Academic journal article Air Power History

Missed Opportunities before Top Gun and Red Flag

Academic journal article Air Power History

Missed Opportunities before Top Gun and Red Flag

Article excerpt

Important as they have been to the development of national defense, much history remains to be written about the advent of Red Flag and Top Gun. (1) Archival sources documenting the origins of Red Flag in the 1970s, for example, remain underutilized. Several books have laid out the story of the how naval aviators took the initiative to confront the problems the North Vietnamese Air Force was causing the United States' effort to achieve air superiority over North Vietnam, and how the U.S. Air Force responded in its own way during and after the war to the difficulties its jets had had with MiGs. The standard story is that aviators took the initiative to create the Top Gun school on March 3, 1969, where they relied on the air combat maneuvering experience of F-8 Crusader pilots in particular to develop their training syllabus. Top Gun instructors emphasized dissimilar air combat training--simulated combat between different kinds of aircraft-and "loose deuce" tactics, which utilized a formation of two jets as opposed to the Air Force's "finger four" of four fighters. As a consequence of this training, the Navy's F-4 aviators were better prepared to tackle North Vietnamese MiGs in 1972, when combat operations over the heart of North Vietnam recommenced. Navy ace Lt. Randy Cunningham, for one, repeated to whoever would listen '"I owe my victories to Top Gun." (2) Tactical Air Command (TAC) did not begin to make similar institutional changes until October 1972, when it established its first aggressor squadron, the 64th Fighter Weapons Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. (3) This article adds some new discoveries to this story, particularly the successes that Air Defense Command (ADC) had with dissimilar air combat tactics (DACT) training starting in 1966.

The problems the Air Force had in accomplishing air superiority during the Vietnam War have been well documented. (4) The institution knew before the initiation of Operation Rolling Thunder in 1965, that trouble was in the offing. An Air Force colonel at a Pacific Air Forces meeting, for example, complained, "One item that concerns me as much as anything is air combat tactics ... I don't think we have any F-105 or F-100 pilots in Southeast Asia who could fight their way out of a paper bag if they were really contested by MiGs today. There has been no real training on air-to-air tactics for a good five [years]." (5) The reason for this deficiency lay in assumptions the Air Force made after the Korean War: there would be no more medium-sized conventional wars due to the advent of nuclear weapons, therefore, the tactical fighter community concentrated on short-range nuclear bombing and neglected aerial combat. Col. Abner M. Aust, Jr., commented three months later that because of the emphasis on nuclear attack with tactical fighters, "our tactics/techniques lessons learned during Korea and World War II were pretty much discarded." (6) Less than a year into the Vietnam War, tactics specialists agreed that the Air Force's preparedness for aerial combat was not what it should be: "Although a lot of ACT talk about the newer fighters has drifted across the bar in recent years, when the chips were down we really didn't know in any thorough and documented fashion what to do." Basic tactics were still taught, but their appropriateness to individual fighters at differing energy states had not been mapped out before the war. (7)

There had been some attempts to maintain those capabilities. Four years after Korea, Fighter Weapons Newsletter published a series of articles on air-to-air combat for the F-100 Super Sabre--the Tactical Air Force's primary fighter at the time--most of which focused on individual aircraft maneuvers, and one aptly named "Flight Tactics." (8) The Fighter Weapons School recommended seven one-hour sorties for its fighter weapons instructor course; its 1959 syllabus for the basic F-100 course contained three and a half flight hours for the employment of the new Sidewinder infrared-guided missile, three for intercepts, three more for air-to-air gunnery against a slow target towed behind another aircraft, but no air combat maneuvering training. …

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