Why the US Air Force and Navy had a “dogfight” problem in Vietnam

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Objectively speaking, there is some truth in Scheff’s statement. It seems inevitable that aerial combat will break out whenever two nations place a large volume of tactical aircraft in the same airspace, but it’s hard to deny that there hasn’t been combat between world powers for almost 80 years old.

But those who disagree with the idea that close dogfights are a thing of the past will say that this period of relative peace and stability in our world is an exception. They would say that Vietnam is a good example of how dogfights happen when air powers clash, and that we should be careful not to assume that the days of air powers going to war are over, simply because it didn’t happen. lately.

To be clear, there are valid points to be made on both sides of this debate, but it is important not to lose sight of the complexity of the air war in Vietnam by using it as the basis for a argument about dogfights. The truth is that America’s difficulties over Vietnam cannot be summed up in a single sentence about the lack of guns in the F-4 or the failures of a certain missile platform.

America’s troubles in the skies above Vietnam began long before the first shots of the conflict were fired and continued well beyond the fighting. Some of the issues were technological, while others were bureaucratic and even political. The truth is that America lost planes and pilots over Vietnam not to a single incorrect conclusion (“the dogfights are over”), but rather to a litany of errors. which were – in large part – committed with the best of intentions.

There are lessons to be learned from the dogfights of Vietnam. It is important that we look at them with clear eyes, to make sure we learn the right ones.

During the Vietnam War, American fighter pilots saw a significant drop in kill-to-loss ratios from Korean War figures. Some say American pilots over Korea returned home with a 10:1 kill rate (or 10 enemy fighters shot down for every American fighter lost). However, this figure was originally intended to be specific to the F-86 Saber, and nonetheless, modern historians believe it to be inflated. The actual numbers were probably closer to a always impressive 8:1.

At times during the Vietnam War, on the other hand, this ratio had decreased to less than 1:1. This means that during certain periods the North Vietnamese were shooting down more American fighters than they were losing. While the overall ratio was significantly better, probably closer to 5.5:1 for the entire force, the harsh reality of aerial combat over Southeast Asia can perhaps best be appreciated. when looking at the specific numbers.

Between February 1962 and October 1973, the United States lost 1,737 fixed-wing aircraft in combat, and another 517 due to other problems in Vietnam. Throughout the war, it was extremely rare for a week to go by without an American aircraft being lost in action, and sometimes it happened daily.

The US Air Force lost 40% of its entire fleet of F-105 Thunderchiefs over Vietnam. Additionally, just over 12% (about one in eight) of the F-4s built for all services met their end over the jungles of Vietnam. It is very important to note, however, that the Air Force and Navy did not count these losses. In fact, the Air Force had improved its tactics so much during the war that in the last five months of it, its fighter pilots were shooting down the enemy at a rate of 15:1.

Numbers matter, but lessons matter more

This type of nit picking is important for an accurate historical record. However, that does not erase the fact that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, America seemed incorrectly I think close dogfights were a thing of the past, largely thanks to the advent of (this will sound familiar) improved sensors and high-performance air-to-air weapons.

Such was the belief that new air-to-air missiles like the AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-7 Sparrow would render previous forms of dogfighting obsolete that the Mach 2-capable American F-4 Phantom II came across the production without even a cannon edge, which was considered standard equipment for fighters up to that time.

“That was the biggest mistake on the F-4,” John Chesire, who flew 197 combat missions in the Phantom during two tours of Vietnam, told Air & Space Magazine.

“Bullets are cheap and tend to go where you aim them. I needed a gun and really wish I had one.

It wasn’t long before this line of thinking put American pilots in some pretty tough spots, as they tried to do battle with the particularly slower and less advanced MiG 15, 17, 19 and 21 that invaded the skies above. above Vietnam. Their ability to take sharp turns and aim their noses at faster-moving American fighters before they could swing gave them the ability to score kills. And to make matters worse, new American missiles didn’t always perform as advertised, costing pilots valuable opportunities to shoot down opponents when they could.

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