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American Return to Dog Fighting

In World War II, the American “exchange ratio” against the Germans and Japanese was eight to one in favor of the Americans, and thirteen to one against the North Koreans and the Chinese in the skies over Korea. By the summer of 1967, both the US Air Force and Navy were at parity; they had invested hundreds of billions of dollars, developing the F-4, the F-105, and they realized that the North Vietnamese were beating them in air-to-air combat.

It was due to a failed doctrine. Fighter pilots were taught the lob/toss technique for delivering nuclear weapons, rather than how to do air-to-air combat. The F-4 was essentially a fleet interceptor which was not able to dog fight. Russian aircraft, the MiG-21, the MiG-19, even the MiG-17, was able to shoot down Air Force and Navy aircraft to an embarrassing degree, and actually reached parity — much of it, of course, coming from anti-aircraft fire.

Following Korea, the air combat "lessons learned" from F-86s versus MiG-15s had been distilled into an influential fighter primer entitled "No Guts, No Glory!" by Frederick C. ("Boots") Blesse.Sadly, however, the lessons had largely been ignored. Writing in 1968 Gen Bruce K. Holloway, himself a noted fighter ace, stated that " ... between 1954 and 1962, the USAF training curriculum for fighter pilots included little, if any, air-to-air combat. This omission was partly a result of doctrine, which then regarded tactical fighters primarily as a means for delivering nuclear ordnance. It was partly a reflection of concern for flying safety. In any event, as late as October 1963, it was reported that only four of 30 pilots in one fighter squadron had ever shot aerial gunnery."

A group of officers who some called the “Iron Majors,” but most referred to as the “Fighter Mafia,” built what became known as the Red Baron Reports. The reports, presented by Maj. Richard “Moody” Suter, found a trend of inexperience that led to the loss of aircraft and crewmembers, particularly in the pilots’ first 10 sorties. Fighter pilots who survived the first 10 missions could usually be counted on to survive the rest of it. So they said, maybe they needed to provide training to give those guys the first 10 sorties.

What happened was a stand-down in air services, where the Air Force and Navy stood back and said “we’ve got to fix this”. The problem was both technological and cultural. That led to the creation of Red Flag and Top Gun, and the development of a body of aircraft, the F-15 and 16 for the Air Force, and the F-18 and the F-14 for the Navy, essentially a high/low mix that was able, then, to cover the spectrum of air-to-air combat.

In 1969, the US Navy released the results of a study directed by Captain Frank Ault to explain the unexpected poor air combat maneuvering (ACM) performance of U.S. pilots in Southeast Asia. The "Ault Committee Report" (1969) identified deficiencies in air combat training as a primary factor. In particular, many pilots were reported to have fired their weapons (i.e., missiles) outside of tactical launch envelope boundaries.

The revival of the dogfight posed new requirements on the air-to-air weapon systems. The nearly complete reliance on AAMs, developed during the pre-Vietnarn period, was found to be erroneous. (". . . guided missiles of this type were intended for interception, . . . with a straight-line attack of the target. But it was difficult for the pilot to use them in maneuver battle. [Thus], cannon were hastily installed on the 'Phantoms' . . .; they are close range weapons.") In the early years of the war, the North Vietnamese Air Force got the better of the Americans, sneaking inside radar missile range and shooting US aircraft down at closer ranges, where they really needed a gun. Then, in an historical moment of inventive genius, men from the 366th Tactical Fighter Wing based at Da Nang -- unsupported by policy or POM -- hotwired 20mm SUU-16 gun pods onto the F-4 centerlines. Within days our F-4s began bringing a surprise package to the party. From April 23 to June 5, 1967, the 366th TFW shot down 11 enemy MiGs, and became hailed forever more as "The Gunfighters."

The Air Force group came up with the concept of Red Flag, which would pit training pilots in blue forces against red forces, piloted by aggressors, in a series of combat scenarios over the Nevada Test and Training Range’s 15,000 square miles of air space. Previously, pilots flew the same aircraft against each other, with the top of the class playing the role of aggressors. Although most generals were enthusiastic about the idea, there was concern over the cost. The first Red Flag exercise finally began on July 15, 1975, with a squadron of F-4 Phantoms from Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.

The second response to the disturbingly low victory/loss rate in Vietnam was a clamor for better fighter aircraft, particularly highly maneuverable airplanes having excellent acceleration, agility, visibility, an internal gun system, and a thrust-to-weight ratio exceeding one. Vietnam, it may be said, provided the impetus for the superfighters of the late 1970s and 1980s: the F-14, F-15, F-16, and F/A-18.

The evolution of the F-15, F-16, and F/A-18 is intertwined. All stemmed from Air Force research and development, and all were largely products of what some termed the Fighter Mafia, a small, key group of individuals dedicated to breaking the traditional post-1945 dogmas that had afflicted fighter development, particularly after the Korean War. There were four key individuals in this mafia: Charles ("Chuck") Myers, a former test pilot and Lockheed salesman turned private consultant; Maj (subsequently Col) John R. Boyd, Pierre Sprey of the Systems Analysis Office within DOD; and Col Everest Riccioni. One "outsider" deserves more attention for his part in reasserting the primacy of the air superiority fighter within the Air Force: Maj Gen Arthur C. Agan, the Air Staff's director of plans.

The American Air Forces were never again challenged in the air. Today the exchange ratio for an F-15/16 in the hands of Israelis and Americans is better than 250 to 1. No better success story probably in the history of the development of American technology than absolute dominance of the air [at a cost of trillions].

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Page last modified: 11-02-2016 19:48:43 ZULU