Security Studies Program Seminar

The Revolt of the Majors: How the Air Force Changed After Vietnam (and Saved the World)

Marshall Michel
Fellow, MIT Security Studies Program

March 31, 2005

In Vietnam, the Air Force was ineffective at bombing North Vietnamese targets and had the worst air to air kill ratio in its history against a third world power using old Soviet weapons. After the war, there was no rush to change. In fact, the Air Force was eager to get back to business as it was before the war. And yet, two decades later, the Air Force's performance in the Gulf War was exemplary. This talk deals with the innovation that occurred during the peaceful interim.

The Air Force's innovation occurred on two tracks, top down and bottom up. Aviators wanted more realistic training. This call for reform came from a group of "Iron Majors" who had been Captains during the war and stayed in the military. On the other hand, there was a push from the top — Department of Defense civilians, Congressmen, and civilians — to move from a small number of very expensive fighters to many cheaper ones.

Doctrine dictates what weapons the Air Force buys. Culture dictates how the Air Force trains to use these weapons.

During the 1960s, Air Force culture was dominated by Strategic Air Command (SAC). The ethos came from the pre-Vietnam era of homeland air defense interceptors. The SAC culture emphasized zero defects and safety. Defense Secretary McNamara had pushed for dual role planes that could knock out the enemy on the ground. Tactical Air Command gained importance, but SAC culture remained dominant. After McNamara, the emphasis shifted to air to air. There was a subculture of "crazy fighter pilots," who were undisciplined and disliked SAC culture.

Vietnam changed things. Almost all Air Force aviators flew there. A new macho culture developed. Safety was secondary. Things were flexible and decentralized. But elements of the war, like Rolling Thunder, were strictly controlled and centralized.

After 1968, Air Force training shifted to air to ground. Combat missions went to lower threat areas. SAC culture remained on top. Promotions rewarded safety. Many young pilots left the Air Force. The Navy started Top Gun and developed a more risk-acceptant philosophy.

From May-October 1972, the Air Force executed Linebacker I, which included large strike packages from a bunch of bases. It had been four years since Air Force pilots flew combat missions over Hanoi. Training had been inadequate. It did not include air to air. The missions brought a lot of mistakes. The kill ratio dropped below 1:1.

The Navy was doing better, embarrassing Air Force leadership. Air Force Chief of Staff Ryan determined that flying F4s vs. F4s in training was unhelpful. MIGs were small and not smoky, unlike F4s. So he copied the Navy and started an aggressor squadron for more realistic training in 1974.

Meanwhile, stories spread among pilots about how disorganized Linebacker I was. It became harder to blame politicians. The idea developed that safety concerns were undermining training.

In 1973, General Robert Dixon took over Tactical Air Command. In the October Yom Kippur War, the Israelis lost a bunch of planes to missiles. Although the Air Force had handled SA-2s well in Vietnam, this showed a new threat. The Israelis shifted to more aggressive, less safety-oriented training and, upon visiting the US, agreed with the majors that US training was poor.

One of the iron majors, Moody Suter, had the idea for Red Flag, a huge realistic annual training exercise at Nellis Air Force base in Nevada. Dixon bought it. Red Flag paid less attention to safety; there were no limits on how long crews could fly. The fact that the next enemy would probably fly Soviet planes and use Soviet tactics made realistic training easier. Fear of accidents proved justified. There were lots in the first four years. But Dixon hung tough, and accidents dropped.

Red Flag and realistic training killed off the crazy fighter pilot culture. Pilots feared accidents would ruin the improved training. Realistic training became a given throughout the services by the 1980s. Dixon added fighter generals to TAC in mid-1970s, solidifying the cultural change.

The Air Force, known for technological innovation, achieved a training innovation quickly at low cost. Top cover for low level innovators made this change possible.

Meanwhile, Air Force officers that wore ties pushed for high tech weapons. There was a fight over the requirements for the "Blue Bird" F4 replacement. McNamara and OSD wanted commonality with the Navy and air to ground capability. The Air Force bought the A7, a Navy ground attack aircraft. The Air Force wanted to focus on air to air. Some wanted planes that were smaller, lighter, less expensive, medium altitude, "turn and burn," Mach 2 speed, with guns and a mix of missiles rather than big, heavy, expensive, high flying, missile armed, faster (Mach 3) aircraft. The turn and burn, which became the F-15, won with the support of the fighter generals.

Another group, "the reformers" wanted to reject complex expensive platforms and to buy lots of small, simple "Red Bird," light weight fighters. They wanted quantity. The Air Force, having had bad experiences with small F-104s and F-5s, resisted. The reformers included Pierre Sprey of OSD, and John Boyd and John Riccioni of the Air Force. They also pushed change in weapons procurement (prototyping). The reformers were ignored. But they tried back channels, briefing civilians. And they had budget to give to contractors for development.

In 1971, Nixon's new Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, became interested in a light weight fighter (LWF) and acquisition changes. The Air Force resisted the LWF, fearing it would undermine the F-15, which they wanted more of. But the LWF fighter designs impressed. The design achieved high-fuel fraction with a turbofan engine, allowing long-range. It was high performance, not low-tech. It could serve both air to air and air to ground roles. It also allowed the Air Force to buy more planes, and get the fighter wings it wanted. The allies needed a new bomber, as well.

The Air Force changed its mind. The F-16 General Dynamics developed used the same engine as the F-15. Air Force Chief of Staff Jones agreed with the new Secretary of Defense, James Schlesinger to buy the F-16 in exchange for four new fighter wings. The Air Force configuration committee made the F-16 multi-role, angering the reformers, but NATO and the Israelis bought F-16s.

Meanwhile, from 1973-1978, under Dixon , there were changes in Tactical Air Command. The new doctrine was to go in low, hit targets as the battle dictated, and air to air "turn and burn." The key technologies were guided weapons, EF-111, and E-3A (AWACS). But when Wilbur Creech took over from 1978-1984, the doctrine became to roll back defenses from medium altitude, hitting key nodes to de-integrate air defenses, air to air beyond-visual-range (BVR), and fighting at night. The key technologies were Stealth, LANTIRN, AMRAAM and JSTARS. TAC had gone corporate under Creech, with an emphasis on systems. But realistic training stayed.

Everything seemed great. The popular F-15 remained in service. The multi-role F-16 came in. But F-15 and F-16 engine problems developed. The F-100 engine, designed by Pratt and Whitney, had been designed for only a few cycles per flight. But the new engine had so much power that pilots had to control speed with throttle, using around 24 cycles per flight. The engines were not built for this and wore out fast. The Air Force had not budgeted for enough spare parts. Pratt and Whitney were not cooperative. The result was that flying hours and in commission rates dropped dramatically, especially for the F-15s, which had more severe problems.

More trouble developed for the F-15 in Air Intercept Missile Evaluation and Air Combat Evaluation. Against Red Force aggressor squadron F-5s, the rules of engagement mandated visual identification before firing, negating the F-14 and F-15s long range missiles and allowing huge dogfighters. The F-5s did well. Northrop saw the results and used them to push the F-20. The reformers grabbed a hold of this and got popular. James Fallows, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, took their side. He wrote a book in October 1979 called the Muscle Bound Superpower, which took the Air Force to task for its focus on high-tech weapons. The Air Force saw the problem as a lack of spare parts.

Reagan boosted defense budgets for spare parts and everything else, but the reformers kept at it. The House's Military Reform Caucus generally agreed with them, but the House and Senate Armed Services Committees did not.

In Lebanon in 1982, the Israeli Air Force crushed the Syrians with F-16s, destroying 87 Syrian aircraft and losing none, mostly by using AIM-9s. The roll back of defenses from medium altitude worked. The reformers called this a victory for low-tech cheap stuff, but the IAF credited the Pulse Doppler Radar the reformers had not wanted.

By 1983, the reformers had won over the chattering classes. Fallows' book National Defense was a best seller. Sprey was on the cover of Time. The Air Force was nervous, especially as high-tech weapons Creech liked faltered. But the budget stayed plentiful. The Air Force kept building F-15s and F-16s, and by the mid-1980s the reformers dropped out of the picture.

They lost perhaps because of organizational inertia, a lack of credibility, a lack of support from above, contractors and the triumph of conventional wisdom. Or because they were wrong, having failed to consider that more aircraft meant more bases, logistics, personnel, and training areas. Simple aircraft had no all weather and night capability. The Soviets planned to come in bad weather and would use SAMs. The Air Force thought they had the right weapons and demonstrated it with realistic training. Before the Gulf War, they knew they had it right.

Col. Marshall Michel III, (USAF-Ret), a fellow in MIT's Security Studies Program, flew 321 combat missions in F-4s and RF-4s from 1970-1973. He is author of Clashes: Air Combat over North Vietnam, 1965-1972 and Eleven Days of Christmas: America's Last Vietnam Battle and will soon complete his dissertation at Auburn University.

Rapporteur: Ben Friedman


back to seminar schedule, Spring 2005