A Unified Framework for Air Power Studies

A Unified Framework for Air Power Studies

By Major Jaylan Haley

What is air power? How do we study it? How do we use it? Do previous characterisations sufficiently capture the concept? Perhaps. This article contends that prior attempts to put meat on the bone towards a framework to study air power scholarship are insufficient.

Moreover, we must appreciate the richness of our inquiries if we – scholars and professionals, such as political scientists, historians, policymakers, practitioners and users – want to understand better the concept of air power to help answer important questions. These questions may be:  how do civilian airline pilots and training schools contribute to a nation’s ‘air power?’ Can peacetime control of airspace access constitute a form of air power? To what extent does air information, such as weather, the electromagnetic environment, knowledge of space weather, constitute a form of air power? Furthermore, more, importantly, how do these questions and related concepts orient to each other.  As such, this article argues that air power is the domain-agnostic admixture of personalities, outcomes, organisations, technologies, ideas and events to do or, that do, something in or for, the air.[1]

This definition is unique in that it explicitly and parsimoniously joins together the breadth of military and civilian endeavours. It highlights the ‘stickiness’ of related topics and contends that air power is not an inherently military pursuit, though its application almost always manifests as such. The definition provides more form to the general, varied ideas of military thinkers about essential elements of air power.[2] This article begins the discussion on the topic of how we structure air power studies across various academic fields and cordons a more robust dissection of the topic in future publications. Furthermore, this article details the constituent components of air power to clarify meaning. Then, it uses this perception of air power to explain its evolution throughout history. Finally, briefly, it discusses our current air power disposition to make sense of what component will drive innovation in the coming decades — organisations.  So, how have we come to envisage this elusive thing we call air power?

Definition and Components of Air Power

In the Age of Airpower, Martin Van Creveld explored about 250 years of the concept. Among others, he highlighted the work of people with simple, yet elegant definitions of air power, such as that of Brigadier General William ‘Billy’ Mitchell who viewed it as doing ‘something in the air.’[3] Other writers such as Mark Clodfelter provided more angles: breaking the concept of air power into direct and indirect applications.[4]  For Clodfelter, direct air power generally involves kinetic outcomes such as bombing and indirect presumes more non-kinetic capabilities, such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).

Billy_Mitchell_at_his_court-martial
A scene from William ‘Billy’ Mitchell’s court-martial in 1925. (Wikimedia)

Meanwhile, organisations such as the US Air Force (USAF) define air power based on its organisational experience and conceptual refinement. The latest iteration of USAF Basic Doctrine defines the concept as ‘the ability to project military power or influence through the control and exploitation of air, space, and cyberspace to achieve strategic, operational, or tactical objectives.’[5] So, how do we break air power down for study?

While Mitchell’s definition is more parsimonious, adding a little complexity provides the explanatory muscle to how we think about air power and thus how we can consider the concept’s change over time. Foundationally, one should recognise that to do something in the air does not necessarily mean that the activity must originate in or from the air.[6] For instance, a ballistic missile launch originates from the land, traverses through the air and maybe space, and then strikes somewhere on land. This example demonstrates the potential of the agnosticism of the air domain. Furthermore, a more robust definition allows for careful, coordinated forecasting of future air power applications using clear and structured links within and across the subject’s elements.  For instance, air power researchers studying C-17 humanitarian assistance capabilities may be linked to those studying procedurally based command and control organisations as well as those studying the political effects of humanitarian assistance to optimise future disaster response towards national priorities.

Conceiving of air power as an admixture of component concepts: each noteworthy, though not equal, in characterising the ability to do something in the air is vital for several reasons. One benefit is to have more structured research programs that allow thinkers to situate their contribution to the subject area. Another is to generalise debates on air power concepts that link military and civilian theory and application. A generalisation can help guard against what seems to be a tendency to overly militarise air power thought, evoking the coercive and persuasive elements of the concept. The benefits are similar to those of academic fields like history or political science though air power studies can best be described as an interdisciplinary subfield or topical field.

Importantly, to be useful, the components must be defined. First, personalities may be individuals or groups that have a profound impact on the development of the notion. For instance, Mitchell vocally and publicly advanced the idea of a separate US military service despite the misgivings of more senior leaders, including President Calvin Coolidge.[7] In part, the general’s 1925 court-martial resulted from agitation for a separate US air service. However, the spectacle thrust air power into America’s national dialogue. He challenged the US Army – then overseeing land-based air forces – stating that their leaders were negligent for not building an air service capable of national defence. Mitchell is credited by many as being the original maverick in pursuing an idea of independent military air power that was largely sidelined at the time.  Mitchell’s persona, in part, catalysed the existence of organisations critical to the development of air power.

Mitchell’s calls for an independent air service bring us to the second component — organisations, which are administrative and operational systems that foster ideas, leverage people and exploit technologies towards some outcome. An exemplar is the USAF’s Strategic Air Command (SAC) under Major-General Curtis LeMay’s tutelage. SAC pursued the idea of ‘strategic’ air power, discussed later, towards its outcome of long-range conventional and nuclear bombing. SAC oversaw most of the US nuclear deterrent and development of bomber capabilities for the USAF. The organisation came to personify air power in the US and for much of the world during the Cold War.[8] Albeit an unfair approximation, civilians and military personnel alike were lent the idea of air power’s ability to render an outcome of total enemy devastation embodied by SAC’s long-range bombers and, later, ballistic missiles.[9]

In our context, outcomes are the effects, assessments and results by which military and civilian leaders come to associate air power. For instance, after the Second World War, both military and civilian leaders came to associate air power with the unconditional surrender of the enemy evoked by the use of nuclear weapons.[10] This idea created problems during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, where expectations outpaced the new reality of limited, non-nuclear warfare.[11]  Limited warfare lends itself to more technical means — leaving technology to be the more tangible, driving component of air power.

As a component, technology includes all the capabilities, research, design, development and testing that allow practitioners to do things in the air. For instance, a significant component of the US’ advancements in stealth technology originated with the Skunk Works team under Kelly Johnson’s orchestration, among others.[12] The team’s research and design techniques led to advances like the SR-71 Blackbird and the F-117 Nighthawk.[13] These technologies, along with other capabilities-related advances, influenced expectations such as those discussed above: enabling the limited, non-nuclear warfare that became characteristic of vast swaths of America’s recent history.[14] However, while technology is sometimes the easiest to translate as an air power component, though not always easy to grasp, it is ideas that sometimes generate change.

SR-71_taxi_on_ramp_with_engines_powered_up
An SR-71 taxing on the ramp with engines powered up, c. 1995. (Source: Wikimedia)

Doctrine, strategy, theories, policies and politics combine to form air power’s conceptual component. These ideas embody how personalities can use other components. Reciprocally, all the other components can help thinkers conceive of new ways to conceptualise air power. To demonstrate, during Operation EL DORADO CANYON, President Reagan and his national security team viewed air power as a punitive instrument of national security policy.[15] Existent technologies in the 1980s allowed Reagan’s response to state-sponsored terrorism with a long-range, airstrike on targets tailored to the perceived offence.[16] Reagan’s team shepherded the technology component in a way that had not yet been explored to its fullest. They updated strategic attack doctrine; tested theories of international relations; set new international policies; and ignited the politics of air-driven limited, military interventions.

Events like Op EL DORADO CANYON also constitutes the last element of air power. Our understanding of past campaigns, battles and historical milestones enables a fuller appreciation of air power and the possibility of modifying its future use. Unfortunately, these so-called understandings can sometimes lead to misapplications of history and, ultimately, to disaster.[17] For instance, the counterinsurgency in Iraq that began almost immediately after the invasion in 2003 required a different application of air power than previously practised, but it would take multiple Secretaries of Defense to enforce this understanding upon the military, as evidenced by the explosion of unmanned technologies among others.[18]  The components of air power – personalities, organisations, outcomes, technologies, ideas and events – provide the critical infrastructure for the study of air power.  We can use this infrastructure to help us understand various aspects of the topic, like what elements may be more important at various times in history.  This understanding can help us orient ourselves in history relative to the seemingly dominant feature of our time so that those who study, and practice air power can best allocate resources, whether academically or practically.

Epochs of Air Power

In this section, this article now considers the prominence of the above elements as determinants of historical periods in air power’s evolution.  A short walkthrough of air power’s epochal changes rooted in the above-defined elements illuminates current and the future application of air power. Geoffrey Barraclough, in An Introduction to Contemporary History, provided an idea about ‘spots and jumps’ that define historical periods and transitions.[19] He used the timeframe 1880-1960 to discuss the shift between modern and contemporary history based primarily on economic and geopolitical factors.[20] Using a similar conception of eras punctuated by ‘spots and jumps,’ rooted in the components of air power to characterise the shifts, this section divides the evolution of air power into five timeframes. Importantly, during shifts between the timeframes, changes in predominant component concepts of air power led to changes in our concept of air power.

Before 1783 – The Age of Imagination

Air power before 1783 can be viewed as an ‘Age of Imagination’ or ideas. There were no bounds except those imposed by humanity’s evolving understanding of terrestrial physics. Some of the earliest human records depict mystical flying or lobbing objects through the air as weapons. In their way, our ancestors from around the world gave us our first concept of air power. They conceived of divinity by drawing and storytelling of gods that could defy gravity unassisted, a fruitless pursuit for mere mortals that dates to Greek, Roman and Chinese mythology. While ancient and pre-industrial humans did not themselves defy gravity, humankind created things to help defend themselves, such as arrows and trebuchet missiles. These weapons are essential to the study of air power because the idea of projectiles travelling large distances to destroy an enemy finds its roots here.  These weapons emerged over thousands of years, sometimes a crowning achievement of empires such as Persia and the Mongols. Nonetheless, the wild-eyed dreams of fantasy came to a relatively abrupt end in 1783 when the Montgolfiers floated their first balloon. The brothers’ flights began the period of the ‘Origins of Air Power.’

1783 to 1903 – The Origins of Air Power

Between 1783 and 1903, changes in the concept of air power resulted from slow changes in technologies. For instance, a new class of ‘aeronauts’ proliferated workable ballooning technologies that ended up in the hands of Napoleon Bonaparte, though his use is not the first use on the battlefield. He used available technologies when and where he could to enhance reconnaissance and direct artillery strikes. In 1798 Bonaparte used balloons to try to overawe the Egyptians in a campaign to subdue the Middle East and North Africa.  After an unsuccessful display, Napoleon ordered the balloon unit’s disbandment. Undoubtedly a balloon would have come in handy in 1815 when Napoleon looked for Grouchy to spot and crush Blucher’s flanking movement at Waterloo.[21] Nearly a half-century later, professionals continued to struggle with the concept of air power: conceiving of it as an unproven, unpredictable and unusable conglomeration of technologies and techniques, such as gas-producing machines for balloons, telegraphs and airborne mapmaking. Such was Thaddeus Lowe’s disposition in bringing air power to fruition during the American Civil War.[22]  Thus, it would be until the turn of the twentieth century.

1903 to 1945 – The Douhetian Epoch

From 1903 to 1945, ‘strategic’ air power and its offshoots was the idea that drove changes in the conception of air power as something more than an observational or auxiliary tool for ground forces. The idea of independent air power came to full fruition in August 1945 with the dropping of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan. To begin, in December 1903 the Wright Brothers brought heavier-than-air flight to reality. Driving the science of aeronautics were ideas like those refined by Giulio Douhet in the early part of the 20th century. Theorists like Douhet opined that wars could be won by striking at city centres from the air to break the will of a people, forcing them to surrender.[23] Douhet’s original Italian publication in 1921 would not get immediately translated into English; however, people like Hugh Trenchard, the first Royal Air Force commander, articulated similar thoughts and organised, trained and equipped his military forces towards those ends.[24] Sir Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris would make use of Trenchard’s advancements during the Second World War over German cities such as Hamburg, Dresden and Berlin.[25] Though it would take the American military time to adopt the British model of indiscriminate bombing, this idea came to epitomise air power for the period.

Importantly, this was also the timeframe during which commercial air travel in lighter- and heavier-than-air vessels took root. Though the ‘golden’ age of commercial air travel would come later, concepts like air routes, navigating via beacons, airports and other ideas began to solidify. These concepts had both military and civilian applications and technologies that enabled further development of the idea of air assets used over long distances. However, the military would continue to dominate ideas about air power as a ‘strategic’ concept even as these ideas came into contact with a significant theoretical challenge:  limited warfare in an age of potentially unlimited destruction from thermonuclear weapons.

F-80Cs_8th_FBS_over_Korea_c1950
US Air Force Lockheed F-80C Shooting Star fighter-bombers from the 8th Fighter-Bomber Squadron during the Korean War in 1950-51. The aircraft are equipped with ‘Misawa’ long-range tanks. (Wikimedia)

1945 to 2001 – The Era of Immaculate Effects

The next era, roughly spanning 1945 to 2001 is the maturation of strategic bombing extremes enabled by high technology. Militarily, the era is marked by the rise of a more immaculate, precise warfare with limited aims to mitigate aircrew losses, fulfil more specific international obligations and for operational efficiency among other goals. There was a change in the concept of air power because of what it was perceived to have achieved during the Second World War and the idea that the same outcome could be realised even in the face of more limited warfare.[26] By the beginning of this timeframe, the USAF sidelined more tactically-minded airmen like Pete Quesada to ensure adoption of strategic bombing as a vehicle to solidify the association with air power.[27] In part because of his prestige as a tactical aviation adherent, the ‘bomber generals’ defanged Quesada and the organisation he led, Tactical Air Command, after WWII.[28] There was no room for anyone but true believers in the strategic attack mindset, but this would change after the experiences of Korea and Vietnam in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Only later in the period would Quesada’s tactical aviation and more precise attack legacy permeate military circles.[29]

 

In civilian aviation, technology-fueled huge leaps in air power. National airspace, global navigation capabilities and air-containerised freight were concepts that would hold vast military and civilian applications. It is during this time that military and civilian aircraft started to compete for airspace for things like training, exercises and navigating various corridors. Another critical advance was the widespread implementation of the instrument landing system that allowed commercial aircraft to land in increasing levels of degraded atmospheric conditions. Again, precision enabled by technology characterised this era.

2000 and Beyond – Flexible Niche

The most recent period begins at around the turn of the millennium. This is the epoch as ‘Flexible Niche’ because it involved the use of existing or new technologies for a variety of activities dependent on how organisations are positioned to leverage them. Beginning in the late 1980s, formalisation of the contemporary Air Operations Center (AOC) is an early indicator of the present epoch. This organisation enabled the focused air campaign during Operations INSTANT THUNDER and DESERT STORM that, in part, led to ultimate victory for coalition forces in 1991. It was no longer enough to think of air power as just a capability or bringing about the strategic defeat of an enemy via the limits of destructive power or achieving national objectives with as few civilian casualties as possible. The organisation became the template for how to leverage air power across a wide area and from multiple sources. A contemporary view of air power considers the construct of how and which organisations best leverage technologies, ideas and people towards a given outcome, which may be a military one. There are a variety of concepts that the United States military is exploring, including the Multi-Domain Operations Center and Defense Innovation Unit, in addition to the standup of a Space Force among other initiatives.

Civil aviation is undergoing a similar bout with organisations, especially in the United States, as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grapples with how best to control airspace with the rise of unmanned technologies, especially in congested metropolitan areas.  Should the FAA continue to hold all the cards or is the organisation in need of decentralisation of authorities to states and localities?  Technologies may forestall the organisational decision, but this era’s solutions seem to be organisationally related rather than technically.

For the new century and beyond, it will not necessarily be which countries and industries have the best technologies or smartest people or best ideas that define the development of air power: it will be the organisations that can best leverage the other components that will determine how we conceive of air power.  To summarise, again, air power is the domain-agnostic ability to do something in the air resulting from an admixture of personalities, outcomes, organisations, technologies, ideas and events. These components, at various times, represent reasons why our concept of air power changes over time.

Conclusion

The use of epochs allows us to generally discuss how components of air power drive thinking and successful pursuits of the concept over time, which is why it is useful to develop a unified framework for their study. Moreover, as opposed to the more traditional commentary of air power, linking military and civilian advancements in the same epoch demonstrates that air power is not an inherently military concept. This article serves as an overview of the start of a more robust discussion about the development of air power and a characterisation of what will likely temper that development for the 21st century — organisations. Future topics will involve civilian efforts to deal with drones and swarms, the importance of civil aviation and commercial space efforts in air power development, and the exploration of the idea that organisations will be the defining issue of this era.

Given all of this, air power is the domain-agnostic admixture of personalities, outcomes, organisations, technologies, ideas and events to do or, that do, something in or for, the air. Moreover, these components at various times have influenced significant shifts in our conception of air power over at least five critical epochs. Scholars and professionals must acknowledge the military and civilian dimensions of air power to live up to the concept’s full potential. Hence, to conclude, there is a need for a unified framework for the study of air power to promote the integration of military and civilian issues with the field.

Major Jaylan M. Haley is a career USAF Intelligence Officer. Currently, he is a student at the USAF School of Advanced Air and Space Power Studies at Air University. Over 14 years, he served in a variety of intelligence-related positions from the strategic to the tactical levels.  During Operations ENDURING FREEDOM and INHERENT RESOLVE, he served as an Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Liaison Officer to multiple US Army Divisions and US Marine Expeditionary Forces in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Most recently he was an Air University Fellow, serving as an Instructor in the Department of International Security at the USAF Air Command and Staff College. He is a PhD Candidate in the Kansas State University Security Studies program with research focused on leverage air power as a tool of national policy.

Header Image: A US Navy Grumman F-14A Tomcat intercepts a Soviet Tupolev Tu-95 ‘Bear D’ reconnaissance-bomber over the Pacific Ocean on 21 November 1984. The F-14 was assigned to fighter squadron VF-51 aboard the USS Carl Vinson and was deployed to the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean from 18 October 1984 to 24 May 1985. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Domains include air, space, cyberspace (or electromagnetic), land and sea. Domain agnosticism disregards a specific domain towards the application of a specific concept. For instance, intelligence collection is domain agnostic. This means that intelligence collection can come from any of the domains-air, space, cyberspace, land or sea.

[2] ‘Strategic Implications for the Aerospace Nation’ in Philip Meilinger (ed.), Air War: Essays on Its Theory and Practice (Abingdon: Franck Cass, 2003), pp. 217-30.

[3] Martin Van Creveld, Martin, The Age of Airpower (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011), p. 71; William Mitchell, Winged Defense: The Development and Possibilities of Modern Air Power (New York: Dover Publications, 1988), p. xii.

[4] Mark Clodfelter, The Limits of Air Power: The American Bombing of North Vietnam (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), p. 213.

[5] United States Air Force, Core Doctrine, Volume 1 – Basic Doctrine (Maxwell AFB, LeMay Doctrine Center, 2015).

[6] Robert Smith, ‘Maneuver at Lightspeed: Electromagnetic Spectrum as a Domain,’ Over the Horizon: Multi-Domain Operations & Strategy, 5 November 2018. Importantly, the so-called warfighting domains of air, space, land, navy and now cyber – or perhaps more aptly electromagnetic – all interface with the air domain and provide a medium through which something can happen in the air.

[7] Douglas Waller, A Question of Loyalty (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004), pp. 21-2.

[8] Donald Mrozek, Air Power & the Ground War in Vietnam (Virginia, VA: Pergamon-Brassey’s International Defense Publishers, 1989), pp. 14-5.

[9] Conrad Crane, American Airpower Strategy in Korea: 1950-1953 (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2000), pp. 16-22.

[10] Ibid, p. 23, 27.

[11] Ibid, pp. 175-9.

[12] Ben Rick and Leo Janos, Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed (Boston, MS: Little, Brown and Company, 1994), p. 7, 39.

[13] David Robarge, Archangel: CIA’s Supersonic A-12 Reconnaissance Aircraft (Washington, D.C., Center for the Study of Intelligence, 2012), p. 1.

[14] Reuben Brigety II, Ethics, Technology and the American Way of War (London: Routledge, 2007).

[15] Joseph Stanik, El Dorado Canyon: Reagan’s Undeclared War with Qaddafi (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2003), p. ix.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (New York: The Free Press, 1986), p. xv, 233-4.

[18] Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2014), pp. 128-9; Donald Rumsfeld, Known and Unknown: A Memoir (New York, Penguin Group, 2011), p. 648.

[19] Barraclough’s ideas about history are not universally accepted in the field of history.

[20] Geoffrey Barraclough, An Introduction to Contemporary History (Baltimore, Penguin Books, 1964), p. 11.

[21] Van Creveld, The Age of Airpower, p. 6.

[22] Stephen Poleski, The Balloonist: The Story of T.S.C. Lowe: Inventor, Scientist, Magician and Father of the U.S. Air Force, (Savannah, GA: Frederic Beil, 2007).

[23] Guido Douhet, Command of the Air (Pickle Partners Publishing, 2014), p. 21.

[24] Tami Davis Biddle, Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare: The Evolution of British and American Ideas About Strategic Bombing, 1914-1945 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), pp. 73-4, 79.

[25] Richard Overy, The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War Over Europe, 1940-1945 (New York: Penguin Books, 2013), 58.

[26] Crane, American Airpower Strategy in Korea, p. 184.

[27] Brian Laslie, The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training After Vietnam (Lexington, KY:, The University Press of Kentucky, 2015), p. 34.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid., p. 131.

#AirWarVietnam #BookReview – Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam

#AirWarVietnam #BookReview – Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam

Reviewed by Dr Brian Laslie

Gaillard R. Peck, Jr, Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2019. Appendices. Glossary. Illustrations. Plates. Hbk, 304 pp.

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In the 1990s there was a plethora of published material on D-Day and the Second World War writ large. For example, Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers was published in 1992. The service members who served during that conflict were in their 70s and sought to tell their stories. Comparatively speaking, the veterans of the Vietnam War were in their 40s at the time; however, time marches on. In 2019, we are where we were in the 1990s, but this time it is the veterans of the Vietnam War who are now in the 70s, and a fresh new wave of scholarship and memoirs are being published on that most confusing of conflicts.

Into the mix comes, Gaillard R. Peck, Jr.’s Sherman Lead: Flying the F-4D Phantom II in Vietnam. Peck admitted early on that his mission here is not to rehash politics or make sweeping judgments, ‘It is not my intent to go into details as to how the war was fought. Nor will I delve into policy.’ This book is simply, and excellently presented. It provides one pilot’s perspective, through his own window on the world about his time flying during the Vietnam War. Peck’s work joins other recent accounts including David R. Honodel’s The Phantom Vietnam War (2018) and Terry L. Thorsen’s Phantom in the Sky (2019), as well as Dan Pederson’s TOP GUN: An American Story (2019).

Readers might recognise Peck’s name as he was also one of the commanders of the famed MiG-flying Red Eagles squadron and author of America’s Secret MiG Squadron: The Red Eagles of Project CONSTANT PEG (2012) that was also published by Osprey. Peck now turns his attention to his time as a young pilot flying and fighting in the F-4 Phantom II in 1968-1969. ‘Evil’ as he has been known to generations of fighter-pilots at Nellis Air Force Base has decided to add prolific writer to an already fantastic resume. Peck is something of a legend in the US Air Force’s Fighter community, as he has been a staple at the F-15 and F-22 Weapon’s School for decades.

Former US MiG pilot retells 4477th TES experience
Colonel Gail Peck in front of a Soviet MiG-21 he flew as commander of the Red Eagles in Operation Constant Peg, Nellis AFB, Nevada.(Source: Smithsonian Institution)

Sherman Lead is ostensibly about flying the F-4 in combat, but this work is much richer than just that. Peck included the social side of life for American aircrews flying out of Thailand, something missing in other works. Peck also deftly included aspects of flying left out of so many books. This included the process and importance of mid-air refuelling, a nice tip of the hat to the tanker community.

The book generally follows his training progression, from learning to not only flying fighters but also how to employ them. Peck also deftly demonstrated how the training at an air-to-ground gunnery range was accomplished as well as the physics and geometry of putting bombs on a target. By using both the training environment as well as his experiences employing munitions in North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the reader gets the sense that there is a genuine difference between precision-guided munitions and the precision-employment of munitions. Peck adroitly described all of these without being overly technical; thus the book can be enjoyed by the professional and the enthusiast alike.

Of course, the real effort of the book is to be found in his operations flying out of Ubon Royal Thai Air Base, Thailand and his missions over North Vietnam as part of Operation ROLLING THUNDER or over Laos as part of Operation STEEL TIGER. Perhaps the most significant contribution Peck has made to our understanding of the Vietnam War is that this is a dual ‘biography’ in that it is a memoir of himself, but it is also the biography of the F-4 Phantom II. This book is as much about how the war changed man as it is about how the war changed the machine.

Sherman Lead is destined to join the other classic memoirs on air power in Vietnam, including Jack Broughton’s Thud Ridge (1969) and Rick Newman and Don Shepperd’s Bury Us Upside Down (2006). Historians of air power and the history of the US Air Force will especially enjoy this book, but it will also find a wider audience in those seeking to understand individual and unique perspectives on America’s participation in the war in Vietnam.

Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air 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. His recently published Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force.  He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: An image of an F-4 Phantom II being refuelled during Operation ROLLING THUNDER. Aerial refuelling permitted tactical aircraft to operate in the northern part of North Vietnam, something noted in Peck’s memoir. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

#AirWarVietnam – Weaponised Helicopters and Counterinsurgency: An Exploration of the Different Approaches Advocated in Vietnam by the US Army and the US Marine Corps

#AirWarVietnam – Weaponised Helicopters and Counterinsurgency: An Exploration of the Different Approaches Advocated in Vietnam by the US Army and the US Marine Corps

By Dr Robert J. Kodosky

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 Robert Kodosky discusses the differing attitudes towards armed helicopters between the US Army and US Marine Corps as they entered 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.

In Vietnam, the US Army utilised helicopters according to its thinking about conventional warfare during the previous decade. Without the ‘helicopter in Vietnam,’ US Army officials concluded that America and its allies in Vietnam ‘would not have been able to outmanoeuvre the enemy nor exercise their superior firepower.’[1] While accurate, this observation adhered to the assumption that these tactics aligned to an effective counterinsurgency strategy. As one wartime study commissioned by the Department of Defense contended, ‘the crude use of overwhelming firepower seems more appropriate to total war.’[2]

The US Army appropriated helicopters to fight the war it wanted in Vietnam, one of attrition. In comparison, Marines employed rotary craft to fight the war they got. The US Marine Corps (USMC) weaponised helicopters to align with counterinsurgency goals and remained cautious about the firepower they delivered. In July 1967, for example, the commander of Fleet Marine Forces, Pacific, General Charles Krulak noted that armed helicopters carried out two-thirds of all USMC UH-1E flights in Vietnam during the previous year. He found this unacceptable. More arms, Krulak observed, denied the USMC ‘the eyes which are so urgently needed over the jungle environment.’ He suggested that the USMC had erred in putting ‘too many rocket pods’ on UH-1Es and had ‘unconsciously encouraged their misuse.’[3]

UH-1E_Helicopters_at_Fire_Support_Base_Cunningham,_1969_(11950756174)
USMC UH-1E helicopters touch down with their loads at Fire Support Base Cunningham. Artillerymen of the 12th Marines at Cunningham are supporting elements of the 9th Marines conducting search and clear operations, c. 1969. (Source: Wikimedia)

This example, set by the USMC in Vietnam, remains vital today. Despite ‘deliberate application of COIN [counterinsurgency] practices in Iraq and Afghanistan,’ some aviators have remained ‘focused on killing insurgents.’ One AH-64 Apache battalion commander deployed to Iraq cited ‘winning hearts and minds’ as ‘ground-guy stuff.’[4]

As such, this article explores foundational thinking surrounding the decision to weaponise helicopters in both the US Army and the USMC. Each initially conceptualised weaponising helicopters to wage a conventional war, whether as weapons platforms to combat tanks or to facilitate amphibious landings. This resulted in experimentation in ways to arm helicopters to deliver indiscriminate firepower. While the US Army remained on this path, the USMC deviated from it, based on their observations of the French effort to quell insurgents in Algeria and their own early experience in Vietnam. The USMC then decided to weaponise helicopters in Vietnam because they perceived them better able to deliver discriminate firepower than fixed-wing craft.

Blitzkrieg from Above

Contemporary observers largely concurred that the Vietnam War provided the ‘crucible for the helicopter.’[5] Military officials reaffirmed this view afterwards, citing helicopters as counterinsurgency tools essential for ‘mobility, rapid deployment of troops and logistics support.’[6] The US Army declared that helicopters ‘represented the most revolutionary change in warfare since the blitzkrieg.’[7]

This view found widespread acceptance. According to US Army General William C. Westmoreland, commander of Military Assistance Command, Vietnam between 1964 and 1968, America ‘achieved the ability to use the helicopter and employ the tactics of air mobility.’ This reflected the US Army’s view that its efforts during the Korean War suffered from doctrinal and technological limitations that prohibited employing rotorcraft to gain the initiative by enabling mobility. In Korea, this resulted in a deadlock. Westmoreland observed that the Vietnam War readied America’s use of helicopters to ‘take off.’ This ‘is not the end,’ he advised, it ‘is only the beginning.’[8]

This proved prescient. In 2004, the US Army alone deployed more than 500 helicopters to Afghanistan and Iraq. In counterinsurgency missions especially, the helicopter played ‘a key role.’ It continues to do so. There exists an ‘intensive use of rotary wing aircraft,’ rendering the helicopter as ‘omnipresent across a large spectrum of defense missions.’[9]

There exists good cause, however, to explore the centrality of helicopters critically in the execution of counterinsurgency operations. A recent study concerned with American involvement in Vietnam, Soviet engagement in Afghanistan and French participation in Algeria argues that helicopters proved ‘indecisive or bad at enabling legitimacy, population control, and isolation, key tenets of successful COIN.’[10]

This view is reflected by commentary offered by a counterinsurgency veteran to the Armed Forces Journal. It cited the proclivity of AH-64 Apache and OH-58D operators for flying low to the ground. While this proved ‘occasionally fruitful in detecting enemy activity,’ it observed that helicopters ‘can only scatter a farmer’s sheep so many times before he sees coalition forces as an annoyance rather than an ally.’[11]

Such criticism is not new. Sir Robert Thompson, who directed the British Advisory Mission to the Republic of Vietnam between 1961-1965, became an outspoken critic of America’s strategy in Vietnam. Thompson was a widely respected expert on counterinsurgency based on his experience in Malaya. Thompson labelled attrition, using the number of Vietnamese communists killed as a metric of success, as an ‘error.’ The ‘main contributing factor to this,’ he contended, ‘was the helicopter.’[12]

The Army Way – Cavalry Without Horses

The development of the US Army’s thinking about the use of helicopters as air cavalry capable of aerial assault originated during the Korean War. In July 1952, the US Army’s 6th Transportation Company (Helicopter) received the H-19 Chickasaw. Capable of faster and farther travel than the H-13, the Chickasaw constituted the US Army’s first true cargo and transport helicopter. While used to assist medical evacuation and resupply efforts, the H-19 executed the US Army’s first air assault combat missions, shaping Army thinking about helicopters after the war.

Korean_War_HA-SN-98-07085
Troops boarding a US Army H-19 Chicksaw of the 6th Transportation Company in Korea, c. 1953. (Source: Wikimedia)

In 1955, Redstone Rocket likened helicopter performance favourably in Korea to fixed-wing operations during the Second World War. It framed the helicopter’s potential within conventional missions such as ‘smoke laying’ and ‘armor column control.’ It observed that helicopters took with them ‘two American military traditions: To get there ‘fustest with the mostest’ and to ‘hit ‘em where they ain’t.’”[13]

James M. Gavin, a veteran of the Second World War and later a Lieutenant-General in the US Army of the 1950s, introduced his concept of airborne armoured cavalry in ‘The Future of Armor,’ an article that appeared in the US Army’s Infantry Journal in 1948. He argued that ‘striking at high speed by air’ and ‘entering ground combat’ enabled ‘mobility and the retention of the initiative.’ Armoured cavalry offered this potential, Gavin contended, rendering it uniquely able to ‘play the decisive role in future airborne combat.’[14]

Gavin expanded on his idea over the next 15 years, including in an article for Harper’s Magazine, published in 1954. In ‘Cavalry, and I Don’t Mean Horses,’ Gavin suggested that the US 8th Army in Korea suffered from a lack of airmobile cavalry. He pressed for the return of a ‘mobility differential,’ one that could make a difference for American commanders in Korean-style conflicts and any war waged directly against the Soviet Union.

Mobility comprised more than speed, Gavin clarified, it included the capability to deliver superior firepower.[15] The Second World War informed Gavin’s thinking and influenced the US Army’s development of its air assault concept. During the Second World War, in addition to its functions of target acquisition and artillery fire observation, organic US Army aviation ‘provided highly responsive capabilities.’[16]

Gavin served in President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration as Assistant Chief of Staff for Operations (G-3) and was a critic of the President’s ‘New Look’ national security policy that prioritised massive nuclear retaliation. Gavin advocated the need for force readiness, ‘based on his concepts of mobility, firepower and control derived from his experience in World War II.’ He cited helicopters as able to ‘provide the mobility advantage that U.S. forces needed.’ These fulfilled the traditional cavalry missions of ‘reconnaissance, screening and exploitation.’[17]

Gavin’s notions about air mobility became those of the US Army. General Hamilton Howze, appointed by Gavin as the first Director of Army Aviation in 1955, instituted them. In this capacity, Howze ‘saw to it that every imaginable weapon was strapped onto a US-1 (Huey).’[18] Also a veteran of the Second World War, Howze envisioned the utility of air mobility within conventional thinking about linear warfare against a mechanised adversary.

By the winter of 1961, with ‘the Army’s aviation resources suddenly in high demand’ due to America’s increasing commitment in Vietnam, Secretary of Defense for the President John F. Kennedy’s administration, Robert S. McNamara, grew ‘sharply critical of the Army’s conservative approach’ to improve air mobility.

Kennedy had shifted national defence from the massive retaliation endorsed by Eisenhower’s New Look. He called for ‘Flexible Response.’ This aimed to counter Soviet aggression using proxies throughout the world. It emphasised a rebuilt conventional force with the capacity to deploy quickly. McNamara pressed the military for ‘maximum mobility.’ He tasked the US Army with figuring out how to achieve this, within ‘an atmosphere divorced from traditional viewpoints and past policies.’[19] Howze, McNamara suggested, stood capable of creating such a climate.

The Howze Board

The US Army’s Tactical Mobility Requirements Board convened under Howze’s direction in May 1962. Its membership included 200 officers and 41 enlisted personnel from the Army, along with 53 civilians. The US Air Force (USAF) observed the Board’s work, carried out from May until the end of July. Testing utilised 125 helicopters and 25 fixed-wing aircraft to log over 11,000 hours of flight time. Conditions simulated a variety of scenarios, from Lieutenant-General Walton Walker’s withdrawal to Pusan in 1950 to counter-guerrilla exercises.

It all constituted ‘tactical experimentation’ with considerable attention provided to wargaming against the Soviet Union and an emphasis on the potential to deliver ‘heavy firepower.’ One ‘suggestive scenario’ featured in the Board’s final report, for example, simulated a Soviet incursion in Iran through the Zagros mountains.[20]

Howze briefed the Pentagon in 1957 about the potential of air mobility to defend against a Soviet attack. Only the terrain shifted between then and 1962 as the earlier simulation situated the campaign in Bavaria. The interest in maximising the firepower of helicopters remained unabated.

As Director of Army Aviation, Howze worked ‘to prove that the helicopter’ constituted a ‘superior weapons platform.’[21] In 1958 the US Army successfully tested an H-34 loaded with 40 2.75- and 2.5-inch rockets, nine machine guns and two 20mm cannon.[22]

For McNamara, the Howze Board staged a full field demonstration which featured four gunship helicopters attacking fortifications with machine guns and 2.75-inch rockets. It all climaxed with 30 Hueys ‘flying low, from behind the grandstands, at 110 miles per hour.’ Loaded with infantry, the helicopters landed in the smoke where soldiers dismounted and attacked. It all took two minutes.[23]

The Howze Board sought out information about Southeast Asia by dispatching a team to visit Military Advisory Assistance Groups in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Marine Task Force 116 Headquarters at Udorn, Thailand. Since the middle of 1962, a UH-1 Tactical Transport Helicopter Company armed with machine guns and 2.75-inch rockets operated in Vietnam to escort CH-21 helicopters. Nevertheless, the visiting Board members reported back that there existed resistance to arming helicopters from the USAF.

OV-1_Mohawk_of_73rd_Aviation_Company_in_Vietnam_c1966
US Army pilot, crew, and ground crew with a Grumman OV-1 Mohawk in Vietnam. (Source: Wikimedia)

This only intensified with the Board’s recommendation for US Army air mobility, to include weaponised helicopters. A USAF Board headed by Lieutenant-General Gabriel Disosway issued a four-volume rebuttal to the Howze findings. It criticised weaponising helicopters, utilising an OV-1 Mohawk as a close-support aircraft and argued that USAF fighter-bombers provided better support.

This resulted in the decision to further test the airmobile concept by activating the 11th Air Assault Division (Test) at Fort Benning in 1963. Eighteen months of tests and exercises brought approval from all members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff except USAF General John McConnell who maintained his services’ opposition. For the USAF, the fundamental issue remained ‘centralised versus decentralised aircraft management and command.[24]

Ultimately, the USAF won the battle, but it lost the war. The US Army relinquished the 24-armed Mohawks recommended by Howze. It activated the 1st Cavalry Division, however, in July 1965. By the 3 October 1965, the entire division reached its base area at An Khe in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Its orders to seek out and destroy a North Vietnamese force building up in the area culminated in the Battle of Ia Drang in November.

Bruce_Crandall's_UH-1D
Operations during the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in November 1965. Major Bruce Crandall’s UH-1D helicopter climbs skyward after discharging a load of infantrymen on a search and destroy mission. (Source: Wikimedia)

The US Marine Corps Mantra – Tolerance, Sympathy and Kindness,

The USMC had long expressed interest in the idea of weaponising helicopters. As far back as 1949 they ‘envisioned that the supporting tactics’ of helicopters ‘might include the use of covering artillery fire’ to ‘neutralize anti-aircraft weapons’ and tanks.[25] The limited lift capability and the instability of helicopters at the time rendered it unworkable. The idea remained, however, and the war in Vietnam reinvigorated it.

Lieutenant Colonel Victor J. Croizat served as the first USMC advisor to the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN). An authority on French military matters, Croizat visited Algeria where the French faced an insurgency. Accompanied by Major David Riley, Croizat reported their observations to Washington in July 1957.

The French employed helicopters judiciously, in support of ground elements, only until these became ‘capable of self-support with organic weapons.’ While obsolete helicopters ‘hampered’ French efforts, Croizat recommended that the USMC remain ‘abreast of the French experiences.’ As the USMC did that, the Division of Aviation cited that ‘the basic problem [still remaining] is that of determining whether or not Marine Corps Helicopters should be armed.’[26]

There existed a few reasons for opposing armed helicopters in the USMC. These included the inadequacy of rotary-wing aircraft to serve as weapons platforms and the perceived inferiority of helicopter pilots. The most substantial objection, however, stemmed from fears of helicopters replacing fixed-wing to protect helicopter transports.

This necessitated a ‘major change of concept’ while threatening the identity of the USMC. According to Major General Norman J. Anderson, planners foresaw that ‘sacrificing fixed wing capabilities to helicopters’ risked the USMC losing its primary distinction from the US Army; ‘its combination of ground and air combat power.’[27]

By April 1962, a USMC medium helicopter squadron had deployed to Vietnam. Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 362 (HMM-362) constituted the second element of task unit SHUFLY which occupied an old Japanese landing strip near Soc Trang, 85 miles south of Saigon. It operated in support of ARVN forces throughout southern Vietnam.

Unlike US Army helicopters already operating in other parts of South Vietnam, the USMC HUS-ls remained unarmed. USMC commanders reasoned that weapons mounted in the cargo hatch mitigated against efficient loading and unloading in landing zones. Moreover, armed aircraft presented hostile appearance to Vietnamese civilians. They acknowledged this as counterproductive to counterinsurgency by providing fodder for insurgent propaganda.[28]

HUS-1_HMM-362_Vietnam_1962
US Marine Corps Sikorsky HUS-1 (UH-34D) Seahorse helicopters of Marine medium helicopter transport squadron HMM-362 in Vietnam, 1962.

The USMC began devising counterinsurgency-specific roles for helicopters. For example, they soon observed that during large engagements, small numbers of insurgents peeled away to escape into covered areas. The USMC instituted ‘Eagle Flights’ aimed to thwart such escapes in which four helicopters loaded with ARVN troops circled over contested areas and timed landing to cut off any attempted escapes.

The USMC quickly deduced the ‘unique links’ between the ‘political and military aspects of the struggle in Vietnam.’[29] By August 1962, the US marines at Soc Trang began arming their helicopters by mounting M-60 machine guns inside the cargo hatch. While this constituted a radical change, one that realised fears of surrendering fixed-wing capabilities to rotary craft, the USMC adopted it as a defensive tactic, one compliant with the counterinsurgency they sought to execute. The M-60s served as protection for landing and only fired at clearly identified enemies. The USMC refrained from their use in the Mekong Delta’s heavily populated areas.[30]

The US marines who served at Soc Trang became the most vocal advocates of weaponising helicopters. Their argument, however, derived from their conviction, gained from experience. That argument was that counterinsurgency success hinged on a discriminate application of firepower. The early operational experience gained by the US marines that served at Soc Tran convinced them that helicopters could operate with restraint better than fixed-wing aircraft. They sought to explain that in the densely populated areas where helicopter assaults transpired, the application of firepower required ‘almost surgical precision.’

While 500-pound bombs delivered by fixed-wing aircraft ‘might indeed suppress fire,’ this would ‘hardly win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the frightened or uncommitted residents.’[31] According to Colonel Noah C. New, the USMC ‘learned early’ the incompatibility of helicopters and jets in Vietnam. Because there ‘were so few Marines involved, at Soc Trang’ however, making a ‘convincing argument’ to others that the war in Southeast Asia required ‘new approaches’ proved difficult.[32]

General Wallace M. Greene, Commandant of the USMC between 1964 and 1967, grasped the problem. In May 1965, six-armed Marine UH-1Es arrived at Da Nang. Greene explained this to the press, attributing the development to the ‘peculiar circumstances’ that the USMC confronted. He rationalised it as a counterinsurgency imperative, noting that ‘tactical fixed wing aircraft have not been available because of political considerations.’ The armed helicopter, Greene insisted, represented an appropriate tool for the USMC ‘in the environment of political-military artificialities which exist in the Republic of Vietnam.’[33]

Bell_UH-1E_Huey_takes_off_from_USS_Topeka_(CLG-8)_off_Vietnam,_in_1966
An armed US Marine Corps Bell UH-1E Huey takes off from guided missile cruiser USS Topeka (CLG-8) off Vietnam, in 1966. (Source: Wikimedia)

The decision by the USMC to weaponise helicopters exhibited recognition of the Vietnam War’s nature. It derived from the early experience at Soc Trang but also profited from the USMC’s experience in waging America’s ‘small wars’ in the early twentieth century.[34] This is evident through the efforts initiated by USMC General Lew Walt. He commanded Marine Amphibious Force III that operated in I Corps, the tactical zone that included South Vietnam’s five northernmost provinces.

Walt, a veteran of both the Second World War and the Korean War, identified the conflict in Vietnam as something different. It resembled the kinds of engagements he heard about as a young officer ‘from men who fought Sandino in Nicaragua or Charlemagne in Haiti.’ Walt understood the USMC mission in Vietnam as framed by ‘sympathy, understanding, regard for the people.’[35] This echoed advice from the Small Wars Manual of 1940 that noted that ‘tolerance, sympathy and kindness should be the keynote of our relationship with the mass of the population.’[36] That insight informed the decision made by the Marines to weaponise helicopters in Vietnam.

Conclusion

In contrast to the US Army, the USMC sought to apply firepower discriminately. They also recognised the value of helicopters to provide reconnaissance, a critical task of counterinsurgency as ‘the enemy relies on stealth instead of mass.’[37] According to Major General William Gayler, commander of the US Army’s Aviation Center of Excellence, ‘the most critical gap for the Army is a light armed reconnaissance helicopter.’ One with the ability ‘to fight for information about terrain and enemy, that enables ground force commanders, that gives decision space, manoeuvre room and reaction time.’[38] Superior eyesight is sometimes more important than superior firepower. In Vietnam, the USMC understood this well. As military officials contemplate the use of helicopters in contemporary counterinsurgencies, ones where ‘hearts and minds’ remain as vital to secure as they did in Vietnam, the history of thinking within both the USMC and the US Army about weaponising helicopters for use in Vietnam offers valuable lessons.

Dr Robert J. Kodosky chairs the history department at West Chester University and advises the Student Veteran Group. He is the author of Psychological Operations American Style (2007), numerous articles about the Vietnam War and the forthcoming Tuskegee in Philadelphia: Rising to the Challenge (2020).

Header Image: An AH-1G Cobra gunship helicopter of the 334th Helicopter Company, 145th Aviation Battalion over Vietnam in 1969. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Lieutenant General John H. Hay, Jr., Vietnam Studies: Tactical and Materiel Innovations (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1974), p. 6.

[2] Raymond D. Gastil, Toward the Development of More Acceptable Limits for Counterinsurgency (New York: Hudson Institute, 1967), pp. IV-15.

[3] Lieutenant Colonel William R. Fails, Marines and Helicopters, 1962-1973 (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, US Marine Corps, 1978), p. 111.

[4] ‘COIN in the Air: Army Attack Aviation Must Embrace Irregular Warfare,’ Armed Forces Journal, 1 April 2013.

[5] The Virtual Vietnam Archive, Texas Tech University (VVA-TTU), John T. Wheeler, ‘Copter Warfare: How it Evolved,’ Associated Press, 9 March 1969, Associated Press.

[6] Colonel Achid Muchlas, ‘The Role of Airpower in Counterinsurgency Operations’ (USAF Air War College Report, 1988).

[7] Hay, Vietnam Studies, p. 179.

[8] ‘Lessons U.S. Has Learned in the Helicopter War,’ US News and World Report, 23 November 1970, p. 50.

[9] Etienne de Durand, BenoÎt Michel and Elie Tenenbaum, Helicopter Warfare: The Future of Airmobility and Rotary Wing Combat (Paris: Laboratoire de Recherche sur la Défense, 2012), p. 32.

[10] Major Beau G. Rollie, ‘Helicopters in Irregular Warfare: Algeria, Vietnam and Afghanistan’ (MA Thesis, US Army Command and General Staff College, 2013), p. ii.

[11] ‘COIN in the Air: Army Attack Aviation Must Embrace Irregular Warfare.’

[12] Robert Thompson, No Exit from Vietnam, updated edition (New York: David McKay Company, 1970), p. 136.

[13] Kaylene Hughes, ‘Army Helicopters in Korea, 1950-53,’ 28 October 2016.

[14] James M. Gavin, ‘The Future of Armor,’ Infantry Journal, 62:1 (1948), p. 7.

[15] James M. Gavin, ‘Cavalry, and I Don’t Mean Horses,’ Harper’s Magazine, April 1954, p. 58.

[16] J.A. Stockfish, The 1962 Howze Board and Army Combat Developments (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1994), p. 30.

[17] Major Edward P. Gavin, ‘LTG James M. Gavin: Theory and Influence’ (MA Thesis, US Army Command and General Staff College, 2012), p. 27.

[18] Glen Birdwell, ‘Tactical Air Mobility: Birth of the Air Cav,’ Warfare History Network, 18 November 2018.

[19] VVA-TTU, Douglas Pike Collection, Unit 01 – Assessment and Strategy, Proposed Army Aviation Program Subjected to Thorough and Critical Examination by McNamara’s Staff, 1962.

[20] Stockfish, The 1962 Howze Board, p. 17.

[21] Birdwell, ‘Tactical Air Mobility.’

[22] Fails, Marines and Helicopters, p. 86.

[23] Birdwell, ‘Tactical Air Mobility.’

[24] Stockfish, The 1962 Howze Board, p. 25.

[25] Fails., Marines and Helicopters, p. 85.

[26] Ibid., p. 85.

[27] Ibid., p. 86.

[28] Captain Robert H. Whitlow, U.S. Marines in Vietnam: The Advisory and Combat Assistance Era, 1954-1964 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1977), p. 65.

[29] Ibid., p. 70.

[30] Ibid., p. 73.

[31] Fails, Marines and Helicopters, p. 86.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] On the use of USMC aviation in the small wars between the First and Second World War, see: Wray Johnson, Biplanes at War: US Marine Corps Aviation in the Small Wars Era, 1915-1934 (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2019).

[35] Fails, Marines and Helicopters, p. 132.

[36] FMFRP 12-15 – Small Wars Manual (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 1940), p. 39.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Jen Judson, ‘Armed Reconnaissance Still biggest Gap in Army Aviation,’ Defense News, 28 April 2017.

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

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

By Dr Mike Hankins

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

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

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

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

Web of Confusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Door Syndrome

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

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

LINEBACKER and Project Teaball

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Show We’ve Had

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

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

Vogt went on to say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[11] Ritchie Interview, 37, 8.

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

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

[14] Nederveen, ‘Wizardry,’ 24.

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

[16] Red Baron III, C-1–D-6.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[23] Red Baron III, Vol. 1, C-1–D-6.

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

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

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

[27] Nederveen, ‘Wizardry,’ pp. 28-9.

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

[29] Ibid., p. 31.

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

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

[32] Ibid., p. 95.

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

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

#AirWarVietnam – From Combat to Cultural Icon: Unraveling the Legacy of the Helicopter in the Vietnam War

#AirWarVietnam – From Combat to Cultural Icon: Unraveling the Legacy of the Helicopter in the Vietnam War

By Hayley Michael Hasik

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, Hayley Michael Hasik discusses the cultural legacy of American helicopters 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.

The scene opens with a squadron of helicopters sweeping across the landscape flying in formation over the open rice paddies of Vietnam. The whap-whap-whap of the Huey rotors quickly fades into the background becoming part of the soundtrack of the scene. Gunfire echoes in the background as the helicopters move into the landing zone encountering anti-aircraft fire from nearby North Vietnamese forces. The enemy remains hidden by the dense ground cover; their position betrayed only by the muzzle flashes of their weapons. The Huey slicks touch down, and soldiers quickly disembark and scatter before the Hueys take off just as quickly as they landed. Troops fan out across the open paddies, slogging through high water on alert looking for any sign of the enemy. The whole process seems to happen in slow motion, taking several minutes, but takes mere seconds; the longer these helicopters are on the ground, the more susceptible they are to enemy fire. Or so the narrator declared.

The scene above is not taken from a Hollywood blockbuster, but rather archived footage used in the Bell Helicopter-sponsored 2005 documentary entitled Huey in a Helicopter War, produced as part of the series, Heart of Darkness: Vietnam War Chronicles. This was not the first instance where Bell, responsible for the development and manufacture of the iconic UH-1 Huey helicopter, helped shape the public image of the Huey in the Vietnam War. Bell was just one of many corporations involved in helping to construct the symbolism of helicopters both during and well after the war.[1] Corporations like Bell, Sikorsky, Hughes Helicopter, and AVCO Lycoming Division participated in and directed the creation of the helicopter mythology and iconography during the Vietnam War. Corporate advertisements and sponsorships in Army Aviation magazine reveal an intimate connection between the legacy of helicopters and these corporations.

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As Army Aviation developed into a distinct entity within the U.S. Army in the 1950s and early 1960s, a separate culture also began to develop. Part of this culture included periodicals like Army Aviation, whose readership included ‘civilians, military in every grade from NCO to general officer, and a handful of loyal industry supporters’ with connections to companies such as the helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky and the AVCO Lycoming Division, which produced Lycoming engine used to power many of these helicopters.[2] The Department of Air Training Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma published the first edition in 1952 as a newsletter, The Army Aviator. This newsletter kept readers apprised of events in army aviation. Examples include the construction of airfields, updates and changes to flight safety, various aspects of training, and plans and projects slated for the future of army aviation. There were no images, and certainly no sponsorships, within these yellowed pages. In 1953, the Artillery School became the Army Aviation School at Fort Sill before moving to Camp Rucker, Alabama (now Fort Rucker) in late 1954. Coinciding with this restructuring and increasing professionalisation of Army Aviation, in May 1954, The Army Aviator became the Army Aviation Magazine:

[a]n unofficial, all-component monthly publication financially & editorially supported by voluntary subscriber/correspondents […] No implication must be made that ‘Army Aviation’ is an authorized Army publication.’[3]

In 1957, the Army Aviation Association of America (Quad-A) was founded as a ‘not-for-profit organization dedicated to representing the broad interests of Army Aviation.’[4] The Quad-A took over publication of the magazine, providing ‘an essential public forum for the current and future leaders’ in the field of army aviation.[5] This professionalisation coincided with the introduction of corporate sponsors and advertising and contributed further to the developing culture of army aviation.

Corporate Sponsorship and Advertisements

Focusing specifically on the corporate sponsorships and accompanying advertisements published in Army Aviation during the early years of the Vietnam War helps to uncover how the iconography of helicopters developed during the war. Much credit for the imagery of helicopters is given to the media during the war and popular culture after the war. These corporate sponsorships also illustrate how the military-industrial complex was both an economic and cultural phenomenon. The imagery, rhetoric, and symbolism used in the magazine are similar to the images and rhetoric later used in films, on book covers, and recounted in histories of the war. The sponsorships fit into three broad categories. First, advertisements relied on old technology to reinforce the newness and progress of the new technology. Second, the language used in these ads worked alongside the imagery to highlight the toughness and durability of these fragile aircraft. Finally, corporations co-opted actual events in Vietnam, specifically the Battles of Ap Bac and Ia Drang, to portray helicopters as the future of warfare. Focusing on the early years of the war allows one to understand better how helicopters were introduced to the Army and how they were contemporarily incorporated into the narrative of the Vietnam War. How did machines that were fragile, difficult to fly, and, as Jim Willbanks once noted in lecture, could be punctured with an icepick, eventually become the sight and sound of the Vietnam War.

The efforts to draw specific connections between helicopters (the new technology) and tanks or other Second World War machines/weapons (the old technology) is a recurring theme in corporate efforts to promote helicopters as the epitome of technological progress. The most striking visual representations of this phenomenon are the Sikorsky Aircraft advertisements from February 1963 and December 1965. Sikorsky blatantly placed this technology side-by-side to illustrate how this new technology had subsumed old technology, making it hard to ignore the portrayal of helicopters as a sign of military progress. The 1963 advertisement showed a Skycrane effortlessly lifting a tank over a tree line. The symbolism of this photograph is palpable. The new technology (helicopter) reduces the old technology (tank) to cargo. The new technology (helicopter) makes the old technology (tank) obsolete. Not only can this helicopter transport the tank, but, in many instances, the helicopter can go where the tank cannot, rendering the tank incapable of the same role it played in the Second World War and even Korea. The description that accompanied the advertisement explained how these helicopters were in their final testing phase, meaning they had not yet been used in Vietnam, but that did not stop the corporations from marketing them.[6]

CH-54_Tarhe_1960
A U.S. Army Sikorsky YCH-54A Tarhe helicopter in the 1960s. This helicopter was the first of six pre-production aircraft and was written off in Vietnam on 9 August 1966. (Source: Wikimedia)

This symbolism continued at the end of 1965 with a two-page advertisement highlighting the workhorse capabilities of the Skycrane, which was described as capable of carrying ‘over 10 tons of almost anything […] or 67 combat-equipped troops.’[7] Not only was the Skycrane capable of carrying a tank, as demonstrated nearly three years earlier, but the advertisement showed the Skycrane hovering over a bulldozer, truck, 105-millimetre howitzer, a small aeroplane, and a detachable van capable of holding 67 combat-equipped troops. This new technology subsumed the old technology of the tank and replaced multiple other forms of technology, like the truck and jeep, or made these machines and weapons accessible where they might not have been due to an inability to handle the rugged terrain or dense jungles of Vietnam.

These comparisons between the Second World War and the Vietnam War provided vivid visual images that people could relate to and put the helicopter into terms of America’s most recent large-scale military victory. General John Tolson asserted that the ‘versatility and uniqueness’ of helicopters made them the ‘keystone to airmobility,’ and, ‘The simple fact is that no other machine could have possibly accomplished the job of the helicopter.’[8] In reality, compared to tanks and other armoured vehicles, helicopters of the Vietnam era were vulnerable, easily breakable, and just not that tough. Helicopters were portrayed as more powerful than the technology that helped the US win the Second World War, so they must be powerful enough to win in Vietnam. Or so these ads suggested.

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US helicopters also gained cultural resonance in other countries such as Australia. Here a ‘Huey’ lands to take members of 7RAR back to Nui Dat after completion of Operation Ulmarra, August 1967. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

The use of targeted language provided a corporate answer to understanding why helicopters were such a prominent symbol of the Vietnam War. Not only were the advertisements visually promoting the concept of military progress but the phrasing and word choice throughout these sponsorships throughout the Vietnam War reinforced these visual images. AVCO Lycoming Division described the Huey as ‘one of the world’s toughest, most durable helicopters’ and the Lycoming engine that made it fly was ‘the world’s toughest, most durable helicopter engine.’[9] Not only were these helicopters tough and durable, but the missions they carried out were described as ‘demanding’ and ‘rough.’ They were, as Hughes Helicopter pointed out, a ‘tough machine for a tough war.’[10] ‘Helicopters with demanding missions are powered by General Electric,’ was General Electric’s motto.[11] AVCO portrayed the Huey as the ultimate hero. ‘Out here, when things get rough they call in Huey,’ is nothing short of a Superman reference made by AVCO.[12] Hueys were called in for everything from reinforcements and fire power to evacuations and rescues; they were showcased as being capable of any mission. On top of that, one advertisement alluded to helicopter engines, and by association helicopters, as bulletproof.[13] The chosen descriptors worked alongside well-chosen photographs to reinforce certain conceptions of the helicopter. As Alasdair Spark noted in his social history of helicopters, ‘the helicopter became the American touchstone, symbolizing a transcendent American power incarnate in metal.’[14] Society began to see the helicopter as a tough and rugged and exceptional piece of technology.

General Electric, AVCO, and Hughes Helicopter all used this type of terminology to emphasise the toughness and ruggedness of these fragile, or at the very least complicated, machines. Veteran pilots like Warrant Officer James Scott recounted the real-life difficulties of flying helicopters stating, ‘Helicopters are not meant to fly […] They’re an anomaly – they fly, but they’re not supposed to.’[15] Philip Chinnery echoed this sentiment stating:

It is said that flying a helicopter requires great faith and that becoming an old helicopter pilot requires constant suspicion. When one considers how a helicopter flies through the air, we can understand how helicopter pilots grow old before their time […] To fly a helicopter, the pilot requires both hands and both feet and most of his fingers too.[16]

That fragility and extreme diligence and skill needed to operate these machines were not evident in these advertisements. Indeed, further research is required to understand why toughness, rather than speed, manoeuvrability, or versatility was the characteristic most heavily used throughout these advertisements.

Helicopters, Advertisements and the Future of Warfare

Finally, these advertisements co-opted events in Vietnam to further develop perceptions of helicopters as the future of warfare. Both Ap Bac and Ia Drang were the focus of these sponsorships. Generally, these advertisements appeared a few months after the event. In March 1963, a Bell Helicopter ad declared, ‘Combat Proven.’ The ad goes on to say, ‘throughout the engagement, the five Iroquois provided steady fire support.’[17] The image is hard to make out, but it is clearly a Huey flying over what appears to be some dense jungle. The Battle of Ap Bac in January 1963 is generally viewed as the first significant test of US helicopters in combat. American helicopters supported and inserted roughly 1,500 Army of the Republic of Vietnam troops. However, Bell spun the events of Ap Bac. Fourteen of the 15 American helicopters used in the battle were damaged, and five were destroyed. Ap Bac was far from the successful inauguration the Army had hoped for. The helicopters might have been combat tested, but it is hard to call them combat proven.[18]

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The second event that corporations appropriated was the Battle of Ia Drang. In the January 1966 issue of Army Aviation, there are references to Ia Drang on the cover and the advertisements inside. This cover had a set of images featuring the Chinook helicopter. The first image was a Chinook in flight against a plain white backdrop and immediately below it was a second image of two Chinooks on the ground being loaded with troops for transport. The headline reads: ‘This is a horse. (It must be a horse. The First Cavalry rides it.)’[19] Before even opening the issue, AVCO presented the reader with powerful imagery referencing the 1st Cavalry Division, which had been recently battle-tested in the Battle of Ia Drang. Although Ia Drang proved more successful than Ap Bac, it was still a great test for helicopters, which suffered heavy damage. Commander of the 1st Cavalry Division General John Tolson noted that throughout the 35-day campaign, 59 American helicopters were hit by enemy fire, three while on the ground. The North Vietnamese shot down four helicopters, of which the U.S. Army recovered three.[20] Despite these losses, helicopters proved their worth by providing over 5,000 tons of cargo to troops in the field, transporting whole infantry battalions and artillery batteries, and transporting 2,700 refugees.[21] Bell and Lycoming were quick to capitalise on this ‘success.’ Whether or not these corporations were trying to sell actual helicopters or an idea the helicopter symbolised is something deserving further exploration.

It is worth noting the profit motive of corporations like Bell. A document found at the Texas Tech Archives entitled, ‘Bell Helicopter Highlights’ offers a timeline of Bell helicopter contracts, key production developments, and record achievements published by Bell Helicopter Textron. The U.S. military contracts with Bell from 1961 through 1973 total over one trillion dollars. This total is just the contracts listed within this single document and warrants further inquiry to verify exact numbers. Nevertheless, these preliminary figures allude to the stake that corporations like Bell had in both the technological development and public perception of army aviation during the Vietnam War.[22]

Conclusion

Through both images and language, these magazines presented the idea of military progress by way of helicopters. All these images and the accompanying descriptive language served to create and reinforce the helicopter as a symbol of technological progress. These helicopters were the latest and greatest accomplishment from the military-industrial complex and as such were capable of not only carrying out the tasks of outdated and obsolete equipment, like the tank but should be capable of winning the war in Vietnam. There were no true obstacles these machines could not overcome. This imagery reinforced Alasdair Spark’s assertion that ‘in technology and mobility this was the ideal American way of war, and appropriately evoked the mythic American style of war.’[23] The problem with these advertisements was that in some cases, they used actual events to help craft their imagery. By grounding their advertisements in perceived reality, these corporate sponsors perpetuated the notion that helicopters were ubiquitous and only capable of success. These images failed to examine or display the failures of helicopters.

Chris Bishop summed it up best when he said:

The Huey became an icon of the Vietnam War. It was a star of primetime news reports, its distinctive shape and the sound of its twin-bladed rotor becoming more familiar to the world at large than any other aircraft of the time.[24]

Although the Huey is arguably the most recognisable helicopter, it was not the only one to come of age during the Vietnam War. The iconic status of Hueys and other helicopters was not merely a post-war phenomenon and cannot be credited only to the media. From advertisements in Army Aviation to documentaries and film, helicopters became a prominent sight and sound of the Vietnam War during the war. In many ways, ‘the helicopter, like the soldier, is a veteran of Vietnam’ and it is time we understand how the helicopter developed from combat to cultural icon.[25]

Hayley Michael Hasik is currently a third-year doctoral student at the University of Southern Mississippi working on a degree in U.S. history with an emphasis on cultural history, war and society, the Vietnam War, helicopters, and veterans’ experiences. Hayley’s current research focuses on examining the legacy of the ‘Helicopter War’ in Vietnam. Her project seeks to uncover how and why helicopters became such an integral part of Vietnam War history and memory. Hayley has extensive oral history experience and co-founded the East Texas War and Memory Project in 2012.

Header Image: U.S. Army Bell UH-1D helicopters airlift members of the 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment from the Filhol Rubber Plantation area to a new staging area, during Operation ‘Wahiawa,’ a search and destroy mission conducted by the 25th Infantry Division, northeast of Cu Chi, South Vietnam, 1966. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Heart of Darkness: Vietnam War Chronicles, Huey in a Helicopter War, directed by Bill G. Buck (Entertainment One Ltd., 2005).

[2] James R. Bullinger (ed.), Army Aviation Association of America: 50th Anniversary, 1957-2007 (Monroe, CT: Army Aviation Publications, 2007), p. 19.

[3] ‘Army Aviator Newsletter,’ Army Aviation, Army Aviation Association of America [hereafter AAAA], May 1954, p. 2

[4] ‘About,’ Army Aviation Association of America,

[5] ‘About,’ ArmyAviationMagazine.com.

[6] Sikorsky Aircraft, ‘10-ton lift for our armed forces,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, February 1963, p. 47.

[7] Sikorsky Aircraft, ‘Sikorsky’s Skycrane can carry over 10 tons of almost anything,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, December 1965, pp. 24-5.

[8] John J. Tolson, Vietnam Studies: Airmobility, 1961-1971 (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1973), p. 104.

[9] AVCO Lycoming Division, ‘What does Bell see in us?,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, 28 February 1966.

[10] Hughes Helicopters, ‘Tough machine for a tough war,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, 30 December 1968, pp. 18-19.

[11] General Electric, ‘Helicopters with demanding missions are powered by General Electric,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, 20 August 1966, pp. 18-19.

[12] AVO Lycoming Division, ‘Out here, when things get rough they call in Huey,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, 22 December 1966.

[13] AVCO Lycoming Division, ‘What does Bell see in us?,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, 28 February 1966.

[14] Alasdair Spark, ‘Flight Controls: The Social History of the Helicopter as a Symbol of Vietnam’ in Jeffrey Walsh and James Aulich (eds.), Vietnam Images: War and Representation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), p. 89.

[15] Texas A&M University-Commerce, Archives and Special Collections, James G. Gee Library, East Texas War and Memory Project, Interview with James Scott, OH 1001.1, interviewed by Hayley Hasik, 6 May 2013.

[16] Philip D. Chinnery, Vietnam: The Helicopter War (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991).

[17] Bell Helicopter, ‘Combat Proven,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, 31 March 1963.

[18] James R. Chiles, The God Machine: From Boomerangs to Black Hawks: The Story of the Helicopter (New York: Bantam Books, 2007), p. 165.

[19] AVCO Lycoming Division, ‘This is a horse,’ Army Aviation, AAAA, 31 January 31 1966.

[20] Tolson, Airmobility, p. 83.

[21] Ibid., pp. 82-3.

[22] Texas Tech University, The Vietnam Center and Archive, Dominick Cirincione Collection, Box 04, Folder 03, 4020403002, ‘Bell Helicopter Highlights,’ (ND). Figures calculated by the author; Walter Boyne, How the Helicopter Changed Modern Warfare (Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing Company, 2011), pp. 90-4.

[23] Spark, ‘Flight Controls,’ p. 89.

[24] Chris Bishop, Bell UH-1 Huey “Slicks” 1962–75 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2003), p. 15.

[25] Spark, ‘Flight Controls,’ p. 102.

#Commentary #AirWarVietnam – President Nixon’s ‘Secret Plan’ to end the war in Vietnam

#Commentary #AirWarVietnam – President Nixon’s ‘Secret Plan’ to end the war in Vietnam

By Ralph Hitchens

I believe that before his election in 1968, President Richard M. Nixon had a plan to end the war in Vietnam on favourable terms. He implemented it in stages, starting with the withdrawal of US troops that began in 1969, followed by the rapprochement with the Peoples Republic of China in early 1972 and culminating with the repulse of North Vietnam’s 1972 ‘Easter Offensive’ and the Linebacker bombing campaigns against the North. I served in Southeast Asia during most of 1972 and had an opportunity to witness much of the successful implementation of the President’s strategy.

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Even long-range bombers like the B-52 needed refueling to reach their targets and return to base on far-off Guam. Bombing operations such as ARC LIGHT and LINEBACKER depended heavily on air refueling. (Source: National Museum of the USAF)

During the presidential race of 1968, the notion that Nixon had a ‘secret plan’ to end the war surfaced in campaign rhetoric, although he never actually made such a claim. Early in the campaign, he told a hastily-convened group of newspaper editors that he had a two-phase ‘get out of the war’ plan, which included taking steps to ‘de-Americanize’ the Vietnam conflict, and also seek a summit meeting with Soviet leaders to gain their cooperation in ending the war. Decades later an article in the International Herald-Tribune also referenced Nixon’s ‘secret plan’ in passing, noting that it was not a term used by Nixon himself but something conjured up by a reporter on deadline, covering one of the candidate’s speeches in which he promised a quick victory in the war. The Richard Nixon Foundation and Presidential Library, on the other hand, seems to believe that the whole business about having a ‘secret plan’ to end the war was nothing more than an ‘urban myth’ with no basis. Still, the term ‘secret plan’ became lodged in the public consciousness during the 1968 presidential campaign and might have been a marginal factor in helping Richard Nixon win a very close election.

I heard about Nixon’s ‘secret plan’ sometime during that campaign, the first in which I was eligible to vote. I was then a second lieutenant in the Air Force, a supply officer stationed at Luke Air Force Base (AFB) outside Phoenix, Arizona. A recent college graduate, I was a political ‘wonk’ then and now. Since high school, I had considered myself a ‘Kennedy Democrat’ (pay any price, bear any burden) and supported the war in Vietnam – seeing it as ‘Korea redux,’ the Truman Doctrine in action. Moreover, while President Johnson’s transformative domestic policy accomplishments deserved respect, a wartime president he was not, and the Camelot holdovers from the Kennedy Administration were rapidly wearing out their welcome.[1]

Vietnam was hardly the centrepiece of American foreign policy during the Nixon administration. The president broke new ground in several areas:  pursuing strategic arms reduction with the USSR, dismantling the Bretton Woods framework while restructuring the financial underpinning of the US/European Alliance, and famously pursuing a rapprochement with the Peoples Republic of China. His domestic accomplishments were also remarkable. The British counterinsurgency expert Sir Robert Thompson, consulted by the president about Vietnam in 1969, remarked afterwards to a National Security Council (NSC) staff member that Nixon was in his opinion America’s first ‘professional president.’[2]

However, what of the ‘secret plan?’ I believe President Nixon had a three-part solution to the Vietnam conundrum:

  1. Vietnamization – the replacement of US ground forces with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), supplemented by increased logistic and advisory support from the US Army.
  2. Strategic isolation of the battlefield. This gradually became more feasible after the 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict brought about a suspension of the USSR’s use of the Chinese railways to ship military supplies to North Vietnam. That conflict followed a long, prickly relationship between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the USSR throughout the 1960s, explored by a few scholars.[3] The USSR was North Vietnam’s primary source of military hardware and advisory support, and until 1969 about two-thirds of that military hardware was sent through China by rail, with a much smaller fraction arriving by sea at the port of Haiphong. Following President Nixon’s dramatic visit to China in February 1972, the PRC stepped up its longtime interference with Soviet resupply to North Vietnam, placing tight restrictions on overflights of Chinese territory. The resupply burden now rested primarily on Soviet cargo ships, and shortly after North Vietnam initiated the Easter Offensive in the spring of 1972, the US Navy mined the approaches to the port of Haiphong. It would take several months for the full impact of this ‘strategic isolation’ to be felt by the North Vietnamese armed forces. However, I believe it did have an impact by the time a cease-fire went into effect in November, and during the brief resumption of hostilities – the ‘Christmas bombing’ of Operation Linebacker II – at the end of the year.
  3. The final element in his plan was the application of US air power on a scale unprecedented since World War II, generating lavish close air support for ARVN troops in the South and being directly applied against North Vietnam during the Linebacker air campaigns.

There should be no confusion about this fact. It was American air power – Air Force, Naval and Marine Corps aviation units swiftly flowing in to reinforce the existing air order of battle in Southeast Asia – that blunted the 1972 Easter Offensive, giving President Nixon (and the American people) ‘peace with honor.’

I was there to witness the decisive events of 1972. In 1969 I was fortuitously granted a vision waiver enabling me to enter pilot training the following year,[4] and after earning my wings I trained in the AC-119K fixed-wing gunship and served a combat tour in Southeast Asia from November 1971 to November 1972 – most of what was essentially the final year of the Vietnam War, so far as America was concerned.

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An AC-119K at Da Nang airbase in South Vietnam, c. 1972 (Source: Wikimedia)

During 1971 and into the early months of 1972 the withdrawal of American ground forces had accelerated, and the war seemed to have dropped off the front pages of our newspapers. By the time the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) launched the Easter Offensive at the end of March, only one US Army combat brigade remained in-country, deployed in northern I Corps around Danang, defending the invaluable seaport and airfield. The battle on the ground was thus left to the ARVN, which could not hold back the NVA on its own, and close air support from the South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) was wholly inadequate.[5]

At this point, the third element of Nixon’s plan was implemented with great resolve and determination. US air power in Southeast Asia was massively reinforced and succeeded in its twofold mission of supporting the ARVN and carefully, steadily disrupting the economic and military infrastructure of North Vietnam. In early 1972 there had been 14 USAF fighter-bomber squadrons deployed in-theatre, most of them in Thailand. Between the opening of the Easter Offensive and the end of 1972, no fewer than nine additional tactical fighter squadrons were transferred to Southeast Asia – seven from the continental United States and two from the Philippines and South Korea.[6] In the early years of the war the Strategic Air Command had kept four B-52 squadrons based on Guam to provide ‘Arc Light’ strikes in South Vietnam. After the NVA offensive began in the spring of 1972 four more squadrons were deployed to the western Pacific, eventually including two deployed to Thailand. The number of Arc Light strikes increased dramatically, and a few B-52 strikes were undertaken over North Vietnam soon after the US resumed bombing the North. The B-52s were famously used on a large scale during the final, brief Linebacker II campaign in December 1972.[7] For its part, the US Navy had been keeping one or two aircraft carriers on ‘Yankee Station’ in the South China Sea, and this was increased to four after the Easter Offensive began. A US Marine Corps air wing also deployed to Southeast Asia in the spring and summer of 1972, fielding six fighter-bomber squadrons based in South Vietnam and Thailand.

My own tour of duty in Southeast Asia came at the tail end of the ‘Commando Hunt’ operation against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. My fixed-wing gunship squadron was based at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base in Thailand, with detachments at Danang and, later, at Bien Hoa in South Vietnam. Our primary mission was the interdiction of truck traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and eastern Cambodia, although we occasionally provided close air support to the ARVN in the country. In mid-tour I was abruptly sent to MACV at Tan Son Nhut Airfield in Saigon, where I spent a couple of months working in ‘Blue Chip,’ the 7th Air Force command post. I was unhappy to miss out on flying missions, thereby losing any hope of accruing enough hours to upgrade to aircraft commander before boarding the ‘Freedom Bird.’ However, coordinating and redirecting gunship sorties during my 12-hour daily shift rarely kept me fully occupied, and I took full advantage of the birds-eye view I enjoyed of the American air war in Southeast Asia. Blue Chip was housed in an enormous auditorium, fronted by a vast map appended with extensive annotation and tabular data; all plotted on plexiglass by well-trained specialists moving discretely behind the display and writing backwards with grease pencils on the ‘big board.’

One episode from my Blue-Chip interlude stands out: an Arc Light tasking in support of the besieged ARVN forces in An Loc. This was an epic defensive battle lasting more than two months, with a reinforced ARVN infantry division holding out in this provincial capital only 90 miles north of Saigon. Three NVA divisions, supported by some VC battalions, surrounded the town on three sides. The one paved road coming up from the south, QL-13, was unusable during most of the battle, as was the airfield, but aerial resupply through parachute drops managed to keep the ARVN resupplied and in the fight. Frequent Arc Light strikes supplemented lavish close air support from fighter-bombers and fixed-wing gunships. One afternoon when I arrived for my shift, I saw a map of An Loc on one side the big board, the town enveloped on three sides by a huge array of overlapping Arc Light ‘boxes,’ each a rectangle measuring 1 x 3 kilometres into which three B-52s would drop 324 500-lb bombs. There must have been at least fifteen or twenty of these boxes.  The 7th Air Force Assistant Deputy Commander for Operations told the Battle Staff that this saturation bombing was intended to ‘relieve some of the pressure’ on the defenders – a bit of an understatement, I thought. It was aerial fire support on a truly staggering scale, and Arc Light strikes were important in other major battles during the Easter Offensive, such as Kontum (in II Corps) and Quang Tri (I Corps).

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Captains Jim Boyd and Kim Pepperell land after one of the last Wild Weasel missions of the Vietnam War, 29 December 1972. (Source: National Museum of the USAF)

While all this was happening down south, the Linebacker air campaign was inflicting serious damage on military targets in North Vietnam. Technology certainly helped, as precision-guided munitions were now in the inventory. Suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) was greatly improved by better tactics and new-generation anti-radiation missiles and associated systems. Linebacker, by and large, was strategic bombing ‘done right.’ Earl Tilford, a former Air Force intelligence officer and a thoughtful critic of air power, summarised this campaign:

Linebacker One, as it would soon be known, was the most successful aerial campaign of the Vietnam War. [. . .] It was successful because it took place under the aegis of an appropriate and viable strategy. Linebacker epitomized conventional air power used to stop a conventional invasion and, beyond that, it qualified as a “strategic” use of air power in that it compelled Hanoi’s politburo to negotiate seriously for the first time since peace talks started in 1968.[8]

Subsequent events are remembered all too well. The Watergate affair brought the Nixon administration to a premature end, and even before that sordid crisis had run its course, congressional intransigence and our collective national fatigue had effectively precluded a reengagement with American air power that President Nixon had famously promised the president of the Republic of Vietnam if Hanoi violated the terms of the Paris Accords. That ‘peace with honor’ would not long outlive the Nixon administration was surely seen by many as inevitable. Still: whatever we remember about the Vietnam War we ought to acknowledge that President Nixon did have a plan, ‘secret’ or not. He implemented that plan, and it worked.

Author’s Disclaimer: This essay reflects a deep dive into my own memory banks, supplemented by some confirmatory Internet searches. There is no doubt in my mind that President Richard M. Nixon had a plan to bring the war in Vietnam to a satisfactory conclusion. He implemented that plan, and for a fleeting moment in time we had ‘peace with honor’ before the Watergate crisis brought everything crashing down.

Ralph M. Hitchens, Lt. Col. USAFR (Ret.) is a graduate of Southern Illinois University and the National Defense Intelligence College. While on active duty he flew combat missions in Vietnam and VIP missions in the US and Europe. He worked as a corporate pilot before joining the government as a civilian analyst with Army Intelligence, attached to NSA. He subsequently moved to the Office of Intelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy, where he managed current intelligence analysis, drafted and contributed to National Intelligence Estimates, and served as Information Technology Program Manager. Retiring in 2004, he worked as a contractor in the DOE Office of Classification and other program offices. He regularly contributes book reviews to the Journal of Military History as well as other publications.

Header Image: B-52Ds from the Strategic Air Command line up for takeoff as they prepare for strikes over Hanoi and Haiphong, North Vietnam, during OPERATION LINEBACKER. (Source: National Museum of the USAF)

[1] David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972) made a strong and lasting impression on me and countless others.

[2] I wish I could source this quotation better. I heard it in 1969 from my late father, Colonel Harold L. Hitchens, USAF. Then serving in the Air Staff Directorate of Plans, he had been told of Thompson’s remark by an acquaintance on the National Security Council. It was also quoted by Stewart Alsop in ‘Nixon and the Square Majority: Is the Fox a Lion?,’ The Atlantic (February 1972). It was also repeated in a Nixon Reelection Campaign televised ad in November 1972: ‘He is a completely professional president.’ Thompson himself certainly repeated his bon mot: ‘I think for the first time in a long time you have a professional President.’ Quoted in David Fitzgerald, ‘Sir Robert Thompson, Strategic Patience, and Nixon’s War in Vietnam,’ Journal of Strategic Studies, 37:6/7 (2014).

[3] For a good summary account of this festering rivalry see Christian Talley, ‘The Vietnam War as China’s Watershed,’ Vanderbilt Historical Review, (January 2016), pp. 42-8. Also, Stephen J. Morris, ‘The Soviet-Chinese-Vietnamese Triangle in the 1970s:  The View from Moscow,’ Working Paper No. 25 (Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, 1999).

[4] The system worked, sometimes. A routine physical exam in 1969 showed that my vision had improved since college and was within the waiver limits for undergraduate pilot training (UPT). The bad news was that waivers were granted only to US Air Force Academy graduates. That was unfair, I believed, and I submitted a formal letter request through personnel channels to change the governing directive. Mirabile dictu, the directive was changed, and I was admitted to UPT as a ‘test case.’

[5] An incident I witnessed influenced this conclusion. On a rare daylight mission in April 1972, during the fighting near Kontum in II Corps, I saw a VNAF A-37 attack aircraft make two bomb runs against a VC heavy machine gun position, clearly visible atop a bare ridgeline; weather conditions were perfect. Both bombs missed, neither was close. The II Corps Senior Advisor, John Paul Vann (call sign Rogues Gallery) was loitering nearby in a helicopter and encouraged our AC-119K Stinger gunship to engage. The heavy machine-gun position was quickly silenced by our 20mm rounds; We suffered a .51 caliber hit in one of the tail booms. I further believe that the quality of VNAF pilots was questionable. Pilot training was a highly prestigious opportunity for young men of military age, and I suspect that merit took a back seat to family influence and political connections. My UPT class at Williams AFB, which graduated in June 1971, included one South Vietnamese pilot candidate. He was the exception that proved the rule. Despite speaking very poor English he passed through the year-long course at the same pace as the rest of us, and we were told by a senior instructor pilot that he was the very first Vietnamese officer to do so – prior VNAF trainees had taken as long as two years to complete the course.

[6] This included the wholesale redeployment of the 49th Tactical Fighter Wing (four F-4 squadrons) from Holloman AFB in New Mexico, across the Pacific Ocean to Thailand.

[7] The employment of so many B-52s in this 11-day operation undeniably generated some ‘shock and awe’ but losses were heavy, in large part due to unimaginative centralised mission planning at SAC Headquarters during the first few days – ingress routes, altitudes and formations saw little variance on the first three missions. Losses on the third day of the operation forced SAC planners to reconsider their assumptions. ‘Changes were made to operations and tactics. Gone were bomber streams seventy miles long with cells flying lockstep to those ahead of them. Gone too were 90 to 100 plane raids. World War II tactics did not work in the modern environment of SAM missiles, sophisticated ground radar, and MiG interceptors.’ See Gary Joyner, and Ashley E. Dean, ‘Operation Linebacker II: A Retrospective,’ Report of the LSU Shreveport Unit for the SAC Symposium, 2 December 2, 2017, p. 22.

[8] Earl H. Tilford, SETUP: What the Air Force Did in Vietnam and Why (Maxwell AFB:  Air University Press, 1991), p. 248.

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

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

By Dr Michael Hankins

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

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

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

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

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

General Histories

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

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

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

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

The Air War(s)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call for Submissions: Air War Vietnam

Call for Submissions: Air War Vietnam

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

Roles | Operations | Strategy, Theory and Doctrine

Strategic and Operational Effect | Technological Developments

Organisation and Policy | Culture | Ethical and Moral Issues

National, International and Transnational Experiences

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

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

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

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

#BookReview – Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat

#BookReview – Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat

By Dr Randall Wakelam

Robin Higham and Stephen J. Harris (eds.), Why Air Forces Fail: The Anatomy of Defeat, Revised and Expanded Edition. Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2016. Images. Footnotes. Bibliography. Index. 454 pp.

Why Air Forces Fail

Editorial Note: In 2006, University Press of Kentucky published an edited volume that sought to examine the question of why air forces fail. Edited by the late Robin Higham and Stephen J. Harris, Why Air Forces Fail has become an essential volume as air power specialists seek to understand the reasons why some air forces are more successful than others. As one reviewer noted in the Journal of Military History regarding the first edition of this work, ‘one of the more interesting and better books on military aviation to appear in the last few years.’[1] As such, does this new edition add anything to the original volume?

When the first edition of Why Air Forces Fail was published in 2006, it immediately caught my attention. The title itself was intriguing for here was a work that was going to look not at why, or how, air forces succeed, but why air power at certain times and in certain places and circumstances has failed to deliver victory. Robin Higham was a greatly respected air power historian and had flown in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in the Second World War, and Stephen Harris was and is the Director of History and Heritage for the Canadian Forces and had authored the Bomber Command section of the official history of the RCAF. It seemed that there were many good reasons in this Canadian reviewer’s mind for looking at the collection they had assembled.

PL 8096
A shot down Dornier ‘flying pencil.’ Two members of the German crew were killed, and two others were taken, prisoner. (Source: © IWM (PL 8096))

Higham’s introduction was particularly thought-provoking. He (1st Ed., p. 1) posited that ‘other things being equal’ it seemed that the best technology generally won. These other things included a series of complex factors which could however greatly impact the effectiveness of air power. Higham looked at and where necessary modified all of the factors upon which A.T. Mahan had conducted his analysis of sea power: national borders, a nation’s physical conformation, aircraft industry, size of the population, characteristics of the population, and nature of government. To these, he added:  location and sufficiency of air bases, the terrain being overflown during operations, capabilities of the aircraft and air weapons, and management of war decisions – ends, ways and means. Once these factors were explained to readers, Higham (1st Ed., p. 5) asked two central questions:

Did the loss of air superiority, if it ever existed, cause the collapse of the nation’s defenses?  And was that the sole cause [of the nation’s defeat]?

Higham drew his introduction to a close with an attempt to identify lessons or trends but did not attempt to present precise deductions. One had to turn to the conclusion of the collection for a summation of the editors’ thinking. There Higham and Harris posited that the simple presence of air assets does not, in fact, guarantee a victory. The last sentence (1st Ed., p. 354) of the book seems both appropriate and applicable to all nations and military services:

These [observations] suggest that the fall of an air force is the result of long-term failings, not an immediate failure ‘on the day’ by an air arm that is essentially ready for its allotted role.

Such was the first edition but what of this volume? Harris has related to me that Higham had negotiated the second edition, but that much of what he intended passed with him and as such there is little for those returning to the work to note that differs from the original. What the returning reader will find is two additional chapters, one by Harris dealing with RAF Bomber Command’s strategic operations against Germany. Harris focuses on the electronic warfare campaigns, including electronic countermeasures and electronic counter-countermeasures, waged by Bomber Command and by the Luftwaffe’s air defenders. This chapter shows that the RAF could not produce enough technicians to offset German capabilities. The second new chapter by Kenneth Werrell deals with the US services application of air power in the Vietnam conflict and how a range of factors prevented the American flying services from achieving the results sought by military and civilian leaders, particularly in the face of effective opposition. Other than these there is nothing new in the second edition other than two short commentaries on Harris’ and Werrell’s chapters. These remarks are added to the original conclusion along with two additional paragraphs commenting on the growing complexity of aircraft design and procurement in one case and the other the implicit failure of those involved in air power decisions to learn from history. Also, there is a very short, easily missed, dedication to Higham in the front piece of the volume. Why the publishers have taken this very understated approach to acknowledge Higham on the one hand, and the changes to the new edition on the other is baffling.

All this to say, I had hoped for more in this new edition. However, for those who have not read the first edition, this expanded version remains a valuable study of air power and of how and why it cannot guarantee success in conflict.

Dr Randall Wakelam teaches military and air power history at the Royal Military College of Canada. After graduating from RMC in 1975 he flew helicopters for the Army, becoming CO of 408 Tactical Helicopter Squadron in 1991. Along the way, he also had staff appointments in aircraft procurement and language training policy. Since 1993 he has been an educator, first in uniform at the Canadian Forces College in Toronto and now at RMC. His research and publishing focus on air power and military education.

Header Image: F-100Ds of the 481st Tactical Fighter Squadron over South Vietnam in February 1966. Early F-100s were unpainted when they arrived in Southeast Asia like the foreground aircraft, but all eventually received camouflage paint like the aircraft in the back. (Source: National Museum of the US Air Force)

[1] Kenneth P. Werrell, ‘Book Review – Why Air Forces Fail,’ The Journal of Military History, 70:3 (2006), pp. 887-8.

The Rise of Armed Unmanned Aircraft – Part One

The Rise of Armed Unmanned Aircraft – Part One

By Dr Peter Layton

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.

QH-50C_DD-692_1969
A QH-50C anti-submarine drone hovers over the destroyer USS Allen M. Sumner during a deployment to the Mediterranean Sea in 1969. (Source: Wikimedia)

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)

If you would like to contribute to From Balloons to Drones, then visit our submissions page here to find out how.