Category Archives: Air Force

F-15E Low Level in the Cascades

The two seat F-15E Strike Eagle (or Beagle as its often nicknamed) is the replacement for the F-111. The original F-15 design mantra was “not a pound for air to ground.” That is, the F-15 was to be a single purpose weapon, focusing solely on being the best air-to-air fighter in the world.

Ironically, many of the characteristics that made it such a successful air to air fighter would lend themselves to making the Strike Eagle a highly successful bomber. Good thrust to weight ratio, huge internal fuel capacity, excellent load capacity and structural strength, combined with modernized radar, special electro-optical sensors, and with reconfigured weapons racks make the F-15 one of the most potent tactical strike aircraft around.

This jet from the 366th Fighter Wing stationed at Mountain Home AFB in Idaho shows us the fun part of the job, flying through the VR-1335 low level route in the beautiful Cascade Mountains.

I’ve never seen the Strike Eagles doing this, but I did occasionally see F-111s and A-6s zipping through the mountains. It’s a heck of a sight.

If you prefer the unedited version with no music, click here.

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The Missile Men of North Vietnam

Sa-2camo

S-75 Dvina, known to NATO as the SA-2 Guideline, surface to air missile showing off it’s stationary ground launcher.

The SA-2 Guideline was the bane of existence for US aircrews in the skies over North Vietnam. Air and Space has a very interesting article on the Vietnamese crews that crewed these weapons 40 years ago:

Nguyen Van Pheit joined the North Vietnamese military in 1960. Five years later, as a young lieutenant, he was sent to the Soviet Union along with about 1,000 of his countrymen for SA-2 training. For nine months, they studied and drilled 14 hours a day, seven days a week, learning enough Russian that many became conversant with their instructors. The Soviets regularly served them bacon. Used to a Vietnamese diet rich in rice and vegetables, Phiet initially found the meat unappetizing, but he eventually got used to it. The culmination of his training was launching SA-2s at two unmanned aircraft. Phiet and his crew nailed both of the targets and toasted their hits with champagne.

After graduating from missile school, Phiet was deployed to Hoa Binh Province, southwest of Hanoi, to work on the city’s outer ring of air defense. Like the other SA-2s deployed to defend the North, the six missiles assigned to Phiet were arrayed in a rough circle on mobile, truck-towed launchers, with each missile positioned about a mile from its control and support vehicles.

A typical SA-2 battery relied on a truck-mounted Spoon Rest acquisition radar unit, which provided target location data to a rudimentary computer, and Fan Song guidance radar, which aided in missile guidance as well as target acquisition. To operate each SA-2, a minimum of five primary crewmen, in addition to maintenance and other support personnel, were required: three radar operators, one controller, and a battery commander.

Interesting reading from men who were on the receiving end of American airpower.

What's it feel like to get shot at and missed by a SAM? Ask those guys.

What’s it feel like to get shot at and missed by a SAM? Ask those guys.

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Silly Season at Seymour-Johnson AFB

Everyone else is beating this like a piñata so I might as well take a whack.

You know what this is? It’s someone’s bullet point on their next FitRep.

  • “COL Smith implemented the Passport to Prosperity Program (P2P2) to improve the quality of life for 4FW Airmen.”

You just know that’s gonna be written somewhere.

The goal isn’t to improve Airmen’s quality of life. It’s to be seen as doing something. It’s management, not leadership. Counseling and mentoring subordinates, establishing and enforcing tough but realistic standards, understanding that promoting esprit de corps will ensure good morale, those are all tough aspects of command and leadership. Putting a puerile feel good series of mockable classes together isn’t.

H/T to CDR Salamander, who has much more.

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The BBC’s 1964 Masterpiece “The Great War”

Of all the events of the Twentieth Century, it is the First World War that has had the most dramatic and longest-lasting impact on the psyche of Western civilization, more so than all the events that followed.   For anyone with an abiding interest in that war, the 1964 BBC documentary The Great War is an invaluable reference to understanding.  Narrated by Sir Michael Redgrave, the 26-part documentary is a superbly-crafted work.  The tenor of the broadcasts reflects the erosion of the naïve hopes of the warring parties in 1914 into the grim fatalism that the years of slaughter evoked, and the upheaval that would ultimately topple the crowned heads of Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Serbia.  BBC producers make excellent use of voice to read the actual words of the key participants such as Edward Grey, Bethmann-Hollweg, Conrad von Hotzendorf, Joffre, Haig, Falkenhayn, and others.  The series features remarkable and little-seen motion footage of the world of 1914-18, including the civilians, the politicians, the armies, and the great battles of that war.   The battle footage heavily emphasizes the two great killers of that war (in inverse order), the machine gun, and modern breech-loading recoil-dampened artillery.

Of note also are the poignant, and sometimes extremely moving, interviews with the participants of events of the great tragedy.  Some had been in the thick of the fighting, others young subalterns or staff officers at the sleeve of the decision-makers.   Most remarkably, the BBC managed to produce a documentary about momentous events that changed the world and yet also managed to allow the viewer insight into the inestimable human tragedy that these events summoned.   At the time of the release of The Great War, those events were closer in time to the audience than the beginning of the Vietnam War is to our contemporary world.   The twenty-six episodes are around forty minutes each.  Worth every second of the time spent.

Oh, and as the credits roll at the end of each episode, one can spot the name of a very young (19 years old) contributor named Max Hastings.

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Cutaway Thursday: Boeing YC-14

The Boeing YC-14 was a twin enigne STOL (short take-off and landing) transport aircraft that completed in the USAF Advanced Medium STOL Transport (AMST), basically an attempt to replace the C-130. The YC-14 was competing against the YC-15 (which evolved into the C-17) in the AMST program, which we covered here.

YC-14-artwork-cutaway

The YC-14 is currently on display that the Pima Air and Space Museum. You can learn more about the YC-14 here.

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The B-1 vs. The A-10, and a very misleading headline.

On June 9, 2014, confusion and poor tactics led to a B-1B bomber dropping two 500 pound bombs on US and friendly Afghan troops. Five Americans and one Afghan soldier were killed in the incident.

Yesterday’s Washington Times published a lengthy piece by Rowan Scarborough about the incident:

The “friendly fire” airstrike that killed five American soldiers in Afghanistan on June 9 is the first known case of a battlefield catastrophe that can be linked to automatic defense spending cuts that greatly curtailed prewar training.

A review of the worst American fratricide in the long Afghanistan war also shows that the military’s official investigation faults a Green Beret commander, an Air Force air controller and the four-man crew on the B-1B bomber that conducted the errant strike.

But the investigation, headed by an Air Force general, does not question the use of a strategic bomber for close air support, even though experts say the tragedy illustrates why the big plane is misplaced in that role.

The Washington Times has reviewed the investigation and interviewed knowledgeable sources to compile a picture of the doomed operation in southern Afghanistan’s Zabul province, as well as the political and military missteps that precipitated it. Key among them, according to defense experts, was the use of the strategic bomber.

Scarborough’s angle is that the B-1B is an obviously poor choice for the Close Air Support mission, and apparently, the Air Force is stubbornly refusing to admit that in spite of the opinions of “experts.”

And of course, there’s a political battle about the future of the A-10.  From further down in the article, John McCain has to make an appearance. From Senate hearings in April, questioning the Secretary of the Air Force, Debra Lee James:

Mr. McCain, not afraid to bluntly question generals and their civilian heads, stopped her right there, asking her to detail the “so forth.”

She said it included the B-1B: “It is my belief that the B-1 bomber has done some close air support in Afghanistan.”

Sen. McCain expressed amazement.

“That’s a remarkable statement,” he told her. “That doesn’t comport with any experience I’ve ever had, nor anyone I know has ever had. See, this is an example. You’re throwing in the B-1 bomber as a close air support weapon to replace the A-10. This is the reason why there is such incredible skepticism here in Congress.”

Gen. Welsh jumped in to say the B-1B had been doing close air support for some time.

Incensed, Mr. McCain said those had been “a very limited number of missions of close air support. General, please don’t insult my intelligence.”

Senator McCain, for all his military aviation experience, seems to have not noticed that B-1Bs have been flying Close Air Support missions in Afghanistan for thirteen years now, and this is the first friendly fire incident in which one has been involved.

In fact, while there are potential issues with using the B-1B for CAS, it also brings some very good attributes to the fight. First, persistence. It has the endurance to stay on station for hours on end, far longer than any tactical fighter bomber, even the A-10. Second, compared to any other platform, it can carry a much greater payload of ordnance. That gives it the ability to reattack targets as needed. Additionally, it can carry a wide variety of weapons on each mission, allowing it to tailor the the weapon to the target. The B-1B, originally intended as a nuclear bomber, is restricted by treaty these days to a purely conventional mission. And the community has invested a lot of time and money to optimize the platform for the CAS role.

Of course, “experts” have to weight in.

“The A-10s would not have been orbiting five miles away,” said William Smith, a retired Air Force officer who logged more than 3,000 miles on the A-10. “They would have been right over top of the fight.”

He further explained how the A-10 and pilot do the job: “Being right over the fight, with the A-10’s tighter turn radius, gives us the ability to stay right on top of the target, allowing the pilot to have constant eyes on the fight. A-10 pilots know you can’t see the infrared strobe in the sniper pod. You need to look out the window, through the NVGs. A-10 pilots wear the goggles continuously.”

Mr. Smith is now part of a coalition trying to save the A-10. He grimaces when discussing the B-1B as a stand-in.

Here’s the thing, yes, the expert cited is indeed an expert. But n0te that he has a strong bias to advocate for the A-10. Let’s also note that the A-10 has been involved in several fraticide incidents, including an attack on the British Army in Iraq in 2003.

Fraticide is not a platform problem, it’s usually a tactics and communications problem, often exacerbated by “buck fever” where someone is overly eager to contribute to the fight.

And sometimes, the real reason is staring you in the face. From this very same Washington Times article, there’s this stunning bit:

In addition, The Times review found that the Air Force Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC), a critical player who made a major miscalculation that night, had a checkered career.

Upon arriving June 1 in Afghanistan, he had been told before the operation that he had been selected for “involuntary separation,” meaning his Air Force career was over.

This JTAC also had been demoted in rank for misconduct. On another occasion, he was kicked out of a special unit because he twice called in close air support directly over friendly positions during training. Yet he was allowed to participate in the operation on relatively short notice.

The Times has learned the JTAC showed a lack of basic knowledge about close air support when interviewed afterward by investigators.

Emphasis mine.

A JTAC who was so incompetent that he should never been allowed to touch a radio, combined with the fog of war lead to this tragedy. All the other factors cited in the Air Force investigation are simply contributing factors, not causal ones.

Many people, McCain, Smith and others, are using the deaths of these soldiers for political ends. Mr. Scarborough should be ashamed of himself for playing along.

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ISIS Missiles, and the case for retiring the A-10

The New York Times has a short but informative piece on ISIS gaining and using Man Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) in Syria. The MANPADS has been around since the 1960s, with the first generation US Redeye and Soviet SA-7 Grail setting the basic template for those that follow.  For the most part, non-state actors have often had access to the SA-7 and similar missiles. But with the exception of the US supplying the far more capable FIM-92 Stinger to the Mujihadeen in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, few such non-state groups have had access to modern, more capable missiles. For a time, the Stinger was head and shoulders above any other MANPAD system in capability. Judicious use of tactics, and profligate use of countermeasures such as flares minimized the risks MANPADS posed to modern combat aircraft and helicopters. But the times, they are a-changin’. Several late model Russian and Chinese MANPAD systems are quite capable and increasingly in the hands of groups such as ISIS and the Free Syrian Army. With US airstrikes taking place in both Iraq and Syria against ISIS positions, the chances of our airmen facing these advanced MANPADS cannot be dismissed.

Many have expressed outrage at the Air Force saying that budget constraints are forcing it to put the A-10 Warthog on the retirement chopping block. Advocates insist it is the best possible platform for close air support of ground troops in contact. It’s capability to operate at low altitude and low speed give it a better ability to spot targets and precisely engage with its awesome 30mm GAU-8 gun, supporters argue. The armor and survivability features incorporated in its design favor it over other platforms such as the F-16, they content.

But that overlooks shifts in technology, doctrine, and threats since the A-10 was first fielded in the 1970s. Back then, effectively, the only precision sensor for all strike platforms was the Mk 1 Mod 0 eyeball. Radar could help an F-111 find a bridge, but spotting tanks and artillery pieces still came down to  a visual search.  But those days have been gone for over 2o years. Virtually every warplane today features some form of electro-optical sensor for spotting and precisely locating discrete targets. When the A-10 was fielded, only a handful of guided weapons were in regular use. Contra the thought that the GAU-8 was the main weapon of the A-10, the real main battery was the AGM-65 Maverick guided missile. It’s standoff range made it safer for the A-10 to attack Soviet formations guarded by radar guided 23mm ZSU-23-4 guns and SA-7 missiles. Only after Soviet air defenses were suppressed would Warthogs mop up with the gun. The rest of the weapons inventory mostly consisted of unguided dumb bombs and cluster bombs. Low and slow made for a more accurate delivery via the A-10 than from fast mover jets.

But today, virtually every weapon dropped in combat today is a precision guided weapon. Indeed, rules of engagement make it almost unheard of to use a dumb bomb. You’d be hard pressed to  simply find a picture of an unguided bomb hanging from a deployed attack aircraft.  Given the precision nature of the weapons, there is no accuracy benefit to a low and slow delivery platform.

The A-10’s ability to better acquire ground targets visually is more than offset by the better sensors of other strike platforms. Add that current US doctrine stresses target acquisition by offboard sensors, primarily UAVs and ground troops, the ability to visually search the battlefield is of significantly lesser importance.

And so we come to the last point- vulnerability. There’s an old fighter pilot saying that “speed is life.”

When it comes to missile combat, that’s literally, mathematically true. MANPAD systems have improved both in the quality of their guidance systems and in their propulsion. The improvements in rocket performance in just the last 30 years is surprising. And so the engagement envelope of a given MANPAD against a given benchmark target has improved. The slower the target, the better chance a missile has of generating an intercept. The faster the target, the poorer the prospects of an intercept. Similarly, altitude has the same effect. Combining higher speed with higher altitude greatly shrinks the bubble of airspace that a given missile can even theoretically generate an intercept in.

Being low and slow, the A-10’s window of vulnerability is greater than most strike aircraft. And for all its vaunted toughness, it is hardly invulnerable. During Desert Storm, four A-10s were downed by relatively crude air defenses, with a further two written off after crash landings. Current and near future threats might not be as dense, but they will likely be more sophisticated.

It’s not that the Air Force really wants to retire the A-10. It’s that it is being forced by sequestration to make hard choices on where it spends the money it does have. And they’ve come to the regrettable, but defensible conclusion that they can provide adequate close air support of ground troops with other platforms, and reap the savings of retiring not just the A-10 airframe, but also the institutional infrastructure needed to support an operational type. I may not like it, but I understand it.

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