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Reforming America's Overhyped Airpower

F-14 Aircraft

In 1986, audiences across the United States flocked to see the new Tom Cruise movie, “Top Gun”, which was produced with the full cooperation – and censorship – of the U.S. Navy. At the beginning of the film, a caption appeared on screen to give the audience some background information on the Top Gun school. It read: “On March 3, 1969 the United States Navy established an elite school for the top one percent of its pilots. Its purpose was to teach the lost art of aerial combat and to insure that the handful of men who graduated were the best fighter pilots in the world. They succeeded. Today, the Navy calls it Fighter Weapons School. The flyers call it: Top Gun." The film made millions and encouraged a new generation of Americans to become naval aviators. There was only one problem: It was all hype. Rather than being unique, Top Gun taught tactics developed a dozen years earlier by the Air Force's Fighter Weapons School – and in Vietnam the school's graduates proved to be less than the best in the world. “Top Gun” was a Pentagon propaganda film designed to make the U.S. Navy look a lot better than it really is. Sad as this is, the film was hardly the first time Americans were exposed to propaganda masquerading as entertainment (or education) to make their country's airmen look like unequaled
supermen. Not by a long shot.

Even now, the American military services'
search for heroes—needed to maintain
popular support for massive military budgets
– often elevates people to glory that some
would say is not entirely justifiable.

This process of indoctrination began in World War I. America entered the war at the last moment, and was in need of heroes. But not just any kind of hero. No, they wanted a superhero, and so they created one and his name was Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, a fighter pilot. Rickenbacker was credited with 26 kills and became a national celebrity. Most Americans will recognize the name even now, and many of them consider him “the ace of aces”. Unfortunately, that is not true. Don't get me wrong, Rickenbacker was a very good pilot, but he was not especially great when you compare him to other allied aces. As historian Pierre Berton observed, an allied pilot named Donald Maclaren had his first dog fight on the very same day that Rickenbacker did, in February 1918, but Maclaren went on to get 48 kills, nearly twice as many as Rickenbacker. (1)

Indeed, Berton noted that “ … as late as 1975, American magazines continued to cite Rickenbacker as the leading allied ace. In January of that year the men's magazine Argosy, in a long article on the leading fighter pilots of the war, declared that 'two names stand out from all the rest – Baron Manfred von Richtofen and Captain Eddie Rickenbacker.'”(2) To put that claim into the proper context, Historian Dan McCaffery noted that “By the war's end, Canada, with a population of only eight million people, had produced four super aces with fifty or more kills each. Germany, by contrast, had three and France and England just two each.”(3) Rickenbacker would obviously not be able to compete with these gentlemen.

Even now, the American military services' search for heroes— needed to maintain popular support for massive military budgets – often elevates people to glory that some would say is not entirely justifiable. This is especially true in the domain of airpower which makes the largest demands of all on the public purse.

Up through the mid 60s, US pilots
flying the latest
supersonic fighters routinely
lost dogfights to Canadian
pilots flying the subsonic F-86s.

Fast forward to the Korean War, in which American pilots claimed a kill ratio of between 10 and 12 to 1 against enemy fighters. American pilots in their F-86 Sabres fought well against Chinese and North Korean MiG-15 pilots, but that ratio, and the notion that the air war over Korea was a one-sided American victory has been called into question in recent years. Indeed, as Dorr, Lake and Thompson said “An air-to-air kill:loss ratio which appeared to be in the order of 10:1 after the war now appears closer to 2:1.”(4) In addition, they point out, “a 1:1 ratio [is] conceivable if F-80s and F-84s were brought into the equation.”(5) The reason for the skepticism is that we now know that Soviet pilots, many of them experienced veterans of WWII air combat, flew covertly in the Korean War also, and they contest the American boasts as well. While the MiG was slightly superior in acceleration and low speed turn rate, Colonel John Boyd maintained that the Sabre had an edge because it was technically better in transient maneuverability.  Notwithstanding this, a 2008 RAND study suggests that the kill ratio between US F-86 pilots and Soviet MiG-15s was “likely 1.3:1”.(6) Also keep in mind that the Soviet Union claimed 52 aces in the Korean War, whereas America can only claim 41.(7) It appears that the top two aces of the war were Soviet pilots, and Soviet MiG-15 pilots themselves say they achieved a ratio of 4:1 against allied aircraft.(8) Furthermore, they argue that their procedures for confirming kills were far more rigorous than the

All this is quite consistent with the pioneering work by air historians like Jeffrey L. Ethell who have examined in dogfight-by-dogfight detail the conflicting air combat claims of both sides in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. Their evidence is overwhelming: all air forces exaggerate their air-to-air (and ground target) kill claims, while tending to understate their own losses. The historians' most consistent finding is that the skills of individual pilots, as opposed to aircraft technical performance, were always the critical factor. Given the WWI  Rickenbacker mythbuilding and the continuing USAF and USN inflation of heroes and kill claims in subsequent wars, the Soviet challenge over the skies of Korea must not be dismissed as a cakewalk for the Americans.

The French pilots simply out flew the Americans time and time again.

The American claim of mastery of the skies during the Korean War becomes even more dubious when one looks at the poor performance of USAF and USN pilots in exercises with NATO air forces in the 1950s and 1960s. Up through the mid 60s, US pilots flying the latest supersonic fighters routinely lost dogfights to Canadian pilots flying the subsonic F-86s (Albeit these were the hottest performing of all F-86 models, the Canadair Sabre Mk VI). Like the Soviet pilots the Americans faced in Korea, the Canadian Sabre pilots had long years of dogfight experience and flew a truly great aircraft.  In 1959, for example, a time when many American pilots still had jet combat experience, the USAF was defeated at a competition in Cadeaux, France. In competition against British, French, Belgian, Canadian and Dutch pilots, the Canadians won, while the team from USAF Central Europe, the only US team in the competition, finished in last place.(10) If the USAF could deal with Soviet MiG pilots so easily in Korea, why not French, Canadian, British, Belgian or Dutch pilots six years later?  The French team outperformed the USAF that year, and another group of French pilots would come back to deal with the US Navy seven years later, and, sadly, once again give them reason to doubt the hype about their dominance of the sky.

In the spring of 1966, the super carrier USS America was cruising the Mediterranean about to join the French in an exercise called “Fairwind IV”. According to author Donald E. Auten, a former naval aviator and Top Gun graduate, the French planners were top notch, and their pilots were “... also quite competent. They were young, aggressive, independent, and had a liberal interpretation of the rules of engagement, and extracted the full performance capabilities from their airplanes.”(11) The French aircraft were all older models, some dating back to the Korean War era, whilst the Americans flew the much newer and more powerful F-4 Phantom. The rules of engagement specified that visual identification was required before attacking hostile aircraft, which obviously limited the use of the Phantom's radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow missiles. The rationale for this rule was to prevent fratricide. In other words, pilots had to make visual contact before engaging a target to minimize the possibility of a “blue-on-blue” incident. This was an eminently reasonable precaution, but keep in mind that the dogma in the USN and the USAF at the time was that beyond visual range missiles had made dogfighting obsolete. The French felt otherwise, and as we'll see later, for good reason. peacetime American fighter
pilots are victims of their military
bureaucracy’s longstanding
obsession with the
“Up-or-Out” promotion system.

Things did not go well for the Americans during this exercise with France, the country that enabled the US to win the Revolutionary War and to survive the War of 1812. Actually, not well is quite an understatement. The French pilots simply outflew the Americans time and time again. In fact, right from the start, clever and skilled French pilots brutally disproved the American theory that the French cannot fight. They began the exercise by flying very low to sneak up on the USS America, totally undetected. As F-4 pilot Lieutenant Junior Grade John Monroe “Hawk” Smith put it “We were sitting on deck, waiting for the ship to turn into the wind so we could launch. It was recovery time for the previous cycle, and the returning Phantoms, Intruders and Skyhawks were in the delta stack, low on gas, and waiting for their Charlie time. Just as America began her turn into the wind, the French hit us. They roared into the stack engaging every plane they saw. The French decimated our jets then bolted out of the area before we could launch.”(12)

The French were able to do this because, thinking tactically, they had been monitoring the movements of the American forces and found it all too easy to  predict when they should strike.(13) “As the exercise progressed,” wrote Auten, “... and the number of engagements increased, it became clear that America's aircrews were usually outmaneuvered and outclassed by the French.”(14) The French, unlike the Americans, still knew how to dogfight. So did the Israelis. And from what I've learned watching the 1996 documentary “Top Gun Over Moscow,” so did the Soviets and Russians. Hawk took the defeat very badly and quipped “We just had our collective asses handed to us by a second-rate military flying club flying a bunch of cheap, little airplanes by pilots who didn't even hold down an honest sixteen hour-a-day job. We looked like a bunch of buffoons...”(15)

What accounts for the higher number of allied aces in WWI, the much higher kill scores of German aces in WWII, the better scores of Russian aces in Korea and the lopsided dogfight victories of Canadian and French pilots over Americans in post-Korean NATO exercises? The common thread is simple: the high scores and the victories went to the pilots with the most dogfight experience and the longest tours in the fighter cockpit. Thus American pilots were hamstrung in war by being forced into far shorter combat tours than enemy pilots.

Even worse, in peacetime American fighter pilots are victims of their military bureaucracy’s longstanding obsession with the “Up-or-Out” promotion system. That system mandates that every USAF and USN pilot must get promoted on schedule or face early separation from the service. Even the cream of the fighter jocks, those who want to do nothing but fly and fight, must rotate out of the cockpit into ‘generalist’ jobs every four years or less in order to get promoted and avoid termination. This in turn breeds mindless careerism: promotion becomes a higher priority than being a great fighter pilot.

That Up-or-Out promotion system may
have seemed promising at its inception,
but has now produced an officer corps
lacking in deep combat skills,
top-heavy with at least 50 percent
more generals than necessary,
and obsessed with promotions.

The resulting deficient skills of American fighter pilots became painfully clear in early Vietnam combat. Air-to-air losses were excessive and victories all too rare. Both Navy and Air Force crews performed poorly in combat against antiquated North Vietnamese MiGs, because like the French, the top North Vietnamese pilots stayed in the cockpit without rotating to other jobs--and clearly knew how to dogfight. And just like the Fairwind IV exercise with the French, actual combat quickly forced the Americans to adopt visual identification as an ironclad rule of engagement, particularly after several early beyond visual range missile engagements resulted in friendly losses.

Desperately seeking a solution to their poor performance against the MiGs, the Navy launched their Top Gun school in 1969, and the kill ratio supposedly went up to 12:1 in the final battles of the war. Note however that several aviation experts researching North Vietnamese air force records, including Jeffrey Ethell and Robert Dorr, found evidence that the North Vietnamese MiG-21 pilots actually did quite well against the Americans despite the launching of top gun. Dorr believed that “... the MiG-21 did score an almost 2:1 kill ratio against us in air-to-air combat but that the MiG-17 did less well, even though North Vietnamese pilots preferred the MiG-17.”(16)

In any event, Top Gun did not live up to the hype of producing “the best fighter pilots in the world.” No, that title belonged to the Israelis, and unlike the U.S. Navy, many Israeli pilots were top notch dogfighters, not just a few select crews. In comparing schools, Commander Sharkey Ward, a Royal Navy Sea Harrier pilot has said that the RN's Air Warfare Instructor School “made Top Gun look like a holiday.”(17) Even the USAF’s school, founded much earlier in 1954 and home to John Boyd’s revolutionary energy-maneuverability tactics, did not solve the fundamental problem: Up-or-Out. USN and USAF pilots simply had to spend too much of their time out of the cockpit getting “their boxes checked” for the next promotion rather than putting in the years and years of intense air combat training required to become world-beating pilots.

As the late Colonel John Boyd put it,
“Machines don't fight wars,
people do, and
they use their minds." 

Up-or-Out was imposed by Gen. George C. Marshall at the end of WWII as an attempt to produce younger senior commanders and to have in place a large cadre of multi-skilled officers ready to lead a rapid draft mobilization for the next world war. That Up-or-Out promotion system (locked into law by the 1947 Officer Personnel Act and further bureaucratized by the 1980 Defense Officer Personnel Management Act) may have seemed promising at its inception, but has now produced an officer corps lacking in deep combat skills, top-heavy with at least 50 percent more generals than necessary, and obsessed with promotions.  Promotions are based on pristine personnel files rather than character, leadership, and war-fighting capabilities. The fitness report system favors those easiest to lead—the careerists--over those superbly skilled at their profession.  And the constant rotations out of combat units into generalist slots means it is rare indeed to find an American officer with 15 years of flying fighters, leading tank units, or commanding at sea. This is what is what is wrong with the Up-or-Out promotion system. The resulting careerism breeds a desire to get promoted at the expense of developing operational expertise.(18)

But this does not have to be the case. As one USAF pilot who served on exchange in Canada once said: “Most of the [Canadian] pilots I ran into were more concerned about being professional pilots, and weren't consumed by 'careerism'...  They did not appear to be constantly looking for the next rung on the ladder as so many of my USAF peers seemed to be... Probably as a group, they were the best collection of pilots I came across.”(19) If America dropped the Up-or-Out system, it is arguable that its pilots might not have forgotten how to dogfight because, as committed military professionals, they could not ignore it was and still is essential in combat. In every first rate air force around the world, particularly those facing immediate threats, a pilot's main responsibility is to become and remain proficient in combat, not to protect his career. There is no good reason why American pilots cannot be allowed to do the same.

Three Proposals for Reform

It is clear now that most American pilots do not match the manufactured image that surrounds them. These days, USAF F-22, F-35 and F-16 pilots are only getting 8-10 flying hours a month, USN F-18 pilots are down to 11 hours, and no simulator will compensate for such inadequate training time.(20) What follows are my proposals for reform so that American pilots can actually live up to the praise and accolades they receive in popular culture. The American military and the American public should consider the following suggestions:

1.    Drop the Up-or-Out promotion system and let pilots focus their careers on flying skills.

2.    Consider decreasing the active/reserve ratio because reserve units, particularly Air National Guard units, have demonstrated greater unit cohesion, experience, skills, and continuity than have regular air units. Moreover, reserves are readily deployable, as proven in ongoing wars. Other important benefits would include, as Chuck Spinney showed twenty-four years ago, the possibility of reducing USAF- and USN-wide organizational overhead and command bloat while permitting a substantial reduction in excess base capacity without changing the number of combat coded aircraft available to the operational commanders. The result would be a more economical, rational and capable USAF and USN--- and, I might add, air forces less polluted by careerism and more in tune with the wars the 21st century is likely to bring. (21)

3.    Learn from other nations on how to train, train, train--and how to get the best results from people. That last point, about people, bears repeating. As the late Colonel John Boyd put it, “Machines don't fight wars, people do, and they use their minds." That means that people, in this case pilots, must be allowed to focus on their combat skills above all else. When this happens, the Pentagon will not need a massive propaganda machine to build hype for America's airmen, they will become true warriors instead of careerists, and Tom Clancy will need to find a new job.

My thanks to Winslow T. Wheeler, Chuck Spinney, Pierre M. Sprey, Don Vandergriff and Robert F. Dorr for their assistance in researching this article. 

Photo credit to Flickr user MATEUS_27:24&25 for original photo used.

End Notes

(1) Pierre Berton Marching As To War: Canada's Turbulent Years 1899-1953 (Anchor Canada: Toronto, 2002), p. 241.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Dan McCaffery Air Aces: The Lives and Times of Twelve Canadian Fighter Pilots (Toronto: Lorimer, 1990), p. 3.

(4) Robert F. Dorr, Jon Lake and Warren Thompson Korean War Aces (Osprey: Oxford, 1995), p. 87.

(5) Ibid., p. 82.
(6) John Stillon and Scott Purdue “Air Combat Past, Present and Future” RAND Project Air Force presentation, August 2008.

(7) Leonid Krylov and Yuriy Tepsurkaev Soviet MiG-15 Aces of the Korean War (Osprey: Oxford, 2008), p.86.

(8) Heavy Metal: MIG 15: RUSSIAN STEALTH. Documentary on the History Channel, 2002.

(9) Yefim Gordon Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 (Surrey: Aerofax, 2001). p. 66

(10) Larry Milberry The Canadair Sabre (Toronto: CANAV Books, 1986), p. 177.

(11) Donald E. Auten Roger Ball! The Odyssey of John Monroe “Hawk” Smith (Bloomington: iUniverse, 2008), p. 120.

(12) Ibid., pp. 121-122.

(13) Ibid., p. 126.

(14) Ibid., p. 122.

(15) Ibid., p. 127.

(16) Robert F. Dorr, email to the author, August 22, 2013.

(17) Commander “Sharkey” Ward Sea Harrier Over The Falklands (London: Cassell, 2000), p. 47.

(18) Donald E. Vandergriff Path to Victory: America’s Army and the Revolution in Human Affairs 2nd Edition, (NY:, AUG 2013), pp. 131-136, 151 and 155.

(19) David L. Bashow Starfighter: A Loving Retrospective of the CF-104 Era in Canadian Fighter Aviation ( Stoney Creek, ON: Fortress Publications. 1991), p.110.

(20) United States Air Force Aircraft Accident Investigation Board Report: F-16C,T/N 87-0315, 194th Fighter Squadron, 144th Fighter Wing, Fresno ANGB, California, 27 December 2012, p. 13.

(21) Chuck Spinney “Shape Up and Fly Right: How to Build a Better Air Force for Less Money” The Outlook, Washington Post , April 16, 1989. (Also reprinted in the Air Force Times).

Tags: Air Combat

The goal of the Straus Military Reform Project is to secure far more effective military forces and much more ethical and professional military and civilian leadership at significantly lower budget levels.

We would like to thank Philip A. Straus Jr. and family for their generous support.

Submitted by Xplane at: November 15, 2014
Maybe Mr Thomson added this comment on the historic French people support to avoid biased thinking like "Cheese eater surrender monkeys"?
Submitted by J.M. at: October 17, 2014
Every time I read this article, I am continuously astonished that you possess a PhD. Seriously, your research is as thorough as a high school student's. For one thing, you don't include anything about American air campaigns that occurred after the Vietnam War. You do realize that the Vietnam War ended about forty years ago right? Have you even heard of the Persian Gulf War? Have you even heard about the subsequent air campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan as well? Second, you never examine any of these air campaigns in great detail. You can't just look at the numbers of aces to determine whether that nation possessed air superiority. For example, Germany had the most aces in World War II, but it ultimately did not possess air superiority. Also, how do you know that Eddie Rickenbacker couldn't compete with other World War 1 aces? Again, you can't use gross numbers to come to conclusions. I mean, even in World War II, there were several instances in which pilots with lesser kill scores managed to defeat pilots with more kill scores. If you watch Dogfights, you will even find an example of this in one of the episodes about the F6F Hellcat. Therefore, there is absolutely no way to prove that Eddie Rickenbacker couldn't win. Until you can prove whether or not he could really compete with other aces, your OPINION amounts to nothing. Third, you are dead wrong about TOPGUN teaching tactics that were already being tought by the Air Force Fighter Weapon's School. I'm sorry to say this, but that is complete an utter nonsense. The USAF was wedded to a very rigid approach called Fluid Four, whereas the US Navy and other NATO air forces were using a tactic called Loose Deuce. The USAF Fighter Weapon's School mostly concentrated on air-to-ground missions with very limited air-to-air training in the mix, none of it dissimilar. For a well-detailed analysis, I direct you to Clashes: Air Combat over North Vietnam, 1965-1972 by Marshall L. Michel III. Also, USN F-8 Crusader pilots were not poorly trained in the Vietnam War; it was the F-4 pilots that needed more training. You cannot judge the effectiveness of TOPGUN by judging both services for the entire war. I want to ask you something. What is your problem? Why do you take every opportunity to take a slash at the US military? I've read your books and your articles, and I honestly think that you are too biased to conduct an objective analysis of the US military. You need to take your own advice and leave personal prejudice out of your analyses.
Submitted by Peace at: August 17, 2014
Utter rubbish! This article suffers from several glaring problems that renders it completely useless in contemporary debates. Before I proceed to describe my problems with this article, I want to say that I am not a fan of Roger Thompson. I find that he is extremely biased, pretentious, and arrogant to the degree that his work loses all validity when carefully scrutinized by those who actually respect historical accuracy. Now, I am not one to dismiss works of scholarship simply because others find them wonderful or terrible, so I decided read the entirety of this article several times in order to forge my opinions. As someone who has read most of his works, I cannot help but feel that he lacks neutral integrity. For example, when talking about the possibility of Japan defeating the US at the Battle of Midway in his recent book, he totally ignores the logistical difficulties inherent in the IJN attacking the West Coast. He also ignores the fact that land-based bombers would be on alert to deal with any threat to the US border. Bottom line, he lacks objective integrity that is essential to conducting any scholarly piece. By far, the most pressing issue I have with this article is that Mr. Thompson does not offer any analyses after the Vietnam War. Does he not realize that more than 40 years have past since that ill-advised war? Many things have changed since then, and reintroducing ACM into the USAF's curriculum was one of them. According to Marshall L. Michell III's book, Clashes: Air Combat over North Vietnam 1965-1972, "By 1975, air-to-air training was at the top of the TAC training agenda." The results of this reemphasis on ACM allowed the USAF to achieve a one-sided kill-ratio during the Persian Gulf War, which Thompson fails to mention or provide any recognition. Did he simply forget about the conflicts that occurred after the Vietnam War, or did he deliberately fail to mention them simply for the sake of his narrative? Anyway, Thompson is simply reiterating problems that occurred several years ago and passing them off as current concerns for the US military. That is a cardinal sin in an article that seeks to offer reform suggestions for the MODERN USAF and USN. Another issue that I have with this article is that Mr. Thompson devises a few "out-of-lunch" comments that offer absolutely nothing to the overall theme of his work. Many of these comments are meaningless at best and only seek to distract readers from the most central ideas. For example, "Things did not go well for the Americans in this exercise with France, the country that enabled the US to win the Revolutionary War and survive the War of 1812." does not offer anything of value to this article. Why is mentioning the fact that France helped the United States win the Revolutionary War and survive the War of 1812 important to the central thesis of this article? Granted, France definitely contributed directly and indirectly in both conflicts, but that snippet of trivia is unimportant to the main idea of reforming American airpower. Finally, I have a massive problem with Mr. Thompson using the results of military exercises with foreign countries as evidence of incompetence in the US military. Across the spectrum of the Internet, I have had the privilege of talking to many current and former members of the US, UK, Canadian, Australian, etc., militaries who have informed me about the nature of many of these exercises. All of these people have told me that these exercises are not competitions meant to decide who is the strongest, but, rather, they are meant as forms of dissimilar combat training to hone the skills of all involved. In other words, they are very similar to scrimmages that ball players use to practice and hone their skills before games. These exercises are also held several times a year, so selecting just a few of them to critically analyze is not nearly enough evidence to determine the underlying competence of any military. In this particular article, Mr. Thompson only provides a single detailed analysis of a military exercise against a foreign country- France in this case. There is no doubt in my mind that many other exercises have occurred before and after this 1966 exercise with France, so using it as sole evidence against the USN's carrier pilots is not nearly enough evidence to determine that American naval aviators are poorly trained. Now, I know that in his recent book, he describes a few exercises between USN pilots and the pilots of various foreign countries. However, the general maxim is still the same: exercises are held several times a year, and using random exercises that are separated by many years is hardly evidence of inadequacy for any military. Mr.Thompson's article is wrought with a plethora of glaring problems that really hinder its potential to be valid when carefully analyzed and critiqued. Not only does he ignore the obvious fact of providing information after the Vietnam War, he also makes unimportant, snarky comments and just a few exercises that occurred over 40 years ago as evidence the dominance of American airpower. Because of the lack of time, I cannot further indulge into the intricacies of this article and list my further concerns with its validity; therefore, this will have to satisfy for know. With that in mind, I would not recommend this article to anyone who is seriously seeking a truly objective critique of the US military- past or present.
Submitted by Randy at: February 1, 2014
Left the USAF in 1993. Looks like nothing has changed: The "career broadening" progression required for all pilots and navigators is/was nothing more than 4 years away from doing what we were trained to do in order to get promoted. It took the better part of a year to get requalified after wasting my time as an Intelligence Officer (no disrespect intended to Intel Officers, but that wasn't why I choose to get into a cockpit). Good luck thinking any of this will change: The Generals all succeeded in this very system: NO WAY they will ever acknowledge a problem with it.
Submitted by ThisGuy at: October 13, 2013
Like all figures they can be manipulated into how you want to portray them - and you make some poor simplistic generalisations in my opinion based on poor research and a general lack of understanding in this field. None of your sources include any that look at actual claimed kills after research from war records - e.g Hungarian Istvan Toperczer is the only researcher who has had access to North Vietnam war records yet you don't even know this exists. Okay so in the early 80s a much documented exercise took place in Lossiemouth Scotland where US F-16As shot down over 80 RAF F-4s and Lightnings for 1 loss - does this mean that the RAF are useless - not it doesnt. You probably don't realise this but exercises are often set up with limitations and parameters to simulate different situations - outcomes dont always equate to pilot ability and lack of training. Although you can question and shape kill ratios etc - there is still very little evidence to get an accurate picture - for example US pilot in Vietnam era is flying along and gets hit by something - Even the pilot flying the aircraft is not sure what hit him could be AAA, a SAM or an A-A missile so US record states hit by SAM, but VPAF record states hit with A-A missile. Bottom line is that basing US pilot ability and training on what you have written is laughable..........................
Submitted by Blacktail at: October 6, 2013
Looks like "Anonymous" is trying to sell something --- and it's not effective pilots, which is what wins air battles. Take for example the statement that "The crate has always counted more than the sky knight flying it". The Soviet Air Force thought precisely the same thing when they took-on the Finnish Air Force in the Winter War --- and the Russians ended up with a loss rate of 1:6. The best fighter the Finns had was the F2A Buffalo, one of the worst airplanes of all time, and it comprised the bulk of the FAF's operational warplanes. Yet, the high technology of the I-16, Yak-1, and LaGG-3 (and outnumbering the FAF by more than 9:1) failed to win the day, and Finland scored a shattering 16:1 kill ratio; One pilot even shot-down 6 Soviet fighters in only 5 minutes. That's more than three times as many as the highest-scoring US fighter pilot of Desert Storm could achieve in his ENTIRE CAREER!; The secret to Finland's success was training, training, and more training. While the Soviet Air Force had double-digit annual flight hours, the Finns had *triple*-digit flight hours. It's not just the Finns, either; the Israelis constantly trained in excess of 200 hours/year, which they still do. Compare to only 187 hours/year, which is all the USAF sees fit to allow it's pilots to have. By contrast, the Arab air forces averaged only some 70 hours/year. And guess what? The IDF ate them alive, with a 10:1 kill ratio in the Six-Day War, the War of Attrition, and the Yom Kippur War. In addition, the IDF also destroyed all the aircraft of the Arab Alliance that didn't get into the air in time in just a few days. TWICE. You have to be a moron not to see the fact that the most capable pilots aren't everything in an air war --- they're the ONLY thing.
Submitted by Anonymous at: September 30, 2013
The crate has always counted more than the sky knight flying it. An F-4F with AIM-120 would routinely beat an F-15C with AIM-7M. An F-22 will beat an Su-27 for much the same reason. Using _excuses_ like the 5-6 jets shot down by BVR attack in SEA as driving the VID rules is a hallmark of ignorance standing in for stupidity. HUNDREDS of 105s were lost due to AAA, SAMs and fighters on ingress. Why? 1. F-4C/D didn't have ALQ-87/101 ECM pods to accompany. 2. F-100F was an inferior Weasel without a standoff, prebrief, ARM to suppress-as-you-go with. 3. The F-105 had such an enormous wing loading that typical ingress was around 12,000ft vs. the 19-20 for the F-4s later, when losses were lower. 4. Despite the ready availability of systems like Paveway, the Walleye and HOBOS, we chose to make repeated passes with dumb bombs against the same piece of real estate with the defenses in full howl. 5. If you look at the total LERs for 1966,67-68 and 72 it becomes obvious that we wiped the floor with the threat, left them alone for 1-5 years and then came back and did it again. When you combine freedom to reconstitute with ROE target restrictions on airbases and no hot pursuit ROE on threats coming out of or running back to China, it's clear that things were not going as they should have because we were not allowed to respect the -potential- that having the hardware required us to acknowledge in terms of preemptive threat elimination. 6. As a side consequence to VID ROE, the APQ-100 on the F- 4C was used more in the Dogfight mode than the FSL or Full System Lock equivalent. While this simplified the number of switch settings the pilot had to make before he could shoot something, it also set bias numbers in the AIM-7E Sparrow weapons system that allowed the weapon to track outside of CW flood zone and thus to lose the critical 'you are here' understanding from it's tail sampler antenna, used to calculate range and angle off as tracking lead. If the missile was no longer within signal range, the missile fuzed out, purposefully. This wasn't discovered until 1971 when an Airman running tests out of Clarke AFB in the PI discovered it. Yet the Sparrow missile was often the ONLY A2A weapon aboard because until the long-bolt AIM- 9 launchers were available, carriage of AIM-9s with bombs was not possible. 7. Early AIM-9 motors were pathetically weak. A target in tailchase which was fired at with an opening target at - 200 knots from 4,000ft could not be hit, even though the documentations said he was in range. If you fired at a target at 1,500ft with 100 knots of overtake, the missile would not meet RMin fuzing rules before it would fly past him. If you fired at more than 2G stabilized, the missile would not hold lock and would fly off into the blue. These and other reasons are why the AIM-7E was more often fired (and more often missed) because at least it -did- have reliable operating envelopes with calculated RMin/RMax and crossing target variables. 8. By the time the first TISEO equipped F-4Es came to theater, the war was in it's waning phases and no reliable data was ever generated because, honestly, the VPAF had largely been shot down and the system (designed to replace 2-4nm VID with EOID as function of 10-15nm ATAR identification and plenty of time for SARH-BVR shots using FSL) was deemed 'useless' because it suffered early generation vulnerability to humidity in the vidicon and hail damage to the external sensor window. Of all of the above (and many more) _technical_ issues, perhaps one or two made sense relative to pilot training as threshold skills. Yet none were more important than the hardware failures which were readily fixed with hardware solutions and would have kept U.S. pilots out of the doctrinal failure loop (dogfighting is essentially largely random) that made the SEA kills so topsy turvy. Stop using simplistic analogies to create confirmation biases.
Submitted by Tommy at: September 29, 2013
Great, great write-up. I spent time in the Navy and was always told the Israelis had the best pilots. Heard good things about the Canadians as well. But, it wasn't until I started reading more about history, the development of doctrine, and the legislative background that has shaped our military that some 'truths' were unfolded and explained. DOPMA is horrible, plain and simple. I understand the rationale GEN Marshall had and the general intent to produce more well-rounded officers. But the way the personnel system is run, well-rounded is not what we're getting. We're also not getting experts. Our Warrant Officers are the closest things to experts, whether they are maintainers, pilots, intelligence, or other areas - they are the only ones allowed to stay within their niche. If you're not getting experts and you're not getting truly broadened and well-rounded officers, then your top ranks are filled by giving out longevity awards or by people that play the game, aka careerists. Up-or-out eliminates longevity awards and thus it's the careerists that make rank. Careerists and the accompanying mindset not only hinder the overall performance of combat aviation, but ground, logistics and other areas needed in warfare. Additionally, the crutch of conformity is a sickness whereby like-minded individuals promote the same and tolerate little else. This poisons adaptability, promotions, retention, selection for special programs, day-to-day policies, and the military justice system. In short, what you present with regard to military aviation serves as an encapsulation to illustrate the ills of DOPMA and the harm it does, overall. In the current sequester environment, we see more time and energy devoted to preserving the industrial base as opposed to the personnel base. "People, ideas, hardware - in that order" was Boyd's quote, if I remember correctly. Our system is now completely in reverse. Our senior military leaders speak of the F-35 and F-22 and other programs as being essential to air superiority, ignoring the pilots that fly them. More importantly the current dialog ignores the planes and people flying for our enemies - and what we must do to ensure the combination of our planes & people stack up against them. Perhaps the fixation with hardware is an inadvertent admission that we don't have the personnel base and personnel system required for combat dominance.
Submitted by Joe Copalman at: September 27, 2013
What about the introduction of rated Warrant Officers into the Air Force and NAVAIR? This would essentially create two tracks for military aviators, one focused on ascending into still-necessary leadership roles, and another that would allow pilots to focus exclusively on being pilots with limited - if any - collateral duties. This arrangement seems to be working fairly well for the Army.
Submitted by UBIRD at: September 24, 2013
Gregory Boyington is another example of the need for hero's in WW-II. A self proclaimed liar and a drunk who ran up a "kill" score at a time when confirmation was not required.
Submitted by Blacktail at: September 23, 2013
Another issue is that the effectiveness of the weapons US pilots receive is often hugely overstated. In the Korean War, almost all of the USAF's fighters used .50cal machine guns. This included the F-86 Sabre, which entered development over 10 years after the advent of automatic cannons as fighter weapons. It was revealed in recent years, once Russian archives from this war were opened to Western readers, that the bullets from these little .50cal guns often failed to cause any serious damage to the Mig-15 Fagot jet fighter flown over Korea by the North Koreans and Chinese (and, secretly, the Russians as well). Even long hails of gunfire would fail to bag a Mig, and it couldn't penetrate the armor on the back of the pilot's seat (designed to defeat autocannon rounds) either. When USAF pilots saw the Mig trail smoke and fall away, it was uncritically labeled a "confirmed kill", and they called it a day. Usually, so did the Mig driver, who returned to base, had his jet patched-up, and went back into the fight with the "shot-down" fighter later on. This trend repeated itself in the Vietnam War, where simply hitting an enemy aircraft with a missile was often unthinkingly branded a "kill". And that's on the rare occasions when missiles actually DID hit enemy aircraft. Of the AIM-9 Sidewinder, only 1 in 3 launches resulted in a kill --- and this was the best performance of any missile used in that entire war! With the AIM-4 Falcon, only 1 in 10 hit the target; with the AIM-7 Sparrow, only 1 in 200 launches resulted in a hit. Even then, missiles that hit often didn't explode, and the result of such a hit seldom included a downed enemy fighter. After all, the reason the Soviet Union was able to develop the K-13 Atoll missile that NVAF Migs used against US aircraft over Vietnam was that they copied it from the Sidewinder; The Russians got an intact Sidewinder from the Chinese; and the Chinese were given that Sidewinder by the fledgeling Taiwanese Air Force --- who shot a Chinese Mig with a Sidewinder that didn't explode!
Submitted by J.R.L at: September 17, 2013
Well done Roger!

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