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A Troubling Past: Air Force Fighter Acquisition since 1945*

by Dr Richard P. Hallion

SINCE 1945 the United States Air Force has acquired nearly 27,000 fighter aircraft, while the Soviet Union has procured over 50,000. As a general rule, American fighters have proven superior to their Soviet counterparts in a variety of wars and incidents, but American defense planners and fighter designers should examine fighter acquisition in the broader context of Air Force planning and missions from 1945 to the present. There are aspects of American fighter development that raise some disturbing questions regarding the planning and forecasting process by which aircraft were conceptualized, acquired, and placed in service. In fact, one can argue that it was not until the harsh demands and experience of the Vietnam War that Air Force decision makers developed a realistic appreciation for the kind of future fighters that the service required.

*This paper is based on a lecture presented by the author at the Triangle Universities' Security Seminar on Changing Technologies and New Weapons Systems, Quail Roost Conference Center, Durham, N.C., 2-3 February 1990. I wish to thank professors I. B. Holley, Jr., and Alex Roland for soliciting my participation. Also, I wish to acknowledge with appreciation the assistance and comments of Chris Bowie of the Secretary of the Air Force's Action Group; Lt Col Price Bingham, Air University Center for Aerospace Doctrine, Research, and Education (AUCADRE); Lt Col Donald Baucom, Strategic Defense Initiative Organization; Maj Brian Hoey, AFSC Commander's Action Group; Michael Group, AFSC History Office; Jack Neufeld, Air Staff History Office; and William Heimdahl and Sheldon Goldberg of the Office of Air Force History.

Aircraft acquisition is inextricably caught up in the interplay and tension between doctrine and operational thought (the requirements pull) on one hand and technology (the technology push) on the other. Both are inherently dynamic processes responsive to external influences and pressures. If they do not proceed in roughly consistent and synchronous partnership, the dominance or decline of one is necessarily injurious to the other. Two great and related technological transformations occurred within aeronautics at mid-century: the turbojet revolution and the transonic and supersonic breakthroughs. Between 1939 and 1945 the speed of fighter aircraft rose from 350 to 550 miles per hour (mph). Slightly over a decade later, the speed of fighter aircraft had almost tripled, from 550 mph to nearly 1,500 mph. indeed, by the end of 1958 the basic speed and operating altitude of today's modern fighter had been mapped out. Approximately a quarter century after the turbojet revolution and high-speed breakthrough occurred, two other roughly synchronous transformations arose to profoundly affect future aircraft development: a materials revolution that resulted in the introduction of synthetic composite structural materials, and an avionics and computer technology revolution that affected aircraft all the way from their conceptualization through design and on to performance and operations.1

Arguably, there have been six generations of fighter aircraft since 1939, the "birth date" of the first jet airplane. Likewise, there have been six generations of turbine fighter engines in this time span.*

*These have been (1) early centrifugal-flow and axial-flow demonstrator and production engines, such as the Derwent and Jumo 004: (2) mature subsonic centrifugal and axial-flow production engines, such as the Nene and J47, sometimes with afterburning: (3) transonic axial-flow engines, such as the J57 and Avon: (4) supersonic axial-flow engines, such as the J79 and J58: (5) afterburning turbofans, such as the TF30; and (6) high thrust-to-weight ratio afterburning turbofans, such as the F100.

Following is a list of the generations, typical aircraft in each generation, and some of the defining characteristics of these aircraft.

1. High subsonic (1943-50): Me 262, Meteor, P-80, Vampire, Yak-15, MiG-9, Saab J-21, F-84 straightwing, F9F straightwing, Ouragan, Venom. Little aerodynamic difference from the last generation of propeller-driven fighters. First- and second-generation turbojets; wood, fabric, and all-metal construction; optical gunsights; straight wing and straight tail. Mechanical control systems. Primitive ejection seats. Mach 0.75-0.85.

2. Transonic (1947-55): F-86, F-84 sweptwing, F9F sweptwing, MiG-15/17, Hunter, Mystère TV. Second-generation turbojets; radar gunsights; swept wings; generally have adjustable horizontal stabilizers. Early hydromechanical flight control systems. Mach 0.90-1.05.

3. Early supersonic (1953-60): MiG-19, F-100, F-8. Swept wings, all-moving tails, radar gunsights, introduction of air-to-air missile armament. Third-generation turbojet engines. Early stability augmentation technology. Generally adaptable for both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Mach 1.3.

4. Supersonic (limited purpose) (1955-70): F-104, early model MiG-21, EE (BAC) Lightning, early model Mirage III. Supersonic aerodynamics, especially area ruling; fourth-generation turbojets; radar for search and fire control. Overreliance on -air-to-air missiles based on unrealistic expectations. Mach 2.0.

5. Supersonic (multirole) (1958-80): F-105, F-4, late-model MiG-21, late-model Mirage III, F-5, F-111, Mirage V, Su-24, MiG-23/27, Jaguar, Mirage Fl, Kfir. Refined supersonic aerodynamic design, including canards and variable geometry wings; fourth- and fifth-generation engines; stability augmentation; mixed-gun air-to-air missile (AAM) armament; terrain-following radar for low-level high-speed flight; radar search and fire control; infrared sensors; heads up displays (HUD); laser ranging and targeting; wide range of air-to-surface missiles, bombs, and rockets, including precision-guided munitions. Mach 1.4-2.5.

6. Supersonic multirole, high efficiency (1974-present): F-14, F-15, F-16, F-18, Mirage 2000, Tornado, MiG-29, Su-27. Combined the characteristics of the fifth-generation fighters with advances in propulsion, radar (multiple target track-while-scan, look-down/shoot-down), sensor, and electronic flight control technology to generate highly maneuverable, highly agile aircraft that can be swing-roled for air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Fifth- or sixth-generation gas-turbine engines; engine thrust-to-weight ratios in excess of one; ability to attain supersonic speeds without afterburning; sustained high-G flight, and controllability below 70 knots at angles of attack exceeding 70 degrees. High degree of energy efficiency. Mix of cannon and missile armament, coupled with diverse air-to-ground weaponry. Mach 1.8-2.5.

One measure that can be used in evaluating the change in fighter aircraft technology over time is component cost as a percentage of aircraft cost. Since 1945 airframe costs have decreased from roughly 66 to 47 percent. Avionics costs have increased from 6 percent to over 20 percent. Engine costs have held steady, at approximately 25 percent. As might be expected, the "long pole in the tent" of modern aircraft acquisition is avionics. Modern fighters have daunting avionics needs; the F-15A has 60,000 lines of software code; the avionics-intensive F-15E has 2.4 million. Difficulties in avionics development and testing have replaced unanticipated aerodynamic and propulsion difficulties as the leading causes of delay, cost excursions, and frustration in flight-test programs.2

The Postwar Years

From 1945 to mid-1950 both the Air Force and the Navy were forces in transition-from wartime expansion to peacetime contraction, from the era of the propeller-driven airplane to the era of the jet, from the era of conventional war to a perceived era of atomic warfare. There was precious little evidence in fighter acquisition programs of any interest in the kind of swing-role air-to-air and air-to-ground tactical fighter-bomber missions that had proven so valuable-and so necessary--in the Second World War, a mere half decade or so in the past. Indeed, the period 1945-50 witnessed the disestablishment of American tactical air power in both the Navy and the Air Force, which displeased some of the veteran tactical air commanders of the Second World War. Lt Gen Elwood R. Quesada, the Air Force's consummate master of tactical air support, left the service in part because of what he considered the tacit breaking of a 1945 Army Air Forces (AAF) promise to Gen Dwight D. Eisenhower that the Army would always be able to call upon strong tactical air support assets even if the AAF were made a separate air force.3

The de facto basing of the post-World War II Air Force on science and technology, rather than on a realistic appreciation of what the nature of future war, dates back to the moment that Theodore von Karman's handpicked scientific advisory panel issued--at Gen Henry H. ("Hap") Arnold's specific request--the Toward New Horizons report of 1945. From the executive summary onward, this report emphasized speed. It stated that enemy defenses would be so well protected by surface-to-air missiles that "only aircraft or missiles moving at extreme speeds will be able to penetrate enemy territory protected by such defenses."4 It was not the last time that the effectiveness of speed or missiles would be exaggerated, nor was the Air Force alone in such misperceptions. As prescient in many ways as the von Kármán study was, it must be recognized for what it was: a scientific and technological think piece remarkably and regretfully detached from realistic doctrinal underpinnings. In this regard, it may be fair to ask whether it accomplished more harm than good in its influence on "planning."

The crucible of Korean and Vietnam combat drastically altered the subsequent development of American fighter aircraft, first for the Navy and subsequently for the Air Force. When prosecuting air strikes deep into North Korean territory, the Navy had to rely on the Air Force's F-86 for protection. Korea gave the Navy a much greater appreciation of the fighter and attack aircraft that it needed to do its job. Indeed, one is struck by how pragmatic Navy fighter- and attack-acquisition became. Out of the Korean experience came what were arguably the two finest American fighter aircraft developed in midcentury: the Vought F8U-1 (F-8) Crusader and the McDonnell F4H-1 (F-4) Phantom II. Both were designed to address shortfalls that were revealed in Korea. In a way, the F-8 and F-4 represented two sides of a doctrinal divide opening up in the fighter world--the perceived "old" era of close-in maneuvering dogfighting and the forecasted "new"era of beyond visual range (BVR) missile shots against relatively benign targets. In fact, of course, this latter view was seriously flawed, as Vietnam would subsequently indicate.5

If the Korean conflict had given the Navy a better vision of its future, such was not really the case with the Air Force. Like the Navy, the Air Force's missions in Korea had been primarily "air to mud." Sixty-four percent of Air Force missions had been for interdiction or close air support, with only 20 percent going toward air superiority--chiefly the much-heralded Sabre-versus-MiG war over the Yalu River. Air Force pilots, too, marveled at the fast-climbing MiG-15, sometimes too much. The necessity for newer fighter-bombers to replace the obsolete F-51 Mustang and the aging F-80 Shooting Star drove development of the F-84 and F-86 series. It ensured that the service's first supersonic fighter, the F-100, would be a swing-role air-to-air and air-to-ground airplanein the tradition of the fighters of the Second World War.

The encounters with the MiG-15 in Korea caused a strong outcry among Air Force fighter pilots for a cheap, lightweight, maneuverable, high-performance fighter to confront future Soviet fighters. The effort to develop such afightergot seriously off track, for the result was the F-104. Instead of fulfilling the realistic spectrum of air combat, the Mach 2 + F-104 overemphasized rate of climb and brute speed. Both were values consistentwith the Mach 2 + supersonic future that the Air Force saw for itself, with the prevailing doctrinal belief that speed would obviate any need for classic dogfighting. While these were good attributes for an interceptor, they were not enough for a satisfactory air superiority fighter.6

The Century Series: From MiG Alley to Blind Alley

Today the survivors of the century series are--for the most part--in museums, display parks, or mounted as "gate guardians"at various Air Force bases; the rest were scrapped or, too often, planted themselves in smoking holes. If the F-104 represented a questionable response to the Korean War experience, the other Air Force fighters of the 1950s could be considered questionable products of the interplay of existing military thought, air power assumptions, and the innate high-speed animus of the post-World War II years. Air Force planners generally considered the Korean War an exception that was not typical of the future. Despite the occasional sharp clashes between Strategic Air Command (SAC) and Tactical Air Command (TAC) over control of the future direction of the Air Force--clashes that SAC clearly won--there was general unanimity that the future threat was primarily intercontinental atomic warfare, despite what was happening in Indochina, Malaya, Algeria, and elsewhere.7

In this "new" world, the fighter was envisioned as primarily an interceptor, much as it had been in the 1930s. At that time, the apocalyptic vision of the strategic bomber encouraged intensive interceptor development. Sedate "pursuit-curve" tactics by tightly controlled interceptor formations would be required to confront marauding bombers. (This thinking cost a number of Royal Air Force fighter pilots their lives when they tried it in 1940.) Yet, in the war that followed, virtually all of these interceptors--the Spitfire, Hurricane, Bf 109, P-38, and P-47, for example--were called upon to function as swing-role air-to-air and air-to-ground fighters. After Korea, the threat of the hydrogen-bomb-armed bomber triggered Air Force interest in developing pursuit-curve-flying interceptors with sophisticated fire control systems data-linked to ground tracking, command, and control facilities. The miniaturization of the atomic bomb and its incorporation into weapons that could be easily carried by a fighter-class airplane worked its own unhealthy magic. Now the fighter could itself serve as an atomic-delivery system. This was by no means undesirable or indefensible; in fact, it made good sense. But what did not make sense was the next stage: developing aircraft called "fighters" but narrowly conceptualizing them as primarily nuclear-strike airplanes and constraining their design accordingly. (The F-105 is the classic example.) Thus, by the end of the Eisenhower era, the Air Force's peacetime conceptualization of the fighter's future role was completely out of sync with its previous wartime record in every air war since the fighter had first appeared in 1915. With the exception of the F-100s, which owed enough to the swing-role F-86 in origin that they avoided either of the two following extremes, the Air Force's century-series fighters were either interceptors (F-101B, F-102, F-104A, F-106) or, on the other hand, nuclear-strike aircraft (F-l0lA/C, F-104C, F-105). Not surprisingly, then, top-end speed--preferably as close to Mach 2 as possible--continued to predominate as the primary performance design considerations.8

The value of the century-series aircraft to American defense in the 1950s and early 1960s is open to serious question. The Air Force acquired a total of 5,525 century-series "fighters." In reality, the number of fighter aircraft actually available for what could be considered traditional air-to-air and air-to-ground missions (for example, air superiority dogfighting and battlefield air support) was considerably smaller than the above total implies. In fact, only 2,839 of the above could be even remotely considered "classic" fighters in the World War I, the World War II, or the present-day sense. Of this number, 201 were the tactical fighter versions of the F-101 and F-104, and 685 were the F-105, overtly intended for deep nuclear strike, and were not really suitable (except in a defensive emergency) for air-to-air combat. Thus, at any point up to the Air Force's procurement of the Navy's F4H-1 Phantom II, which was imposed by the Department of Defense (DOD), one can state that the only meaningful, genuine swing-role fighter capability that the Air Force possessed was in its many squadrons of F-100s. And of this total of 1,953 aircraft, it fell to the 1,274 F-100Ds--fully mature fighter-bombers "designed from the ground up" for TAC--to really serve as the Air Force's tactical fighter cutting edge pending acquisition of the Phantom in the mid-1960s.

These 1,274 aircraft represented but 23 percent of the century-series aircraft the Air Force procured as fighters from 1952 through 1964. The economic implications of the century-series aircraft for tactical forces are interesting. If, for example, the Air Force had procured only the F-102 and F-106 as interceptors, the money otherwise saved would have gone a long way. For just the flyaway price--$1.3 billion--of the 650 F-10lB and F-104A aircraft (not including their substantial research, development, test, and evaluation--RDT&E--costs), the Air Force could have more than doubled F-100D production. The service could have procured over 1,622 additional F-l00Ds or had a substantial funding base with which to develop a meaningful multimission successor--one not so single-mission compromised as the F-105, which was the "official" F-100 fighter-bomber replacement until the Kennedy administration forced the F-4 on the service at the expense of further F-105 production.

There are several other issues worth noting regarding the development of fighter aircraft in the period between Korea and Vietnam. Of particular interest is the failure of the Air Force to devote any great amount of interest in practical vertical and/or short takeoff and landing (VSTOL) fighter aircraft. Aside from a few farfetched, speed-dominated studies in the late 1950s and early 1960s, this subject has traditionally languished. Another area open to criticism is the service's laggard approach to munitions development--particularly that of air-to-air missiles, despite an interest in such weapons that predated Korea. In Vietnam the Air Force depended on the Navy-developed Sidewinder and Sparrow, both of which--despite their own problems--significantly outperformed the Air Force's own Falcon. Getting the Air Force to consider Sidewinder at all, in fact, had required the personal intervention of Assistant Secretary of the Air Force Trevor Gardner to obtain a comparative flight-test evaluation; Sidewinder-firing F-86s subsequently made a spectacular debut in the 1958 Taiwan Strait crisis. Beyond the scope of this essay but worthy of comment are the number of other munitions that were Navy-derived and Air Force-employed in Southeast Asia: Shrike, Standard antiradiation missile (ARM), Bullpup, Walleye, and the Mk 82 Snakeye drag-retarded bomb, to mention a few.9

The McNamara Era

Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara has come under a great deal of criticism for his stewardship of the Department of Defense during the administrations of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Unfortunately, there is much to criticize, but there is much, too, that deserves a closer look, particularly his policies affecting subsequent American fighter aircraft. McNamara greatly strengthened the Office of the Secretary of Defense (consequently diminishing therole of the service secretaries and the military chiefs of staff). High on his agenda was improving coordination and cooperation between the services, in part by deleting or combining duplicative programs and development efforts. He directed the acquisition of the F-4and A-7 by the Air Force and the development of a tactical fighter experimental (TFX), which became the F-111. McNamara has been justly criticized for the latter decision, but the former--supplying the Air Force with variants of the F-4 and A-7--is worthy of much more praise than it has received. Indeed, his initiatives restructured Air Force fighter forces to meet the kind of realworld needs that the United States faced in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

To understand McNamara's commonality approach, one must make a distinction betweenusage by a service of anaircraft initially developed for another service and the joint simultaneous development of a single aircraft for dual-service use. The F-4 and A-7 are examples of the former, while the TFX/F-111 is an example of the latter. As a rule, theformer category--taking an existing aircraft and modifying it for the needs of another service--has a much greater success rate than the latter, Further, there is a corollary that one can add concerning joint-service use: it is possible to take an aircraft intended for shipboard service and modify it successfully for operation from land. However, it is extremely difficult to take a land-based aircraft and modify it for operation from a ship without undertaking extensive revision and redesign of the airplane. Failure to heed this dictum was one of the most serious errors that prevented the attainment of McNamara's commonality goal with the TFX/F-111.

Justified on the grounds of saving approximately $1 billion, the TFX/F-111 program eventually generated a loss of about the same amount. Though much has been written of the civilian-versus-military nature of decision making on the program, the critical point too often ignored in discussions of the TFX/F-111 experience was the basic incompatibility of developing a single common airframe to undertake widely differing Air Force and Navy missions. It has become fashionable in some quarters since the time of the F-111 to criticize McNamara's naive belief in the F-111. It must be noted, however, that many senior Air Force officers were at that time confident, optimistic, and even exuberant over the anticipated benefits that they believed would accrue from this joint-service, multipurpose, horsedesigned-by-a-committee airplane.10

If McNamara erred with the F-111, his instincts with the F-4 and A-7 were absolutely correct. Tactical Air Command had wished to replace the F-100 with the F-105. But after President Kennedy took office in 1961, McNamara directed the study of several replacement candidates for the F-l00: the A4D attack bomber, the F-4, and the F-105. In part, he was responding to the Army's increasing discomfort that the "tactical fighters" deployed by the Air Force--such as the massive F-105--were largely aircraft intended primarily for nuclear strike and, as such, were unsuited to furnishing the kind of battlefield air support that the Army sought. Additionally, however, there was a rising climate of dissatisfaction with the Air Force's fighter procurement strategy within a newly created Systems Analysis Office in DOD headed by Dr Alain Enthoven. The results of this activity, together with a cost-effectiveness study that supported F-4 acquisition, encouraged McNamara's excellent decision in late 1961 directing the Air Force to procure the Phantom. Eventually, the Air Force acquired 2,675 Phantoms for its own use, with extensive foreign sales as well. Further, the F-4 acquisition enabled McNamara to achieve his goal of expanding the Air Force tactical fighter wing structure from 18 to 24 wings.11

McNamara's decision on the Air Force version of the Navy's A-7 attack airplane followed his decision on the F-4 and reflected his continued belief that the Air Force needed to strengthen its close-air-support (CAS) commitment to the Army and that this could best be accomplished by equipping the service with numbers of specialized attack aircraft. It was also, in its own way, a "replace the F-100" issue, since the aging low-payload F-100 was the Air Force's primary air-to-ground CAS airplane at the time. For a while, the lightweight Northrop N-156F (the F-5) loomed as a possible candidate. By the fall of 1965, however, TAC and Air Staff spokesmen had convinced--though it had not been a difficult sell--both Gen John McConnell (the Air Force chief of staff) and Harold Brown (the secretary of the Air Force) that (1) the A-7 rather than the F-5 was a better airplane for the battlefield support role because of its much better payload, and (2) a special cannon-armed version of the F-4, dubbed the tactical strike fighter (TSF), should be acquired to complement the all-missile F-4s already introduced into service. Brown and McConnell bought off on the conclusions. Seeing the mix of F-4s, A-7s, TSFS, and F-111s as an ideal future force structure, they recommended implementation to McNamara in early November 1965. The secretary of defense approved the A-7 immediately but balked at the TSF on grounds of cost and time delays, initially disapproving it before eventually reconsidering and authorizing go-ahead eight months later, in mid-July 1966. The TSF became the F-4E, the most versatile andsuccessful of the entire Phantom family.12


Although a wide range of Air Force fighter, bomber, and attack aircraft operated over North Vietnam, the only two that really flew consistently against the MiG-17, -19, and -21s were the F-4C, D, and Es, and the F-105s. While the F-4s flew offensive fighter sweeps, F-105s fought no-less-deadly defensive air combats. Overall, of the 135 MiG kills by Air Force fighters, F-105s shot down 27 (all MiG-17s) and F-4s shot down a total of 107 MiGs; there was one shared kill. Thirty-five Air Force F-4s and 21 F-105s fell to MiGs. Air Force fighter crews thus destroyed 2.41 MiGs per fighter loss; in contrast, Navy and Marine fighter crews destroyed 5.6 MiGs per friendly fighter loss. The 8:1 ratio of World War II and the 10:1 ratio of Korea were things of the past; an exchange rate of 2.41 to 1 clearly necessitated changes in tactics, training, and acquisition.13

The Vietnamese experience, and the lesson the Israeli Air Force offered in 1967 of just how deadly a traditionally oriented fighter force could be, elicited two responses from the Air Force and Navy.14 The first response was a total change in fighter weapons training. The so-called fighter weapons schools of the Navy and Air Force, which emphasized air combat hassling in the tradition of the Second World War and Korea, were revitalized. The results of training could be incorporated in combat in a much briefer span of time than developing and fielding a new fighter force. Following Korea, the air combat "lessons learned" from F-86s versus MiG-15s had been distilled into an influential fighter primer entitled "No Guts, No Glory!" by Frederick C. ("Boots") Blesse.15 Sadly, however, the lessons had largely been ignored. Writing in 1968 Gen Bruce K. Holloway, himself a noted fighter ace, stated that

between 1954 and 1962, the USAF training curriculum for fighter pilots included little, if any, air-to-air combat. This omission was partly a result of doctrine, which then regarded tactical fighters primarily as a means for delivering nuclear ordnance [emphasis added]. It was partly a reflection of concern for flying safety. In any event, as late as October 1963, it was reported that only four of 30 pilots in one fighter squadron had ever shot aerial gunnery.16

This revitalized fighter training, emphasizing air combat maneuvering and stressing the continuity of the fighter experience from the days of Oswald Boelcke and Edward Mannock of the First World War, was in place in time for the renewed and intensified air war that broke out in 1972.17

The second response to the disturbingly low victory/loss rate in Vietnam was a clamor for better fighter aircraft, particularly highly maneuverable airplanes having excellent acceleration, agility, visibility, an internal gun system, and a thrust-to-weight ratio exceeding one. Vietnam, it may be said, provided the impetus for the sixth-generation superfighters of the late 1970s and 1980s: the F-14, F-15, F-16, and F/A-18. So, too, did the threat of a new generation of Soviet fighters, particularly after the 1967 Tushino air show, where a wide range of prototype fighters was displayed before Western observers. While many of these remained in the prototype stage, others did spawn operational derivatives in the same fifth-generation category as the F-4.

The Road to the Present

The first of the sixth-generation fighters, the F-14, was born of the abortive F-111 experience. The Navy and the Grumman Corporation, having done the best they could to turn this unsuitable plane into a fighter, were able to convince Congress to cancel the program and allow the service to procure its own fighter unencumbered by the dubious requirement for commonality. The result was the F-14A Tomcat, which first flew at the end of 1970. Production deliveries began in May 1972, two months before the first flight of an Air Force sixth-generation equivalent, the F-15A Eagle.18

The evolution of the F-15, F-16, and F/A-18 is intertwined. All stemmed from Air Force research and development, and all were largely products of what some termed the Fighter Mafia, a small, key group of individuals dedicated to breaking the traditional post-1945 dogmas that had afflicted fighter development, particularly after the Korean War. There were four key individuals in this mafia: Charles ("Chuck") Myers, a former test pilot and Lockheed salesman turned private consultant; Maj (subsequently Col) John R. Boyd, Pierre Sprey of the Systems Analysis Office within DOD; and Col Everest Riccioni. One "outsider" deserves more attention for his part in reasserting the primacy of the air superiority fighter within the Air Force: Maj Gen Arthur C. Agan, the Air Staff's director of plans. Agan, a former World War II fighter pilot, triggered the first interest in a new high-performance air combat fighter in the tradition of those of the Second World War. He established a prestigious study group of fighter aces and pilots to examine the future of Air Force fighter development. In May 1965, armed with their report, Agan sold Gen John P. McConnell, then the chief of staff, on the notion of acquiring a new air superiority fighter. From the work of these five men sprang the F-15 and the F-XX--which inspired the so-called lightweight fighter (LWF) technology demonstration program between the General Dynamics YF-16 and Northrop YF-17, and which ultimately resulted in the F-16 and F/A-18 fighters.19

It is interesting to note that there was a "bubble-up" quality to the development of these advanced airplanes arising largely from the midlevel defense and military bureaucracies. Proponents had to battle the aerospace engineering community's notions that future fighters should merely extrapolate the kind of "bigger, faster, heavier, more complex" thinking that had governed so much of the century series. This thinking had resulted in a proposed future experimental fighter, the F-X, a 60,000+ pound, Mach 2.7 aircraft with a thrust-to-weight ratio of 0.75. It was this proposal that Boyd "summarily rejected" in October 1966 after joining the Tactical Division of the Air Staff Directorate of Requirements. A graduate engineer, fighter pilot, and fighter tactics instructor, Boyd argued persuasively that control and propulsion technology advances in place could enable the development of lighter, energy-efficient fighters that could trade off speed, thrust, weight, and drag loadings to achieve "energy maneuverability."20

Boyd's thinking found increasingly strong support within the Air Staff. By the mid-1960s, men who had flown fighters as junior officers in the Second World War and who were uncomfortable with theoverspecialization of the fighter into an interceptor onone hand andan attack airplaneon the other were shifting more and more into positions of command. Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen Bruce K. Holloway, adistinguished fighter ace, wrote in 1968 (by which time Boyd and his colleagues had succeeded in reformulating the gestating F-X) that

[after] 1953, air superiority, sofar as fighter aircraft were concerned,was again limited largely to the defenseof the U.S. against enemy bombers. Our tactical fighters were designed primarily for nuclear war where penetration was more importantthan maneuverability, ordnance, load-carrying ability more important than armament, alert status more important that sustained sortie rates. The tactical fighter became less and less an air superiority system, more and more what once was called an attack aircraft.

Since the beginning of jet aviation, it is only in the last three years that real recognition has beengiven to the need for a true air superiority fighter in the types of war most likely to occur. With the exception of the F-4 we do not even now have a first-line tactical fighter that was designed primarily for air-to-air combat and only secondarily for the reconnaissance, interdiction, and close, air support roles of tactical aviation. We now see quite clearly the need for one [emphasis added].21

The airplane he was referring to, of course, was the recast F-X, which had been under development since 1966, and which in October 1968 would become the F-15. Whenever a notion is discredited and replaced with another one, the initial result is usually as diametrically extreme as the one replaced. In the case of the F-15, which followed two decades of building aircraft to a fighter formula that had led inexorably to the F-111, the result was a profound emphasis on air-to-air combat performance only. In the F-15 System Program Office (SPO) at Wright-Patterson AFB, partisans worked under a banner that read "Not a pound for air-to ground!"22 This, of course, ultimately proved as farfetched as ignoring the air-to-air mission would have. With the exception of a few specialized interceptors, virtually all air superiority fighter aircraft that have fought inwars since the First World War have been called upon to drop bombs and attack ground targets.

However, it is important to note that while air superiority fighters have been successfully modified as bomb droppers, there are no cases of "going the other way"--taking a dedicated ground attacker and making it into a decent fighter. If the Air Force "erred" instressing the F-15's counterair mission, it was better that it emphasize air-to-air performance, for that was the side that traditionally had to dominate in the development of a decent fighter-bomber. (Eventually, the Air Force did proceed with a competitive evaluation of F-15 and F-16 variants for the interdiction role, leading to the F-15E.) Several key factors enable the creation of the F-15, particular electronic stability augmentation systems that were, in effect, first-generation fly-by-wire flight control systems, smaller and more capable air-to-air radars, and the lightweight high-thrust afterburning turbofan engines. The F-15 completed its maiden flight in July 1972; it entered squadron service in November 1974, achieving initial operational capability (IOC) with TAC the following September.23

Given how suitable the F-15 would ultimately prove to be for both the air superiority and air-to-ground roles, it is somewhat ironic that in 1968 (fearful that the Mach 2+ F-15 would turn out to be just another big, fast sled) Boyd, Spray, and the others began arguing for a highly agile, single-engine, and less-than-Mach 2 "austere" fighter, the so-called F-XX. They were unsuccessful ingetting the Air Staff to redirect the F-15 program again-a wise decision on the part of the Air Force. Instead, the climate of thought that they proposed with the F-XX germinated at the end of the summer of 1971 in the so-called lightweight fighter program. The LWF program received a significant boost by a dramatic redirection of defense acquisition in June 1970, when then-president Richard M. Nixon's "Blue Ribbon Defense Panel" recommended ending so-called total package procurement and returning to competitive prototyping, something that had been abandoned since the late 1950s.24

Ultimately this interest spawned a competitive fly-off between the General Dynamics YF-16 and the Northrop YF-17, and out of this fly-off came both the F-16 and F-18 airplanes. Although ostensibly intended for technology demonstration, there was little doubt that the "winning" aircraft would have an excellent chance for full-scale production. Inmid-January 1975, the Air Force declared the YF-16 the winner, awarding a contract for full-scale development. The first F-16A, which was a slightly larger and more refined aircraft than the YF-16 demonstrator, flew in December 1976. The Air Force activated its first F-16 squadron in January 1979, roughly a decade from the time the fighter mafia initially called for its development. Widespread foreign sales followed. (The YF-16/YF-17 competition was a win-win situation for both contestants, for the losing YF-17 was subsequently adopted, ingreatly modified form, as the basis for the McDonnell Douglas F/A-18. Mirroring pilot opinion of the F-15 and F-16, naval aviators generally were enthusiastic over its performance.)25

Unlike the F-15, the F-16 was a true fly-by-wire aircraft, using three computers constantly "voting" on each other's performance to maintain control of what was basically an unstable airplane. The F-16 thus possessed superlative maneuverability, really making it a six-and-one-half-generation airplane, demonstrating performance only now being approached by foreign designs such as the Soviet MiG-29, the European fighter aircraft (EFA), Israeli Lavi, French Rafale, and Swedish Gripen. It is worth noting that going beyond the original air superiority intentions of its parents, the Air Force acquired the F-16 as a dual-role air-to-air and air-to-ground fighter-bomber. By acquiring it, the Air Force intended to complement the more expensive and capable F-15 carrying a mix of medium- and short-range air-to-air missiles with a cheaper swing-fighter carrying Sidewinders that could assist in winning the air battle, and then fight airland war. It is the F-16's multimission capabilities that subsequently resulted in orders for 3,000 of this type aircraft, placing it among the most successful of postwar jet fighters.

What was it that made these latter machines--particularly the F-15, F-16 and F/A-18--so desirable and successfully compared to their predecessors? First and foremost, it was the climate of hard, pragmatic thought from which they sprang--thought rooted in the combat experience of Europe, the Pacific, MiG Alley, North Vietnam, and the Middle East--couple with insightful appreciation of how future warfare was likely to evolve and what contemporary andfuture technology could realistically offer.

As for the airplanes themselves, they were successful because they offered a package of attributes rather than overemphasizing any one quality such asspeed. The advantages that these aircraft possessed reflected the shrewd application of available technology. These advantages included extraordinary agility, superlative handling qualities, sophisticated user-friendly avionics, greatly improved reliability and maintainability, intensive incorporation of human-factor considerations, enhanced flight safety, and unprecedented weapons accuracy. In addition they had the ability to be configured for both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions and to carry a variety of weapons. Finally, they had an innate ability to be adapted for a variety of other roles. All were qualities previously lacking in the fighters the Air Force had procured for its own use since Korea, and even the Navy-derived workhorse, the F-4, had proven deficient in most of them. The sixth-generation aircraft were so clearly superior to their fifth-generation predecessors that there was a pronounced bias away from anything associated with the ancient régime (presixth-generation aircraft). This was dramatically affirmed a half decade ago by the failure of Northrop to sell the otherwise generally excellent F-20 Tigershark, a derivation of the F-5 that incorporated a great deal of sixth-generation advances.16

Aircraft design has always involved the integration of diverse technologies--aerodynamics, structures, propulsion, controls, avionics--to synergistically achieve capabilities. The sixth generation of fighters accomplish this at levels previously unattainable and point the way for future development as well--a seventh generation (of which the YF-22 and YF-23 are the first) stressing greater reliance on built-in low observables, electronic flight control systems, avionics, weapons integration and management, integrated fire and flight controls, reliability andmanagement, integrated fire and flight controls, reliability and maintainability, modular design approaches, sophisticated seventh-generation propulsion, possible sensor fusion, improved pilot displays including "pilot associate" technology, and the like.

In the fighter future, however, such glamorous technology must not dominate planning and management factors, for as the history of post-1945 Air Force fighter development clearly reveals, what is more important is how well planners anticipate future warfighting environments, understand the systems acquisition process and what it can accomplish for them, comprehend the state of technology to meet the needs that (hopefully) they have thought out, and--yes--appreciate national political and economic nuances. In the last analysis, failure to realistically address these factors brought forth the disappointments of the 1950s and early 1960s. Addressing them spawned the remarkably successful sixth-generation fighters.

Today, Air Force decision makers grapple with the development of the seventh-generation advanced tactical fighter (ATF), which incorporates the services' and industry's best current answers to such generic questions as how much maneuverability is enough; is sustained supersonic cruise necessary; how much "stealth" is desirable; is there a role for "supermaneuverability"; what is the ideal weapon, sensor, and avionics mix for next-generation fighter and attack aircraft; and should future fighters be specialized or multirole aircraft. They should not automatically assume that the ATF or any other subsequent Air Force fighter will be the newest heir of a long line of successful fighters. Rather, they traverse a dangerous mire, hopefully cognizant that all too frequently, the path of post-World War II Air Force fighter development has been fraught with pitfalls and littered with the detritus of mediocrity.


1.See I. B. Holley, Jr., USAF, Retired, "Of Saber Charges, Escort Fighters, and Spacecraft: The Search for Doctrine," Air University Review 34, no. 6 (September-October 1983): 2-11; Richard P. Hallion, "Girding for War: Perspectives on Research, Development, Acquisition, and the Decisionmaking Environment of the 1980s," Air University Review 37, no. 6 (September-October 1986): 46-61; Richard P. Hallion, "Doctrine, Technology, and Air Warfare: A Late Twentieth-Century Perspective," Airpower Journal 1, no. 2 (Fall 1987): 16-27; and Robert F. Futrell's Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force, 1907-1964, 2 vols. (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, 1989); Robert Schlaifer and S. D. Heron, Development of Aircraft Engines and Fuels (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1950); Edward W.Constant II, The Origins of the Turbojet Revolution (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980). The supersonic revolution is a fruitful subject for inquiry: useful works are Alex Roland, Model Research: A History of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, 1915-1958 (Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1985), and John V. Becker, The High-Speed Frontier: Case Histories of Four NACA Programs, 1920-1950 (Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1980). For the electronic revolution, see Paul E. Ceruzzi, Beyond the Limits: Flight Enters the Computer Age (Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1989).

2. This is my own classification system, and it is at odds with an earlier and broader one that classifies the evolution of fighters after 1945 into four generations, with the fourth being the generation of the F-16 and its equivalents. I believe that the six-generation scheme is more precise and categorical than the four-generation notion. USAF Technical Order 00-25-30, Technical Manual: Unit Costs of Aircraft, Guided Missiles, and Engines (Tinker AFB, Okla.: Air Logistics Center/MMEDT, 15 May 1983), 7-9; M. Lipow, "Number of Faults per Line of Code," IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering 8, no. 4 (July 1982), passim. I wish to acknowledge information received from Charles E. ("Pete") Adolph, deputy director, Defense Research & Engineering (Test and Evaluation), particularly his draft study (with Phillip Montgomery), "Cost-Effective Testing of Software-Intensive Systems." See speech by Gen Bernard P. Randolph, commander, AFSC, before the Annual Reliability and Maintainability Symposium, Los Angeles, Calif., 23 January 1990. I wish to thank Maj Brian Hoey for making this available to me.

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