exercises in the squadron’s F-4 Phantoms since they would be sitting idle for that time. Cunningham used the opportunity to practice what he had learned from his informal lessons. Upon returning from leave, the whole squadron became the first to go through the new Fleet Adversary Program, which some described as ‘mini-Top Gun.’ Primarily the program was a short workshop that introduced some of the concepts that Top Gun explored in more detail. VF-96 ran the workshop twice before returning to Vietnam.
The claim that Cunningham and Driscoll were Top Gun graduates, as is often repeated, is false, but it is easy to see why many might be confused about that. Indeed, in an ad hoc sense, the pair had some access to higher level training than others, including Top Gun instructors. The other claim; that the duo’s fifth kill was the legendary Toon – or that there even was a Toon – is much more dubious.
Part of the confusion comes from the insistence of US SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) by the National Security Agency (NSA) that Toon was real. Claiming to have cracked the North Vietnamese callsign system, the NSA, intercepting enemy communications, began keeping track of individual pilots. They especially singled-out a North Vietnamese MiG-21 ace pilot named Toon, based at Phuc Yen, who developed a reputation for aggressively disrupting B-52 raids. They referred to him as ‘The Red Baron of North Vietnam,’ or ‘an airborne outlaw in the image of a Wild West gunslinger,’ who, whenever he was spotted, ‘U.S. planes took up the chase like some sheriff’s posse of old.’ The NSA claimed that Momyer was ‘obsessed’ with destroying Toon. This could be possible, although it is strange then, that Momyer does not mention Toon at all in his book on the subject.
Cunningham’s debriefing report from 10 May 1972 – in which he very carefully words his statement to give the reader the impression that he was a Top Gun student without stating that directly – has ‘The 5th Kill (Col. Tomb)’ typed in the margin. After describing the dogfight, he claimed:
Intelligence later revealed that this 17 driver was Colonel Tomb, the North Vietnamese ace credited with 13 U.S. aircraft.
Cunningham did not identify who told him this, and his claim raises questions, as it seems to contradict the intelligence from the time. The NSA referred to this pilot as ‘Toon,’ not ‘Tomb,’ and did not identify him as a Colonel. The NSA also specified him as a MiG-21 pilot whereas the Cunningham kill was a -17. They also credited Toon with five kills, not the 13 that Cunningham referenced. Furthermore, the NSA report states that Toon was never defeated, and eventually was promoted out of combat flying and became a ground controller. Cunningham might be telling the truth that some intelligence source, which he does not identify, told him that the -17 he killed was Tomb, but because his claims are so at odds with the NSA’s information on nearly every point, Cunningham’s story raises more questions than it answers.
However, the NSA could also be wrong. In fact, they probably are. Even though the NSA claimed Toon was real at the time, there is little evidence to verify this. Indeed, any ace pilots that North Vietnam had – and eventually they had fifteen that were confirmed by US sources, though Vietnamese records claim sixteen, which was triple the number of US aces – would be of immense propaganda and morale value for their cause. If Toon were real, he would likely have been celebrated as a national hero. When researchers and former pilots began talking to North Vietnamese veterans, any questions about Toon were met with confusion. There’s no record of a Toon or Tomb, which is not even a Vietnamese name. Some have claimed that ‘Toon’ was the result of SIGINT operators mishearing the name of Din Tonh, who was an effective pilot known for ‘lone wolf’ attacks. However, Tonh also flew the MiG-21, not the -17, and was not an ace, much less one with kills in the double digits.
Historian Roger Boniface travelled to North Vietnam and conducted extensive interviews with former MiG pilots. His conclusion? Toon was merely an invented figment of American fighter pilots’ imagination, made up specifically to stroke their damaged egos. As he put it:
The existence of Colonel Toon in the mind of an American pilot may have provided a psychological comfort zone if a North Vietnamese pilot should out-fly him or, even worse, shoot him down.
The closest real pilot to fitting the description, however, was Nguyen Van Coc. He flew a MiG-21 with 14 ‘kill’ stars painted on the side. Vietnam officially credits Van Coc with nine kills of US aircraft, and the US has officially recognised six of them. Still, Van Coc cannot have been the ace-making kill for Cunningham and Driscoll, not only because he flew MiG-21s, but by 1968 he had already been pulled out of combat duty and made an instructor of new North Vietnamese pilots.
Why does this controversy – and others like it – continue to plague the memory of the Vietnam War? Possibly because losing a war is psychologically devastating. This is evident simply in how divisive it is to call the American-Vietnam War a ‘loss’ for the US. Some are reluctant to do so in any terms, but no one can deny that the US did not achieve its strategic goal of creating a stable, independent, non-communist South Vietnamese state. Indeed, North Vietnam did achieve its goal of creating a unified communist state. However, the air-to-air war was not at all the make-or-break factor in any of that. The US did not fail in their goals because of the MiG force. Also, former war records aside, Momyer was not wrong to claim that a 2:1 kill ratio in air-to-air combat is still a victory, in at least a technical definition although the ability of MiGs to frequently interrupt bombing strikes was a more significant problem. Despite these clarifications, Vietnam felt like a loss even to many air combat pilots. Explaining that sense of loss, or even just a sense of a lack of decisive victory is difficult at best. Many pilots, and some historians and observers since, including Cunningham and Driscoll, found it easier to invent an enemy rather than must deal with those painful feelings head-on. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Nearly every war sees these types of inventions as a coping mechanism. Toon may not exist, but what he represents as a way of dealing with the psychological trauma of warfare, is all too real.
Dr Michael Hankins is an Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones and a Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool. He is also a former Instructor of Military History at the US 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: US Navy McDonnell Douglas F-4J Phantom II ‘Showtime 100,’ which was assigned to VF-96 of Carrier Air Wing 9 onboard USS Constellation Lieutenants Randy Cunningham and William Driscoll used this aircraft for their third, fourth, and fifth MiG-kills on 10 May 1972. (Source: Wikimedia)
 William W. Momyer, Air Power in Three Wars (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2003), p. 178.
 For example, see: Kenneth P. Werrell, Sabres Over MiG Alley: The F-86 and the Battle for Air Superiority in Korea (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005).
 Roger Boniface, MiGs Over North Vietnam: The Vietnam People’s Air Force in Combat, 1965-75 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008), p. 59, 74.
 For Cunningham’s claim, see: Randy Cunningham and Jeff Ethell, Fox Two: The Story of America’s First Ace in Vietnam (Mesa, AZ: Champlin Fighter Museum, 1984), pp. 107-8.
 For a more in-depth look at some of these changes in both the US Navy and the USAF, see Michael Hankins, ‘The Teaball Solution: The Evolution of Air Combat Technology in Vietnam 1968-1972,’ Air Power History, 63 (2016), pp. 7-24.
 Robert Wilcox, Scream of Eagles (New York, NY: Pocket Star Books, 1990), pp. 203-6.