By lex, on November 4th, 2011
TOPGUN came into being in the late 1960s, when Navy leadership scratched its collective head at the appalling kill ratios being achieved by their F-4 Phantom crews. We believed, wrongly as it turned out, that the important work of killing whatever bad guys dared to get airborne in their less capable, Soviet-era aircraft, could be done with technological investment in medium range air-to-air missiles and long range radars, rather than in the gut-wrenching swirl and chaos of engaged air combat maneuvering. Nobody bothered to tell the North Vietnamese Air Force, who after all were camping out in their own back yards, and defending their own airfields. We were killing a mere two bandits for the loss of each friendly, with the notable exception of the almost inevitably mustachioed F-8 Crusader pilots. They didn’t have much in the way of long-range missiles, and they vastly preferred dispatching their aerial foes with the 20mm cannon, whenever it didn’t jam. But they would condescend to use the AIM-9 Sidewinder heat-seeking missile in a pinch, a kill being a kill by any measure.
Maneuvering to a firing position with either the gun or the ‘Winder required, well: Maneuvering. And the F-8 jocks were masters, spending their training hours joyfully flinging their eager craft through the echoing halls of space in full grunt, and all-too-often clacking into one another, leaving smoking holes behind, and memorial services to come. But the single-seat F-8s were a sunken cost to the Navy and their pilots were viewed as charming anachronisms, soon to be replaced by the vastly more expensive and technologically evolved Phantom, a fighter so complex that it required a second crewman just to operate the weapons system. So the Crusader crews were gently chidden, but largely indulged. In return, the “last of the gunfighters” promised in return to amend their roguish ways while sidestepping to the door, their eyes darting back to the flight line and the distant horizon which beckoned beyond.
The Phantom crews, on the other hand, in whose custody exceptionally expensive kit was placed, and of whom great things were expected, were hand-cuffed with restricted maneuvering constraints, sadly informed that all of that “turning and turning in the widening gyre” jazz was stuff and nonsense, and promised that it was in any case unnecessary. Missiles, men. Medium-range missiles, the AIM-7 Sparrow, to be precise. That was where the future lay.
But the future was still a little way off, as it very often tends to be. And politically imposed rules of engagement often required visual identification of potentially hostile aircraft, negating the kinematic and technological advances of the paired AN/APQ-72 radar and Sparrow missile system. It also turned out pre-solid state AIM-7s, no matter how shiny they came out of the box, tended to resent being flung off carrier decks via catapult and hurled back aboard to arrested landings over and over again. The Sidewinder was a pretty good piece of gear, once you’d gotten on the bandit’s six o’clock, but there were no provisions for an internal gun in the earlier Phantoms. And the NVAF MiG-17s, 19s, and 21s may not have had the technological advantages of our newest fighter aircraft, but they were pretty good in a turning fight, flown by sneaky b*sterds highly motivated aircrews who did not mind in the least exploiting the constraints and limitations hand-cuffing US Navy and Air Force fighter crews. The inevitable result of which, taken all in all, was to force the F-4 crews into turning fights they had not trained for with weapons whose effectiveness did not meet their promise. A 2:1 kill ratio over NVAF fighters was a much poorer record of accomplishment than our expensively trained and equipped aircrews had experienced in previous campaigns, and on a cost-basis alone we were losing the air war in Southeast Asia.
Captain Frank Ault was charged to un-frack the situation, and numerous changes resulted, from the way our missiles were built-up and employed, to the in-depth training of aircrew rotating into the fight by those who had seen the wolf and returned victorious. Navy’s post-TOPGUN kill ratios exploded to 13:1, a much more comfortable margin that must have made the NVAF pilots a little thoughtful in their off-duty moments.
Air-to-air employment was the topic of the day yesterday, and it was an all-morning affair, air-to-air employment, as has previously been written, being something of The School’s raison d’etre. One of the things that I am deeply gratified to see is the way in which the students have arrived so very much better prepared than they were in my day.
The School has transformed itself over the years to meet the Navy’s evolving needs, going from a “get your sh!t together or die” mindset in the Vietnam era, to a Maritime Superiority curriculum intended to defend the carrier – something of a self-licking ice cream cone, in my personal view – to a Power Projection class designed to fold the fighter force into overland strike warfare in Navy’s quotidian drive-by shootings. The latest turn on the evolutionary wheel has been the Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor (SFTI) course, which is designed and intended to create Jedi knights who will go back to their line units, carrying along with them the flame of excellence. This was just getting going when I was at the Weapons School back in the late 90′s, and it is intensely satisfying to see how well the program is working today.
Indeed, it is quite usual for an instructor to go all Socratic on the class, asking not merely simple aircraft recce questions, but also complex questions on the specific capabilities and limitations of various weapons systems, both US and, well: Others. They mostly handle these questions with aplomb, a legacy of better than a decade of the SFTI course. Not two days hence, your host – who had hitherto been generously excused from answering questions – was solicited to identify the venerable F-4 Phantom, up there on the screen. This was done, both aircraft and fin flash (Iran), and I felt a little smug there for a moment having hammered this softball pitched right over the plate, until I reflected upon the possibility that the instructor could have plausibly believed that the dinosaur on the screen might once have been flown by the dinosaur in the back row.
Which anyway, the evolution of fighter technology continues, the pace of which I liken to staring at your (analog) wristwatch. Do it too often and you don’t notice any movement, but take your eyes elsewhere for just a little while and you’ll find that the minute hand has moved. My eye has been off the watch for nigh on eight years now, and minutes have turned to hours, hours to days, days to years, and the years have brought significant enhancements all the way around. Our front-line aircraft and their associated weapons systems are greatly more capable that they were just a few short years ago. Alas, the march of time waits on no man, and the threat has evolved in both quantity and quality at a matching pace.
Complexity begets complexity, and there were points during yesterday’s lecture in which my over-baked noodle exploded. The kids, who have been brought up knowing little else, seem rudely unimpressed with their store of knowledge, and in order to avoid embarrassing himself your host was forced to sit squirming on his hands, awaiting a break to ask the instructor to explain some otherwise impenetrable gem of employment or counter-tactic. This he patiently did, demonstrating all the proper solicitude due one’s elders. For a moment there I even understood some of it, secretly pleased that I had flown Hornets “back in the day.” Fallon, Nevada these days being no country for old men.
There’s an air wing in town, going through their pre-deployment training after a shortened turn-around. This air wing is need of bandits, and when I’m not baking my noodle in ground school, I happen to be as qualified as any other man to bravely face certain death, so long as it is simulated and there’s even a miniscule chance of sneaking up on the unwary and sticking a knife in his (or her) back. So, like any juvenile delinquent with graying locks, I ditched out on ground school yesterday afternoon, the better to man up in my ~trusty Kfir, for to launch into the burning blue.
Which, a weather front having moved in, looked a whole lot more like a scorching brown, a hot southern wind having brought with it swirling dust clouds, gusting crosswinds and a general feeling of unease. The air wing held on deck for half an hour as the sun arced towards the horizon while decisions were made about suitable divert fields, should the need become acute. Because of the high density altitude, we leave the external centerline tank on deck, which makes the kosher lawndart a fair bit more sprightly getting off the ground, but leaves behind a good 1200 liters of go-juice over the stock configuration. No big deal when your airfield is a mere 75 miles from fight center, but something to crease your brow when all of the other kids are casually tossing about the notion of diverting to NAS Lemoore, California, some 200 nautical miles distant. Which even if you make it there, you’re in Lemoore. Been there, done that.
We launched eventually, training like that being in any case unaffordable if you were to purchase it on the open market. Got on top at around 10,000 and cruised to the range, where my flight lead and I flew our patrol down in the weeds, or what would have been in the weeds, if anything had ever grown in that blasted heath.
The instructors at the Strike University component of the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center also serve as adversaries against their air wing pupils, and have the option to fly the F-16A (thank you, Pakistan), the “legacy” FA-18C (which I still resent that label, a little) or the FA-18E/F “Rhino”, the Super Hornet. I had pretty good gig back in the day, flying the F-16N, F-5E or A-4E on any given day – sometimes all three – but if there’s somewhere else on earth that a naval aviator can fly any one of three different fourth generation fighters in tactical employment, then I am not aware of it.
Being radar equipped, our US Navy wingmen pushed out first, bringing the heat, lashing the skies with their air-to-air radars, laughter in their hearts and getting shot in the face for their efforts. It was hoped that the two Kfirs, hiding in the radar shadows of the various mountain ranges of the Fallon Range Training Complex, might have evaded the air wing’s scrutiny, but alas, it was not to be. We had scarcely launched on our commit before we were told that we were dead, my first awareness of our impending fate being the tally-ho of a Super Hornet swinging my right wingline at a couple of miles with his fangs out.
Back to the field at low altitude to remain out of the way, through the growing gloom and back into the swirling dust clouds. The front was just moving through, and a huge wall of dust stood like a battlement to the east of the field. We broke out, hit the overhead and chose to break opposite the normal pattern – and over base housing – the better to avoid going into the goo on downwind. A little head’s up on the crosswind would have been a nice gesture from the tower, but perhaps their coffee was up. I once again found myself overshooting final like a dog on a wet linoleum floor, only this time it wasn’t my fault, I don’t think. The west parallel runway is over two miles long, so I saved the drag chute until the six board, cut it loose at the end and taxied back to the line, happy to have flown, happy to be on deck.
The debrief complete, my flight lead and I headed to the O’Club bar, got our Mongolian barbeque to keep out wind and water, and sat down opposite a pair of young lieutenants junior grade. The comestibles having been made short work, we turned to more serious efforts. It turned out that our two young companions had never played at dice for the privilege of buying beer for their friends. The two grizzled veterans sitting across from them patiently explained the rules, and thanked them profusely for the several rounds they ended up on the hook for. I almost felt bad for them you, know. Almost.
But then, no: It turns out that there are still a few things that we can teach the rising generation, for which I believe we should all be grateful.
I know I am.
And: My careful mask of anonymity has been pretty much stripped. Perhaps it is the posts I have written in this space, outlining the type and nature of the work being done, not to mention my presence here. Perhaps it is the name tag on my flight suit. Whichever the truth might be, I was buttonholed not once but severally, with young officers confidentially asking whether I had a blog, at all?
A blog, what’s that, I was tempted to reply. “Daily reader,” said another, without hint of pretense.
A bit more ground school this afternoon, followed by an Actual Night Flight. In a forty-year old airplane. In the mountains.
What’s the worst that could possibly happen?