The U.S. Air Force's Lethal Master Plan to Dominate the Skies
Much has been written about the transformation of the United States Air Force between the Vietnam War and Operation DESERT STORM. In his classic book Sierra Hotel, C.R. Anderegg documented the revolution in training that occurred at the Fighter Weapons School at Nellis Air Force Base during this era, led by the so-called “Fighter Mafia” of Air Force legends such as John Jumper, Ron Keys and Moody Suter. Steve Davies opened the door to the secret MiG program known as “Constant Peg” that occurred during the same time period in his book Red Eagles, while former Red Eagles Squadron Commander Gail “Evil” Peck gave his unique perspective on this historically significant squadron in his book America’s Secret MiG Squadron.
During this period the Air Force also invested heavily in weapons system modernization, highlighted by the development of the F-117, masterfully portrayed in Ben Rich’s Skunk Works. This period is again the subject of academic analysis, this time by United States Northern Command deputy command historian Brian Laslie in The Air Force Way of War. Laslie agrees with previous studies that the revolution in Air Force training, including the integration of training against real MiGs, and the development of new aircraft and weapons all played a major role in the improvement in Air Force employment in the post-Vietnam period. However, Laslie breaks with previous analysis when he identifies the development of the Red Flag exercise as the single most important improvement of that era. He argues Red Flag provided realistic training to aircrews, led to the development of airpower tactics that helped the Air Force dominate the skies above Iraq in DESERT STORM, and proved the viability of new technologies such as the F-117.
Laslie begins his examination of the Air Force’s changes after Vietnam by recapping the poor performance of the service during that air war. Through comprehensive research and analysis, the author provides a host of reasons for the Air Force’s disappointing performance, but he contends that the root cause was unsatisfactory aircrew training. “The single greatest problem faced by USAF pilots…was poor combat training prior to employment. This poor training reinforced poor tactics and doctrine during combat” (p. 29). Laslie argues that aircrews were unprepared to face newly produced MiGs and surface-to-air missiles deployed in Vietnam, and the inevitable result was the loss of hundreds of aircraft and aircrews.
The author argues that many combat veterans returned to the States after their deployments and were disgusted with the level of training they received prior to combat, and were determined to change what they saw as unacceptable preparation. Laslie discusses many of the same Air Force officers that were introduced in Anderegg’s Sierra Hotel. Both authors describe the environment of Nellis at the time, and the group of supremely gifted fighter pilots who plied their craft at the service’s tactical center of excellence.
During this era, then-Majors John Jumper and Ron Keys revolutionized aircrew training with their “building block approach” to training fighter pilots. The idea of a dedicated adversary force flying dissimilar aircraft from the ubiquitous F-4 spawned the development of the Aggressors. A highly classified program to fly and maintain Russian-built MiGs was beginning to take hold and expand, and a brilliant fighter pilot named Moody Suter nurtured the idea for a realistic large force exercise that would prepare fighter pilots for war. However, Anderegg and Laslie differ on one critical point: the influence of the contemporary general officer corps on these initiatives.
Anderegg gives the bulk of the credit for these programs to the determined effort of the so-called Fighter Mafia, often portrayed as fighting senior leadership to persuade them of the necessity of training improvements. Laslie agrees that these young officers were guiding forces behind the training revolution, but he differs from Anderegg in the role of senior Air Force leaders at the time. Anderegg portrays the Generals as risk-averse and indifferent at best, openly hostile at worst to proposed changes in Air Force training. Laslie uses a multitude of examples to show the senior officers that were instrumental in the improvements in Air Force employment and the development of these advanced training programs. Of note, the author discusses the vital role played by General William Creech, who pushed the envelope at Tactical Air Command in improving Air Force tactical employment and training.
“Creech’s importance cannot be overstated. Tactical doctrinal changes, more flying hours for pilots…and improvements to Red Flag were all hallmarks of his tenure as TAC commander” (p. 71). General Creech has been criticized in various texts in the last decade, and a generation of Air Force officers who have read and re-read Robert Coram’s Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War have developed a hostile impression of General Creech, who was often at odds with the intractable John Boyd. Laslie’s text plays a crucial counterpoint to Anderegg and Coram, and gives readers a new understanding of the hard-nosed general who was determined to improve the quality of Air Force training and employment.