Tag Archives: air force

The Thud

Here’s a great documentary on the mighty Republic F-105 Thunderchief. I especially enjoyed the little seen footage of the prototypes and the testing regime.

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Air Combat- Past and Future

Critics of the F-35 went bonkers when David Axe posted about one isolated test flight where the F-35 had issues maneuvering against an F-16.

Of course, that’s based on an assumption that future air combat will be conducted in a manner similar to the dogfights over North Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, where fighters maneuvered hard to get into a narrow cone behind their opponent, and a visual ID was required before engaging. The caterwauling over the lack of a permanently installed gun on the Marine and Navy versions also leans heavily on the assumption that modern air to air missile will work just about as well as their 1960s counterparts.

Guess what? Times change. Pull out your cell phone. Look at it. How many of you have a 6th generation iPhone or Galaxy? It’s pretty incredible, right? A tad more advance than, say, this:

from-backpack-transceiver-smartphone-visual-history-mobile-phone.w654

Why would you assume that phones improve, but air to air missile technology doesn’t?

And the assumption that future air to air tactics will be like those of Vietnam also ignores (willfully and studiously) the fact that the Navy and the Air Force used the lessons of Vietnam to fundamentally change our entire approach to air to air warfare.

Here’s a homework assignment- watch all four of these videos. It’s about 40 minutes.

Wigs is one of the most respected fighter pilots to come out of the Tomcat community.

And here’s Bio, another highly respected member of the community.

When I joined my first F-14 squadron in 1981 (VF-24), the A-model was still relatively new and some US Navy squadrons were still flying Phantoms. The potential threats that we most often trained for were the MiG-17 and MiG-21, which were not match of a threat beyond visual range (BVR), but could be a handful if you got engaged within visual range (WVR). Since we always expected to be outnumbered, and with the lessons from the air war over Vietnam still fresh, we spent a lot of our training fuel and time on ACM – air combat maneuvering, or dogfighting.

—–

When we started to get serious about the threat, especially when the AA-10 Alamo arrived, we realized we had to employ AIM-54s against enemy fighters. So of course we began to train with them. I think the capability was in TACTS all along, we just never used it. Fortunately the Navy introduced the AIM-54C in 1987, when we really needed it. The Charlie corrected many shortcomings of the Alpha, in both outer air battle and closer-in tactical environments. With its long motor burn time, large warhead, and radar improvements, the AIM-54C was a tenacious missile. Again, it is too bad it doesn’t have a combat record.

One of the coolest visuals I remember was from TACTS debriefs at Fallon, when a division of Tomcats launched AIM-54Cs against simulated Fulcrums at 30-plus miles. A few seconds after launch the debriefer rotated the view from overhead to horizontal, and there were four Phoenixes performing their trajectory-shaping climbs. AIM-54s were not 100% kills, but they sure started to reduce the threat as scenarios developed.

Air combat has changed in the 40 years since Vietnam.  The single most common tactic in air to air combat today, world wide, is the “in your face” long range Beyond Visual Range radar guided missile shot.

That means that the key to success in air to air combat is seeing the other guy before he sees you, and having a weapon that can exploit that sensor advantage. The APG-81 AESA on board the F-35, coupled with off board sensors such as E-3 Sentry or E-2 Hawkeye, will give the F-35 an increased probability of “first look” while the relatively stealthy airframe will delay an opponent the chance to lock up.

Am I still critical of the F-35 program? You bet. The decision to give the Marines a supersonic jump jet drove just about every aspect of the design of all three variants, and imposed compromises and costs that have greatly hampered the entire program. But that doesn’t mean the jet is an utter catastrophe.

Every fighter program is always criticized. You may not recall this, but the newspapers just about ran out of ink writing articles about what expensive disasters the F-14 and F-15 were. How’d that work out?

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One Direction, NASA, Patricia Lynn, and modern all weather attack.

You should probably mute this, but play “name that plane” and spot the non-T-38 plane in the video.

That’s the WB-57F  Canberra, used by NASA for high altitude atmospheric research. It was originally used by the USAF to collect atmospheric samples during nuclear testing. Collecting samples of radioactive particles after a nuclear blast, physicists can tell a great deal about how effective a device was. We collected samples both of our own devices, and those of the Soviet Union, and indeed everyone else’s.

The WB-57 was derived from the RB-57, which was something of a poor man’s alternative to the U-2. A basic B-57 bomber was converted with vastly larger wings and upgraded powerplants to give it a much higher operational ceiling. Unfortunately, as the U-2 discovered in May of 1960, the SA-2 Guideline had an even higher ceiling.

The basic B-57 itself was built by Martin, being derived from the British English Electric Canberra bomber.

The first major variant operational with the USAF, the B-57B, served in Vietnam as a day/night interdiction/strike aircraft, and even flew some strikes against North Vietnam in the early years of the war. Increasing air defenses there meant it was soon withdrawn from use up north, but it soldiered on for a few more years providing air support in South Vietnam, eventually being replaced by newer tactical aircraft.

To find targets for those tactical aircraft meant aerial reconnaissance, and a lot of it, particularly against the NVA’s logistical trail, the Ho Chi Mihn Trail.  A lot of RF-101 Voodoo and RF-4 Phantom sorties were flown, but results, particularly at night, were less than great. And so Project Patricia Lynn was started.  A handful of RB-57Es were deployed to use infra-red cameras locate targets. It was very effective, with some estimates that 80% of the usable aerial reconnaissance came from Patricia Lynn.

Martin B-57E-MA 55-4237 Da Nang AB South Vietnam 3/4 front view at Da Nang AB, South Vietnam, in January 1964. Aircraft was originally B-57E (S/N 55-4264). This aircraft was lost on Oct. 25, 1968. (U.S. Air Force photo)

The adaptability and flexibility of the B-57 also lead to a couple of experiments with using sensors such as Low Light Level Television and infrared line scanners to allow the crew to see targets at night in real time, rather than having to wait for IR film to be developed.

That impressive real time capability lead to the ugly, but impressive B-57G. With LLTV, IR and a laser rangefinder/designator built in, the B-57G was the first truly effective precision night attack jet. It was the first jet to have a built in capability to self designate targets for laser guided bombs at night. The cutting edge technology meant they were maintenance nightmares, and had poor availability rates, but when they worked, they showed just how effective night attack sensors and precision guided weapons could be.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c2/190th_Tactical_Reconnaissance_Group_B-57G_Canberras_1973.jpg

Switching back to the big wing WB-57 for a bit, let’s talk about networked warfare for a bit. More and more, we rely on datalink networks to provide a picture of the battlefield. But that raises to problems. Not all datalinks are compatible, and most are line of sight only. That lead to the development of BACN, the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node. BACN is both a relay and a translator, allowing various networks to work together. And since line of sight increases with altitude, it was first deployed aboard the WB-57, and operationally used in Afghanistan in 2012.

The WB-57s have returned to NASA, and a third has recently been added to the fleet. Not bad for a design the British first flew in 1949.

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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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Daily Dose of a whole heckova lotta Splodey!! Air Force Weapons Effects Tests circa 1963.

Guns, rockets, bombs, napalm,* Bullpubs and Sidewinders! With bonus JATO take off and two cases of fraticide!

F-80s, F-84s, F-100s, F-101s, F-104s, F-105s! C-123 and C-130! HH-34! And if you have sharp eyes, you’ll spot an H-19 and an H-21!

 

 

*Napalm really does stick to kids

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