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The Landing Craft Infantry

Faced with the challenge of mounting a cross channel invasion from England to France, the US and Britain realized that small landing craft like the famed Higgins boat would be enough to land the very first assault echelons, but the need to very rapidly build up forces on the far shore would require something more substantial. The ideal craft would lift a reinforced rifle company, be capable of berthing and feeding them for about 48 hours, and be able to land them directly upon the far shore.  The result was the Landing Craft Infantry (Large).

The basic hull was 158 feet long, with a beam of 23 feet. Power was provided by two “Quad Pack” Detroit Diesel engines driving two shafts with reversible pitch propellers.  The Quad Pack was an interesting engine design. No diesel engine of suitable size and power was in production, so Detroit Diesel took four of their existing 6-71 engines, and coupled them to a shared driveshaft. The resulting 1704 cubic inch displacement engine would be used in multiple ships. The LCI(L) had a top speed of about 16 knots, and could maintain 15 knots. At a cruising speed of 8-10 knots, the ship had a range of about 4000 nautical miles, allowing it to self deploy from the US to Britain or to the distance Pacific. While it could self deploy, it could not embark troops for such a voyage.

Nine hundred twenty three LCI(L)s would be built in ten US yards. Two hundred eleven were transferred to the Royal Navy.  Over the course of the program, the design of the deckhouse and the internal arrangements were changed as a result of feedback from the fleet. Originally, two ramps one either side of the bow were used to disembark troops on the beach. First flight ships also had a low, square conning tower. Later ships had a higher, rounded “castle” conning tower with better visibility, and the final batches of ships replaced the ramps with a single ramp through double doors on the bow. These ships also had a larger deckhouse, allowing an increase in troop berthing from 180 to 210.

Original low deckhouse.

Modified deckhouse.

Bow ramp and full deckhouse.

The basic ship was also modified for a variety of roles, such as Flotilla leader, and most famously, gunboats.  The gunboat conversions were so successful that a further 130 ships were built specifically as gunboats, and known as the Landing Craft Support (Large).

Almost immediatley after the war, virtually the entire fleet of LCIs was decommissioned and disposed of. Most were scrapped, though a few were sent to foreign navies or bought by private parties. Today, there are a handful still around, including one in California, and one in Portland, Oregon, undergoing restoration to serve as a museum ship. And one of the volunteers at that example has produced a 42 minute guided tour of LCI-713.

The ship belongs to the non-profit Amphibious Forces Memorial Museum. The next time I head up there, I’m definitely going to have to visit.

Oh, and as an added bonus, there’s an operational 78’ PT boat in Portland as well. But we’ll save that for another post.

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The Defense of the West-SeaCoast Fortifications

Unlike the eastern seaboard, the western coast of the continental United States has relatively few major ports. From south to north, the main seaports include San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, the Columbia River, and Puget Sound. There are others, but those are the “Big Five” handling the majority of seagoing vessels.

Interestingly, all five are quite suited to seacoast defense. Depending on the time in question, Los Angeles and Puget Sound might have posed a challenge for the defender, but by the Endicott period, the guns and mines available were quite suitable to close off each port.

Craig has an interesting post on the concerns the Union had for the security of San Francisco during the Civil War. At that time, San Francisco was by far the most significant western port, and as the shipping point for the vast majority of California gold rush gold that was financing the Union, could have made a very attractive target for a Confederate raider, or an adventurous foreign power, say England.

All of this was known by authorities in Washington.  In 1856 a survey of the terrain brought back numerous recommendations to fortify the bay. Those included additional batteries to supplement Fort Point and located on Alcatraz, Yerba Beuna, and Angel Islands, Point San Jose, and, most important to the Golden Gate, Lime Point opposite Fort Point.  I’ve highlighted some of those on a snip from the 1859 coastal survey map (which, by the way, indicates that someone had “cast a lead” into those waters to figure out the depth):

Similarly, last weekend I enjoyed the view from Cabrillo National Monument.  CNM and Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery are today on the grounds of Naval Base Point Loma, but used to be within the confines of Fort Rosecrans, a Coastal Artillery post with several batteries guarding the entrance to San Diego harbor.

 

One of the interesting things about San Diego is that it has only one channel in or out. To say that Fort Rosecrans dominates that channel is something of an understatement. The seaward facing batteries control the approaches, and the channel itself was narrow enough that even a very modest minefield could completely seal the channel.

The Endicott/Taft period batteries consisted of 8 12” mortars, 4 10” guns, 2 5” guns (later replaced by 2 3” guns) and two 3” guns.

A mine casemate for a controlled minefield was also included.

To give you an idea how restricted the channel is, here’s the USS Chancellorsville, CG-62, passing through the channel.

 

During World War II, several additional batteries were added.  The big punch added was a pair of casemated 16” guns at Battery Ashburn (aka Battery 126).

Arguably the most interesting two batteries were Battery Zeilin and Battery Gillepsie. Battery Zeilin was two 7” guns on pedestal mounts, while Battery Gillespie consisted of three 5” pedestal mounts.

Both batteries were originally training batteries for the US Marine Corps. And therein lies an interesting side story.

The US Army’s Coast Artillery Corps was responsible for the defense of the US ports and harbors and those of its overseas possessions. But what of advanced bases?

During the interwar years, having tasted the success of large scale operations in World War I, the Marines were soon relegated back to fighting in banana wars in South America, and providing detachments aboard US capital ships. In search of a raison d’etre, the Marines looked to the Pacific, and like others, saw a likely war with Japan.

They saw that any US fleet movement across the Pacific would entail seizing and defending forward operating bases. And contra our vision today of the Marines storming the beaches, the hope was they would be able to occupy undefended, or lightly defended island outposts, and then defend them against Japanese counterattack. Accordingly, there was a significant slice of Marine Corps doctrine that focused on seacoast defense of forward bases. And Batteries Zeilin and Gillespie were training batteries allocated for Marine Defense Battalions to practice their trades.

And apparently, the instructors at Battery Gillespie did right by their students, as Marines manning 5” guns at Wake Island suceeded in sinking the IJN destroyer Hayatuke during the initial Japanese landing attempt, the first of many Japanese surface ships sunk during World War II.

Batteries Zeilin and Gillespie were turned over to the Army early in the war. And while Fort Rosecrans was never called on to actively defend San Diego, it stood guard throughout the war. Further it was a major training center for the Coast Artillery, providing training in both seacoast defense and anti-aircraft artillery defense.

The age of aviation rendered the seacoast gun obselete by the end of World War II, and Fort Rosecrans was soon surplus to the Army’s needs. Closed in 1948, it was turned over to the Navy in 1959, and continues to this day to be home to significant naval activities, as well as the lovely Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery, and the beautiful and popular Cabrillo National Monument.

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The Gallant Hours

@GuadaBattle is still providing a timeline on twitter of the key events of the Guadalcanal campaign (and with the Marines birthday so near, it’s fitting to remember one of their mightiest campaigns).

Guadalcanal was truly a joint mission. Usually associated with the Marines by the general public, the campaign saw major contributions by the Army, Army Air Forces and titanic struggles by the Navy.

The 1960 film The Gallant Hours is a semi-documentary portrait of then Vice Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey, who was appointed the theater commander in mid-campaign.  And youtube has it all for you.  You might want to bookmark this and watch it tonight or this weekend.

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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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Thoughts on US Navy Anti-Aircraft Gunfire in World War II

@GuadaBattle remarked last night on the incredible losses of the Japanese air fleet during the Battle of Santa Cruz. I offered him a few thoughts on the subject off the top of my head, and since I’m lazy, I thought I’d share them with you here.

First, the obvious- radar. The early warning radar provided cut down on the numbers of surprise attacks. If incoming raids were atrited by the CAP, even better, as it tended to break up attacks, reducing the chance of saturation.

Second, fire control, both as methodology and as a technical matter. The Navy quickly devised doctrine with regard to which ships covered which sectors of a task force or group, and had officers specifically tasked to this control measure, not just gunnery officers doubling duty.

On the technical side, the Japanese had good fire control, but the US Mk37 fire control system (and variants of it) was the outstanding anti-air gunfire director system of the war. 5″/38 operating in total director control was quite deadly. Couple this with the Mk51 director control of the 40mm batteries. A separate pedestal director control station, away from the blast of the guns, featuring a gyrostabilized optical fire director controlled each 40mm mount.

Japanese ships had director controlled 5″ guns, but they never seemed to be nearly as effective as ours. They lacked a weapon in the 40mm range, using instead triple, twin, and single 25mm cannon, all of which lacked director control.

Add in the scads of relatively ineffective, but quite visible 20mm Oerlikons all over US ships, and there were a lot of tracers flying around!

Typically, a Fletcher class DD of the Guada period would mount two twin 40mm forward of the bridge, and a twin mount aft. By the end of the war, they would often have the twins forward, a quad replacing one set of torpedo tubes, two twins in the waist.

One of @GuadaBattle’s twitter respondents also mentioned another fairly obvious point- Japanese aircraft were lightly built, in a structural sense, and lacked armor and self sealing fuel tanks. That was a tradeoff that boosted their range and performance, but made them much more vulnerable to weapons effects.

The battle of Santa Cruz was where the VT proximity fuze made its Pacific debut. We’ll discuss the history of that a bit more later, but I wanted to share a picture a reader sent a couple months ago. During the Okinawa campaign, the seaplane tender USS St. George came under kamikaze attack, and engaged with VT fuzed 5”/38.

St George crop

Here’s a cropped version:

St George fuze

With an effective kill radius of about 50 feet, that’s a deadly shot and a prime example of the effectiveness of the VT proximity fuze.

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The Battle of Agincourt and the AirLand Battle Doctrine

I’m too lazy busy today to write a Birthday Battle Post, so let’s enjoy this one from three years ago.

Vastly outnumbered, trapped and in close terrain, facing hunger and disease, your flight to safe harbor cut off, what do you do? Attack. And win.

Henry V’s stunning defeat of the French on October 25, 1415 is famous to most folks as the setting of the oft quoted Saint Crispin’s Day speech by Shakespeare. But military historians also have long studied the battle as an example of how to fight outnumbered and win.

Henry V, already King of England, also claimed the title of King of France. As with so much else in the Hundred Years War, that claim was disputed. English kings had long claimed dominion over swaths of the French coastline. And truth be told, Henry V’s claim to the French crown was more an opening bargaining position, leverage to gain concessions from Charles VI. Charles VI, while willing to make concessions, wasn’t willing to grant the entirety of the lands Henry sought. France had been chipping away at English held lands in France for decades. Conceding any more than necessary seemed foolish.

Negotiations having failed, Henry V  launched a campaign to regain control of the port town of Harfleur. From August to early October, Henry’s forces besieged and later occupied the town. With the end of summer, the traditional campaigning season, Henry decided to retire his back to England. Disease had weakened his ranks, and the poor weather approaching would only worsen that situation. But rather than redeploying directly from Harfleur, Henry decided to “show the flag” throughout Normandy, reminding the locals that he had an army that could travel the region at will, and depart from Calais.

The French had moved to raise an army to challenge Henry. While this force was not ready in time to relieve the siege of Harfleur, the French saw an opportunity to run Henry to ground and destroy his force.

After about two weeks of maneuvering, the French finally succeeded in blocking Henry’s route of escape to Calais. Near the village of Agincourt, the French held the northern end of a small gap in the woods. To get home, Henry would have to fight.

400px-Map_Agincort.svg

Henry had a force of roughly 1500 “men at arms”- that is, armored knights fighting as heavy dismounted infantry. In addition, he had approximately 7000 longbowmen.

The French were far more numerous. Historians were a bit less fastidious back then so estimates vary widely, but it is generally accepted the French had around 10,000 men at arms, and several thousand  archers and crossbowmen.

English doctrine at the time would normally have dictated that Henry stand of the defensive and allow the French to attack him. That had been the tactic at Crecy. And given that Henry’s force had been forced marched some 250 miles in two weeks, and was already weakened by disease, Henry probably would have preferred to defend.  But the French, having blocked Henry’s route, were in no great hurry to attack. If they could keep him contained just a day or so longer, additional overwhelming forces could arrive and strike his forces in the rear. In military terms, this is a “double envelopment.” The destruction of Henry’s forces would be almost guaranteed.

Henry, realizing French offers of negotiations were a delaying tactic, seized the initiative. He attacked. But no headlong charge, this.  Henry moved his line forward to a natural choke point between the woods, where the field was only about 750 yards across. He halted here with his flanks secured by the woods and arrayed his men-at-arms in line. Meanwhile, his longbowmen, arrayed on either flank, advanced to within range (about 300 yards) of the French. The French planned to scatter the English archers with a cavalry attack, but were caught off guard by the English advance. As soon as the English archers reached their positions, they dug in long pointed spears, or palings,  at a low angle to ward of any cavalry charge (similar to what you may have seen in Braveheart). In range, the archers began their volleys.

The French were thus baited into joining the battle. The French cavalry charge was disorganized and lacked weight. The cavalry was unable to turn the archers flanks because of the thick woods, and unable to penetrate the line due to the archers palings.

With the failure of the cavalry charge, the French main body advanced to join the battle.  They faced two main challenges. First, the open field had recently been ploughed, making any movement slow and arduous. Having volleys of arrows falling upon them didn’t help any. Second, the first echelon of French men-at-arms was so large on such a narrow front that men were crowded together so tightly there wasn’t room to swing a dead cat, let alone a broadsword.  When the French cavalry retreated from its rebuff against the archers, it fell back through the first of the French main body, causing further confusion.

When the first French echelon finally reached Henry’s forces, is was more a mob than a military formation. And it paid a price. While it had some success in pushing Henry’s line back, it failed to penetrate the line. The second echelon of French forces arrived and simply ended up stacked up behind the first. On such a narrow front, they simply couldn’t get through the crowd to reach the English. Soon they too lost their formation and were a milling mob.  Having marched hundreds of yards over muddy terrain wearing heavy armor, French forces were badly fatigued. Still, the sheer weight of the assault would have eventually worn down the English. But Henry’s forces had one counterstroke left.

The English archers, having exhausted their supply of arrows, surged forward from their positions. Abandoning their longbows for swords, they slammed into the French flanks and a melee ensued. Unencumbered by armor, and swifter of foot without armor, they were able to quickly kill, wound or simply topple over thousands of the French men-at-arms. Knocked into the mud wearing 60 pounds of armor meant just getting back on your feet was an almost impossible task. They had little choice but to surrender and beg quarter.

Henry’s forces had decisively defeated the first two waves of the French attack. Thousands of prisoners had been taken. But there was still a third echelon of French forces, and even it outnumbered the English. Normally, captured men-at-arms were held for ransom. A knight who captured two or three French knights could look forward to receiving enough ransom to offset his costs of serving his king, and still probably have enough for a tidy profit. But Henry still faced that third wave of Frenchmen, who appeared to be gathering for their own assault. Accordingly, he ordered all prisoners put to the sword. This was an unpopular decision, but within the accepted laws of war at the time. A relative handful of the most noble blooded prisoners were spared, mostly as droits of the crown.

Seeing the utter defeat of the first two waves, the remaining French forces quit the field and fled to safety. The battle was over.

It was a decisive victory. But Henry’s immediate objective remained unchanged, to return to England. In less than a month, Henry would be in London, hailed a conquering hero. The military victory solidified his political force at home. Further, it reinforced in Continental  minds the English superiority at arms. The defeat also caused great dissention amongst the various factions in France. This dissention would mean future expeditions to  France would face an enemy that lacked unity and were easier to defeat or discourage.

Fast forward almost 600 years, and you’ll find that NATO faced some of the same challenges as Henry.

The NATO powers were greatly outnumbered by the forces of the USSR and the Warsaw Pact. Similarly, the for the NATO forces, retreat wasn’t really an option, though for different reasons. Normally, an outnumbered force would look to trade space for time, attriting the enemy in a series of small battles, but never being pinned to one battlefield, always retreating before they could be destroyed. But politically, NATO forces had to hold the line as far forward as possible. Besides, as big as Western Europe is, there is only so much room to retreat before Soviet forces would have reached the Atlantic.

In the post-Vietnam era, GEN William DePuy and other thinkers were striving to develop a doctrine that would allow the outnumbered Western powers to fight outnumbered and win. They started with a careful consideration of history. I don’t know for a fact that they studied Agincourt, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t come across it at some point. One of the things they did learn, however, was that outnumbered forces, even overwhelmingly outnumbered forces, seemed to win just about as often as they lost. What did the winners have in common? Quite often, they had what the authors of AirLand Battle Doctrine came to call “agility.”

Agility is far more than the physical quickness we might think of, such as an outstanding running back. That was an imp0rtant component, to be sure. But the other part was an ability to see and evaluate risks and opportunities faster than the opposing force. Henry was quickly able to grasp that the terrain at Agincourt offered him an opportunity to nullify the French advantage in numbers. The French, on the other hand, wasted any opportunity their delaying tactics provided to shape the coming battle. Henry’s force was far more agile, both in the mental sense, and in the physical sense of his longbowmen not being overly burdened.

AirLand Battle doctrine saw a scenario where a US division might have to defeat as many as nine Soviet divisions. By carefully choosing where to meet the Soviets, they could force them to become congested along narrow fronts, providing a rich array of targets for US tanks, while also striking deep with artillery to prevent follow on echelons from lending their own weight to the battle. Artillery, attack helicopters, and air strikes, much like the archers of old, would sow confusion among following Soviet forces. It’s not an accident that the AH-64D Apache is nicknamed “Longbow” as they were intended to slip along the flanks and attack the second echelon of Soviet forces before they joined the battle.

And while artillerymen and Apaches couldn’t fall upon the flanks and fight hand to hand, every US division and corps commander would constantly be looking for the opportunity to slip a brigade into position to slam into an unguarded Soviet flank, especially when he could bloody their noses by making them attack positions strong enough to cause congestion and confusion.

There’s a hoary old saying that amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics. And at the strategic level, that’s true to some extent. But that doesn’t mean the professional ignores tactics. At the operational and tactical level, where the fighting is actually done, the professional soldier, to some extent, just has to take it on faith that his logistics train will keep up. Accordingly, he must be more tactically proficient than his foe, and equipped with a doctrine that emphasizes his strengths and exploits his enemy’s weaknesses. A careful study of history shows there is rarely something new under the sun.

As to Shakespeare’s most excellent speech in Henry V, and its powerful message on morale, moral strength and the Band of Brothers, perhaps we’ll cover that in our birthday message next year.

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Pierre Sprey and the Fighter Mafia got it wrong.

In this post, I damned Pierre Sprey’s insights into the weapons development, particularly in aircraft.

Sprey was a part of the Fighter Mafia, alongside other notables, such as John Boyd, around whom something of a cult has formed. Indeed, your humble scribe is a member of a Facebook group devoted to Boyd and his theories.

But it is important to remember that while the Fighter Mafia had an outsized influence on the development of what would become the F-15, F-16, and eventually, the F/A-18, it’s even more important to remember that those three aircraft are all highly successful largely in spite of the Fighter Mafia, not because of them.

In the mid to late 1960s, appalled by the poor air to air combat record of the Air Force in Vietnam, the Fighter Mafia used Boyd’s E/M theory to argue successfully that the envisioned replacement for the F-4 Phantom should focus on maneuverability.

Eventually, that replacement became the F-15 Eagle, which, to be sure, is a highly maneuverable fighter. But the Fighter Mafia hated it. It’s a big, big fighter. Two primary factors led to its large size. First, fuel. For long range, you need a huge fuel fraction- that is, the percentage of gross take off weight dedicated to fuel. But the more fuel you carry, the more power you need to maintain performance and maneuverability. And of course, you get more power from bigger engines. Which need more fuel… The second factor driving the size of the Eagle was the radar. Radar range is largely a function of antenna array size. To achieve longer detection ranges, you need a larger array. The size of the antenna array ultimately has a large influence on the aerodynamic design of the rest of the aircraft. That is, a big radar results in a big airplane.

The Fighter Mafia also hated that the Eagle’s primary weapon was a quartet of AIM-7 Sparrow III missiles. To be sure, the Eagle also carried four AIM-9 Sidewinders, and an M61A1 20mm Vulcan cannon, in effect, the same armament as the late model F-4E it was to replace. The Fighter Mafia loathed the very idea of the Sparrow missile, with its heavy weight, required heavy radar, and the complexity and cost it imposed on the airplane. The rest of the Air Force, however, saw the Sparrow as the main battery, and the other weapons were just along for the ride, as they imposed a minimal penalty in weight and performance. The Eagle with its huge radar and beyond-visual-range, all aspect Sparrows would knock down MiGs long before the MiGs had a chance to maneuver against the Eagles. The Fighter Mafia did win some battles in the design of the Eagle- “Not a pound for Air to Ground” being one.

Overall the Eagle was the antithesis of what the Fighter Mafia sought in a new plane. They wanted, in effect, to out MiG-21 the MiG-21. They saw the perfect fighter as a lightweight, single engine plane armed with two Sidewinders, a cannon, and a simple radar along the lines of the APQ-153 for cueing the Sidewinders and gun-laying.

The Fighter Mafia also realized the cost of the Eagle would preclude the Air Force from buying nearly as many jets as they had F-4s to replace. And so, through some bureaucratic slight of hand, they convinced the DoD to open up a procurement program for what became the Lightweight Fighter (LWF) program.

Eventually, two prototypes would emerge from LWF, the General Dynamics YF-16, and the Northrop YF-17. At first glance, the Fighter Mafia would appear to have won. Both were small, very lightweight (well, compared to an Eagle), armed with Sidewinders and a gun, and with minimal radar.

Pierre Sprey did have a major influence at about this time. He was the driving force behind the competitive fly-off between the two prototypes.  At his insistence, the fly-off was conducted by operational test pilots, not engineering test pilots. That is, rather than pilots with a focus on ensuring the plane would meet some esoteric numerical data point, they wanted pilots who would evaluate the plane in terms of their experience with actual combat flying. Additionally, the test pilots would fly both types, giving them the opportunity to compare and contrast both. Both the objective data, and the subjective impressions of the pilots would influence the selection. In the end, the YF-16 won out.  The YF-17, after a major redesign effort, would be emerge as the F/A-18 Hornet now used by the Navy and Marine Corps.

While the YF-16 was almost exactly what the Fighter Mafia sought, the Air Force wasn’t entirely happy with it. Changes between the YF-16 and the production F-16A were extensive.

The Fighter Mafia saw the F-16 as the ne plus ultra of air to air combat. But the Air Force didn’t see much point to a second air to air fighter competing for budget dollars with the F-15 Eagle. What they did see a pressing need for was a light fighter bomber to replace hundreds of F-4 Phantoms, F-105 Thunderchiefs, and A-7D Corsairs. And so they gave the F-16 a significant air to ground capability. Additionally, advances in electronics and computing technology lead the Air Force to give the F-16 the APG-66  multi-function radar for both air and surface search, and air to air and air to ground weapons aiming. A few years later, the F-16C model began to enter service, and with it came the ability to use the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air to Air Missile, or AMRAAM. Where the Fighter Mafia envisioned an F-16 entering combat with no more external stores than a pair of Sidewinders, today an F-16 in combat typically carries two AMRAAMs, two Sidewinders, two to four Laser Guided Bombs, two 370 gallon drop tanks, and a jammer pod. To say the Fighting Falcon has strayed from the ideal of the Fighter Mafia is something of an understatement.

So where did the Fighter Mafia go wrong? They carefully analyzed the shortcomings of US airpower in air to air combat in Vietnam, and had a very plausible theory (E/M) that showed the way to overcome those failures.

The Fighter Mafia’s mistake was a failure to realize that many of the problems the US faced in Vietnam would be overcome by technology, much of it not directly related to the fighter aircraft themselves. Other issues were political or doctrinal, and would be overcome by training.

For instance, much of the bad reputation of the F-4 Phantom in combat was related to the early, all missile armed C and D models. Especially early in the war when they were equipped with the early AIM-7D model Sparrow, coupled with a requirement that all targets be visually identified, that poor air to air reputation was somewhat valid. But by the end of the Vietnam conflict, the vastly improved AIM-7E2 Sparrow was much more reliable, and a much better missile from a tactical point of view. Coupled with that technical improvement was early work on what we would today call Non-Cooperative Threat Recognition allowed US aircrews to begin using the Sparrow in the way it was intended, yielding much better results. Looking at the highest scoring ace of the Vietnam War, Chuck DeBellevue, we see that four of his six kills were with the radar guided Sparrow, and only two with the Sidewinder.

Similarly, the ability of airborne warning and control to definitively designate potential targets as hostile was on the cusp of being when the Fighter Mafia was arguing for a fighter that would, by design, be forced to merge to visual range with the enemy. The old EC-121 radar planes were being replaced by the vastly more capable E-3A Sentry.

Vastly improved training in air to air combat maneuvering also greatly changed the performance of US aircrews. Early failures in Vietnam were not merely a symptom of poor airframe design. Instead, prior to Vietnam, a very large percentage of the training time was spent on the tactical nuclear strike mission, as well as conventional air to ground training. Little thought was given to realistic air combat maneuvering. All these factors gave an unrealistic impression of the inability of the platforms such as the F-4 to succeed in the air superiority mission.

With continue improvement in missiles, in training, and in command and control measures allowing beyond visual range engagements, we’ve actually seen the virtual disappearance of the swirling dogfight the Fighter Mafia insisted the F-16 be built for. Looking at US Air Force air to air victories after Vietnam, the vast majority have been made with the long range Sparrow or the AMRAAM. Very few fights involved more than one sustained turn. Instead, the most common Eagle tactic is referred to as The Wall, with four Eagles line abreast using their powerful radars and Sparrows/AMRAAMs to sweep aside enemy fighters with “in your face” shots.

One of the prime drivers in the design of the F-22A Raptor was the need for very high, very fast flight because that high/fast combination gives a missile an even greater standoff range than one launched lower and slower.

And it is not just the US that increasingly saw that the long range standoff attack was the future. The Soviet MiG-29 and Su-27 were both primarily armed with the  R-27 (NATO reporting name AA-10 Alamo) and later the R-77 (NATO reporting name AA-12 Adder) long range radar guided missiles. European nations use either the AMRAAM or a variety of similar long range missiles. Had the F-16 become the Fighter Mafia wanted, it would be severely handicapped in the face of such BVR capable opponents.

It’s interesting that John Boyd, later famous for his OODA loop, would himself, as a member of the Fighter Mafia, arguably make a grave error in his own OODA loop in justifying his vision of the Lightweight Fighter.

OODA.Boyd

 

Having observed the poor air to air performance of the Air Force in Vietnam, his orientation led him to mistaken assumptions about what the future of air combat would look like.

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