Academic journal article Air Power History

Moon over the Trail: A Review of Operations Sped Light and Tropic Moon III

Academic journal article Air Power History

Moon over the Trail: A Review of Operations Sped Light and Tropic Moon III

Article excerpt

Often, when developing a new mechanism or component, so much of the process involves trial and error. Such is certainly the reality with military hardware since much of that equipment relies on cutting-edge technology. Nowhere is this trend more obvious than in military aviation. Throughout the history of American airpower, attempts to fill the needs of the United States Air Force (USAF) and develop aerial weapons for the other military branches has required taking chances with new technology. The Air Force entered the post-World War II era prepared to engage in two primary types of warfare: conventional battles on the plains of Europe and all-out nuclear war. In both these scenarios, American leadership expected to oppose the armies and arsenals of the Soviet Union. Aerial vehicles would assume an increasingly crucial role in this environment, and the dominant philosophy surrounding both the design and tactics for these aircraft was "higher and faster."

The prospect of conflict in Southeast Asia, particularly the undeclared war in Vietnam, presented a whole new set of challenges for American airpower. One truism has long been that the military prepares to fight the last war, and never was this more accurate than during the Vietnam War. Trying to employ high speed fighters and fighter-bombers over three-canopy jungles against troops designed to hide from airborne attacks rendered U.S. planes less than effective, especially with the Air Force's lack of night and bad weather capabilities. (1)

In order to inflict the most damage against enemy supply lines and troop maneuvers, the American military required low and slow platforms which could loiter above targets along important transportation arteries, particularly the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail. Once in position, these planes needed to selectively and accurately damage or destroy the trucks bringing troops and supplies to reinforce enemies of the pro-American South Vietnamese government such as the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnamese Army (NVA). Certain fixed-wing gunships such as the AC-47, AC-119G and K, various models of the AC-130, and medium night bombers such as the B-57B and G proved relatively effective against enemy ground targets. Their efficacy gradually improved as engineers and design experts added advanced sensors, radar, and illumination components to these planes over the course of the conflict. (2)

However, internal disagreements, inter-service rivalries, financial problems, and political issues within the Washington, D.C. infrastructure constantly impeded this upgrading process. Indeed, trying to get a newly-modified aerial platform in the works often moved at a snail's pace. With support from power brokers such as Gen. Curtis LeMay, when he was Chief of Staff of the Air Force (CSAF), fixed-wing gunships would eventually arrive in combat and not only prove their utility, but also their value as technological test beds. (3)

Despite these gains, however, night bombing never seemed to work out in actual combat. From the start, the B-57, which had begun as a jet-powered replacement for the B-25, B-26, and A-26 during the Korean War, proved underpowered, unable to carry sufficient bomb loads, and highly vulnerable to enemy air defenses. Indeed, the B-57 arrived in service only after the Korean War ended and was a prior-generation aircraft by the time of the conflict in Vietnam. Efforts to upgrade this aircraft's illumination capabilities, self-defense, and targeting systems progressed very slowly, and only near the end of the war did an effective model, the highly modified B-57G Tropic Moon III, finally begin operations. (4)

Sadly, this model never got the chance to showcase its full capability. The B-57 experiment, even augmented with Tropic Moon III's cutting-edge technology, appeared to have failed when the U.S. departed Southeast Asia in the early 1970s. However, experts continued to develop these high-tech components and attach them to newer aviation platforms, eventually contributing significantly to the military technological revolution in the first Persian Gulf War. …

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