Category Archives: Air Force

Offensive Aerial Mining

Think Defence shared this little bit about recent training operations in the Baltic, known as BALTOPS.

The Air Force was sending a bit of an obvious message to Russia. The Baltic nations are a tad nervous about the expansionistic foreign policy of Russia right now. Russia probably has the capability to overrun the Baltics. But Russia also has some vulnerabilities, such as its dependence on the Baltic Sea for commerce and defense. And the Baltic Sea is particularly vulnerable to interdiction by an offensive mining campaign.

Baltic

Aerial delivery of mines in World War II was practiced by virtually all sides, particularly in Europe, with Germany attempting to interdict British ports, and Britain similarly attempting to shut down German U-boats.

Possibly the most effective mining campaign in history was the use of B-29s to shut down Japanese shipping in its home waters near the end of the war. Operation Starvation laid a series of minefields around Japan that accounted for an astonishing 670 ships sunk or damaged for the cost of only 12,000 or so mines, and the loss of only 15 B-29s.

And of course, I can never post about aerial mine delivery without mentioning my father’s contribution.

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Air Force Special Operations Helicopters in Vietnam

Most of us, when we think of Air Force Special Operations helicopters immediately picture the mighty MH-53J/M, the giant Pave Low III/IV used through the 80s and 90s to insert special operation forces at long range and in limited visibility into denied territory. The Pave Low is retired now, replaced in Air Force service by the CV-22B.

Here’s the thing- the Air Force didn’t get the MH-53 until well after the Desert One disaster during the Iran hostage crisis. It had operated H-53s for many years prior to that, all the way back to the Vietnam war, but used it in the Combat Search and Rescue role, picking up downed pilots in enemy territory. But the Desert One fiasco convinced both the Army and the Air Force they needed dedicated aircraft and crews to support special operations forces.

Of course, the H-53 wouldn’t be the first Air Force helicopter focused on support to special operations. During the Vietnam War, it quickly became apparent that the North Vietnamese were supplying their forces and the Vietcong in the south via what became known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a complex of roads and trails moving from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia into South Vietnam. This web of trails was dispersed so that finding individual units and convoys on it was extremely challenging. A great deal of effort went into developing technologies that could find traffic on the trail. But for most of the war, the most effective means of finding traffic was to insert small reconnaissance teams of 3-6 men in the area. These small teams, Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols, or LLRPs (pronounced “Lurps”) would be inserted into an operational area via helicopter, walk to an objective area, and quietly observe. Intelligence gathered would be used to generated targeting for airstrikes, as early warning for ground commanders, and generally help generate an order of battle of enemy forces. Similar patrols inside South Vietnam would detect, locate and target NVA forces operating against the US and our South Vietnamese allies.

Tasked with supporting this mission, the Air Force actually bought their own variant of the ubiquitous UH-1 Huey, the UH-1F. Given that they were primarily inserting very small teams, the Air Force chose the original short cabin configuration. And observing the trouble the Army had with gunship versions of the short cabin UH-1B due to lack of power, the Air Force Hueys were powered by the General Electric 1500hp T-58 turbine engine, unlike virtually every other Huey that used variants of the Lycoming T-53 turbine.*

The Air Force also developed a bolt on kit to convert a “slick” Huey into a gunship variant, with two 7-round 2.75” rocket launchers, and two M134 miniguns mounted in the cabin. Where the army external forward firing mounts for M60s and later M134s, the cabin mounted miniguns of the Air Force could be used either in a forward firing mode, or as flexible guns aimed by the crew chief and gunner.

On November 26, 1968, then 1st LT James P. Fleming, USAF of the 20th Special Operations Squadron was flying a UH-1F when a call for an emergency extraction of a six man MACV-SOG recon team came over the air.

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. Capt. Fleming (then 1st Lt.) distinguished himself as the Aircraft Commander of a UH-1F transport Helicopter. Capt. Fleming went to the aid of a 6-man special forces long range reconnaissance patrol that was in danger of being overrun by a large, heavily armed hostile force. Despite the knowledge that 1 helicopter had been downed by intense hostile fire, Capt. Fleming descended, and balanced his helicopter on a river bank with the tail boom hanging over open water. The patrol could not penetrate to the landing site and he was forced to withdraw. Dangerously low on fuel, Capt. Fleming repeated his original landing maneuver. Disregarding his own safety, he remained in this exposed position. Hostile fire crashed through his windscreen as the patrol boarded his helicopter. Capt. Fleming made a successful takeoff through a barrage of hostile fire and recovered safely at a forward base. Capt. Fleming’s profound concern for his fellowmen, and at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Air Force and reflect great credit upon himself and the Armed Forces of his country.

James_P_Fleming

Airforce_moh

As the Air Force learned lessons in Vietnam about the tactics, techniques and procedures best suited for this mission, they produced a film to share with new pilots and crews to keep this institutional knowledge alive.

Also, there’s some pretty good shooty/splodey in there.

 

*The T-53 also was adapted to become the 1500 hp turbine that powers todays M1 tank series.

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About that F-35 vs. F-16 dogfight…

The interwebs and Facebook exploded this week with the latest revelation that the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is a dog that can’t dogfight.

David Axe’s post has set off a firestorm of criticism over the inability of the F-35 to outperform the 40 year old F-16. Everyone who has access to the internet is up in arms over this horrible failure.

But here’s the thing. The JSF is not really a fighter. Or rather, the emphasis is on strike, more than on fighter. It’s a bomb truck. It does also have a robust air to air capability, but that role is somewhat secondary to its ability to attack ground targets.

The F-16 was conceived during the last years of the Vietnam war, and designed immediately following it. COL John Boyd’s Energy/Maneuverability Theory had a very large impact on its configuration. The ability of outmaneuver potential Soviet threat aircraft was the paramount concern of the design. And the aircraft had to be able to outmaneuver because of the limitations of the armament of the day. To wit, the plane John Boyd and the Fighter Mafia wanted was to be dirt simple, with only the most crude radar for cueing weapons, and armed only with a pair of AIM-9P Sidewinder short range missiles, and the M61 Vulcan 20mm cannon.

The other jet fighter the Air Force was buying at that time, the F-15 Eagle, took a completely different approach, with the biggest radar they could stuff into a fighter sized jet, and a whopping 8 air to air missiles, four of the big AIM-7 Sparrows (the primary armament) and four Sidewinders, as well as a gun.  The Eagle also was built with the E/M theory very much in mind, but primarily saw itself as a beyond visual range fighter, picking off Soviet MiG-21s and MiG-23s before they could even return fire.

The anti-F-35 camp (the loudest members of which are probably David Axe, Eric L. Palmer, and Pierre Sprey*) insist that any fighter simply must follow the E/M theory, or it is utterly worthless.

The problem is, E/M theory isn’t applicable to just airplanes. Turns out, it applies pretty well to air to air missiles also. And whereas a manned airplane can’t really go much above 9G without harming the meatware, missiles have no problem pulling 60G or more.  Building agility (high G capability) into an airplane involves tradeoffs. The structure has to weigh more or it will crack sooner, and conversely, intense efforts at weight reduction have to be implemented, as weight factors strongly into the equation. Having reached an effective plateau of about 9Gs, it simply makes more sense to concentrate on enhancing the maneuverability of the weapon, not the airplane.

Furthermore, it should be noted, there’s quite a few people pushing back against Axe’s sensationalistic piece. Far from being the true test that shows once and for all the F-35 is a POS, it was in fact, a first look, aimed at finding out not so much how well the F-35 performed against the F-16, but rather at what parts of the flight control software could be improved to give the F-35 more maneuverability, particularly at high Angles of Attack (AoA).  It appears the F-35 used in the test, AF-2 the second build “A” model for the Air Force, was also using flight control software that restricted certain portions of the envelope. And my sources also tell me the test took place during a time when there were restrictions on the engine performance. While the pilot might have no restrictions on throttle movement, the Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) was programmed in a manner that would restrict some of the output.

From Aviation Week:

“…The operational maneuver tests were conducted to see “how it would look like against an F-16 in the airspace,” says Col. Rod “Trash” Cregier, F-35 program director. “It was an early look at any control laws that may need to be tweaked to enable it to fly better in future. You can definitely tweak it—that’s the option.”

Emphasis mine.  The F-35 has already demonstrated a 9 G capability. It’s cleared through a flight envelope up to 50,000 feet, and a speed of Mach 1. 6. It was a deliberate decision to accept a considerably lower top speed than the Mach 2.0 of the F-16, particularly since most air to air engagements take place in the transonic regime, from about Mach 0.8 to maybe Mach 1.1.

Incidentally, the F/A-18 Hornet is really a 7.5G fighter, and yet fought the way it was intended to be fought, it has an excellent reputation against the US Navy’s Aggressor F-16s.

The gang at f-16.net aren’t exactly impressed with Axe’s article.

Nor is SMSgt. Mac at Elements of Power

UK Defense Journal points out that in other exercises more representative of real operations than a canned BFM scenario, the F-35 has performed quite well against the F-16.

Over the last few years there have been occasions where a flight of F-35s have engaged a flight of F-16s in simulated combat scenarios, the F-35s reportedly won each of those encounters because of its sensors and low visibility.

C.W. Lemoine, who has flown both the F/A-18 and the F-16, points out a few reasons why the Axe article is, in his words, garbage.

There are a great number of valid reasons to criticize the F-35 program, from its very inception envisioning one jet operating as a vertical jump jet, a carrier jet, and a conventional runway jet. The costs associated with the avionics and computer programming have been astonishing.  The deliberate spread of subcontracts across every possible Congressional district as a defense against cancellation is another issue worthy of debate.

But taking one small canned scenario, one intended not to see if the F-35 could out fight the F-16, but rather explore the flight envelope, and proclaiming that it invalidates the entire development program, is the type of sensationalistic clickbait reporting that does little to inform the public on the actual state of the program.

 

 

*Pierre Sprey is a statistician and a music producer. He also still contends to this day that the F-15 is a failure, in spite of a combat record of something like 105-0 in air to air combat. Take his words with that thought in mind.

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Last M117 750# Bomb from Guam

The M117 GP 750 pound bomb was the only non-Mk80 series bomb to see widespread service. 

M117

Barksdale’s 20th Bomb Squadron is scheduled to drop the last M117 bomb in storage at Andersen AFB, Guam later this week. The M117s are surplus from Vietnam and once numbered in the tens of thousands there. Bomber crews, most recently those rotating in to support the Continuous Bomber Presence mission, have been chipping away at the stockpile for decades. Anyone have any good stories to share about loading or dropping them?

If you watch old footage of Arc Light strikes during the Vietnam war, you’ll often see the B-52Ds carrying a full internal load of Mk82 500 pound bombs, and M117s on the external racks. The ballistics were close enough to drop a mixed load simultaneously.

Interestingly, the very first laser guided bombs were built up from the M117.

Thanks to Spill.

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US ICBM Minuteman III attack on the Western Pacific.

Finding launch footage of Minuteman III ICBMs is easy. Finding Re-entry Vehicle footage is a bit harder.

I knew P-3s observed the reentry, but I didn’t know they were specially configured.

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The Air Force Helicopter Fleet-With a bonus look at how the sausage gets made.

I’m always delighted when I get emails from people. A lurker saw Pave Low John’s comment of a recent post, and mentioned that his brother was a Pave Low gunner for many years. I figured that since it’s such a small community, PLJ would almost certainly know him. Turns out, he did. And while putting people in touch with each other, I also asked PLJ for his thoughts on the rotary wing fleet in the Air Force.  I’m going to share a bit of our exchange.*

XBradTC:

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the travesty that has been the Air Force’s inability to buy a decent helicopter, both as regards a MH-53M replacement, and more spectacularly the whole CSAR-X fiasco. I understand there are differences in the Special Operations and CSAR missions, but for the life of me I can’t grasp why the MH-47G wouldn’t be a pretty good fit for the Air Force, and capitalize of the economies of scale of buying an in production platform. Instead, now, after somewhere around 15 years of bidding, protesting, suing and whatnot, the Air Force is going to end up buying Sikorsky S-92s. Mind you, this is at a time when their argument is that they must reduce the numbers of types they operate to retire the A-10, and yet they want to introduce a platform virtually no one else in the world operates!

For that matter, the obvious answer for the UH-1N replacement is to simply piggyback on the Army’s UH-60 buy, but they can’t even figure out a way to do that! These aren’t complicated issues. Why is it there is no common sense anymore? Please, let me know your thoughts. I’d love to share them as a guest post on the blog.

Pave Low John:

Yeah, CSAR-X and the missile site support helicopter replacement are a mess and if it makes you feel better, I agree with you 100% on the MH-47G and the Blackhawk option for the missile fields.  Here is my .02 cents, but it may take a while, I got some strong opinions when it comes to these issues.

       Here’s the deal when it comes to CSAR – to really do it right, you need at least three difference kind/sizes of airframes.  Kind of like playing golf, you need the right club for the situation.  You need a long-range heavy-lift platform for high-altitude/vehicles/CRRC/long-range overwater rescues (some version of the H-47 is the best bird for this role, hands down); you need a small platform that can do urban rescues (MH-6s are, and have been, the best at this mission, obviously); finally, you need a medium-sized helo that can fill the gaps between the MH-47 and the MH-6 (lots of possibilities, including newer MH-60s, NH-90s, Super Pumas, S-92s, etc…) 

    Now, that is a perfect world scenario.  With all the usual budget and organizational restrictions, the USAF is going to want to pick just one platform for Rescue.  Which is stupid, but there it is.  So the MH-47G is the best pick, because it covers the most bases (that is also why the MH-53J was originally designed to be a rescue asset until USSOCOM snatched to away from ARS back in the 1980s, thanks mostly to the failed operation at Desert One).  The Army already flies the MH-47E/F, so training, simulator support, etc… is already there, the USAF just has to pull it’s head out of its ass and just buy HH-47s.  I was working in AFSOC HQ back in 2004 and 2005 when AFSOC owned the rescue mission, and if AFSOC hadn’t lost the mission back to ACC in late 2005, I’m absolutely convinced the MH-47G (called the HH-47G at the time) would have been selected.  But the fighter guys got Rescue back and screwed it all up, and it is still screwed up to this day.

    As for the replacement for the UH-1N replacement, the Air Force has neglected the missile security mission for decades and they just don’t want to spend money on the problem.  UH-60s could fill the role of both gunships and security team transport but again, the Air Force has screwed it all up.  They know that they need something to support the missile convoys and launch sites, but they don’t want to spend more money than they are right now (and UH-60s do cost more to fix and fly than UH-1s, but you get more for your dollars, obviously).

     It all boils down to one factor really:  The Air Force, as an organization, does not understand rotary-wing issues and dislikes anything rotary-wing related on a general basis.  It smacks too much of the Army and the Marine Corps and the “fighter mafia”-types that really run the Air Force has let their parochialism cloud their judgment when it comes to Rescue and Missile Site Support.  I was a helicopter pilot my entire career in the Air Force (with the exception of my first year of pilot training flying T-37s and T-38s) and there was no doubt that I was a red-headed stepchild compared to even the tanker toads flying KC-135s and KC-10s.  No matter how many deployments I made overseas or how many hours I logged in combat, I was never treated as a “real” aviator by the fixed-wing crowd that makes up the leadership of the Air Force.  They would say a few nice words now and again, but when it came down to money and where to spend it, helicopters were always at the bottom of the priority list.  Hell, the Air Force even got rid of the rotary-wing half of the only Combat Aviation Advisor squadron in the DoD — just to fund some improvements to the AC-130!  The AFSOC three-star told us right to our face that the five million dollars a year he was spending on Mi-17s and UH-1Ns and UH-1Hs in order to train foreign aviators was simply too much.  Don’t get me wrong, I love me some AC-130, those guys do great work, but that was a really stupid move.  The U.S. Army is still having trouble picking up that mission, which they didn’t want in the first place (due to a number of factors, but that is a post for another time) and all that experience was scattered to the wind, never to return.  So when you watch the news and see a story about the U.S. having trouble training Iraqis or Afghans or whoever to defend their own country, just remember that the Air Force deliberately closed down the only part of the entire U.S. military focused on training foreign units in rotary-wing operations.    Just to save 5 million dollars a year. 

    So there you have it.  The USAF doesn’t like helicopters, it doesn’t understand their missions, and just wishes the whole debacle would just go away so they could get back to important issues like the F-35 and….the F-35, I guess.   I could go on but I think that is the simplest way to look at it.  It all comes down to culture and the Air Force “culture” doesn’t include helicopters.  Since no one outside the Air Force is going to make them address this blind spot until something really bad happens, it could be a while before things improve for Air Force rotor-heads. 

Most of this is the Air Force’s fault. Some, however, is Congress and the DoD’s fault.  We’ve set up an insanely complex system to assure that major systems procurement is fair and that the systems bought fulfill the mission the best way possible. Unfortunately, the process has fallen to regulatory capture, wherein the process has become more important than the product. For instance, the missile security mission- every time the Air Force moves a nuclear warhead for a Minuteman missile (for maintenance or what have you) security forces in a UH-1N Huey escort the weapon. But the UH-1N is terribly old. The obvious answer is to replace it with the UH-60M, currently in production for the Army. But even if the Air Force didn’t want that big of a helicopter, it shouldn’t take years to simply decide to buy another utility lift helicopter. There are any number of suitable helicopters currently in production, including Huey variants that would do nicely. You and I, being normal people, say, look, the Huey is getting kinda old, let’s buy some new helicopters, maybe the Bell 412. Maybe have a bidding war or competitive fly-off between the UH-60M and the Bell 412, where the contractors compete for our business. Instead, the Air Force pays contractors to study the issue. It’s insane.

 

*With John’s permission. I treat commenter private information such as email addresses with discretion.

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Crash- Or, sometimes, the Air Force is pretty badass.

Not often. But the PJs and rescue helicopter crews are some tough, brave folks. Back in 2002, called to assist with the recovery of dead and injured climbers on Mt. Hood, OR, an Air Force Reserve Pavehawk helicopter crashed and rolled 1000 feet down the mountain.

Incredibly, none of the helicopter crew were killed. Two crewmen were ejected and actually had the helicopter roll over them, but the soft snow meant they survived.

**waves to PaveLow John.**

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